Army National Guard Soldier Chases 50 States
On a Saturday evening in 2013, 45 days after her youngest daughter’s graduation from the Iowa Culinary Institute, Kimberly Hamner carried a load of laundry into her daughter’s bedroom. Her door was always open. She set the laundry down and noticed a stack of papers on the bed, which was covered in a black-and-white zebra print blanket. Hamner peered at the papers, and in confusion, took a picture of them with her phone and sent them to a family friend. The friend was a sergeant major in the Marine Corps, and what he told her next triggered a flurry of emotions:
Ayrin Hamner-Ripperger had joined the Iowa Army National Guard (IANG).
“I was freaking out,” Hamner said. “The first thing you think of as a parent is deployment and stuff that goes on in the world.”
At 21, Hamner-Ripperger didn’t make this decision lightly. She considered joining the service after graduating from Valley High School in West Des Moines in 2010 but decided to attend the Iowa Culinary Institute to be a chef or restaurant manager instead. After completing her degrees, something about military service still pulled her. Her friend, Meg Richardson, recalled a night when Hamner-Ripperger texted her after Bible study, asking if she could come over and talk.
“She sat on my bed and I remember her pouring her heart out and battling with the decision to join the Army,” Richardson said. “As she poured her heart out, I could see it’s what she was meant to do.”
That Sunday, Hamner-Ripperger was just released from drill in the Recruit Sustainment Program when she saw the missed calls and texts from her mom, asking about her decision to join the Army. Fear gripped her at first. It was a decision she made mostly on her own, and she wasn’t sure how well her family would receive the news.
However, after the conversation with her mom on the phone, it soon became obvious she had the full support of her family and friends. She later invited her father and stepmother, Tony and Cathy Ripperger of Red Oak, to Red Lobster to break the news.
“Are you pregnant?” they asked. They were shocked at the truth. Cathy cried. But just like her mom, they quickly became her number one fans. Hamner-Ripperger receives frequent calls of support from Tony.
“We’re just so proud of her,” Tony said. “She’s dedicated to service and caring for people, and she’s so strong-headed.”
“I realized I can actually run fast.”
Hamner-Ripperger started her career as a Soldier with the 186th Military Police Company. It was there she met one of her best friends and roommate, Desiree Followill, and her cross-country journey began.
Before they became roommates, Followill resided in New Jersey. In 2015, she asked Hamner-Ripperger if she wanted to go to Brooklyn, New York, and run a half marathon. It would be a first for both of them.
“I said, ‘not really,’” Hamner-Ripperger said, “but I did run out there because that’s what she wanted, so I supported her. We had a pretty good running time for our first time running that far.”
Although she ran track in high school, Hamner-Ripperger said she never had a passion for running. Even after joining the Army, it was just one more thing she was required to do. But in 2016, she ran another half marathon with Followill in Des Moines, and found she enjoyed running longer distances. As her career in the Army progressed, she got a job with the Midwest Counterdrug Training Center (MCTC). She was also running more often to maintain her physical fitness.
“That’s when I realized I can actually run fast,” Hamner-Ripperger said. “I’m actually good at something that I can find passion in. It was something that fell into my lap.”
Chasing 50 States
Hamner-Ripperger ran another half marathon in Arkansas in March 2018. It was there she discovered the 50 States Half Marathon Club. She talked to some of the members, and before she knew it, she signed up for another race in Kansas. That September, she got serious about her decision to run a half marathon in every state. With Followill gone on deployment, she said she needed something to keep her busy. Now 27, Hamner-Ripperger has run at least one race in a different state every weekend (except when she has drill).
Logistically, this is not an easy feat.
Hamner-Ripperger used the digital spreadsheets to list the dates of races each state offered. As she selected races, she removed those dates as options from the remaining states. Certain states, like Alaska and Montana, had fewer options, so those dates were selected first. If the location is under ten hours away, she drives. Once she finds a race, she locates a hotel within a five-mile radius, taking packet pick-up locations into consideration. Hamner-Ripperger said she also maintains a separate spreadsheet detailing her expenses. On average, trips that require air travel cost $750, and driving trips cost about $250. This extensive planning – comparing flights, hotels, rental cars, finding friends in the area, finding opportunities to use reward points - takes no less than 12 hours a week.
“I did New Hampshire and Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island,” Hamner-Ripperger said. “Next weekend I’m going to Maryland and Delaware. It’s nice because it will have taken three weekends to do six states.”
