A Walk On The Wild Side: The Pete Ripmaster Journey

After discovering ultrarunning, a middle-aged father battling depression attempts his most daunting and dangerous race to date: 1,000 miles, solo, across Alaska in winter.

Anna Katherine Clemmons | Longreads | March 2019 | 28 minutes (7,680 words)

“I wish to preach, not the doctrine of ignoble ease, but the doctrine of the strenuous life, the life of toil and effort, of labor and strife; to preach that highest form of success which comes, not to the man who desires mere easy peace, but to the man who does not shrink from danger, from hardship, or from bitter toil, and who out of these wins the splendid ultimate triumph.” 

 — Teddy Roosevelt, The Strenuous Life

As he stood at the 2016 Iditarod Trail Invitational (ITI) starting line in the predawn of February 28th, Peter Ripmaster had an ominous feeling. The 6’1”, 220-pound 39-year-old was more than 40 pounds overweight, his stomach folding over his waist harness as he readjusted his face mask and gloves before beginning the 1,000-mile footrace across the frozen Alaskan terrain. He tucked his shaggy brown hair into his hat, wishing for a joint. Looking at the handful of fit, svelte runners around him, their breath forming clouded circles in the crystalline air, he shook his head.

Before leaving his family’s home in Asheville, North Carolina, Pete told himself that after last year’s third-place finish in the 350-mile ITI competition, he didn’t need to train for the additional 650-mile journey; instead, he would get into shape on the trail. Illogical, his friends said, reminding him that the 1,000-mile ITI — the world’s first and longest winter ultramarathon — was one of the most challenging physical experiences on the planet.

As a race volunteer fired a .44 revolver to signal the start, Pete began moving at a steady clip, pulling his 55-pound sled packed with food and supplies. He cleared 60 miles on day one, reaching the first checkpoint. In the early afternoon of his third day, 184 miles into the race, Pete crossed the treacherous, icy ascent and descent of Rainy Pass, which, together with the subsequent Tatina River crossing, was one of the most dangerous sections of the ITI. As Pete approached the Tatina alone, he ran into a group of buffalo hunters on snowmobiles. They sat, idling, and asked Pete where he was headed.

“I’m going over the Tatina, toward Rohn,” Pete replied.

“You’re going over the Tatina? Alone? Be careful. We almost fell through the ice coming up,” they said. The hunters described patches of overflow, where the ice was submerged under a thin layer of water. With overflow, the combination of ice and snow, and its subsequent pressure, is so heavy that it pushes the water outside and on top of the ice, making it nearly invisible. When hikers think they’re walking on sturdy ice, they’ll take a step, only to feel their foot fall one or two feet underwater. If the air temperature is 15 degrees below zero, wet equals death.


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Through years of battling his addictive personality, Pete had stumbled into the ultrarunning and adventure world eight years prior, after an impromptu decision to run a roadside marathon turned into a life passion. By the spring of 2015, having completed 50 marathons in 50 states, several 100-mile races, a 200-mile ultra, and the 350-mile ITI distance twice, he began to fixate on this singular goal: 1,000 miles across Alaska, journeying the same route the famed Iditarod sled dogs and their mushers would begin a week later.

But this adventure was unlike any others. He had no phone, no GPS, no support crew. Pete had promised his wife, Kristen, that if he reached a point that felt exceptionally dangerous, he’d stop, build a fire, and wait for the next person behind him. But Kristen knew that her husband thrived as a soloist in the face of life-threatening challenges.

“Most people like to live in a comfortable bubble where we know what to expect and how to survive,” Kristen says. “Pete likes those situations where he loses control and has to figure it out by pushing himself to the absolute limit.”

“Most people like to live in a comfortable bubble where we know what to expect and how to survive,” Kristen says. “Pete likes those situations where he loses control and has to figure it out by pushing himself to the absolute limit.”

Now, as he watched the Tatina’s frigid waters rush by, he held on to the one truth that had helped him survive three tumultuous decades: Whatever challenge he stumbled into, he had to find a way out.

***

Pete grew up enduring hard winters in the suburbs of Detroit. He was a wild, stubborn, and willful child — and a phenomenal athlete. He and his brother Scott, four years younger, transformed even ordinary activities into athletic endeavors. When their father, Chris, told them to rake the leaves under their front yard’s large Dutch elm, the brothers would gather the leaves into a pile before placing a big bucket in the middle. Scott would stand at the pile’s perimeter with an armful of leaves and run forward, attempting to stuff them into the container while Pete tried to block him or knock him down.

“To this day, my brother is by far the best athlete that I’ve ever been around,” Scott says. “He picks things up so quickly and so effortlessly.”

That talent, in part, was genetic. Their father and grandfather both played football for Michigan State, and as a youth, Pete excelled at football, basketball, and baseball. He was a fierce competitor who, in his younger years, practiced obsessively.

The one sport he strongly disliked was running. He only jogged when practice demanded it. Pete didn’t care much for academics either, focusing instead on sports, girls, music, and parties, much like his father. Chris worked long hours as a very successful auto parts salesman, and the family lived in a large house and drove fancy cars, the personification of Chris’s ostentatious, dreamer lifestyle.

