Here I sit at the Westmark Hotel in Anchorage, Alaska on Tuesday, March 7th 2017. I sit here, now, because I decided to stop my advance towards Nome, AK in The Iditarod Trail Invitational when I arrived in McGrath, AK on Monday morning at 1:15 AM. It was -30F when I arrived at the Schneiderheinze house who act as checkpoint hosts during our race. But I digress, there were a lot of moments which lead to me arriving in McGrath wanting me to end my adventure. Therefore, let me do what they do in the movies; start from the beginning!
I was absolutely ready for the race this year. I knew I had a tough push in me and I was physically in fighting shape. I trained hard with lots of long, tough runs in North Carolina. I was also very comfortable with the gear I had chosen for the race. I had worked very hard on making my sled lighter so that I could move a touch quicker on the trail. I did this so I could (in theory) get to checkpoints quicker and sleep inside instead of out on the trail which anyone will tell you is very tough.
I left Asheville, NC with the full support of my family and friends and was hoping to make everybody proud. Really though, I look at these races as an opportunity to get to know myself better. I use these times alone to dig deeper into my spirituality and to see if I can understand some deeper truths about me as a person. I was open to whatever the trail had to throw at me and I made it to Anchorage with no issues at all. All I can say is, First Class is the only way to fly when you're heading to Alaska. I had some space and peace to think about what was coming my way. First class one day, -60F bivy on the trail a few days later. Such is the life of Peter Ripmaster.
I got to Anchorage way too early. I do not like Anchorage. I amassed my gear and was happy that everything made it to Alaska safely. I would never come three days early for the race ever again. I sat in my room and waited for the opportunity to hit the trail. The one blessing about getting in early was the opportunity to run into my friend John Logar from West Virginia. John is an ER Doctor and one of the coolest dudes I know. I got to know him much better when he came last fall to my ranch in Telluride, CO and ran my homemade Chris Patrick Ripmaster Memorial 50K in honor of my Dad's wild life lived. We get along really well as were both pretty much anti social. The Friday before the race, there was a party at a local bike shop and we decided to eat a quiet dinner rather than socialize.
The Saturday before the race start is pretty fun. We have a runners meeting. There is always tons of energy and everyone seems so full of piss and vinegar at this point. Lot's of big smiles and big plans. Optimism abounds and I'm just happy to be a part of this circus. All of us who do this race are used to being called "crazy" or "different". It's nice to all the sudden be in a group of people who are the same kind of crazy as you. This is my tribe! These are my people. We did an hour or so meeting and then we were on our own until the bus left for the start line the next day!
All my gear was ready and I didn't need to tinker too much right before I left. I felt very comfortable and content. I got a pretty good night sleep the night before the race other than the Native Alaskan guy screaming, drunker than shit, at the top of his lungs at 4AM outside my room. I had no idea what he was screaming about but I was told the next morning that this was normal behavior, "on weekends". OK, sure. I couldn't get the hell out of Anchorage fast enough.
Race day was here! I got on the big bus and my friend John had saved me a seat in the front row. As a back of the bus kind of guy, this was new to me to have somebody looking out for me. Tim and Loreen Hewitt were right behind us and the four of us had a lot of fun swapping stories and laughing on the way to the start. I always think it's so pretty on that drive from Anchorage to Knik Lake. After a couple hours, we were there. It didn't take me long to find Tyrell and Tekla (and baby Taz) Seavey. These are my friends and have been at the start of this every single year for me. It means the world to me that they've made this effort and Tyrell always helps me feel comfortable.