Once she’s settled in her hotel, Hamner-Ripperger begins her routine. She sleeps in her running clothes and wakes up 15 minutes before she has to leave the hotel. She doesn’t eat or drink because it makes her nauseous when she runs. She braids her long brown hair in a ponytail and drives to the starting line 10 minutes before the race begins. She always wears her Garmin watch with an aqua-colored band and checks to make sure it’s working. She never listens to music and she talks to no one. Then, she sprints from the starting line and gets lost in a runner’s high.
“Your mind goes all over,” Hamner-Ripperger said. “I think about anything from what I’m gonna do afterward, about my next race. I like to calculate where I’m at, so that takes up a lot of my time. It’s hard for me to talk when I’m running. I’ll give short answers, but I won’t have a long conversation.”
After she crosses the finishing line, her heart rate decreases and her runner’s high subsides. She puts the medal on, feeling great, and walks straight until she’s not near anyone and collects herself for about five minutes, grabbing anything she can find to eat or drink. Then she goes back to socialize, often taking pictures with her fellow racers.
“You usually battle it out with somebody at the end of the race, so I’ll usually find those people and talk to them,” Hamner-Ripperger said. “If I stuck with somebody for the majority of the race, I’ll make sure to find them, congratulate them and hear their story. We’re all celebrating the same thing – we just did something that a lot of America can’t.”
“She showed up with a duffel bag over her shoulder and I was like, ‘Alright, we’re gonna get along,’” Britton said. “She doesn’t need a lot of stuff.”
The pair set out from the airport to look for the race packet pick-up location. As they wandered around the city with no real direction, they formed an immediate connection. Britton said Hamner-Ripperger was honest and goofy – just her kind of person. During the race, she also found they have a quirk in common: mild superstition.
“A black cat ran out in front of her and she seriously thought about stopping and backing up,” Britton said, laughing.
Hamner-Ripperger finished the race with no mishaps and went on to score a personal record the next day in Alabama. After that last race, she ran back to their hotel to grab her and Britton’s medals and T-shirts for photos at the finish line. When she returned, she saw Britton crossing the finish line, about to set her own personal record.
“She was so excited,” Britton said. “Right when she got to the finish line to meet me, she tripped up on a curb and busted her tail, rolled and skinned her elbow.”
“It was that damn black cat!” Hamner-Ripperger said.
On the bus trip back, Britton said they laughed about her klutziness and how she fulfilled her own “unlucky destiny.” The two met again when Hamner-Ripperger ran a half marathon in Virginia. Those moments of genuine excitement for her peers are common occurrences. Bruce Huckfeldt, of Waukee, met Hamner-Ripperger at an obstacle course called the Titan Mob. After that, they ran a 4th of July Firecracker 5k in downtown Des Moines, and at the finish line, she asked him to be a partner in a team event. The event required an empty pony keg of beer to be passed between four teammates as soon as someone got tired. Huckfeldt said she carried the whole thing by herself in 105-degree heat.
“I never even got to hold it, and we won the event,” Huckfeldt said. “That was a really good memory we had together.”
Huckfeldt said that anyone who takes on a challenge like running half marathons in 50 states is dedicated, focused and determined. At the same time, Britton describes her as an amazing and humble athlete who accepts her awards generously.
“When I broke my foot she said, ‘Alright, I know you’re going to be ready to do [the Des Moines Marathon] next year, so I’ll be looking forward to racing with you,’” Huckfeldt said. “She gave me motivation to run even when I had to sit out for three months with a broken foot. That was pretty cool of her.”
There have been times, though, when Hamner-Ripperger has lost her own motivation. In October, she experienced an issue with her knee locking up, and was terrified she had seriously injured herself. At that time, one of her mentors in the IANG helped her recover. Sgt. Maj. Garry Waldon Jr., operations sergeant major of the 734th Regional Support Group (RSG), went to the gym with her and coached her through foam rolling and stretching.
“My knees were bruised and tender from the rolling,” Hamner-Ripperger said. “I had one of those electroshock muscle things, too. I don’t know what it did, but I didn’t have issues after that. It was very scary because I had all these races already booked, but I powered through it.”
Recently, during her stop in Connecticut, she hit a wall. The course was extremely hilly, and she said it tore every runner up.
“I just stopped running and just kind of stood there, like oh my gosh, in pain, or just mentally not able to push forward,” Hamner-Ripperger said. “That was my worst run since I started this journey.”
“It made me realize I’m seeing all these places in the country,” Hamner-Ripperger said. “To be able to say that in 19 months, I’ve seen all 50 states when most people don’t even see that in their lifetime, is amazing. I took it all in and was like alright, we’re doing this.”
