Quarantine got you down? Second Gear friend Peter Ripmaster explains how the high and lows of solitude and isolation can help you flourish.
Ultrarunner Peter Ripmaster is someone who comprehends the complex ordeal of isolation: whether it’s wandering the fringes of his thoughts on a century run; facing perilous winter conditions on foot, solo in Alaska; or grounded at home by COVID-19.
“I’m a big fan of using trying times as opportunities for inward growth,” said Ripmaster about the current lockdown.
And when life eventually returns to normal, he’ll be re-aiming to complete a century run in every state of the Union.
But first, his running obsession demands an explanation. For Ripmaster running alone, at times, has been a refuge. Occasionally blissful and from time to time gloomy. And even once, metaphysical.
While running his first Iditarod Trail Invitational race a snowy owl faced him, alone, in the middle of Alaska. Then, Ripmaster was slogging through his first attempt at the 1,000 mile route through the snowy tundra of Alaska. An absolute “greenie”, he says, limping through one of the most hostile environments on the planet.
“I was in a bad place on the trail and out of nowhere the owl landed on a tree right next to me and just sat and stared at me,” he recalls of the encounter in 2014. The owl followed him from tree to tree. Not for long, but enough to make him wonder. “It was such a powerful spiritual interaction. I thought: who is trying to check on me?”
He finished last, but that’s not too bad for a race with twelve runners through the heart of America’s icebox in the dead of winter in which keeping all of your fingers and toes is an achievement all its own.
His obsession with long distance running began suddenly in 2008 while in the car with his wife Kristen when he told her he wanted to run a marathon. Not train for one. But run 26.2 miles. Today.
“I was overweight and out of shape, but she knows better than anyone else if I want to do something to not get in the way,” chuckles Ripmaster. She obliged and dropped him off on the Blue Ridge Parkway in Asheville with a pair of running shoes, cargo shorts and zero training. Ripmaster ascended on foot 13.1 miles to Mount Pisgah and back down again.
He admits it was excruciating, but unforgettable. And frankly, for Ripmaster, life altering.
He was hooked and over the next five years ran 50 marathons in 50 states raising over $60,000 for cancer research to fulfill a promise he made to his mother in her final days.
Yet running with hundreds, and sometimes thousands of other runners became an ordeal and the mass of humanity drained him even more than the blisters and sore muscles.
“I ran the Boston Marathon and I can definitely see why people love it, but it became monotonous,” he says. And after winning the Iditarod Invitational in 2018, Ripmaster slipped into a funk.
“It was very hard for me to self motivate,” he said. “ I realized I wasn’t going to be able to motivate myself unless I was doing something for someone else.”
That’s when the snowy owl swooped back onto Ripmaster’s radar.
Since his encounter on the Iditarod, Ripmaster developed an interest in ornithology, and owls in particular. So when he discovered the Owl Research Institute (ORI) - a Montana based non-profit dedicated to owl research, conservation and education - he was ready once again to hit the trail.
“They are out in the field studying these creatures I adore, and all of a sudden it was a similar epiphany moment when I decided to raise money for cancer,” he said. He also fixated on a new long distance running aim. No one, to his knowledge, has completed a 100 mile run or race in every state.
So far he has 43 states left to go and has raised over $2,000 for ORI. At a pace of 5 centuries per year, it might take a while, but it’s not entirely about being first.
“The motivation is a lot deeper than the first to do it. I’m not dumb enough to think that I’m some awesome athlete,” he says.”“Running has never been about what place or what time or what race. There are incredible athletes that transcend sport using their platform for good.”
And while his solitary time may include flickers of euphoria during long runs, there are tides of despair too. Ripmaster, who has struggled with depression, says those highs and lows on the trail are precisely why he runs.
“I embrace the pain,” he says. “It’s what brings me joy. Nothing else makes me feel so alive. My love of going inward and having experiences that give you an outlet to learn more about yourself when things aren’t going great.”
And while the coronavirus has cancelled several races planned for the spring and summer, the project is still on.
“This time at home,” he says about the isolation due to the pandemic, “has helped me to remember how much I have to be thankful for.”
By Jack Igelman
Learn more about Pete at his website Peteripmaster.com
Support Pete's latest project by purchasing one of his Owl Run Hundreds T-Shirts - available exclusively at Second Gear.