“My dad had the ego of ten men,” Pete says. His mom, Hillary, was the “family glue,” and Pete loved her fiercely. Born of Scottish blood, she was smart, frugal, and honest, supporting her husband even as Chris’s hard-partying lifestyle played out publicly.

One year at Christmas, Chris wrapped up one of Hillary’s old sweaters in a clothing box. She opened it up and asked, “What is this? This is my sweater.” Chris laughed and said, “Why don’t you go look in the front hall closet?” Hillary walked to the closet, opened the door, and saw a full-length raccoon coat, worth several thousand dollars. Chris grinned, proud of the ostentatious status symbol he had given his wife; Hillary turned toward her children with a serious expression on her face, saying nothing. While she wore it a few times, the coat hung in a closet for years, rarely used.

When he was happy, Chris was the center of every social scenario: gregarious, brash, and charming. People flocked to him, and he’d buy lunch for everyone in a restaurant simply because it was a nice day outside (while flirting with the waitresses). But later, a diagnosis of depression and bipolar disorder explained the other persona that sometimes emerged, especially when he was drinking: brooding, demanding, and somber.

“My dad was a study of contrasts — and Pete is just like him,” Sarah Johnson (formerly Ripmaster), Pete and Scott’s sister, says.

One night in the spring of 1996, during Scott’s high school years, Chris stumbled out of a limo he’d rented with friends. They’d been drinking and partying all night following a Detroit Red Wings hockey game.

At 6:44 a.m., Scott awoke to the sound of a chandelier crashing to the floor. He sat up in bed and thought, What the heck is going on? We don’t have a chandelier. He walked into the bathroom attached to Sarah’s room and saw his father, lying with his head and neck through the glass shower doors, covered in blood. Chris had walked into the bathroom to use the toilet, but he was so inebriated that he’d passed out and fallen backward, his head crashing through the glass door behind him. Blood was inside the shower, outside on the floor, on the glass. “It was the bloodiest scene I’ve ever seen in my life,” Scott says. Scott wrapped his own arms with a towel and carefully, slowly pulled Chris’s head and neck back out through the glass, afraid that the whole wall would crash down and decapitate his father. After helping Chris to his feet, Scott laid him on the bed, as Chris continued to bleed and peed through the sheets. According to Scott, he and his mother walked in; she began screaming before calling 911. As the paramedics and ambulance arrived, Chris, still drunk, yelled repeatedly about how Scott needed to get to school.

From a young age, Pete also struggled with early signs of depression. He had few friends, and in fifth grade, he was bullied throughout the year. He frequently told his parents that he wanted to take his own life. Toward the end of his fifth-grade year, after coming home from school on so many afternoons crying, Chris had had enough. “Tomorrow, I want you to fight back, Pete,” Chris said. “When someone pushes you, you push back.”

At recess the next day, when a circle formed around Pete and one boy pushed him, Pete turned around, his face a mask of sheer frustration and rage. He threw a punch and when the boy fell, Pete knelt on his chest, landing repeated blows with wheeling fists. When the principal called Chris to pick up Pete, Chris smiled as he walked into the office. “I know what he did and it’s fine,” he said to the principal before turning to Pete: “Good work, son.”

Throughout high school, athletics kept Pete afloat. He was the best athlete on every team, and athletic excellence equated to popularity. He smoked pot regularly, and he loved parties and music; when his depression surfaced, he’d immerse himself in books and more marijuana, rarely concerning himself with his grades and instead studying rappers, reggae artists, and creatives.

***

In 1995, Pete left home for Kansas University. He says he convinced the head coach of the baseball team to let him try to walk on, and he began rushing a fraternity. But after only two semesters, he left. He hated fraternity hazing and he hadn’t shown up for most of his classes.

He followed Widespread Panic around the country, going on drug and alcohol binges and living out of his truck. He enrolled at Front Range Community College in Boulder, Colorado, dropping out after one semester. Sometimes he held odd jobs; at other times, he called his father and asked for more money in his bank account. When it arrived, he’d be off again.

In the fall of 1996, his mother called. She’d been diagnosed with breast cancer. The outlook wasn’t good. Pete moved home, helping her through months of chemotherapy and radiation. He often awakened at 3 a.m., distributing her meds, and stayed with her throughout the day while his father worked. Early one morning, Pete walked into her room and found her sitting up in bed, crying. “I don’t want to die, Pete,” she said, almost in a whisper.

Several weeks later, Pete sat and talked with his father. He asked Chris if there was a way that doctors could take his healthy organs out, one by one, and replace his mother’s with his, so she could live even if he could not. If so, he wanted to start the procedures right away. “Pete, it doesn’t work that way,” Chris said, shaking his head, as Pete cried.

Pete sat and talked with his father. He asked Chris if there was a way that doctors could take his healthy organs out, one by one, and replace his mother’s with his, so she could live even if he could not.

Hillary fought for four years before dying from cancer on November 22, 2000. Pete had just turned 24 years old.

