Family Man: An Interview with Hayden Hawks

Our lives are full of sliding-doors moments. Hayden Hawks has had a few. When the 15-year-old American was cut from his high-school baseball team, it hurt him badly. He loved baseball. “I got cut for being too small,” says the now-five-foot-10-inch Utahan. “I was. But I didn’t think so at the time! I was really upset.”

To help console him, a runner friend convinced Hayden to try cross country with him. “I was reluctant, but I went to practice. I pushed it with the lead group. I was too hard-headed to hold back. I pushed as hard as I could, but I definitely was not in shape for that. I threw up all over the place.”

The coach saw something in him. “Maybe it was my work ethic or that I actually had some raw talent. He encouraged me to come back. I thought he was crazy, but my parents encouraged me too, helping me to overcome the anger of being cut from the baseball team. I went back the next day.”

In his junior year of high school, Hayden started to win races. “I won a regional meet and qualified for the state championships. Ideas of [college] scholarships and of running full time started to grow, as did my love of the sport. I started getting out on the trails more and doing a lot more mileage.”

Hayden Hawks running cross country in 2008 as a high-school senior. All photos courtesy of Hayden Hawks unless otherwise noted.

In 2009, Hayden won two high-school state championships in track and field, at 1,600 meters and 3,200 meters. “I was the fastest runner in Utah. I had probably 10 universities wanting to sign me. I was one of the fastest runners in the U.S.” He ultimately decided to go to a close-to-home college, Southern Utah University in Cedar City, Utah, but one with a successful NCAA Division I running program.

During his junior year of college, in 2015, Hayden recorded his 5k PR of 13:51 and 10k PR of 28:53. In his senior year of college, he earned Division I All-American status in cross country, an honor given to the top-40 finishers at nationals. At the end of his collegiate running career, he faced a dilemma many runners of his caliber experience, to go ‘pro’ or not. The reality was, Hayden wasn’t quite national-champion quality.

“I was like top 15 in the nation. Really you have to be top five in the nation to sign a pro contract with a sports brand. I kinda’ knew I wasn’t going to get that opportunity.” But he loved running and wanted to keep doing it. “I made contact with post-collegiate development groups in Flagstaff[, Arizona] and Boulder[, Colorado]. I thought, Well, maybe I’ll work my way up and become a professional road runner.”

Hayden (at left) running cross country for Southern Utah University as a college senior in 2015.

At Colorado’s Hudson Elite training group, Hayden hit it off with runner Matt Daniels, who just won February’s Black Canyons 100k, a Western States 100 Golden Ticket race. It was another sliding-doors moment. “We talked a lot about running and our love for it. Matt was running marathon, but like me wasn’t really enjoying it. We were both kinda’ burnt out. I didn’t know if I wanted to get into the roads. We were on a trail run and were like, ‘Man, if we could make trail running a professional career, that would be the dream! We could both run in the mountains and continue to run at a high level and I turned to him and said, ‘Why not, man? Let’s do it. Let’s become trail runners!’”

They both signed up for the US Mountain Running Championships: Matt took third, Hayden fourth. They were then on the U.S. team for the 2016 World Mountain Running Championships in Bulgaria. “We both fell in love with trail and mountain running. It took Matt a little longer [to move over to trails], but we’re still really good friends and that friendship helped us both get into trail running.”

At the 2016 US Mountain Running Championships in New Hampshire are (l-to-r) Andy Wacker, Hayden, Matt Daniels, and Brett Hales.

Hayden placed fourth at the World Mountain Running Championships, helping USA to team gold–the country’s first. But before that came the Speedgoat 50k. While volunteer high-school coaching in Utah, Hayden met Bryce Thatcher, a long-time mountain athlete and founder of UltrAspire. “He encouraged me to sign up for Speedgoat–he runs it every year. I didn’t feel ready for 50k. I messaged him two days before the race to say good luck and he still tried to convince me to join him. The next morning I woke up with this feeling…. I needed to do the race. “

He called Bryce, who talked to race director Karl Meltzer. He also needed his wife Ashley to take his shift at the running store where they both worked. Hayden promised her he’d win, and come back with the prize money, if she covered his back.

“I knew nothing about nutrition!” he says. “[GU Energy employee, Olympic marathon runner, and Western States winner] Magda Boulet gave me some gels and told me to take some every 30 minutes. I just took off. I was running next to [experienced ultramarathon speedsters] Chris Vargo and Alex Nichols, but I didn’t know who they were. I was so dead, so tired in the last 5k. I flew out of the gate and ended up winning the race. I was like, ‘How the heck did that happen?!’ I had so much fun.”

