Catching Up With Hayden Hawks

Hayden Hawks is putting the finishing touches on his 2021 Western States 100 training via winning the Bryce Canyon Ultras 50k last weekend. In this interview, Hayden talks about why he’s giving 100 miles another try, how he’s specifically preparing for the demands of Western States, and how he’s still searching for the kinds of races he enjoys most in our sport.

Catching Up With Hayden Hawks Interview Transcript

iRunFar: Meghan Hicks of iRunFar. I’m with Hayden Hawks. It’s a couple of days after his win of the Bryce Canyon Ultras 50k. Hey, Hayden, congratulations.

Hayden Hawks: Thank you. It’s good to talk with you again. It’s been a while.

iRunFar: The pandemic has broken down the traditional meetups that we have around the world.

Hawks: Yeah, for sure. I definitely miss it, but I think things are somewhat getting back to normal, and so hopefully we’ll be able to resume and be able to see you guys more often.

iRunFar: I can’t tell you how much I’m looking forward to that.

Hawks: Oh, me too.

iRunFar: You ran the Bryce Canyon Ultras 50k this weekend and set a course record as part of your lead-up to racing the Western States 100 in, what is it, three or four weekends’ time?

Hawks: About four weeks out.

iRunFar: This is a non-traditional way to start an interview, but I am dying to know why you picked Western States as your next target.

Hawks: Last year, I was supposed to run Western States. I got a Golden Ticket at the Black Canyon 100k, because I’d won it in February of 2020. And previously I had applied for the spot for the Ultra-Trail World Tour, and luckily they gave me an entry into Western States. Then I ran Black Canyon 100k and ended up getting a Golden Ticket there, but I gave that ticket to the third-place guy [since I already had entry to the race].

Western States has been the goal since 2019. Since I DNFed at UTMB in 2019, I’ve been dying to get back to running the 100-mile distance. I haven’t yet finished a 100-mile race and I’ve really wanted to put my stamp on that and finish one. But also Western States has been a goal race for years. Since I started doing ultramarathons, Western States has always been a race that I’ve wanted to line up at.

iRunFar: What is fun for me to watch in your running career is that you put yourself out there. You try a lot of different things, not necessarily in your known wheelhouse. And sometimes it goes, sometimes it’s a learning experience for the next time, and sometimes you say, “You know what, maybe that’s not my thing.”

Hawks: You’re never going to know what you love until you’ve tried it. So I’ve wanted to put my foot in every distance, every type of race, and see what I love to do and what inspires me. I’m still pretty young in the sport and I’m really driven to train and compete in all the biggest races in the world. But I really don’t know 100% what I love to do yet. That’s why I put myself in those races, because I’m like, “Do I love the mountain races? Or do I love the more runnable races?”

I’m really excited to line up at Western States because it’s a different race than I’ve done before. I’ve done a lot of runnable races, and done well at them, but I’ve never done it over 100 miles. That’s where there’s an intrigue with Western States, because it’s something different.

iRunFar: I admire that quality in you, that desire to stick your foot in a place you haven’t tried before and see if it sticks or not. That’s fun.

Hawks: You learn more from the bad races than the good races is what I’ve seen. I’ve learned how to adapt my training, I’ve learned what type of training I need to do to make sure I’m ready for the demands of these races. I would have never learned those things if I would’ve never gone out and failed at some of those, I guess.

iRunFar: Side note. It’s funny to hear you say that you’re fairly young in the sport because when I think of Hayden Hawks, I’m like, “Oh, he’s been around for so long now.”

Hawks: It’s only been a little over five years that I’ve been in the sport, which I guess it’s getting a little bit longer now. But five years is still pretty new. And I’m still learning things every day, every race. I feel like when I learn those things, I just get better. I’m really excited for the future because I’m only 30 years old, and I still have 10 or 15 years in this sport and that’s a lot of learning. That’s a lot of races and adventures to do.

iRunFar: Right on. Let’s backtrack to the pandemic. Most of the races around the world got canceled, but you managed to get to the starting line of a few, most notably the JFK 50 Mile. That turned out well for you [as you set a course record].