***

Pete thought of his mom, her determination and willpower, as he thanked the snowmobilers on the ITI and decided to keep moving. He stood at the base of the Tatina crossing, a 25-yard-wide river of furious, rushing water, bordered on both sides by ice-covered riverbanks. He had an eerie feeling as he examined his options, but he was less than four miles from the next checkpoint, where a hot meal, fire, and rest waited.

To his right, a small footpath of ice and snow looked shaky at best. He didn’t see any tracks indicating someone had crossed. If he fell through, the current would rush him straight toward water that he estimated was 10 to 12 feet deep. No one would ever know — he would just disappear.

Straight ahead, on a larger natural bridge, the icy path looked solid for a bit, but then it ran into the frigid, open water. That meant Pete would have to put on his waist-high waders and hope the current didn’t pull him in.

If he fell through, the current would rush him straight toward water that he estimated was 10 to 12 feet deep. No one would ever know — he would just disappear.

Finally, he looked to the left, where a small, natural bridge stood three feet over the rushing water. He knew that if he fell in there, given the path’s close proximity to the shoreline, he’d have a slim hope of swimming out. He saw a singular set of recent tracks, which linked back up to the main trail. That’s my path, he thought.

Pete grabbed his trekking poles firmly in each hand and began pounding the ice in front of him. He lifted his left arm, slamming the pole down several times: thwack, thwack, thwack! checking to ensure the ice held. When it did, he took a step. Then he lifted his right arm, repeating the process on that side. Thwack, thwack, thwack. Step. Thwack, thwack, thwack. Step again. Slowly, he moved over the rushing water.

Twelve yards across, he continued, his sled trailing behind him. Halfway there, he told himself. He lifted his left arm, slamming his pole down once again.

As soon as his pole connected to the ice, everything collapsed, the entire section cracking and splintering like an explosion. In an instant, he was underwater, fully submerged. But just before his head went under, Pete sucked in a huge gulp of air — and that oxygen was his first, crucial step in trying to save his life. 

***

Two days before his mother had died, Pete sat by her bedside. As they talked, he promised her that he’d straighten up and accomplish great things.

Several months after she passed away, Pete moved to Alaska, a place he’d been curious about since he was a child. He found a job caring for sled dogs, first in Trapper Creek and then as part of the team working for future Iditarod Champion Mitch Seavey in Sterling, Alaska. The work was rewarding but also exhausting; after three years, he decided he had had enough. He loved Alaska, but he missed his old, carefree life.

In 2003, Pete moved back to Telluride, where he fell into a familiar pattern: Sleep late each day, ski throughout the afternoon, party at night, often drinking so much he’d black out and forget how or when he’d gotten home. He slept on friends’ couches or in his truck. He probably would’ve died, he says, were it not for a Widespread Panic concert in mid-August 2003.

At the Telluride Town Park that night, Pete spotted Kristen Van Hoy, a tall, thin, 23-year-old brunette he’d noticed around town. The two flirted and danced. After the concert, Pete asked her to come back to where he was staying. She said no, but that she’d hang out with him soon.

The next day, he called her. This time, when he asked her out, she said yes.

“I thought he was cute, fun, charismatic, and definitely — not aggressive, really, but once he set his eyes on something, he would do everything it took to get that,” Kristen says. “He totally pursued me. I’m pretty cautious, and he just throws caution to the wind.”

The two dated throughout that year; when Pete moved to Missoula to attend the University of Montana for a year, Kristen remained in Telluride. Still, they saw each other as often as they could, on weekends and during school breaks. “Young and very much in love,” Kristen says.

In 2003, Pete’s beloved grandfather, Bill Dobson, died. Pete flew home to Michigan to attend the funeral. He arrived at the church hungover and sat in the first pew alongside his brother, sister, and father. During the service, numerous community members spoke of his grandfather’s altruism. One woman talked about how she’d told Dobson that she was unable to afford college tuition. The next afternoon, she found an envelope on her desk with a check and a note attached: “Go get your education — you deserve a great life.”

“I’m sitting here, a waste of fucking space, feeling really shitty about myself,” Pete says. “I sat in that pew, listening to hundreds of people talk about how amazing my grandfather was, and I decided to get my life in order.” The next morning, he pledged that he would become a teacher, as a way to give back and start helping others.

“I’m sitting here, a waste of fucking space, feeling really shitty about myself,” Pete says. “I sat in that pew, listening to hundreds of people talk about how amazing my grandfather was, and I decided to get my life in order.”

In 2004, Pete and Kristen decided to move to Asheville. Kristen had grown up in Raleigh, and her family was still in North Carolina. She wanted to be closer to them; Pete wanted to be wherever she was. They agreed on Asheville because of the similarities to Telluride: mountains, skiing, beautiful surroundings. Kristen found a job in marketing and sales while Pete enrolled in classes, first at UNC-Asheville before transferring to Montreat University, where he graduated with a degree in elementary education. They married on September 30, 2006.

Pete began teaching sixth grade at the Asheville Christian Academy, and for a while, he felt like things might finally be falling into place. They had their first daughter, Hunter, in 2008; her sister, Reagan, followed in 2011.

