JOHNSTON, Iowa – On a Saturday evening in 2013, Kimberly Hamner carried a load of laundry into her daughter’s bedroom. As she set the laundry down, she noticed a stack of papers on the bed. Hamner peered at the papers. Confused by them, she took a picture with her phone and sent it to a family friend – a Marine Corps sergeant major.
His response on what the papers were triggered a flurry of emotions in Hamner. They meant, he said, that Hamner’s youngest daughter, Ayrin Hamner-Ripperger, had enlisted in the Iowa Army National Guard.
“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 high school in 2010, but decided to attend the Iowa Culinary Institute instead. After completing her degree, something about military service still pulled her, she said.
A friend, Meg Richardson, recalled a night when Hamner-Ripperger texted her, 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.”
Hamner-Ripperger made the decision to enlist not long after that conversation. It was a decision she made mostly on her own, and she said she wasn’t sure how well her family would receive the news.
One weekend, after being released from drill with the Recruit Sustainment Program, she saw several missed calls and texts from her mom, asking about her decision to enlist. Fear gripped her at first, she said. However, after the conversation with her mother on the phone, it soon became obvious she had her full support. She later invited her father and stepmother to dinner to break the news.
“We’re just so proud of her,” said Tony Ripperger, her father. “She’s dedicated to service and caring for people, and she’s so strong-headed.”
In addition to service and caring for people, enlisting also made Hamner-Ripperger realize something else: she’s a runner.
“I realized I can actually run fast,” she said.
While serving with the Iowa Army Guard’s 186th Military Police Company she met one of her best friends and roommate, Desiree Followill.
Originally from New Jersey, Followill 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.
“Not really,” Hamner-Ripperger said she recalled telling her friend. “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 it. Even after enlisting, 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. She was also running more often to maintain her physical fitness level.
Eventually, her 17-minute two-mile runs turned into 15-minute runs and it clicked for her.
“I’m actually good at something that I can find passion in,” she said. “It was something that fell into my lap.”
Hamner-Ripperger ran another half-marathon in Arkansas in March 2018. It was there she discovered a group dedicated to running a half-marathon in each state. She talked with 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 in every state, which led to creating a spreadsheet of possible races.
She listed 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 10 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.
“I already get enough grief from outsiders about spending money,” Hamner-Ripperger said, “but I have had race trips cost me as little as $50.”
When possible, she does back-to-back races.
“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.”
Hamner-Ripperger also has a specific routine she follows with each race.
She sleeps in her running clothes and wakes up 15 minutes before she has to leave for the race. She doesn’t eat or drink before running – it makes her nauseous, she said.
She braids her long, brown hair into a ponytail and always wears her fitness-tracking watch with an aqua-colored band. She never listens to music and tries to talk with no one at the race.
Then, when the race starts, 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 [to] my next race.”
She said she also thinks about her stats in the race she’s running.
“I like to calculate where I’m at, so that takes up a lot of my time,” she said.
After she crosses the finish line, she said, she puts the race medal on and walks until she’s not near anyone and collects herself for a few 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.”
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 said she was terrified she had seriously injured herself. At that time, a fellow Soldier coached her through foam rolling and stretching to alleviate the issue.
“My knees were bruised and tender from the rolling,” Hamner-Ripperger said. “It was very scary because I had all these races already booked, but I powered through it.”
And more recently, during her stop in Connecticut, she hit a wall. The course was extremely hilly and challenged nearly every runner, she said.
“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.”
The journey has also been enlightening, she said, adding one of her favorite races was in Newport, Rhode Island, where she ran along the coast, giving her new energy.
“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.”
Now a sergeant, Hamner-Ripperger serves as the administrative and supply noncommissioned officer with the Iowa Army Guard’s 831st Engineer Company.
Her personality and drive have rubbed off on others around her.
“She’s got the right mindset as an NCO,” said Chief Warrant Officer Kelly Moeller, the human resources assistant with the 734th Regional Support Group, who Hamner-Ripperger works closely with. “She could be a private or a sergeant major and still have a huge influence on others. She’s going to do great things.”
With 39 states checked off and 11 to go, Hamner-Ripperger is slated to hit all 50 states in October when she runs in South Dakota. Her family and friends plan to be there to watch her cross the finish line.
But that’s not the end.
This month she qualified for the All-Guard Marathon Team, which should see her check off all 50 states again as she travels with the team.
Moeller said she’s sure Hamner-Ripperger’s attitude will keep the team motivated.
“I encourage her to keep her positive attitude and remain infectious,” Moeller said, “Because that’s exactly what she is. Her positivity is infectious.”