The bug had bitten. The next day Hayden was watching ultramarathon videos online, including Billy Yang’s film about Zach Miller, Tim Tollefson, and David Laney at the 2015 UTMB. Within a week he’d signed up for the The North Face Endurance Challenge 50 Mile Championships (TNF 50). Potential sponsors were contacting him. “People will pay me to be an ultrarunner? That’s amazing.”

“I had no clue what I was doing, running a 50 miler. But I honestly had no fear. I’d just won one of the hardest 50ks in North America. I had so much confidence from that win.”

Hayden placed second at a super-competitive 2016 TNF 50. “I felt fit, I felt amazing, I felt confident, I was coming off a high from the [mountain-running] world championships. I knew it was a runnable course and I had speed. I knew Zach liked to go out hard, and I liked to go out hard. I thought, Let’s give people a show. The concept of 50 miles was overwhelming, but I knew it would take maybe five to six hours. I was new, I was naive. I pushed the pace and ended up second–I was a little bit mad to be second! I was happy with it, but I was kinda’ unhappy, too.”

A memorable video of him racing hard with Zach Miller there made by Jamil Coury went viral.

“I come from a pretty small town in Utah. I love spending time in the mountains and fishing and running and doing these things. I’m not into the whole big-city-type atmosphere and tons of people and hyped-up stuff. It was really awkward at first. But I learned that I had to do that if I wanted to stay in the sport and build my brand. That’s part of the whole process.”

Two and half years on, the 28-year-old seems level headed. “I’ve gotten used to it. But at the end of the day I’m a father and a husband. I’m not a celebrity. I’m Hayden Hawks from St. George, Utah and that’s who I’ll always be. But I’ve come to accept it because I feel like I’m helping people. People send me messages and ask for advice or say my [social-media] posts helped them. I’m able to inspire and help people–lose weight or get fit or run their first ultra–and that’s what means the most to me. I think that’s what we’re here on this Earth for, to help and serve people and if running helps me do that then that’s awesome.”

Winning the 2017 CCC. Photo: Jan Nyka Photography

The 2017 Chuckanut 50k, a race where top U.S. and Canadian runners showcase early season form, again saw Hayden duking it out head-to-head for the win, this time with notorious speedster Max King. While Hayden finished second again, the pair pushed each other so hard they both ran under King’s previous and stout course record.

After his sensational start in the sport, it was perhaps inevitable that 2017 would also bring some reality checks. “I ran the [48-mile] Zion Traverse FKT, then two weeks later the Transvulcania Ultramarathon [placing 71st], then two weeks later the Trail World Championships [finishing 69th]. I blew up in two big races. I was less than a year into ultrarunning and my body wasn’t adapted to recovering from hard, long efforts like that. It said no.”

It was a learning curve. “I learned I can’t run three ultramarathons in a month! I’ve always had this belief, but that belief sometimes gets me into trouble. I push myself to the limit, to the edge of the cliff. But one little push and I fall off. One little thing can get me injured, or be a blow-up in a race. The setbacks were really hard because they brought some doubt. Maybe you’re not an ultrarunner? Maybe you need to go back to the shorter stuff? Sometimes you have to go through hard things for good things to happen.”

And good things did happen. Hayden bounced back with a big international win at the competitive 2017 CCC, his biggest career win to date and with a course record to boot. About that race, he says, “That helped me regain the confidence I had started out with–it was an amazing experience.” He also won the 2018 Lavaredo Ultra Trail, beating Tim Tollefson and Pau Capell and cementing himself into the upper echelon of international ultrarunners.

His Steve Prefontaine-esque, eyeballs-out style of racing is compelling but also means boom or bust. Hayden also failed to finish 2018’s TDS and 2019’s Transgrancanaria. At his young age, with his undoubted athletic talent and self-belief, it’s clear more wins are ahead. Just last weekend, in fact, he returned to the Chuckanut 50k, this time taking the win.

Hayden taking third at the 2017 The North Face Endurance Challenge 50 Mile Championships in California, carrying his son, Crosby. Photo: iRunFar/Bryon Powell

Hayden is coached long-term by friend Nate Houle, the nephew of the renowned Eric Houle. “Eric was my head coach at Southern Utah University and Nate the assistant coach. I really connected with both and became really good friends with Nate. He got the head-coaching job at Idaho State University while I was in school. After college, I asked him if he would coach me post-college!”

Aside from ultrarunning, family is central for Hayden. He’s married to his college sweetheart, Ashley, and they have an 18-month-old son, Crosby. Ashley is also a runner. In fact, their first date was a run. Their second was a 5k race, which they both won and afterward were paraded through town. “It was a pretty memorable date!” Ashley’s worked hard at road marathons, but has recently also turned toward trails and placed sixth at her first ultra, last week’s Chuckanut 50k.