Kristen had always been a runner, and she encouraged Pete to go for trail runs with her. One morning in 2007, Pete told Kristen he wanted to run a marathon that day. She didn’t believe him; that afternoon, Pete asked Kristen to drive him to the Blue Ridge Parkway.

“What?” she asked.

“I want to run a marathon on the Blue Ridge Parkway today,” Pete said, even though he rarely ran more than two miles a day.

His friends in Michigan and Colorado had recently begun running, he said, signing up for half and full marathons. Ever the competitor, Pete was antsy without his next adventure lined up. He had been feeling his depression more acutely in recent months, and Kristen knew running helped her mentally. Perhaps it would help Pete, too.

The two mapped out Pete’s route: 13.1 miles up the Parkway before turning around to retrace his path. Kristen would drive ahead to drop food and water at various mile markers. But when they reached the first mile marker, Kristen saw the Parkway was closed. She couldn’t leave any food or water for Pete along his route.

“It’s fine,” he told her. “Just come back here and pick me up in four or five hours.”

Kristen left; when she returned just over four hours later, Pete stumbled toward her car at the entry gate where he’d departed, falling into the car. He had completed 26.2 miles: He was dehydrated, in pain, and immediately laid on his back looking at the sky before curling up in the backseat. He alternated between extreme heat, feeling like he was on fire, and abrupt chills, his entire body shaking violently. “My body just didn’t know what I had done to it,” Pete says.

Kristen panicked and drove home, calling friends to ask them whether they thought she needed to take Pete to the emergency room.

“He was sort of out of body, and I thought for sure he would die,” Kristen says.

Pete rested for the remainder of the day, before drinking and dining with friends that evening. He woke up the next morning sore but exhilarated. He’d found his newest passion — and he couldn’t wait to run again.

***

As the roaring waters of the Tatina pulled him under, Ripmaster began swimming upward, desperately clawing toward the surface. He bobbed over the water’s edge, gasping in another big breath. Adrenaline and fear surged through his body as he dog-paddled furiously, fighting the current’s pull, his sled still attached by his harness. Minutes later, he found the shore. Reaching upward with a gloved hand, he slapped at the surface, only to feel ice fracture as he fell back into the current. He tried to get a purchase on the ice, on the surface — anything. But again, he was sucked back in.

After his fourth failed attempt to grab the riverbank, he cussed aloud. As he screamed and cried, visions of his daughters flashed before him. He tried to focus on survival, but his mind kept circling back, wondering: Was this how he died? 

He was losing energy as his body temperature spiraled downward. But in a moment of clarity, Ripmaster determined one thing: “I will swim for six hours if I have to,” he thought. “I am going to save my own life.”

He was losing energy as his body temperature spiraled downward. But in a moment of clarity, Ripmaster determined one thing: “I will swim for six hours if I have to,” he thought. “I am going to save my own life.”

Again, he dog-paddled furiously. As he reached for the icy riverbank on his fifth try, he gripped enough of the surface that he pulled a fraction of his body over top, like a seal breaching water onto the ice. On the slick surface, he slid downward again, back toward the water before pushing up, screaming, willing several more inches of body mass onto the surface. Up, back, up, back, sliding and sliding until he had enough of his body onto the ledge where he could turn and flip over, yanking his sled up onto the riverbank beside him. Finally, at last, his body was on land. 

And that was when his real trouble began.

***

After his impromptu marathon, Ripmaster began running regularly. Sometimes he and Kristen set out together; other times, he was alone with the mountains and his thoughts. He quit teaching and began working in a running shop, before ultimately quitting.

“I think he struggled with the thought of Why don’t you go get a job? Why do you let your wife work so hard?” Mary Dobson, Pete’s 96-year-old grandmother, says. “But there couldn’t be a better father. It just works for them.”

His new role also meant that Pete found time to run.

On a long run one morning, he decided he wanted to run 50 Marathons in 50 states to raise $50,000 for breast cancer research, in honor of his mother. He began in 2008, with the goal of racing a new marathon one weekend per month. He ran his final marathon in Telluride in 2013, ultimately raising $53,000 for multiple charities.

In addition to marathons, Pete wanted to try ultras. He ran his first 50K in January 2011, and he continued racing the 50K distance until tackling his first 100-mile race in April 2013, finishing 34th.

“Pete is like a caged animal, like a wolf you are trying to domesticate,” Kristen says. “It’s not possible.”

That February of 2013, Pete read an article that featured ITI legend Joe Grant, who gave a detailed account of the gear he needed to survive the grueling course. Even after he had left Alaska, Pete had often reminisced about his days in the untouched Alaskan wilderness.