Getting ready, there is always a bunch of loose talk which I don't like. There is a certain somebody who really bothers me in this race. It just seems like every single time this guy says something to me it can be taken as a very dickhead thing to say. After my first year it was "hey Pete, try not to have a 90 pound sled this year." This year it was "Pete, try not falling through any rivers this year." Anywho, this guy seems like a "Napoleon Complex" douche bag to me and I've never liked the guy, period. This seems like the kind of guy who is a bully to me. He seems to always say shit like this when others are around and then be nice when nobody else is around. I don't like people like this and never have! There he was at the start right next to me. A rookie racer asked me if I had ever been to Nome before. I told him no I hadn't. Then, this nameless person has to say "but you did attempt it last year though, right? At least you know what it feels like to leave McGrath". Rather than taking the high road and saying something like "I don't believe that was what he asked me" or something to this effect, I just bit my lip as usual. I will tell you this though; I was running to Nome and this person was running to McGrath. I wasn't going to let him beat me to McGrath. I'm not usually the type who needs this sort of motivation but this guy had pissed me off one too many times. Hillary Ripmaster is not around anymore but one trait we share is if we don't like somebody, there will be no pretenses. Besides, it's a race and motivation comes in different ways. This guy quit, again, as it turns out. So be it.
As the 44 was shot off to start the race I found myself in front. Not on purpose but everyone on foot, seemed to be behind me. I was comfortable with that and was the first runner to exit the lake and get on The Iditarod Trail. I felt great and my sled was gliding along effortlessly. Sometimes I needed to look back just to make sure it was behind me. I was by myself for the first 10 miles or so and all the while I was thinking to myself, "where in the hell is David Johnston?" I was thinking that and not paying much attention to the trail. Then I hear this primal scream "PETER, PETE!!!!", I turn around and see David yelling at me that I was heading in the wrong direction. I indeed was. I don't know how long I would've gone in the wrong direction but David saved me here. Bonus miles are no fun and we both knew this. We hung for a bit but Dave being Dave, he started stretching his legs and getting in front of me. It was fun to watch how efficiently he moved. The miles were clicking by very well for me and I felt awesome.
My plan was to run the first 59 miles to Yentna station. Like the past few years, this went pretty well to plan. I felt a few blisters starting but I was proactive in taking care of my feet. I got to Yentna, rented a room for a few hours and went about the business of drying and reorganizing my gear. After a nice break and a few hours of sleep, I was out the door with the intention of getting to Skwentna which was 30 miles down the trail. I was moving very efficiently and found myself alone most all of the time. This is very normal for me during these races. I was not here to make new friends and have a collective experience. I was here to dig deep and see what I could do. I rented a room here too because it's just so nice to be able to take a shower and have some privacy. It's REALLY hard for me to sleep with a bunch of other people. I am a soft sleeper and usually find myself listening to others snore and cry, etc. Having a place to myself was going to be something that was important to me on this trip.
I pushed hard through the Shell hills and got to Shell Lake Lodge very early in the morning. I was told that if Zoe didn't have the lights on at the lodge, than we weren't welcome. I was surprised to find some racers doing exactly what we were told not to do by sleeping in her lodge off hours. I slipped in, refilled my water bottles and slipped out. I was going to push another 20 miles to Fingerlake and I was going to be in rough shape when I got there. I put my head down and pushed very hard though the day and evening.
Now, I have to start this part of my race report with a disclaimer: The Winterlake Lodge on Fingerlake has NEVER been my favorite checkpoint. It's a stuffy place where you never really feel welcomed. In fact, they pretty much treat you like second class citizens here. This is a place where they do "eco tours". More or less, the super rich come here to be led on pussy little micro adventures where there's four guides per four people. They take pictures like they're really out in the freaking wild. Yet, when they are a little cold or hungry, they're wisped back to this European style lodge where they drink fancy wine and eat world class food. It just doesn't have anything in common with what were doing out there which is sad because I believe the lodge owner does have a heart for what we do and what we put ourselves through. Let's just say the boss man wasn't there this year when I was there or I didn't see him.
I got there and asked the lady in charge if I could rent a room for a few hours. First she said "NO, we already have the rooms ready for our PAYING guests who arrive tomorrow night." Well, that makes no sense. Here is a lodge that is not wanting business because they are filled up the following day? I called bull shit in my mind but as usual, I bit my lip. She also made it known that rooms were $1,500 a night with the undertone that none of us Iditarod Bums could afford their rooms. This lady was used to dealing with multi millionaires which is fine. Who knows, maybe she was looking directly at a multi millionaire who just didn't look the part when she was speaking to me? Crazier things have happened. You have no idea how much I wanted to dig into my sled, get 15 $100 bills (which I had) and throw them at her. With that said, I wasn't giving these folks a damn dime of my money. Screw these folks, period. I ate my meal while these people continued on in their little warm bubble.
