Peter Ripmaster of Asheville will spend most of March striding through Alaska on a 1,000-mile race. Striding up to 19-20 hours a day.
Ripmaster, 39, will test his physical limits and mental toughness against the desolate Alaskan wilderness in the dead of winter. He’s hiking the 1,000-mile option of the Iditarod Trail Invitational race, following the same remote, frozen route as the famous sled dog race.
Only Ripmaster will be his own sled dog. Harnessed to his waist will be a 5-foot-long sled carrying 60 pounds of food, sleeping bag, clothing, snowshoes, fishing waders, stove and fuel.
Ripmaster, an ultra-marathoner, revels at the opportunity to immerse himself in what may be North America’s most grueling race. He figures he must average 32 miles a day to get from Knik, near Anchorage, to Nome before the 31-day cutoff to become an official finisher.
“My real joy these days is slugging it out in terrible conditions,” said Ripmaster, who has run 50 marathons in 50 states. “It’s the perfect place for me to be.”
Two other men have signed up to hike 1,000 miles. Ripmaster is the only North Carolinian. He completed the 350-mile course in 2014 and 2105. When the race begins Sunday, 13 other 1,000-milers will join him – but they’ll ride fat-tired winter bicycles.
Race director Kathi Merchant bicycled the 1,000 miles to Nome in 2008. “Not only is it three times as long,” she said, “it’s 10 times more difficult. There’s really nothing out there for 200 miles (between settlements).” In previous years, competitors have coped with 50-below temperatures, 5-foot-high snowdrifts and winds of 40-50 mph.
My real joy these days is slugging it out in terrible conditions. It’s the perfect place for me to be.
Peter Ripmaster of Asheville
The 1,000-milers will climb the Alaska Range mountains, travel 130 miles on the frozen Yukon River and traverse 30 miles of sea ice on the Bering Sound. When the finishers reach Nome, they may be met by a resident racer and friends – or not. When Merchant arrived via bicycle at 3 a.m., no one was there to greet her.
Though race conditions can be life-threatening, nobody has died. Merchant screens applicants, who must qualify by competing in races such as the 350-miler.
Ripmaster describes himself as an adventurer and a Mr. Mom (his wife, Kristen, works; he takes care of their daughters, ages 7 and 4). He owned a running-shoes store but sold it last year.
He’s known for his grit. In his initial Iditarod, Ripmaster carried 90 pounds of gear, strayed 25 miles off course and suffered from painful foot blisters. The calluses of his feet separated from the soles.
Merchant’s husband, Bill, taped the flaps to the soles. “He finished the last 140 miles with the balls of his feet taped back on,” Bill Merchant said. “This kid is double tough.”
Ripmaster finished in 10 days and 6 hours, the last of 13 hikers. Last year, he improved to third among 13 hikers with a time of 6 days and 17 hours.
He’s paid a $1,400 registration fee, has shipped 12 food packages to villages along the route and will carry a GPS, satellite phone, Ipod, maps, compass and tracking device.
At 6 feet and 210 pounds, Ripmaster will carry extra pounds to burn on the trail. Initially, he plans to trek 50-60-mile days so he can “bank” mileage if future bad weather slows him.
He’ll “power hike” by making long strides with two trekking poles. He expects to put in 19-20-hour days initially, sleeping 4-5 hours. He’ll eat on the go: energy bars, candy bars, beef jerky and trail mix plus dehydrated foods at stops. He’ll see the northern lights; hear the howls of wolves.
The Iditarod sled dog race begins a week later. Mushers will pass him, sometimes yelling, “You OK?” then vanishing. In 2015, he awoke to see 32 eyes coming at him from 16 sled dogs.
In the 16-year history of the Iditarod Trail Invitational, just 14 hikers of about 30 who attempted have completed the 1,000-miler. Fastest time: 20 days, 14 hours.
Ripmaster’s confident he can finish. “I don’t like to fail. I’m stubborn.”
The prize for first place or just finishing? No money. No trophy. “A sense of accomplishment,” Kathi Merchant said.
That doesn’t deter Ripmaster. “It’s a calling even to attempt something like this,” he said. “You have to dig so deep to face these challenges.”
Want to follow Peter Ripmaster?
Track his journey on www.iditarodtrailinvitational.com.