As soon as he finished reading the article, he emailed ITI race marshall Bill Merchant, listing his credentials and detailing his confidence in his ITI capabilities. He closed his email with a quote from Patagonia’s founder, Yvon Chouinard: “Taking a trip for six months to get in the rhythm of it. It feels like you can go on forever doing that. Climbing Everest is the ultimate and the opposite of that. Because you get these high-powered plastic surgeons and CEOs, they pay $80,000 and have sherpas put the ladders in place and 8000 feet of fixed ropes and you get to the camp and you don’t even have to lay out your sleeping bag. It’s already laid out with a chocolate mint on the top. The whole purpose of planning something like Everest is to effect some sort of spiritual and physical gain and if you compromise the process, you’re an asshole when you start out and you’re an asshole when you get back.”

“It was a pretty sappy email,” Merchant says, surmising that Pete was a “dreamer” who had romanticized the race. Merchant almost ignored the request, but the Chouinard quote caught his eye. “If he would grab onto a quote like that, I figured he had what it took to not die,” Merchant says, noting that when he agreed to let competitors enter, it didn’t mean he thought they’d finish — it just meant he thought they wouldn’t die trying. (To date, no one has died while competing in the ITI, though competitors have lost tips of toes and noses to frostbite in similar races. A 2018 Yukon Arctic Ultra competitor, suffering from hypothermia and hallucinations two-thirds of the way into the race, left his sled with his tracker one afternoon, while also removing his boots. He wandered in the snowy forest and subfreezing temperatures for a dozen or so hours before rescue crews found him and immediately flew him via helicopter to the closest hospital. He survived, but both of his hands and feet were either partially or fully amputated.)

After reading Merchant’s reply, Ripmaster was ecstatic. He began preparing for the 350-mile race, pulling a sled in circles around his backyard as his daughters sat inside, laughing and holding onto the sides.

That September, his father died in a drunk driving, single-car accident. Pete hadn’t visited him before he died, and he felt his depression taking hold again. Throughout the winter, he set off each morning, trying to outrun his dark thoughts on the snowy mountain trails.

Still, when he arrived in Knik Lake, Alaska, for the race in February 2014, Pete realized how unprepared he was. On the first day, he wandered 26 miles in the wrong direction — 13 out and 13 back — before realizing his error and correcting course.

On day two, his ice crampons began pushing through his shoes, breaking the skin of his feet and slicing into his soles; with each step, it felt like tiny knives piercing his feet.

When he reached the next checkpoint, he refused to let Merchant see his feet. He was afraid the race marshall would disqualify him if he saw the extensive damage. Merchant reminded Pete that it wasn’t his job to kick racers off the course — they had to do that to themselves.

Pete removed his shoes. He had developed blisters underneath the callous pads of both feet, exposing raw flesh. Merchant offered to patch them up, cleaning the wounds with alcohol and sealing the soles of Pete’s feet back on to his foot with Vaseline. Then Merchant wrapped them in gauze and sports tape, put two layers of socks over his feet, and then covered his socks with duct tape. “Don’t take your socks off until you finish,” Merchant said. And with that, Pete was off again.

He completed the 350-mile distance in 246 hours. He was the last competitor to cross the finish line in 2014.

“When I first met Pete, I thought he probably wasn’t going to die, but I didn’t give him a lot of chance of finishing,” Merchant says. “He proved me wrong there.”

“When I first met Pete, I thought he probably wasn’t going to die, but I didn’t give him a lot of chance of finishing,” Merchant says. “He proved me wrong there.”

Pete had learned from his mistakes — and he couldn’t wait to return. Before the 2015 race, he trained hard, and he was the fittest and strongest he’d been in years. He finished third overall in 161 hours; almost as soon as he called Kristen with the good news, he fixated on returning in 2016 to attempt the 1,000-mile distance.

“People have no idea how many footsteps there are in 1,000 miles of snowy trail,” Merchant says. “You get on the Yukon River and you can’t see the next curve, and the river is two miles wide. And you’re traveling 2.5 miles an hour dragging your sled, and when you see the next curve, it still takes a half day to get there. And then, you just see the next curve.”

***

As he lay sprawled on the Tatina riverbank, Pete faced another life-determining decision: Should he build a fire to dry his clothing and gear, warm himself, then head to Rohn? He was shivering violently, covered in a layer of ice, and he knew that one misstep in attempting to start a fire would likely mean death. Improbably, his sled had taken in very little water, so his stored supplies were dry. His alternative was to race toward Rohn and hope he arrived before he froze to death. The air temperature hovered around 23 degrees Fahrenheit; warm by Alaskan standards and just temperate enough to keep him from freezing to death within minutes.

Pete stood up and tried to take a step. Shaking badly, he fell down. He stood again. This time, he began to run. The ice cracked off of his body in sections as he moved, running at an adrenaline-fueled, 10-minute-mile clip. He sang aloud, “Don’t Fence Me In,” by Asleep at the Wheel, half-delirious, and wondered if hypothermia had already set in. He’d heard stories of those who froze to death; how, in their final moments of life, they shed their clothing, convinced they were on fire, and wandered naked into the wilderness to die.

He ran for about 35 minutes, occasionally falling and shaking violently. Finally, he saw the airstrip of the Rohn cabin. He began crying as he reached the cabin. A tent stood adjacent, the intended checkpoint for ITI hikers. But Pete knew he would not be warm enough in the tent. He banged on the cabin’s doors.