I then went down to the wall tent that they had set up for the racers. It was freezing cold and there were people all over the place. There was a wood burning stove that wasn't putting out much heat and a propane stove heater giving out less. There was also a note that the heat shouldn't be turned up on the propane tent. A fellow racer, and ABSOLUTE Badass, Kyle Durand was in pretty bad shape at this
So, I was stewing and angry as I left The Winterlake Lodge on Fingerlake. I mean come on, even that name pisses me off. I had some trail rage to burn off so I made it to Rainy Pass Lodge fairly quickly. When I got to Rainy Pass Lodge I was still stewing about how we were treated at the previous lodge. When I walked into Rainy Pass Lodge, I said, well, me and Merle Haggard probably
wouldn't have been allowed at the last lodge, are we welcomed here? Well let me just say, that the owner of this AUTHENTIC hunting Lodge told me some stories about being at Merle Haggard's last show. We swapped HAG stories, and I felt wrapped in the bosom of real Alaska. They rented me a room for a few hours and actually took my cash. I showered, re did my gear and ate like a King while I was there. The bullshit experience of the previous lodge was washed away by the grace and beauty of The Rainy Pass Lodge. I will bring my family to Rainy Pass Lodge someday as I was so thankful for the hospitality. This was one of my favorite stops along the trail this year. This is good too because Kyle and I were about to head out into a 60+ mile section with temps that would drop into the -60's F.
As Kyle and I left that night, we were told to have no skin exposed. It was thought to be -40 with 40+ MPH winds. This was life threatening weather and we needed to be committed to getting to Rohn as there was no shelter between Rainy Pass Lodge and Rohn. Kyle and I made our way as the weather worsened. It was getting to -50 below and things were getting real. At one point, I turned around and didn't see Kyle's headlamp. This was not the type of country that you want to travel alone so I did what I thought was best, I waited. It wasn't long but then I saw his headlamp and finally saw him. He said " THANK YOU FOR WAITING, THIS IS FUCKING CRAZY!!!!". I took off again but created some separation and was not going to wait again. I hoped Kyle was OK and I started hiking straight into the worst weather I've even been in my life. I felt like this weather was trying to suck the life out of me.
As I crested the pass, I saw Grant Maughn bivied off the trail. It looked set up well and I thought he was ok. usually I would pass a bivy like this and not say a word but I felt like these were special circumstances. I asked Grant if all was ok. All I got back was, "yes mate, I'm ok!". That's all I need to hear. Needless to say, Grant was not ok on this bivy. He had frostbite and couldn't make water or a
Grant Maughn is OK and Recovering. He's Tough as nails.
Meanwhile, I was in a death march to Rohn. I bivied twice but was so damn cold that I was left shaking in my sleeping bag. Each time, I packed up and headed deeper into the weather. These were the most frantic hours of my life. I was saying my wife's name, daughter's names, counting to 500, counting to 1,000. From 4:00 AM that morning to sunrise that morning it was the hardest moments of the race for me. I simply put one foot in front of the other, sometimes as slow as a mile an hour and survived. All others did too but some won't be using (or keeping) some of their fingers and toes for awhile. Needless to say, tons of racers dropped during this time. As the sun cam up, I had the feeling that I had made it through the crux unscathed.
Now, travelling alone has it's perks but it also has it's drawbacks. I now had to navigate the most dangerous section of trail by myself. I had been in a similar situation the previous year when I fell through the ice on the Tatina river. Let's just say I faced MANY fears that night. Other racers fell through that night. I was lucky. Why? I think I had so many people Praying for me that God protected me. I truly feel that way. I was also out of water towards the end of this section so I made some bold attempts for the rivers to drink directly out of them. It was wonderful and dangerous. When I got a couple miles out of Rohn and into the woods, I knew I would make it safely to the Rohn Cabin.