Hamner-Ripperger was raised in Creston, Iowa, with her sister. Her mom left for work early in the morning and returned home no earlier than 7 p.m. most nights. After school, the pair would go to their great grandmother’s house. Madalyn Capps, who has since passed away, always greeted her granddaughters with their favorite snack – raw green peppers and salt paired with root beer served in frosty mugs. They’d eat in the kitchen, which had butterflies hanging on the walls. The whole house always smelled faintly of moth balls. Then the trio would settle in the living room, turn the TV to channel 8, and watch soap operas until their mom came to pick them up. Hamner-Ripperger said she looks back on these memories fondly, and even now, she continues to watch her grandmother’s favorite soap opera.
Hamner-Ripperger said her family means everything to her. Her mom goes to watch her run whenever she can, and her sister Ashlin Hamner-Means calls before and after races. She puts her 5-year-old son Liam on the phone, and he wishes his aunt Ayrin good luck or tells her good job. Cathy shares everything she posts about her travels on Facebook, and her aunt made her a T-shirt that says Chasing 50 States on the front, with a map on the back where she can put a check mark after each state is completed. Her friends call her crazy on a regular basis.
“Between the military, my family and my friends, I would not be doing this without them,” Hamner-Ripperger said. “There are times when I’ve been like, OK, I’m done. This is just too much. But the people surrounding me give me a kick in the rear and tell me to keep going.”
There’s no shortage of support at work, either. In 2017, Hamner-Ripperger, now a sergeant, transferred from the 186th MPs to the 831st Engineer Company. After landing a full-time job as their administrative and supply non-commissioned officer (NCO), she moved on from her temporary position at MCTC. Her primary duties include ensuring all documentation for things like awards and promotions are completed properly, and helping logistical tasks run smoothly before, during and after a drill weekend.
This was especially important during the unit’s April drill this year, when they conducted range fires. Vibrant blue frosting spilled from the top of a cupcake onto Hamner-Ripperger’s fingers as she pulled a dolly through Building S60 at Camp Dodge Joint Maneuver Training Center. Hamner-Ripperger grabbed the leftover cupcake on her way to deliver the dolly to her Soldiers, who were waiting to haul boxes of ammunition for M249 light machine guns inside. As the administrative and supply NCO for the 831st, obtaining and securing ammunition for the upcoming drill weekend was one item on a long list of tasks she needed to check off. Hamner-Ripperger baked the cupcakes with her mother the day prior to give as congratulatory gifts for the newest graduates of the Iowa Law Enforcement Academy – just one example of the selfless service she exemplifies in both her military and civilian lives.
Her office at Camp Dodge houses various tokens of her personality: photos of her family transition in a slideshow on her monitor and her work phone displays a University of Iowa Hawkeye logo on its dull green display. A clear ball enclosing a white guardian angel given to her by a coworker from her previous job is prominently displayed, and a Chinese fortune is taped to the desk – “May the good spirits be with you always.”
Almost every other day, Hamner-Ripperger will venture from her desk across the hall to visit Chief Warrant Officer 2 Kelly Moeller, the human resources assistant for the 734th RSG. Moeller said Hamner-Ripperger is probably the friendliest and most generous person she knows, noting that she’s always willing to do stuff with a smile. She has never seen her angry. Last summer, Moeller played on a recreational volleyball team in Winterset. The team was short on players during the last game, and even though she lives in West Des Moines, Hamner-Ripperger volunteered.
“That might have been the first game we won the entire season,” Moeller said. “She’s willing to go out of her way to help people.”
Recently, she walked into Moeller’s office with a request: can you take a photo of me with my race medals? She walked into the weight room and weighed herself alone. Then she grabbed her backpack full of the medals and weighed herself again. The bag was 22 pounds after running about half of her races. They played around with poses, trying to find ones that wouldn’t make her arms tired. Eventually, they used the pole that holds the unit flag to display them. Moeller said the experience was neat, and she hopes Hamner-Ripperger continues to use her skill and positive attitude to mentor her Soldiers.
“She’s got the right mindset as an NCO,” Moeller said. “She could be a private or a sergeant major and still have a huge influence on others. She’s gonna do great things.”
With 39 states checked off the list and 12 to go, Hamner-Ripperger will run her last race in October 2019 in South Dakota. Her family and friends will be there to watch her cross the finish line, and her coworkers in the IANG will be cheering her on at home.
But she isn’t going to stop there.
After qualifying for the All Guard Marathon Team at the Lincoln Half Marathon this month, she’ll be checking all 50 states off her list twice as she travels with the team.
“I encourage her to keep her positive attitude and remain infectious,” Moeller said, “because that’s exactly what she is. Her positivity is infectious.”