ITI volunteer Kevin Robbins, known as “O.E.” (a nickname bestowed on the half-blind pilot for his “one eye”) opened the door. “I fell into the Tatina!” Pete screamed, stumbling inside the cabin. “Dear God,” Robbins said, quickly bending over and stripping off Pete’s frozen layers. “Stoke the fire!” he called to the other volunteers as they gathered Pete’s soaked clothing to hang from the clotheslines.

“You can quit now — you probably should,” the volunteers said, watching Pete cautiously as he lay next to the fire in his boxer shorts and undershirt, still shaking uncontrollably.

He knew they were right; yet, he had survived. And strangely, he felt OK. Robbins called Merchant on the cabin SAT phone, reporting what had happened. “I fell in the Tatina, but I’m OK,” Pete said to Merchant after Robbins handed him the phone. “I want to keep going.”

After a short nap, he gathered his gear, thanked the volunteers, and headed back onto the trail. When he reached the next checkpoint, another volunteer walked up to him. “A reporter is on the phone for you,” she said. “Bill told them how you almost died, and they want to hear about it.”

Pete rolled his eyes and shook his head. “I don’t want to talk to them right now — I want to race,” he said. He zipped up his sled cover, walked out the door, and kept walking.

He lasted until the 500-mile checkpoint, where exhaustion and the emotional toll of what he’d experienced caught up to him. As soon as he walked into the ITI house, he told the race officials he was quitting. He caught a plane ride to Fairbanks then Anchorage before checking into a hotel. And almost immediately, he was angry with himself. Yes, he had almost died — but he had survived. And he knew he had quit too soon.

“He’s chasing something,” Kristen says. “And he’s torn between two worlds: the world of whatever he’s chasing, and the world of me and the girls. For everyone who’s experienced some type of loss, and for him specifically, he isn’t letting this define his life, but he’s letting it fuel his motivation out there.”

***

In 2017, Pete returned. He was in better shape, but fitness didn’t matter once the thermostat dropped to minus 65 degrees Fahrenheit. By the 350-mile mark, only he and three other racers remained. No foot competitors finished the 1,000-mile distance that year.

After his near-death experience in 2016 and the arctic temperatures in 2017, Pete wondered what might set him back in 2018. And yet, he felt an almost zen-like calm as he lined up at the start next to the six other 1,000-mile-foot-race competitors, including accomplished ultrarunner Beat Jegerlehner.

Through the first 500 miles, Pete and Jegerlehner, an accomplished software engineer at Google, often teamed up to break trail together, even though their racing pace and style differed: Jegerlehner liked short, frequent stops while Pete preferred long stretches of walking before taking an extended rest.

“I enjoy traveling with him, even though we have very different backgrounds,” Jegerlehner says. “Initially, I didn’t think he’d be able to do it. He seemed not quite prepared enough, and I was a little worried he’d get in a bad situation, which he actually did a number of times. He tends to have a lot of ups and downs on the trail, these mental struggles. He has his personal demons.”

He seemed not quite prepared enough, and I was a little worried he’d get in a bad situation, which he actually did a number of times. He tends to have a lot of ups and downs on the trail, these mental struggles. He has his personal demons.”

To try and keep his head clear, particularly as the sleep deprivation mounted, Pete called his brother Scott on his SAT phone every day. He couldn’t call home because he missed his family too much, and he knew that hearing his girls’ voices might break him. Scott updated Pete on which racers had dropped out that day, who had succumbed to injury or the cold, what the weather report was and how much farther he had to travel between checkpoints. When veteran Tim Hewitt, who’d previously won seven ITI 1,000-mile distance races, dropped out, Pete knew he had his best chance yet.

Around mile 700, Pete left a shelter cabin one morning and saw his first glimpses of the Pacific Ocean. As he walked downhill, he saw open water with jumbled ice all around. He stopped for a few minutes, pondering where the route would lead him, wondering whether he should try to maneuver around the open water. He hiked for hours, talking aloud to himself: “Wow, just watching this open water, these waves crashing into each other, it is so beautiful. It’s so peaceful.”

But as he stood a half mile from the ocean, he realized that it was frozen solid. There were no waves; he had been hallucinating the entire time. “It was like I didn’t understand reality,” Pete says. “I thought to myself, I have to keep it together and not unravel. I still have hundreds of miles to go.”

After another 100 miles, knowing he and Jegerlehner were competing for the lead, Pete started to suffer from giardia, an intestinal infection marked by abdominal cramps, nausea, and diarrhea, contracted from contaminated water. (On the trail, racers must either purify their own water from snow or drink from running water, wherever they can find it.)

He spent the next few days stopping almost every half hour, mid-trail, to go to the bathroom. Each time, he had to delayer in the frigid cold, squat, and wait. He had no toilet paper. He estimated that he lost close to 40 pounds during that final week of racing. But he refused to quit.

On his 26th day, just past 4:30 a.m., Pete approached the lights of Nome, the official finish. As he walked toward the town, snow swirling down, he heard someone shouting his name. An Australian ITI bike racer, who had finished three days before, stood cheering for him, alongside a friend. The duo were the only people to greet Pete as he crossed the 1,000-mile finish line as the official 2018 ITI champion. His official time was 26 days, 13 hours, and 44 minutes.