I got into the Rohn wall tent and it was crowded. All bikers. They threw me on the pine bed and as I was getting my sleeping bag out, I looked next to me and saw quite the sight. There was a big Polish biker laying next to me. He was snoring loudly and I shined my headlamp his way. What I saw scared the shit out of me. Here was a giant nose that was bloody and steaming. He had serious frostbite on his nose and and his fingers. The story goes that he pedaled into the same weather as me for 3.5 hours with absolutely nothing covering his face. He turned around, biked 3.5 hours back and then got with other bikers who were going to make an attempt. One of these people was a doctor and told him to take care of himself. He didn't. When they got to Rohn, plans were already being made to evac this racer to hospital care. Many others dropped here too. Dangerous times.
I had decided that I was going to continue but it was around here when I started questioning if I wanted to subject myself to this all the way to Nome. Regardless, I left Rohn fired up to finish the 350 and to make good time doing it. The next section was 100 miles with only one shelter cabin between it. I had already decided in my head that I would not stop at the shelter cabin and just bivy off the trail when I got tired. I stuck to my plan and had a very enjoyable section here. I was also visited by a beautiful Owl on this section and it left me wishing I could better tell which type it was. It was HUGE and majestic and mysterious. I also had a beautiful display of Northern Lights on this section which was very special.
I pushed hard and made it to Pike Camp. This was a small wall tent that a few locals from Nikolai set up just to be a part of our race. It was so great! I was welcomed in, we ate, smoked, told stories
Pike Camp, Iditarod Trail Invitational 2017
and generally enjoyed each others company. I dried my gear and was treated like a King. Here were two people who didn't have much but shared EVEYTHING with others. It was certainly different than some other stops on the trail and again I left thinking how lucky I was to be having an adventure like this. I was in the moment. I was working hard on being in the here and now and I was having the time of my life. I was connected to the trail and was happy.
I bivied one more time on the trail which wasn't bad (nothing seemed bad after dealing with the weather early in the race). I worked hard and made it to Nikolai from Rohn in roughly 25 hours. That's moving my compadre. I was welcomed into the Petruska house and knew I was going to take some time healing up, eating, rehydrating and resting. I even thought I might wait for Kyle and Pavel (who is another BAD ASS). They were travelling together and I thought maybe the 3 of us could finish together. I tried my best but was getting antsy the following morning when I was all ready, the sun was out and they were both still sleeping. As I was leaving, Kyle was getting up and I told him I had to hit the trail. I said I hoped I would see them but of course we had no idea. I was also told then that Pavel did not want to push past McGrath like he was supposed too. I was feeling the same and knew at this point that this 50 mile section of trail would probably be my last section on The Iditarod Trail for a long time. I knew that I wasn't going to go on to Nome at this point so I tried to enjoy every second. I put my head down and pushed hard for 16 hours and covered the last 47 miles without so much as stopping once. I finally saw the 350 finish sign and I knew my race was done!
I didn't know what the finish line would be like for me. I got to Peter and Traci's house and it was
-30F. I had pushed hard and got from Knik Lake to McGrath via Hell's Gate in less than 7.5 days. I was thrilled with my effort and even happier that I would be heading back to North Carolina with all my fingers and toes. The golf course at the Country Club of Asheville, where I'm a member, has been redone recently and will re open next month. I will be playing golf with my friends and will have nothing but awesome stories about my adventure on The Iditarod Trail this year. It was a smashing success.
I finished in second place in the 350 mile race behind my friend David Johnston. Kyle and Pavel
finished behind me and we were the 4 350 mile finishers out of the 20 that started. Nobody continued on foot to Nome this year including me. That's ok. I got exactly what I needed from the trail this year. I will not be back for the ITI for many years. This was the 4th straight year I missed my wife's birthday in NC and I refuse to do a 5th next year.
I will look forward to many more adventures including The Bigfoot 200 later this summer. These races and adventures bring a lot of color and clarity to my life. I appreciate having a family who supports my dreams. I'm also happy to be a part of the best race in the world. If you ever have a chance to try The Iditarod Trail Invitational race, please do. It's a no bullshit, throwback adventure that is unrivaled today for it's realness. Thank you Bill and Kathi for letting me be such a part of this race the last few years. My life is forever changed because of these experiences.