Beginning at the north end of Kendall Valley in Sublette County, Wyoming, the Drift 100 is a winter endurance race where competitors have 48 hours to run, bike or ski through a loop in the Wind River Mountains.
Held on the second weekend in March, the course follows a groomed snowmobile trail and traverses the Continental Divide. The course gains 9,000 feet in elevation and is the highest winter ultramarathon in the United States.
Among the hundreds of grueling endurance events held around the world, this one is no picnic.
Competitors told Cowboy State Daily that it’s a race they never forget and that real-world preparation and mental focus are critical.
Being fearless doesn’t hurt either.
Ginny Robbins, an endurance athlete from Victor, Idaho, said the way to complete the Drift 100 without turning into a popsicle is to keep your head in the race and don’t stop.
Robbins is the current women’s record holder in the runner category. She set that record in 2021 at 30 hours and 43 minutes. She has also done the race on skis and plans to compete on a fat bike next March to become the first racer to complete the Drift 100 by all three means of transportation.
Justin Kinner, an endurance athlete from Casper, said he wouldn’t go to the starting line of any race without being prepared to “put myself in the pain cave and dig out a new room.”
He remembers long hours of solitude without seeing another living thing and fighting through soft snow on Union Pass, making less than 2 miles an hour.
Kinner won the race in 2020 and established the men’s record, covering the course on foot in 29 hours, 36 minutes. That’s under 18 minutes per mile average over the 100 miles.
The Drift 100 gets its name from the Green River Drift, a 58-mile-long cattle drive that has followed the same path since the 1890s. The endurance race travels some of the same trails used by the cattle that move from private ranches onto the public land grazing pastures of the Wind River Range every spring and fall.
Signs along the trail encourage racers to “Keep Moooving.”
What's The Allure?
It takes a special sort of fortitude to face the prospects of a 100-mile-long sub-zero slog down a snowmobile trail with a pocket full of gummy bears, a water bottle that’ll probably be frozen before its consumed, a sleeping bag, tent and few other safety related sundries.
Being comfortable isn’t part of the Drift 100.
Robbins said when she trains, which is generally at least a 5-mile run in the morning and something equally as challenging in the afternoon, her mind wanders. But during a race like the Drift 100, the focus has to be on taking care of herself.
“The crazy thing that happens when I set out on a 100-mile race is my body naturally regulates itself,” she said. “When I go out for a 10-mile run, I’m a sweaty mess when I get home. But when I start out on a race like the Drift, I know how to do all of the things like avoiding overheating to avoid having a bad race. It’s more about self-care than fitness level.”
She said part of what makes this race an endearing winter adventure is that it allows racers to be vulnerable in a wild place.
“The beauty of the Drift is there are people there keeping an eye on you, and that’s why I choose that event,” she said. “It’s a structured environment where you can push yourself.”
Practice How You Play
Kinner spent time training on Casper Mountain snowmobile trails in preparation for his record-setting run in the Drift 100. He went out alone during winter storms and at all different times of the day.
“I prepared by going out and putting myself in situations where I was alone for a long time, and I used all of my gear so that I was prepared for anything,” he said. “Putting myself in those training situations was pivotal for me.”
He didn’t know he was in the lead until he reached the halfway point and a volunteer told him. He’s not sure if he will run the race again. If someone beats his time it might trigger his interest.
Kinner has completed about a dozen ultramarathons. When he starts a race, he has no intention of stopping until he reaches the finish line.
“It’s always in the back of my mind that I can stop, pull out my sleeping bag and rest, but when you stop, the clock keeps going,” he said.
Drift 100 Racers Faced The Wrath Of Winter 2023
Racers were greeted with blizzard conditions at the start of this year’s race. The high winds, snow and subzero temperatures lasted throughout the first day of the race and exacted a heavy toll on the field. Many of them made it to the Strawberry Aid Station at the 25-mile mark, dropped out of the race and hunkered down for the night.
Others camped along the course and continued the race when conditions improved. They recorded times that were well off the pace established in previous races.
The conditions were so horrible race organizers decided to wave the 48-hour time limit that racers are given to complete the 100-mile course.
Robbins said when the snow quit falling, the wind picked up. She heard numerous trees falling as she ran through the forest. In the open meadows, if she wouldn’t have had trekking poles the wind would have flattened her.
“It was probably the most challenging conditions that I can imagine,” she said.
Of the 46 competitors who started the race, 11 finished. Among the finishers were six bikers, two skiers and three runners. The inaugural Drift 100 race was held in 2020. In the first two years, more than 70% of those who started finished. In 2022, 44% finished the race.
Finish times this year were well off the pace established during previous races. The 2023 overall winner, Seth Harney of Colorado, finished on a fat bike with a time of 31 hours and 24 minutes. The four previous overall winners completed the course in under 19 hours.
Mitch Helling of Laramie, who won the 2022 race on skis with a time of 21 hours and 36 minutes, needed more than 14 hours longer than that previous winning time to complete the course in 2023.
Among the runners, Ryan Bridger of West Palm Beach, Florida, recorded the best time in 2023 at 51 hours and 48 minutes. The female winner on foot was Pam Reed of Jackson with a time of 52 hours and 55 minutes, 13 hours slower than her personal best.
Racers who drop out and can’t return to the start line under their own power are charged a $200 fee for a snowmobile ride out. All racers are required to carry a beacon that records their position, a sleeping bag, tent, goggles and other safety gear. Some competitors wear backpacks while others tow sleds that are useful on the downhill sections of the trail.
A Feat of Organization
Both of the racers interviewed for this story heaped compliments on the race organizers and the dozens of volunteers for the time spent in keeping the course open and racers safe. Kinner said it’s unique that a winter race like this is supported by volunteers in such a remote place.
Keri Hull, her husband Darren and their friends Josh and Laura Hattan are the founders of the the Drift 100. The Hulls competed in several similar events when they lived in Alaska before moving to Pinedale.
“When we learned about the network of groomed snowmobile trails that are here, we thought why not have a race?” Keri said.
They limit the number of racers to 70 each year and they also mark out courses for a 28-mile race and a 13-mile race for competitors who don’t want to tackle a 100-miler.
Some people fly in from Europe and other countries to compete, but most of the competitors come from Wyoming and its neighboring states. For the 2024 event, there are racers from 16 states and Canada registered so far.
Hull said about 40 volunteers put in a collective 800 hours setting up the course, maintaining the course and taking care of racers who run into problems. The factors the knock most racers out are altitude sickness and dehydration.
John Thompson can be reached at: John@CowboyStateDaily.com