“I was half dead and sick as a dog, so I couldn’t even make emotions,” Pete says. “I had to give everything of my physical, psychological, mental — each of those, all together, is what got me to the finish line — barely.”

The only other 2018 finisher, Jegerlehner, crossed the finish line less than 13 hours later.

“I try to think things through and be ultra-prepared,” Jegerlehner says. “And then here comes Pete and he just makes one mistake after another but damn, he has this willpower that is amazing. He has a heart like an ox — it just keeps him going.”

“I try to think things through and be ultra-prepared,” Jegerlehner says. “And then here comes Pete and he just makes one mistake after another but damn, he has this willpower that is amazing. He has a heart like an ox — it just keeps him going.”

***

This past August, for his first major race following the ITI, Ripmaster decided to attempt the Leadville 100. Founded in 1983, Leadville is one of the most popular ultramarathons in the world. Seven hundred participants are admitted via lottery, charity participation, or specific race qualifiers to race 100 miles of extreme Colorado Rockies terrain. Climbing a total of 16,000 feet of elevation, the race navigates mountain trails and roadsides, beginning and ending in the former mining town’s downtown.

As with his 2016 ITI attempt, Ripmaster hadn’t trained properly. He was 10 pounds overweight, didn’t arrive early enough to acclimate to the elevation, and hadn’t logged the training mileage. Summer days of exploration with his girls, hiking through the mountains at three- and five-mile distances, had occupied most of June and July.

“I think Pete is driven, in large part, by his ego,” Sarah says. “He wants to do what others can’t. I also think he could’ve been a pro athlete in four or five different sports — that’s how good of an athlete he is. Add to that that he can literally set his mind to anything and achieve it.”

Just before the 4 a.m. start on August 18th, under a blanket of darkness dotted by constellations and headlamp lights, Ripmaster lined up. He held a strong pace initially and by 6:21 a.m., he had reached the 13.5-mile marker an hour ahead of his projected time. As he sat and ate a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, he nodded to himself. “I feel good,” he said.

At Leadville, runners must complete the first 50 miles without a pacer; once they hit the 50-mile checkpoint, pacers can join them. Pete had asked Darcy Piceu, one of the top female ultrarunners in the country, to join him for miles 50 to 72; for 73 to 85, he’d lean on accomplished ultrarunner and good friend Keri McMeans. For the final 15-mile stretch, Scott would run alongside him. When they weren’t running, all three served as crew members, filling Scott’s Ford F150 — which he inherited from their father — with supplies to assist Pete at each checkpoint.

Around 1 p.m., under a brilliant-blue Colorado sky, Pete jogged through the 40-mile checkpoint gates of Twin Lakes. Sitting in a folding chair as he changed his socks and shoes, he swallowed gels and TailWind energy drinks. “I’m feeling good, really good,” he said, smiling as he checked his watch.

He knew he was about to embark on the steepest elevation climb of the entire race: five miles up to Hope Pass, traversing more than 2,600 feet of elevation. Darcy would meet him at the top of the Pass, and he predicted they’d be back down the 10-mile trek and through the same checkpoint in around five hours.

But as day settled into dusk, and dusk turned to nightfall, he hadn’t returned. The temperature had dropped from 68 degrees to 34. Scott paced nervously, repeatedly checking his watch as he laid out Pete’s supplies under a bright camping lamp. Finally, at 9:24 p.m., Darcy ran through the darkness toward Scott and Keri, her headlamp moving up and down. “He’s coming, he’s coming!” she called out. “He had some trouble at the top, but he’s still moving.”

Trailing her, Pete stumbled toward the group and sat in a folding chair, trembling with exhaustion. He’d suffered from elevation sickness, he said, right at the 50-mile marker, throwing up repeatedly. He was so dizzy at times that he had to hold on to Darcy to navigate the trail. He had contemplated quitting, but Darcy pushed him onward.

“I am fine with stopping now,” he said, his hands shaking as he held a mug of hot soup.

“You just need calories,” Keri assured him, asking what food and drink he’d consumed over the past eight hours. “And you need liquids.”

He shook his head. “I don’t think I can go any further,” he repeated. For a moment, everyone was quiet.

“Let’s just go to the next checkpoint,” Darcy said. “It’s only twelve miles. From there, we can reassess.”

Pete sat for several minutes, thinking. He was in pain. He was exhausted. He was unprepared. But he was not a quitter.

“All right,” he said, standing up slowly, leaning on Scott as he balanced on his blistered feet. “One more checkpoint.”

Pete sat for several minutes, thinking. He was in pain. He was exhausted. He was unprepared. But he was not a quitter. “All right,” he said, standing up slowly, leaning on Scott as he balanced on his blistered feet. “One more checkpoint.”

***

Last March, when he stepped out of the airplane walkway in Asheville following his win at the 2018 Iditarod, Pete looked emaciated. Friends approached him in church, expressing their condolences and asking about treatment options. Confused, he asked what they were referring to. He looked so sick, they said, that they assumed he had cancer.

