At her local bakery in Jackson, Wyoming, Kelly Hapin picked out two oversized chocolate-chip cookies. You know the ones I’m talking about … those irresistible cookies that are the size of your hand, outstretched like a seastar, the ones that weigh more than you ever imagined a cookie could weigh. Half of a giant chocolate-chip cookie is packed with much needed salt, carbs, and fat—exactly what Gnarly athlete Kelly Halpin treated herself to every 25 miles on the Wind River High Route.
Kelly’s athletic adventures are all about getting the Fastest Known Time (FKT). She plans routes over epic terrain, often following ridgelines, to formulate what she calls “adventure rallies.” These adventure rallies range in distance from marathon-length (26.2 miles) to 100 miles. The Wind River High Route, her longest race to date, was 100 miles, 65 of those being off-trail, with 30,000 feet of vertical gain. She finished in 59 hours, earning the FKT.
Kelly is no stranger to sending incredibly difficult routes, often doing so solo and unassisted. Those fleeting seconds of crossing a finish line and grabbing that prized FKT are the product of months, sometimes years, of preparation. In honor of Send-it September, we talked to Kelly about how she physically and mentally prepares for her adventure rallies, giving her the best chance to send.
“You can smash a whole bag of potato chips into a Ziplock bag, and they weigh basically nothing,” said Kelly while explaining her favorite food to pack on an adventure rally. Sending a huge route like the Wind River High Route or the Teton Center Punch unsupported means that Kelly has to pack everything she’ll need with her on her back. Food, water, a water filtration system, extra clothes and emergency gear all need to go in her backpack. Keeping the weight of this bag as low as possible is imperative to success, leading to a delicate balance of what makes it into the backpack. The nearly weightless potato chips always make it into Kelly’s bag, providing vital salt intake to replenish sodium.
The items that make it into Kelly’s backpack for her adventure rallies have been refined with the help of extensive note-taking. Kelly notes what gear she used, what worked and what won’t make the cut next time after every adventure. She also notes what food she ate and what was left untouched, smooshed at the bottom of the bag as she crossed the finish line.
Her socks and undergarments are always merino wool, and she prefers salty snacks over sweet. Chocolate chip cookies are an exception since they’re loaded with butter, fat, and salt, despite being categorized as a sweet treat. A bag of rice with soy sauce is another favorite, providing essential carbs and salt. Kelly’s food sources on these massive runs are calculated, going for 100-200 calories per hour. Multiply that by the estimated hours to complete, and she packs accordingly.
Unfortunately, Kelly has experienced rallies when she doesn’t have proper nutrition for fuel, but it hasn’t been for a lack of preparation. The day before her first attempt at an FKT on the Teton Crest Trail, Kelly cooked up rice drizzled with soy sauce and packed it up in a bag. When she left her car at the trailhead on race day, the rice and soy sauce stayed behind, having fallen out of her bag. She still got the FKT of 9 hours and 11 minutes, but she was nauseous and forced to go slower than she would have liked. “I lost my major salt source for that run, and the result was a pretty unhappy stomach.” She said her mental dialogue was something like: “Don’t puke! Don’t Puke! You can’t lose those calories!” The mantra worked and she finished with everything still inside of her. But Kelly’s eager to back and try again for a faster time with better nourishment. “I know that I can go back and do anything I’ve done, but better.”
Aside from food, Kelly’s pack includes some extra clothing layers and a small first-aid kit. Most of her mountainous routes have water sources along the way where she can fill up, saving her from carrying tons of weight in water supply. Her emergency supplies include a lighter, space blanket, ibuprofen, duct tape, a spot tracker, and something to use as a tourniquet. A soft headband serves Kelly’s purpose to keep sweat out of her eyes during the midday sun. Plus, it can turn into a beanie for cold nights and could be used for compression in an emergency.
Occasionally, Kelly runs in an organized race. But for the most part she prefers to run her own adventure rallies either on well-established trails or by making up her own. Planning a 100-mile route where 65 of those are on unmarked trails takes meticulous planning. Hovering over maps, staring at online maps, and scouting aerial views are a few of the ways Kelly marks out a new route. Going from concept to race day can take anywhere from a few weeks to a few years.
“It’s really fun when you look at routes years in advance and you anticipate it for so long and finally get to do it,” Kelly recalls about the Teton Center Punch, a route she came up with. “I spent years looking at maps, but I had no clue what it was really like, and it ended up being one of the most beautiful places in the entire world.” The 70-mile route follows a ridgeline that hits 16 summits, is 50 percent off-trail, and has 22,000 feet of vertical gain.
With a route mapped out, Kelly’s physical and mental preparation for a race of that magnitude starts almost two weeks beforehand. It starts with getting as much sleep as possible, drinking copious amounts of water and making sure she’s topped up on electrolytes. The day before, she packs her bag, does some stretching, and lounges around. That night, she watches something inspirational. “My favorite thing to watch is The Dawn Wall. It just gives me that extra umph.”
The day before is also a balance of managing emotions and the buildup of anticipation. “I end up banking all of this anxiety and excitement. And then I finally have this explosion when I start,” she said. “I finally calm down and focus once I begin.”
Kelly’s incredible resume of FKTs on unsupported and often solo adventure rallies is a testament to her intelligent planning. Her route scouting, formulaic packing, and pre-race day prep have become the perfect recipe for Kelly to send. Most of us will never attempt a 100-mile ridgeline route that takes 59 hours to complete, but we can support Kelly on her next adventure rally by devouring a massive chocolate-chip cookie for her—the biggest one you can find.