- Will Hayward, the oldest person to complete the non-stop 298-kilometre Hong Kong Four Trails Ultra Challenge, finds such events help him beat stress
- Running is an opportunity to be mindful, to slip into a flow state where he is in the moment, only aware of what is around him – even when he is hallucinating
Midway through the 2023 Hong Kong 100, a race across city hills 100km long, Will Hayward was feeling terrible. He had not been able to keep any food down for several hours.
As he approached the foot of Needle Hill, the third steepest climb in Hong Kong, he had no idea how he would get up it.
“I wasn’t going very fast, but I went up in one go and continued on. From all the other races I’ve done, I have this experience of what it’s like to be at the lowest of lows – but rather than stop I will keep going and see what happens,” says Hayward, known in Hong Kong’s running community for his dogged determination to complete the gruelling ultra-marathons and challenges he signs up for.
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Among the tall, lean running machine’s most notable extreme adventures are twice completing the non-stop, 298-kilometre (185-mile) Hong Kong Four Trails Ultra Challenge (HK4TUC) – in 2018 and 2021 – and being the “last man standing” in the Big Dog Backyard Ultra in Bell Buckle, in the US state of Tennessee, in 2019.
Now 55, Hayward is the oldest person to complete HK4TUC.
By day, he is dean of social sciences at Lingnan University. Outside its corridors, Hayward is running obsessed, a passion he developed in his mid-30s.
In his 20s, the New Zealander played team sports, chiefly basketball and soccer, but when his kids came along he gravitated towards running as an easy way to keep fit. Bowen Road, Black’s Link and Jardine’s Lookout offered ample opportunity to run from his home near Shiu Fai Terrace in Wan Chai, on Hong Kong Island.
Then, in 2010, when he was 42 and his children seven and three years old, he began yearning to get closer to the great outdoors he had grown up in. He wanted to find a way to spend some time in the wilderness while juggling family life and professional commitments.
“It wasn’t a conscious decision to run long for the sake of running longer, it was what gives me the opportunity to have these wilderness experiences that otherwise I wouldn’t have,” says Hayward.
The answer was to do an ultramarathon in New Zealand. As luck would have it, the following year the HK100, an ultra-endurance race and part of the prestigious Ultra-Trail World Tour, was launched. Other trail-running events soon followed.
Along the way, Hayward has discovered the positive mental health benefits of running and says he is now less stressed than he was when he started his career almost 30 years ago.
“This whole running adventure and the associated benefits with that has allowed me to stabilise my mood and allowed me to relieve anxiety in ways that have been helpful,” he says.
His running time is an opportunity to be mindful. It is the only time he does not have his phone on and, while he often runs alone, he does not spend the time thinking about work or problem solving. Instead, he slips into a flow state where he is in the moment, only aware of what is around him.
“As I was getting older and getting more senior roles at work, I was also running longer. You’d think if you are getting busier there should be less time for running, but I was spending more time running and I think that had positive outcomes for my professional life as well as for my family life,” he says.
Aside from the benefits of emotional balance and mental clarity, he believes having an identity outside his professional life is good for his career.
“For me, its running, but for others it might be music or another creative outlet. When you’ve got that outside then it allows you to be a little bit more dispassionate in your professional life, because that’s one thing you’re doing but it’s not defining your whole identity.”
Hayward last man standing on Bowen Road after 25 hours of non-stop ultra
After a decade of running ultra-marathons, Hayward has learned that he is stubborn. “Once I start something, I really want to finish it. When things get difficult, I don’t really consider giving up, I just keep going.”
To be physically fit is only one part of the equation when it comes to ultra-marathons, particularly intensely gruelling ones such as the HK4TUC which demand an extreme level of endurance without creature comforts such as music and hiking poles.
“There is a decent number of people who could do Four Trails but think, ‘Why would I put myself through that discomfort’?” he says.
You need powerful motivation to complete a race that is run over multiple days. When Hayward started off the Big Dog Backyard Ultra – in which competitors have one hour to finish a 6.7km loop, and must run the loop over and over until there is just one runner left – his motivation was to see how many he could do.
After 36 hours he was ready to quit, but friends urged him on.
“My motivation changed through the event, from wanting to test my physical limits to doing it for my friends, and that’s quite common. A lot of people will start an ultramarathon and they will get to the point that it starts to hurt, and then if you can’t find the reason to keep going, you just stop,” he says.
Those who push their physical boundaries to the limits have to be prepared for more than aching legs. Sleep deprivation leads to visual hallucinations, which can be challenging if you are running solo through the wilderness in the dark. Hayward believes the experience of raising small children helped prepare him.
“Having young kids, you just get impervious to sleep deprivation to some degree. I can go through one night generally no problem, as long as I’m moving,” he says.
It is generally on the second night with no sleep that the visual distortions kick in. Hayward has hallucinated faces in rocks, seen houses that did not exist, and people in the shadows. All the time he kept moving, aware that he was hallucinating.
But it is the third night without sleep when things get really challenging.
“You are actually putting yourself in a psychosis where you are unable to distinguish what is imagined with what is real. I’ve had these experiences of struggling to understand, am I asleep awake?” he says.
“I remember running down Lantau Peak and the whole way down I felt I was dreaming about running, I was thinking this dream is going on for quite a while.”
Hayward still runs 60km to 80km a week – albeit not as fast as five years ago. He aims to keep running as long as he lives, although he accepts he must be smart about the challenges he chooses.
“I need to be thoughtful about it and do more body maintenance than I did before. It feels great to be in my mid-50s and heading out for a day or more and having these adventures.”
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This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (www.scmp.com), the leading news media reporting on China and Asia.
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