The same goes with Hayden’s younger brother Levi, who’s run a few ultras and is gunning for a Western States Golden Ticket at this month’s Georgia Death Race. Since Levi has crewed Hayden many times, big brother is keen to repay the favor. Hayden also feels inspired by his mom, a recreational marathon runner, who will also soon–you guessed it–start her first ultra.

His dad has never been a runner though. “He’s a service-oriented person, always helping neighbors–mowing lawns, cleaning people’s houses, and helping them get work. He installed a work ethic in me and a sense of service that we need to help other people.”

Hayden at the 2015 NCAA Division I Cross Country Championships in Kentucky with his dad, mom, and brother Levi.

Crosby too, seems to be taking after his parents. “I did a track workout yesterday and my wife and he came out to watch and he was running around on the infield, running back and forth, shouting, ‘Daddy, Daddy, Daddy!’ He just kept going, trying to chase me. He runs everywhere, loves being outdoors, and has a lot of energy.”

Hayden has another big weapon in his arsenal: religion. “Ashley and I both grew up in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; many people know that as Mormonism. We go to church every Sunday.”

From 2010 to 2012 and beginning at age 19, Hayden served a full-time mission, a common practice in the Mormon religion, in Alabama. “It was in the not-so-well-off areas, doing a lot of service-oriented work and sharing my religion with people, helping them come on to Jesus Christ. It helped me grow up.”

Especially when two tornados ripped through the region, killing about 300 people. “For the second one, I was in Birmingham and luckily we had a weather monitor in our house. It went off at 2 a.m. and we heard the sirens going off in the city. We grabbed our mattress and jumped in the bathtub and threw it on top of us. We didn’t sleep a lot that night, but woke up the next morning safe. For about a year, we helped with clean-up, helping people rebuild their houses, find jobs, and start new lives.”

Missions can be interpersonally challenging. At that time, the church allowed you only talk to your family twice a year. “I was out there by myself. In pretty rough neighborhoods. Our day would start at 6 a.m. and we’d follow a strict schedule. It was hard sometimes. There were points when I wanted to go home, or just sleep in. But I didn’t. I did what I was there to do. That really helped me know I could accomplish hard things in my life. I can run an ultramarathon because I’ve done hard things.”

He prays during races. “If I’m struggling, I’ll say a little prayer. It calms me down and gives me strength. It helps me find inner strength because I have this relationship with Jesus Christ.”

Does his seemingly unshakable self-belief come from his religion? “We are sons and daughters of God and our religion teaches that we should have confidence in ourselves and faith and belief and hope, and they’re all things I believe in. I have complete faith in myself that I can accomplish anything with the help of Jesus Christ.”

Hayden with his wife Ashley, and Ashley’s father, mother, and brother Erik in front of a Mormon Temple in California. Ashley’s brother passed away from cancer a short time later in early 2017.

While his faith has helped Hayden, he’s quick to credit other ultrarunners for being generous with advice too. “Tim Tollefson helped me at Lavaredo. ‘Keep eating, keep eating,’ he told me [when Tollefson passed him at 40k and Hayden wasn’t feeling well]. I was feeling really bad, but I kept eating and things turned around for me at 80k. I popped out of it and started passing everybody, including Tim–I tried to get him to run with me. That’s what’s so cool about this sport. Tim was trying to beat me, but he was giving me advice, too.”

Hayden also remembers Matt Daniels telling him that to love what he does. “Find what you really love and go after that. Don’t do things because people push you that way or you want recognition or whatever. Because if you don’t love what you’re doing you’re going to fall away from it, burn out, or have a bad life.”

This philosophy has led Hayden to a very recent decision. Despite being on the start list for a second year in a row, he says, “I don’t think I’m going to do UTMB this year. I just decided. I’m young, I’m only 28 years old. I love speed. I love hammering out workouts. And I hate hiking, more than anything. There’s a lot of hiking involved in these long races and I don’t want to hike. There are more runnable races like the Tarawera Ultramarathons and Western States where I can run the entire thing. And there are a lot of shorter races, 50ks and 50 milers. UTMB can wait. I have plenty of time.”

Could this be another sliding-doors moment? He’s now planning to run the 100-mile distance at this November’s Tunnel Hill 100 Mile. “I want to go after records.”

“I’ve found what I love to do: and that’s to run. To run fast.”

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

Have you raced with or watched Hayden Hawks race? Leave a comment to share your Hayden story.

Hayden, Ashley, and Crosby in the Canary Islands in January of 2019.