When Hayden Hawks, wearing a simple blue jersey from Utah’s Saint George Running Center, topped the 11,060-foot peak of the Speedgoat 50K in first place Saturday, hardly anyone knew who he was.
Even fewer people thought he would hold the lead he had established just 9.3 miles into the race. Not only is Speedgoat a notoriously difficult course – it runs over technical terrain in the mountains surrounding Utah’s Snowbird ski area, and features nearly 15,000 feet of elevation gain – but the race’s sizable prize purse meant he was being pursued by pro runners with big-name sponsors, all of whom had a lot more experience in trail ultras than he did.
“This was my first official 50K,” says Hawks, 25, of Saint George. “I’ve run the distance before, as a training run, but this was the first time I’ve raced it.”
Yet keep the lead he did, holding off a late-charging Alex Nichols (who was also runner-up at Speedgoat last year) to win one of the most competitive and difficult trail races in the country in 5:25:04.
“I didn’t really have a low point,” Hawks says.
Hawks says the hilly Speedgoat course played to his strengths. Photo by Alex Kurt
From the Track to the Trails
For starters, Hawks was probably enjoying the change of scenery from the 25-laps-of-a-track type of running that had, until very recently, preoccupied his racing and training goals.
“I was chasing an Olympic Trials qualifier in the 10K,” he says. “But I fell short, which was really frustrating. That had been my goal for so long, and it was hard not to get it.”
With PRs under 14 minutes in the 5K and 29 minutes in the 10K, Hawks, a cross-country All-American who graduated from Southern Utah University in May, was very fast, in the scheme of things. But in the deep competitive pool of track and field, he didn’t stand out to potential sponsors, and had some ground to make up before he could pursue track full-time.
Having grown up in southern Utah, on the outskirts of places like Zion and Bryce Canyon national parks, Hawks had spent much of his life on trails, backpacking and hiking. Now, back home after college, he found himself again drawn to them.
“I hopped on the trails to make running fun again,” he says.
He met trail runner Bryce Thatcher when they both helped coach a local high-school team. “[Thatcher] would take me on trail runs, and sometimes we would take the team on them, and I found myself enjoying it a lot,” Hawks says.
So he entered last week’s U.S. Mountain Running Championships, a punishing 5.7-mile race at New Hampshire’s Loon Mountain ski area. In a prelude to Speedgoat, he crashed the elite field, finishing fourth and earning a spot on the U.S. team running at the World Mountain Running Championships in Bulgaria in September.
“I guess I thought I could do pretty well at trail running,” Hawks said Saturday, after Speedgoat. “But I didn’t know I could do this well.”
Photo by Alex Kurt
Hawks had not planned on racing Speedgoat until the day before, making his outstanding performance seem even less likely.
“Bryce was racing, so I texted him ‘good luck,’” he says. “He texted back, ‘I wish you were here,’ and that led to a back-and-forth.”
Feeling confident in his fitness, Hawks signed up on Friday and made the four-hour drive from Saint George to Snowbird, arriving late at night. He then met Bryce and Bryce’s friend Magdalena Boulet – the 2015 Western States 100 and TNF 50 San Francisco champion, who was racing Speedgoat as well – to gather any advice he could.
“I knew nothing about nutrition, for example,” Hawks says, noting that he had carried only one energy gel and no water on his lone 50K training run. “They told me what to do – a GU every half hour, a salt tablet every hour and about 16 ounces of water every hour – and that’s exactly what I did. And it worked great.”
“I owe [Boulet] a lot,” he continues.
The next morning, on the start line next to the pre-race favorites, Hawks planned to take it out hard.
“The first nine miles are all uphill, which is my strength,” he says. “I figured I could build up a gap.”
He was caught by Chris Vargo shortly after the peak, but followed that quickly with a hard push that would put him in the lead for good.
“The hardest section was going back up to [the 11,060-foot peak, at mile 25],” he continues. “But I had a comfortable lead and just kept grinding.”
He would hold off Nichols by just under three minutes to win his debut ultra.
The cliché holds that, in the hours following a first ultra, a runner will swear off the sport entirely, only to be plotting his or her next race a couple days later.
But sitting in a camp chair in the shade, drinking a soda and eating whatever food was handed to him, Hawks was already looking forward to his next starting line.
“I’ll be running the World Mountain Running Championships in Bulgaria on September 11, representing the US,” he says. “I might do the Saint George Marathon in October, too. I’ve never done a road marathon, and want to see what I can do.”
In December, he will join the always loaded elite field at TNF 50 San Francisco.
“I e-mailed the race director after the U.S. Championships, and they let me into the field, even without an ultra finish,” he says.
Hawks hopes to land a footwear sponsor in the meantime, and noted the support he gets from Saint George Running Center, the store where he works full time.
“I’m trying to pursue a professional running career, putting off pursuing med school, and I hoped this race would get me some attention,” he says. “But the store helps me do all of this. I couldn’t do it without their help.”