After months of recovery, he returned to a stable weight. He didn’t work out for three months; instead, he took life at a slower pace, visiting friends and spending time with his girls.

He still battles depression; however, he has an acute awareness thanks, in large part, to his hundreds of hours of solitude on the trail. “This approach that I’ve found on the trail has helped me see. I am so enamored by my life,” Pete says. “It feels so lucky.”

And when his mood swings take over, he retreats to the solitude of the woods; he is self-aware of his own behavioral and emotional roller coaster. The lyrics of “Amazing Grace,” Mary says, read like a mini profile of Pete’s life. “That verse, I once was lost, but now I’m found, was blind but now I see?” Dobson says. “That’s Pete.”

Following the ITI, he decided to use his platform as a champion to help others, particularly those with depression. He began speaking publicly about his struggles and his triumphs to youth groups, college students, running clubs — whoever might want to hear his message.

“When someone has breast cancer, they’re showered with love, fundraisers, and meals,” Pete says. “But when you talk about alcoholism or depression in our culture, it’s as if those suffering have chosen that life. But they don’t have any choice, just like those who have cancer didn’t have a choice.”

“When someone has breast cancer, they’re showered with love, fundraisers, and meals,” Pete says. “But when you talk about alcoholism or depression in our culture, it’s as if those suffering have chosen that life. But they don’t have any choice, just like those who have cancer didn’t have a choice.”

***

The official cutoff time for the Leadville 100 is 30 hours. The last half mile is one quarter of a gradual downward slope and then a quarter mile incline to the finish. As the sun rose over a brilliant-blue sky on August 19th, 2018, hundreds of spectators lined the last quarter mile, standing behind makeshift ropes to cheer and yell as runners crested the final hill.

At 29 hours and 20 minutes, Pete hadn’t appeared. McMeans paced nervously, waiting to meet him and walk the last quarter mile by his side. “He needs to get here soon if he is going to finish,” she said, glancing nervously at the horizon.

Runners struggled toward the finish, gripping walking sticks or the arms of friends and family. One elderly man speedwalked, the top half of his body almost perpendicular to his legs. A young woman, walking slowly, started a limping jog when she saw the finish line, tears streaming down her face as her children surrounded her on either side, clapping and cheering.

Two more minutes passed. And then, at the top of the hill, Scott and Pete appeared. They shuffled gradually, not speaking. McMeans jumped into the air, waving her hands and crying out, “Let’s go, Pete!”

Pete approached, his expression a mixture of pain and relief. As he walked up the final hill, the cheers escalated. The male winner, 41-year-old Rob Krar, who had finished the race in under 16 hours, sat in a folding lawn chair on the left side of the road, clapping for each runner as they moved through the final quarter mile.

“And from Asheville, North Carolina, it’s Pete ‘the Rip’ Ripmaster!” the P.A. announcer called out as Pete crossed the finish line, tears on his face. Race founder Ken Chlouber greeted him with a bear hug as Pete collapsed into his embrace, shaking.

“I always feel like every race is the hardest,” Pete said afterward. “Today, I had to go someplace that I didn’t want to go. When I hit that sixty-mile mark, I felt like, ‘It’s OK! We had a blast here! I don’t need to finish!’ And my dang mind started buying into that bullshit and I got pissed at myself. So, I kept running.”

A half hour later, as the adrenaline faded and the pain set in, Pete laid on a grassy hill adjacent to the finish, his body swaddled in an aluminum wrap. He stared at the sky, cupping a mug of warm chicken noodle soup as he listened to the crowd. The announcer counted down the final seconds to 30 hours. A male competitor in his mid-60s sprinted up the hill, only to learn he was 28 seconds too late. He fell to his knees, stunned. Two young men watching from several feet away wept, as others hugged one another. Runners who had just finished embraced in the finisher’s corral, smiling for photos with their finisher’s medal. Several spectators continued to watch the horizon as runners crested the hill, unsure if they were too late.

A male competitor in his mid-60s sprinted up the hill, only to learn he was 28 seconds too late. He fell to his knees, stunned. Two young men watching from several feet away wept, as others hugged one another.

The next morning, sore and exhausted, Pete limped around his hotel room as he packed his luggage. Lying on his bed, he smiled at his crew, holding up his notepad where he’d written a series of titles.

He was already plotting his next series of races.

***

“You ask any ultrarunner, why do I do it?” McMeans says. “It means something different for everyone. For me, it’s about really connecting with the rawness of who you are. Ultrarunning takes you down to those basics. You don’t get to cover it up — your discovery of others, and your own self-discovery, is just an amazing experience.”

***

Anna Katherine Clemmons is a freelance writer, reporter, and producer who was written for ESPN, Conde Nast Traveller, Hemispheres, and USA Today Sports. She is an adjunct professor who teaches Sports Journalism and Sports Media Production at the University of Virginia.

***

Editor: Krista Stevens

Copy editor: Jacob Gross

Fact-checker: Matt Giles