Hawks: Yeah, that one went well. I’ve never done a flat ultramarathon like that, where it was mostly runnable, where I was clipping off five, six minute miles consistently for 50 miles. When I saw that JFK was going to happen last year, I was like, “Well, this might be a good race to train for.” It’s a race that I’ve, of course, known about for years and I’ve wanted to do, but I’ve never been able to fit it into the schedule. Usually I’m in Europe during the fall racing. But when it opened up, I was like, “Hey, this is a great opportunity.”

I’ve been working a lot on speed during the pandemic, because I was training by myself mostly and wanted to develop speed. And I was like, “Okay, let’s line up and see how it goes.” Fortunately I had a really good day and it turned out to be a great performance for me.

iRunFar: Did you jump into that race last minute?

Hawks: Maybe a month out or so. I wasn’t sure if it was going to happen, and I really wasn’t sure if I should even do it, but when I decided, and I felt comfortable that it was going to be okay and some of the [COVID-19] precautions they were taking were going to be good, I was like, “Okay, let’s try it. I think it will be just fine.”

iRunFar: Did you have enough time to cater a couple specific workouts or long runs? Or was it like you said, your training during the pandemic just aligned well?

Hawks: I had a few specific workouts for that race. I’ve been focusing on that a lot, not just for JFK but for Western States training, and in a lot of the races I did last year.

After I DNFed UTMB in 2019, I realized that I didn’t train properly for UTMB. I was going out and running miles and just getting vert just to get vert, or running with not even thinking about why I was doing certain things. I just was running. I learned that in ultramarathon, it’s so important to meet the demands of every single race.

After UTMB, I sat down and I said, “Okay, well, what races do I want to do?” I wrote that race down, and then underneath each race, I wrote down the demands of each one of those races, and I said, “For this race, I need to be ready for heat, for this race I need to get vert, for this race I need to do this.” And then I started training for demands instead of just training for no reason. I started putting blocks together, “Okay, this specific workout is going to prepare me for this specific part of the race, or this is when I’m going to do my heat training, this is when I’m going to do this.” As I’ve been able to focus more on meeting the demands of races, I’ve done well in the races because I’m prepared for everything that could be thrown at me in that race.

Before JFK, I did some specific workouts. But luckily I had a good base before I actually signed up for the race of speed. After I ran Squaw Peak 50 Mile and Speedgoat 50k last summer here in Utah, I decided I was going to do a more of a speed phase during the fall and develop some speed back after a mountain summer. So I had a good base of speed. And then I was able to do the specific workouts that four to six weeks before, and be ready for the demands of JFK.

iRunFar: There are some great nuggets in what you said for any runner out there: being able to, at the same time, look at the specifics of your training, but then also to zoom out and look from the 20,000-foot perspective. That’s a difficult thing, to see both perspectives.

Hawks: Every race has different demands. UTMB has completely different demands than Western States does. What I do is, I set that goal now of the race I want to do, and then I work back from that race and I set my training plan up to where every run has a goal. Even my easy days, there’s a goal in those easy days. Or I’ll pick a certain route on my easy days that I know is going to strengthen me in some area for that specific race that I’m training for. That’s been a key element to my training recently, “All right, I have a workout schedule. Well, maybe I should do this workout on the same type of terrain that I’m going to be racing on.” That way, my muscles are ready for the specific demands of that and I’m able to run fast on technical terrain or whatever it is.

