Ross Hayduk celebrated his 45th birthday Sept. 6, 2012while 5,268 feet above ground level at the top of Mt. Katahdin, the highest mountain in Maine. It was the end of an amazing, record-setting journey that was years in the planning.
He had just finished hiking the Appalachian Trail, totaling 2,084 miles over 179 days, after starting in Georgia.
"Oddly, it wasn't as emotional as it was gratitude," he said. "It was awesome to be up there, with amazing views. I was so grateful to have identified, and then accomplished, a goal."
The Hayduk-hike story starts back in 2009, when a friend who previously had hiked the trail suggested the adventure to Hayduk, particularly for its fundraising potential.
In December 2010, Hayduk decided to give it a go, despite the odds. Only one in four who attempts the long, sometimes treacherous, sometimes boring journey actually finishesamounting to about 500 finishers annually.
"The trail is iconic," Hayduk said. "One doesn't want to admit that, at [age] 45, this is probably mid-life. I wouldn't say [hiking the trail] was a mid-life crisis [decision] or a bucket-list thing, but rather, representingas an HIV-positive man, and someone who has been through some health challengesthat I could take on something really daunting, endure injuries and still finish.
"I knew I was going to have to endure emotional and mental toughness to accomplish the trail, and I did."
According to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, Hayduk is the first HIV-positive man to join their 2,000-mile club.
"I wasn't going into the challenge to become famous; I wasn't looking for the notoriety. I really just wanted to impact one person's life," said Hayduk.
Said person's name is Zach, and he lives in North Carolina. Zach also is HIV-positive and, after reading of Hayduk's hike online, he told Hayduk that, in 2013, he too was going to do the same hike.
"I feel like we're put on earth to impact the lives of others, and that's what I try to do through my fundraisingto really help make a difference," Hayduk said. "That's incredibly fulfilling and incredibly life-affirming" to know the impact his hike had on Zach.
Hayduk, who is gay, grew up in Virginia and now lives in San Francisco. He is a two-time (2002, 2006) Gay Games participant who has won a silver (hammer throw) and gold (powerlifting) medal.
He has been HIV-positive since 2004, and also suffers bipolar disorder.
"You would think [the most memorable part of the trail] would be the plant life, the vistas, the waterfalls and things like that. But, in reality, it was the people along the way," he said. "I really enjoyed meeting the people along the way. There's a term along the trail: 'trail magic' or 'trail angels.' Those are the people who, seemingly randomly, help the hikers any number of ways, even just bringing sodas to the end of the trail.
"Those people really impacted me; they reaffirmed my belief in America."
Hayduk said the most challenging part of his hike was just getting ready to do the trail and to take on some of the more dangerous parts, such as areas of Vermont, New Hampshire and southern Maine.
Danger, in fact, hit Hayduk head-on while on the home stretch in early August. He was hiking down a steep path that overlapped with a stream, so he actually was hiking in a stream to get down a hill. The rocks in the water were slick, and his heels went out from under him. "I tried to prop myself up with my trekking poles, but the pole snapped," he said.
Hayduk injured his knee, forcing him off the trail in New Hampshire for a week.
"That was unnerving. I thought, at that point, that my hike was over and that I wouldn't be able to continue," Hayduk said. "I was in the second-to-last state [of the trail], with only a few hundred miles," until the finish.
Hayduk was able to recover, only losing 100 miles2,084 total miles as opposed to 2,184on his journey.
"I wish I had been able to do every single mile, but it didn't happen and that's OK," he said.
"I've always known the history of the trail. My home and my grandparents' home in southern Virginia were only a few miles from the trail," said Hayduk, who was by himself for the majority of the hike.
And yes, that did lead to boredom. So he used his alone time to think about future goals, to think about how he wanted to manage his life when he got back to San Francisco and how he was going to manage his health.
Hayduk lost 35 pounds during the hike.
"I knew, through sheer stubbornness, that I was going to finish. I just didn't expect the difficult parts of the trail to be as difficult as they were," said Hayduk, who survived on what he tagged the hikers' diet: high-fat, high-calorie foods.
He often burned 5,000 calories daily.
Hayduk, after all, was hiking while carrying a 50-pound sack, which included about 10 pounds of water and a month's supply of medications.
So what's next for the adventurous Hayduk?
"That is entirely unknown. I don't know what life has in store for me next," he said.
The 2014 Gay Games in Cleveland definitely is on his calendar, though.
Hayduk hiked to support four non-profit organizations: the National AIDS Memorial Grove, PAWS: Pets Are Wonderful Support, the San Francisco AIDS Foundation and the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. His goal was to raise $21,840.