Article: Kelly Halpin: The Beauty of Mental Toughness

By Buzz Burrell on Mon, 01/11/2021 - 09:30am
Kelly Halpin WRHR FKTOY

(Courtney Holden is a journalist who wrote this piece, and who once each month will profile the six female Fastest Known Time Of the Year award winners!  These are terrific, person-person conversations with all six women, each of whom will provide their own unique perspective for the rest of us to learn from.  Thank you Courtney, and for Part One this month, thank you Kelly!) 


Kelly Halpin’s FKTs make it clear: She goes big, she goes hard, and she goes solo. Here, the Jackson, WY-based athlete shares tips for developing mental toughness (Spoiler alert: Be prepared to put in some time), and explains why she’s passionate about getting others outside.

Q: You’ve achieved an impressive 11 FKTs. Tell us why you’re passionate about the push.

A: I really like to be in the wilderness. That’s it. I’m happy out there. I feel like I’m at home, especially on those solo, unsupported attempts. I like the realness of it: The consequences are real; the experience is real. I am completely depending upon myself in that environment.

You typically tackle multi-day efforts on gnarly trails, often with a little Class 5 action to further spice things up—and you do it unsupported. (Voters selected Kelly’s Wind River High Route as their #1 FKTOY; she described it personally on the Fastest Known podcast). The mental toughness needed to do that is off the charts. What’s your secret?

I grew up in Jackson, able to explore the wilderness, either by myself or with my little sister. My parents made sure we knew how to use a knife and start fires, but from a really early age, we were able to be “free range.” I was allowed to ride my horse in the wilderness alone and be gone all day. I remember one time when my horse threw me off and I was 8 miles from the ranch. I just had to deal with it and walk back. It’s the same mentality when I’m out trying to do a big FKT push. There is no option to bail or turn around. If you want to get home, you have to finish.

How would you recommend the rest of us mortals build up our mental toughness?

You need to start small and work your way up. Go out and run or hike for 8 hours and then 10 hours and then 24 hours. I learned all I did by doing things in increments: what to eat, what to drink, and what to wear for efforts of different lengths and terrain. You learn all that through experience. So many people these days want shortcuts, but you don't get the knowledge if you take shortcuts.

Kelly Halpin WRHR FKTOY

What else have you done to be prepared for worst-case scenarios in the wild?

I’ve supplemented my experience with Wilderness First Responder courses and climbing courses, which have provided some basic tools if I get into trouble. Everything that I carry in my running vest can be used as something else in an emergency situation: the reservoir straw can be used as a tourniquet; the plastic bag I use to carry ibuprofen could cover a wound; toilet paper and napkins can be used to start a fire or for basic first aid; and I cannot emphasize enough the importance of duct tape, which can fix so many things! It’s also important to understand really basic navigation skills and to know how landscapes (especially rivers, lakes, and snowfields) all work together. Then you can find water. If you can navigate outdoors, you will understand where you are. It’s all a foundation for confidence.

How do FKTs dovetail with your “day job” as an artist?

Nature really inspires me. I love finding the last remnants of pure wilderness that are left. With FKT attempts specifically, I tend to have these really cool, euphoric, slightly delusional experiences when I’m really sleep-deprived. That plays into it too.

Haha! Thanks for the honesty! You’ve written that you use your artwork and your adventures to encourage others to get outside. Why?

In the last 200 years, we’ve moved extremely far away from nature at an incredibly rapid pace, and I don’t think that’s healthy. A lot of behavioral, dietary, and societal problems have to do with the fact that we’ve gotten away from nature and forgotten that we’re a part of the earth, not that the earth belongs to us. I think the only way to reverse that is to educate people, especially children. My book Silas and the Last Forest is an attempt to inspire kids to get back outside. People really need to be connected to nature in some way, whether that’s having an urban garden, taking time to visit your local park, or, if you live in a really beautiful place like Jackson, doing your part to educate people.

(And another way to connect with the wilderness: lace up your shoes, walk out the door, and have a go on the FKT route closest to you :-)

Kelly Halpin WRHR FKTOY