It helps me meet every demand and that way. A lot of times, when you’re running a race, especially 100 miles, things are thrown at you that you don’t really see coming and you have to adapt or you have to troubleshoot right on the spot to try to get through those things. But if you do those things in training the best that you can, you’ll be prepared for when those things come. You’ll know how to troubleshoot, you’ll know how to adapt, and you won’t freak out mentally or physically.

iRunFar: That’s a good dovetail to talking about Western States. You said in the beginning of the interview, you want to get this 100-mile thing down. You gave it a shot one time and now you’re back to try it again. What are some of the lessons that you took away from that first experience that you are applying to preparing for Western?

Hawks: Yeah, I mean, for sure what I talked about with the training, of course, and doing that, but I think the other thing is to respect it. I think I’ve gone through my career, especially at a young age in my career, not respecting distances enough, not respecting races or mountains or competitors enough. I just kind of had this blind confidence, which could be a good thing sometimes, but as I’ve matured as a runner, I’ve become more respectful of each race and being like, “I need to respect the hundred mile distance, I need to make sure I’m properly trained for it, but also I need to make sure that I go into there with some humility.” I think it’s good to have confidence, but you need to have kind of humble confidence, if that makes sense. You need to…

iRunFar: A balance.

Hawks: A balance, exactly. You need to have a balance. To be honest with you, I didn’t respect UTMB. I thought it was going to be easy. I was like, “Oh yeah, I can do this. I won CCC. I should be able to win UTMB, it shouldn’t be a problem.” But I was totally wrong. That extra 40 miles is a big difference, and the competition level at UTMB is much higher. I mean, there’s a lot of things that you need to respect and you need to make sure that you’re prepared for, and I just wasn’t prepared properly.

So I’m giving the utmost respect to Western States, knowing that it’s going to be hard. I need to be prepared to suffer. I need to be prepared to have hard times. I need to be confident, but humble at the same time.

And first, I need to focus on finishing. Yeah, I love winning races, and I believe I can win races, I really do. I have confidence that I can win, and I have won, but I need to focus on what’s most important first. And what’s most important is to finish that race and to go out there and have a race that I’m proud of. And if that means I don’t win, that’s okay with me, but I hope I do win, and I think that if I put things together and I train properly and I do the little things and I stay humble through the process, I think I can win But I’m not focused on that, if that makes sense.

iRunFar: Totally. It’s refreshing to hear your take on the 100-mile distance being its own animal and yeah. I also like the idea of personally reflecting on that balance of humility and confidence.

Hawks: In the past, I went into a lot of longer distances, 100ks and UTMB and TDS and stuff like that, that I struggled with, training like a 50k or an 80k runner. But I’m learning that 100-mile training’s definitely different, and sometimes you got to get out of your comfort zone to switch your training up and do things that are maybe uncomfortable so you can be properly prepared to tackle that distance.

iRunFar: This is making me pretty excited for that Saturday in June three-and-a-half weeks from now. Congratulations on your win at the Bryce Canyon Ultras 50k over the weekend and good luck with the last bit of sharpening and getting ready for Western.

Hawks: Yeah, I’m excited. This will be my last big week and then I’ll have a moderate week and then a couple-week taper. I’m just making sure to prepare now for the heat is, and luckily I have St. George, [Utah] which is already up to 100 degrees Fahrenheit right now. I’ll be definitely prepared on the starting line at Western States.

iRunFar: Yeah. Down there in Southern Utah, you’re in perfect training grounds that aren’t the Western States course right now.

Hawks: Yeah. It’s not a bad place to live and train, for sure. And I’m really excited about the race. It’ll just be fun to be out there with everyone again, and to be able to have an amazing field to line up against. And I’m just really excited to finally tackle the 100-mile distance again and feel like it’s going to be a good day, as long as I prepare myself properly, which I feel like I have.

iRunFar: Right on. Well, we look forward to seeing you in a couple of weeks. Thanks, Hayden.

Hawks: Thank you.

Meghan Hicks

is the Managing Editor of iRunFar and the author of 'Where the Road Ends: A Guide to Trail Running.' The converted road runner finished her first trail ultramarathon in 2006 and loves using running to visit the world's wildest places.