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Kelly Halpin

This trail runner and climber is quietly putting up impressive fastest known times (FKTs) in the Tetons and Wasatch. Learn what pushes her to climb peaks at record pace.

Just after 10 p.m. on September 6, Kelly Halpin and her partner Fred Most were feeling their way through thick, dark fog on top of Mount Glory on Teton Pass. It was hour 43 of a 70-mile traverse through the Teton Range and just a few hundred yards stood between the exhausted team and their car. Lost in familiar terrain, Halpin and Most finally staggered back to their vehicle a half hour later, setting a bold new route on what they dubbed the Teton Center Punch. Not only is the Center Punch a challenging endurance feat for a trail runner, but it also includes long sections of technical class 5 climbing, ascending over 22,000 feet of vertical gain while going up and over 16 summits along the spine of the Teton Range.

The summer of 2019 was big for Halpin. All told, the Jackson native nabbed four fastest known times (FKTs) in the Tetons and Wasatch. In July and August, she knocked out a sub 24-hour time on the Wasatch Ultimate Ridge Linkup (W.U.R.L.) as well as setting a record female time of 9:11 on the Teton Crest Trail. For a range that sees over 3 million visitors a year, an FKT (or entirely new route like the Punch) isn’t exactly an easy feat. The La Sportiva athlete took the time to walk us through what it’s like to carve out a new route through the center of the mountain range closest to her heart.

Where did the inspiration come from to try to run a new route on the Teton Center Punch?

I love to do these big ridge linkups because I think it’s one of the coolest ways to see a mountain range from as high up as possible. I always wondered why the Teton Crest Trail ends where it does because it’s only the southern half of the range. I kept thinking, what about the rest of it? So a year or two ago, I started looking at maps to figure out how to link up the whole range. I found a few established routes but nothing that went all the way through. Eventually, I noticed the spine behind the center of the range. It’s super aesthetic and draws almost a perfect line through the whole thing, following the hydrographic divide.

What’s it like to look across at a mountain range as far as you can see and know that you have all that ground to cover?

It’s really daunting. But it’s also really empowering because I know I can do it. I know my body can take me from A to B and I just need to figure out the way there. I’ve spent years building up to this and it’s cool to see the accumulation of everything I’ve learned and trained for propelling me through the mountains. It’s also really motivating to be creating your own route and discovering what’s around each corner. The first half of the traverse is so raw and remote and that feeling of exploration is really powerful on it.

When it gets hard, what do you tell yourself to keep going forward?

My normal answer is that I know I can finish it, so I should. But I also do a lot of compartmentalizing. If I’m really struggling, I tell myself just to get to the next peak, because you can always do that. Then I get there and tell myself all I need to do is get to the next one. Then, at some point, I realize how close I am to finishing. Breaking it into smaller chunks makes it easier to digest and less daunting to look across a mountain range and know you have to run across it.

How do you decompress and recover from a huge push like the Punch?

Physically, it usually takes about two weeks to recover but I struggle with it emotionally quite a bit more. They call it the post-race blues when after you’ve done something big you get a little depressed. Chemically, you’ve just shot out a ton of endorphins so you have to recover from that. But I spent my whole summer building up to this big goal, and now I did it, so it’s kind of like well, now what? Emotionally I think it took me longer to recover than I thought it would and people don’t talk quite as much about that part of it.

What draws you to setting fastest known times and pushing your limits on new routes?

I’m so fascinated and curious by what my body can do. I keep wondering how much farther I can go, or how much faster. With the W.U.R.L, I keep going back every year to try and do it faster because I know I can, and I always think back on scenarios that I could get through quicker. It’s as much a competition with myself as anything else.

Growing up in the Tetons, how has  your view of the mountains in your backyard changed over time?

Everything feels so much more accessible. When I was little, they were just these huge fortresses. I’d think, how can I get in there? It’s amazing to watch yourself progress and climb something or link something together that used to seem so big and impossible.

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