It’s a pretty good bet most of us have toed the start line with those butterflies in our belly; wondering if we’re trained, fueled, or well-rested enough to perform. Some of us have wrestled with the notion we might not even finish a race. Fewer still, have pondered whether we’d actually survive.
Peter Ripmaster has had all of those thoughts and more along the 1,000 mile Iditarod Trail Invitational, a race he’s finished, won, and yes; almost killed him.
This is not the event most of us associate with the Iditarod. There are no dogs, little to no media coverage, a handful of starters, and even fewer finishers. It’s just man – or woman – against the miles, the trail, the clock, and the wild.
Ripmaster’s Asheville home is literally thousands of miles from that trail. But the distance and the years separating him from that experience haven’t dulled the edge of the keen recollections that led him to the finish or the start.
“It took the life out of me. It took everything I had to finish this race,” says Ripmaster. He says, only half-joking, that he’s still recovering two years later. He needed IV transfusions several times a day once he got home, and slept for a couple of weeks. “I was a walking spirit. I still had a mind, but my body was gone.”
So how does a guy decide he wants to put himself through this grueling, death-defying, mental and physical torture? Ripmaster says his fascination with the Iditarod dog race began with adventures he liked to read in 5th grade.
It began with storytime
“I was reading novels about Balto and endurance, and really had a dream to do the Iditarod when I first read about it,” says Ripmaster. If you’re unfamiliar with the story of Balto, he’s a Siberian Husky who led a team of sled dogs on the final leg of a 675-mile emergency run from Anchorage to Nome, Alaska, carrying a shipment of serum for a diphtheria outbreak. Balto was regarded as a hero at the time and is memorialized with a statue in New York’s Central Park.
“I really had a dream to do the Iditarod (dog race) when I first read about it,” says Ripmaster.
You’ve probably already figured out this was not a task for just anybody — but Ripmaster comes by his resilience honestly. Born and raised in Michigan, he was used to brutal winters. “If it’s cold, you put on extra layers,” he says matter-of-factly. “You don’t sit and whine about it!”
His next step came much later, when he moved to Alaska to train for the Iditarod dog race. He lived with 250 dogs, and discovered an important detail — he wasn’t very good at taking care of large numbers of big dogs. Dream unrealized, he returned to the lower 48 states and figured out a new goal — to run a marathon in each of the 50 states.
Along with accomplishing his new goal, he started running ultra marathons, too. It was the endurance challenge he needed.
“The distance wasn’t the kicker, it was just running in that extreme cold,” says Ripmaster. But the training paid off in another way. “Ultra trained me that I had a really, really strong mind, and ultras are about your mind — your body wants to stop, your mind wants to stop. So I ask myself, ‘Do I have the mental capacity to do this?’ and I found out I did.” Humbled many times, he kept going and got mentally and physically stronger along the way.
And then came the opportunity to realize a childhood dream. He read about the Iditarod Trail Invitational, which combines the toughest elements of Ultra Running with the famed dog race — just without the dogs.
“It was awesome to read about the Iditarod trail run,” he remembers. “I was excited because I got my dream back.”
A dream comes back to life
Ripmaster describes the trail run as a 1,000-mile, semi-supported race. That means there were checkpoints where competitors could eat, shower, or spend the night in a lodge, but Ripmaster says he spent most nights sleeping on a trail.
“If you’re falling asleep on the trail and it’s 37 miles until the next stop, you stop and sleep,” he says. “I hate stopping. If I want to get someplace, I want to get there.” He carried his gear with him and knew speed would be a factor in winning the race. He averaged 38 miles a day for 26 days in a row, admitting some days were harder than others to make progress because of harsh weather.
“There are days there’s 2 feet of snow and you’re going a half-mile an hour,” he commented. Those days he only got a dozen or more miles down. Other days he trekked 60. In the end, it took him 26 days, 13 hours, and 44 minutes to finish and win the race, 40 pounds lighter than when he started. But it was a major accomplishment for him — since 1999, only 16 people have finished the entire distance. “Sometimes you’re hallucinating enough to think you see stuff.”
But merely describing the harrowing conditions of the race makes it sound doable (for some people). The details are where this story goes off the rails — and remember, Ripmaster didn’t finish until his THIRD try. He decided to give the race one last try, after dropping out in 2016 — after a near-death experience.
And yes, it nearly killed him
“I was by myself and the sun was going down. I was on the most dangerous part of the trail — along 4 miles of river, in a year there’s not much ice,” he begins. “I was crossing a river by myself, mashing it with my trekking pole to make sure it would hold, and I made it halfway across the river on that trail. I smacked it one last time and the whole bridge cracked beneath my feet.”
In the next heart-stopping moments, Ripmaster describes being in water over his head. Every time he swam out, he’d crack more ice and get pulled in. With his sled beneath him pulling him down, he thought he was done for good. He was trapped for what seemed like an eternity. He “barely snuck out” with his life.
“I’m still shaking and it’s been 2 years,” he says. “It was just a very close call, and I actually made it 300 more miles after that accident, and quit because my mind was gone. I had lost it in my mind, and I knew I couldn’t go another 500 miles after that.” Another year, he quit because he just couldn’t endure -65 degrees on the trail.
“I went back in 2018 and was going for it again,” he recounts, “but this is the last time I’m trying and if I don’t do it I’m done because it was hard on me and my family. It came together. I had no idea about how, but it did.”
Ripmaster uses his experience to motivate others, often sharing his story when speaking to businesses. He tells his audiences that if they’re achieving all of their goals, their goals aren’t big enough.
“If you’re failing, you’re actually in a good place because you don’t know if you’re succeeding or not, and that, to me, is the very definition of adventure,” he says. While he knew he could finish marathons and ultra races, failing the first two Iditarod trail runs made him dig deeper and learn about what he’s really made of.
“In day-to-day life now, if I fail at something, I don’t get down about it. I tried and did everything I could to succeed — and if I didn’t, I have to go back to the drawing board,” he says. “But most of the time when I look in the mirror, I didn’t work hard enough to succeed — and it’s on me.”
It’s a good lesson for anyone trying a new challenge, in any of life’s venues.
“I did over 2500 miles on Iditarod races and learned a lot about myself,” he says. “I would never have found that if I hadn’t pushed myself hard enough and long enough to find that — and I found that.”