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Wind, snow, cold and wolves: This year’s 103-mile endurance in the Wind Rivers was extra ‘brutal’

Person drives fat bike over the snow
Courtesy of The Drift
‘The Drift’ is a 103-mile race through the Wind River Range that tests people’s mental and physical abilities.

One of the hardest endurance adventure races in the lower 48 is right here in Wyoming, in the Wind River Mountains. Due to an extreme winter storm, this year was the hardest version of the race to date.

It is called ‘The Drift.’ People have 48 hours to complete the 103-mile course, either running, skiing or fat biking on snow.

“The joke you always hear is people say, ‘Well, I don't even like to drive that far,’” said Darren Hull, the race co-founder.

Racers have to be self-sufficient, meaning they carry about 40 pounds of supplies to survive, either on their back or on a sled. The trail meanders at elevations as high as 10,000 feet in the Wind Rivers, through massive amounts of snow, 40-mile-an-hour winds and sub-zero temperatures.

“And, the wolves usually show up at some point,” Hull said.

He added that the sheer remoteness of the race makes it unique.

Man snowshoeing
Courtesy of The Drift
Roberto Marron of Saint Paul, Minnesota moves along through the course.

“We've had what we call the drift cough, and so breathing has been an issue for some people,” Hull said. “Which is always scary when you're 40 miles from the road, which is another 40 miles from a clinic, which is an hour and a half away from a hospital. So you're a long way from definitive care if things go sideways.”

This is the fourth year of the 103-mile race, and this year, things were different. A massive storm dumped buckets of snow and the winds drifted it several feet high, making for the toughest course in The Drift’s history.

Keeping warm in the lodge.

The finish line is near a cozy, log lodge, where volunteers and families can wait inside.

Through the course of the race, volunteers monitor racers constantly through a GPS system to make sure they are still moving.

Kelsey Lowney (left) and Keri Hull (right) monitor racers via a GPS tracking system.
Caitlin Tan
/
Wyoming Public Media
Kelsey Lowney (left) and Keri Hull (right) monitor racers via a GPS tracking system.

“The conditions have been really, really crappy,” said volunteer Kelsey Lowney. “We normally have at least four or five racers who have already crossed the finish line, and we don't have any yet.”

At that point, it was 26 hours into the race and while the sun was finally shining, no one was even close to the finish line. In fact, quite a few people called it quits. Race Director Keri Hull said she gets it. It is hard to stay mentally motivated if one is only a few miles in, and it is already white out conditions.

“You're pretty exposed and you're getting hammered in the face with snow,” she said. “You're like, ‘Okay, I've got 100 more miles of this now.’”

Hull and the volunteers started collecting the GPS trackers from racers who had dropped out.

“How are you feeling Sam? What happened, I thought you had it this year?” said Hull to foot racer Sam Konowitch of Wells, Nevada.

A view of the northern end of the Wind River Range, which is where The Drift course is routed.
Caitlin Tan
/
Wyoming Public Media
A view of the northern end of the Wind River Range, which is where The Drift course is routed.

“Yeah. I was pushing hard and then I fell into a drift,” Konowitch replied. “It was a complete white out, and so I fell in up to my hips there off the side.”

Now, no one has ever died during the race, but people do suffer. A lot. Snowmobilers patrol the course and will pick racers up who cannot finish, but there is a cost of $200 that goes back to volunteer groups and the local search and rescue.

The aid station social hour. 

Several racers on foot were at one of the four aid stations, waiting for a snowmobile ride back. They were from Mississippi and Alabama and only had a day to acclimate to the race’s peak elevation of 10,000 feet, compared to their normal 200 feet elevation back home.

Preston Bush was still surprisingly upbeat. With a big smile on his face, he said the race this year was, “brutal, miserable. We were here last year and we finished last year. And then we came back to do it again this year and we made it to mile 50.”

Bush laughed and said the group’s main thoughts for those 50 miles were, “How much we hate this. Why are we doing this?”

Jacob Hora (left) and Mitch Helling (right) prepare to finish off the last leg of the race.
Caitlin Tan
/
Wyoming Public Media
Jacob Hora (left) and Mitch Helling (right) prepare to finish off the last leg of the race.

Two other racers, Mitch Helling of Laramie and Jacob Hora of Victor, Idaho were warming up in the aid station, drinking coffee. They were not about to give up, even though they said they had pushed their fat bikes for about half of the race due to the soft, deep snow.

“We've been up for like 30 something hours,” Hora said. “No sleep,”

“A couple of naps,” Helling added.

And you could tell. They looked bedraggled and had red eyes, but still incredibly fit. They still had 20 miles to go and were deep in the mountains.

“Tell people to race The Drift. It's fun!” Helling said with a laugh.

Crossing the finish line ten hours later. 

Back at the finish line people cheered on Ginny Robbins of Victor, Idaho. Robbins glided through on skis into second place, still looking quite strong. She is the first woman to ever complete The Drift on skis.

“Good job!” Keri Hull, race director, said with excitement.

Ginny Robbins is the first woman to finish the 103 miles of The Drift on skis. She came in second place overall this year.
Courtesy of The Drift
/
Ginny Robbins is the first woman to finish the 103 miles of The Drift on skis. She came in second place overall this year.

Robbins let out an exhausted, but satisfying sigh. She finished in 32 hours and 19 minutes. The first place finisher, Seth Harney of Buena Vista, Colorado, finished the race on his fat bike in 31 hours and 24 minutes. This was about 10 hours later than the top finisher last year – signifying just how hard the conditions were to compete in.

Only 11 out of the 49 racers finished The Drift this year, and the cut-off time for the race was even pushed back by eight hours because of the extreme weather.

“This is our worst finish rate, but this also represents good decision making,” Keri Hull said.

The Drift is undoubtedly a test of mental and physical fortitude, as well as backcountry survival skills. Darren Hull, the race co-founder, said the only way to make it through something like The Drift? “Cookies and warm thoughts, I guess!”

Racers will take on The Drift again next year in March. The race not only includes the 103-mile option, but a 28 and 13-mile course too.

Caitlin Tan is the Energy and Natural Resources reporter based in Sublette County, Wyoming. Since graduating from the University of Wyoming in 2017, she’s reported on salmon in Alaska, folkways in Appalachia and helped produce 'All Things Considered' in Washington D.C. She formerly co-hosted the podcast ‘Inside Appalachia.' You can typically find her outside in the mountains with her two dogs.
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