WOMEN YOU SHOULD KNOW IN WYOMING: Jackson Runner Goes It Alone Over 100-mile Routes

Kelly Halpin is an ultra distance runner, trail maker in the mountains she calls home

Kelly Halpin takes time to record her success making it to the top of the Grand Teton. (Courtesy photo from Kelly Halpin)

By Elizabeth Sampson

Special to the Wyoming Truth

Kelly Halpin really does have to climb uphill both ways.

As a professional mountain ultra distance runner, Halpin competes to set speed records for long distances over technical mountainous terrain. Her accomplishments include registering dozens of the fastest known time designations for mountain trails across Wyoming and the Mountain West. Among them: the Wind River High Route, a 97-mile mountain crest trail, in 59 hours in 2020. The trail flows up and down the range over three peaks, resulting in a 30,000-foot uphill run.

“It’s a very big intimidating route to do alone,” said Halpin, 37, of Jackson.

Ultra runners often have friends, family or coaches who run alongside them, setting the pace or carrying food and reminding them to eat and stay hydrated.

Not Halpin. She faces every mountain alone, carrying everything she needs from start to finish.

“Being unsupported, you are putting yourself into a true wilderness setting without people helping you out,” Halpin said. “It’s a really raw, true human experience. You’re not just exploring a wilderness setting with your body—you’re exploring it with your mind.”

Halpin said not many women choose to run unsupported, though the number is growing thanks to changing mindsets.

Kelly Halpin is a mountain ultra distance runner based in Jackson. She has recorded the women’s fastest-known unsupported time for the Wind River High Route, a 97-mile trail she ran in 59 hours. (Courtesy photo from Mike Thurk) 

“Women are absolutely 100% as capable as men, but women are raised differently than men,” Halpin said. “That’s started to change, but at least with my generation, girls were still told to be really careful, use caution, don’t travel alone. Obviously, there are reasons for that. But if you continue to tell yourself, ‘It’s really dangerous, I can’t do that,’ then you limit yourself.”

Training team

For over 30 years, Halpin has been involved in mountain climbing sports, and combining that with running led her to mountain ultra distance running. She loves the way nature and distance offer her an extreme challenge in an awe-inspiring setting.

Sponsorships allow Halpin to continue her quests for fastest known times. She has multi-year partnerships with brands that support her financially and supply the required gear.

Kasey Clark, of Fruita, Colorado, is Halpin’s coach and provides workout routines that she completes in preparation to attempt record-setting runs. Halpin, she said, is independent and fully authentic as an unsupported runner.

“Kelly is the most pure version of unsupported,” Clark said. “No one is documenting her. No one is giving her aid. She’s doing it all alone—no film crew, no nothing. Authentic is a good word for her. The mountains are part of her. Some people say that, but it’s really true for her.”

Clark, who met Halpin the summer of 2008 when they worked in Moab, Utah, knows Halpin faced mental and physical challenges while setting the women’s unsupported record on the Wind River High Route.

Kelly Halpin is passionate about nature and enjoys charting new trails through the wilderness. (Courtesy photo from Brian Ralph) 

“The stuff she had to overcome to be out there for over two days in the high backcountry, bear country—I don’t know what went through her mind,” Clark said. “But I know absolutely she had to have overcome daily obstacles just to get through that.”

Halpin starts training each year in February, and she follows Clark’s weekly regimen that increases in difficulty over the spring months. When summer hits, Halpin’s training switches to focusing on a particular objective—usually a 100-mile ultramarathon. She also does workouts that build stamina and include plenty of vertical gain.

After a summer of attempting fastest-known time records, Halpin continues to train throughout the winter despite the snow. She might spend the day backcountry snowboarding, or she may try to get in a run, but she doesn’t let the snow get in her way.

When an avalanche control road closure caused traffic to be backed up past her house, she was trapped on her property, but still managed to work out.

“I ran five miles in circles in my driveway in a blizzard just so I could make sure I got my training time for the day . . . I had a good time,” Halpin said, with a laugh.

Blazing new trails

Halpin is also passionate about establishing new trails. She loves studying topographical maps to see if she can find an uncharted link between peaks, especially one that allows runners to experience a stunning part of nature. Halpin runs the route and then submits her time to fastestknowntime.com. Multiple people have run the five routes she has established—the best form of validation, Halpin said.

“If you’re going to put up a new route, you want them to be routes that people want to repeat,” she said. “There should be a reason for them—not just some super-contrived, spaghetti bowl of running around different trails. You want to do something beautiful.”

Kelly Halpin typically runs her races unsupported, which means she is completely alone without a guide, someone to carry food and water or anyone to help her stay on pace. (Courtesy photo from Tristan Greszko) 

Creating something beautiful with nature lends itself to her other full-time job: illustrator.

Halpin split her childhood between private school on the East Coast and her grandparents’ Lost Creek Ranch in Jackson Hole, where she enjoyed riding horses, biking and rock climbing. At the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, she studied film and became interested in a career as an illustrator. 

Today, Halpin creates  editorial illustrations for newspapers and magazines, and she illustrates children’s books—including three of her own. Halpin has written “Silas and the Last Forest,” a look at a future where no one goes outside; a children’s guidebook to the mammals of greater Yellowstone; and an upcoming guidebook about birds.

“All of my artwork is nature-based; it always has some kind of natural element to it,” she said. “I really truly believe people are a part of nature. We’re part of the ecosystem.”

Halpin’s long-term goal is to continue to establish new routes and explore wild places. And she is determined to always follow the advice of a friend: run happy.

“If you’re not psyched to be out there, you shouldn’t be out there,” Halpin said. “You should be grateful for every single step you take out there….It’s incredible that we still have access to wildness settings and get to be awed by nature and humbled by it.” 

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