Trail Blazer

Ross Hayduk aims to be the first openly HIV+ athlete to hike the Appalachian Trail in under six months.
July 20, 2012

(Ross Hayduk)

This September, on his 45th birthday, Ross Hayduk plans to ascend Mount Katahdin, the highest mountain in Maine, in the final steps of his six-month trek along the Appalachian Trail (in total 2,184 miles from Georgia to Maine). His goal is to become the first openly HIV-positive athlete to finish the trail in less than six months. For some, this task would be too daunting, but not for Hayduk, as he’s faced even greater challenges throughout his life.

Ross contracted HIV in 2004 while addicted to crystal meth. He was also diagnosed with bipolar disorder. He had hit rock-bottom, but with the support of friends and family, he climbed his way back up. Now clean and sober, he’s taking his life one day at a time. “I believe we can overcome challenges to our health like HIV, substance abuse and bipolar depression,” he says. “With the proper diet and exercise routines, adherence to medication regimens, consistent communication with healthcare providers and the support of those around you, you can live a full and healthy life.” But Hayduk’s mission dosen’t just involve walking. He is tirelessly raising money, too, aiming towards a goal $21,840 for local HIV/AIDS service organizations. That’s 10 times the number of miles on the trail.

Professionally, Hayduk does fundraising and development for a nonprofit organization, but it isn’t all about fundraising for him; he understands the importance of breaking stereotypes and being a role model. “[I’m taking] the opportunity to prove to myself, and to others, that HIV-positive athletes can excel at sports [just] as well as HIV-negative athletes. Just because we have a virus does not mean we are sidelined,” he says.

Athletically speaking, Hayduk has dabbled in sports, but he sparkled in two, winning the silver medal in the hammer throw at Gay Games VI (in Sydney in 2002), and winning the gold medal in powerlifting in Gay Games VII (in Chicago in 2006). He has also taken a shine to rugby, cycling, and recently, long-distance hiking. “After participating in a 200-mile cycling event in 2010 and a 218-mile hiking event in 2011, I decided to take on the Appalachian Trail in 2012. I did not know if I could do it, but once I set my mind to the previous challenges, I saw how I [could accomplish] amazing things, but only because I had the encouragement and support of my friends, family, and colleagues behind me,” he says.

Hayduk is selfless and a natural-born volunteer. In his circles, his reputation clearly stands out due to his constant offers to step up and help with any worthy cause. Last month, he took two days out of the hike to visit friends in New York and volunteer at the Heritage of Pride March. After his visit, he headed west once again, but hit an unexpected snag when one of the straps on his backpack snapped while he was hiking through the thick forests of northwestern New Jersey. Hayduk posted his dilemma on Facebook and support poured in (both moral and suggestive). One person offered to FedEx a new bag to him, but if he was going to finish the trail in a timely manner, he knew he had to act quickly. Thinking, “What would MacGyver do?” Hayduk got to work on solving his problem with shoelaces and some cloth. “Those years as a theater major working in the costume shop weren’t a waste of time! I had to make it werq!” he says with a scruffy ear-to-ear grin. He was able to continue for two more days of hiking, enough time to catch a bus back to New York for a replacement bag, and then get right back to where he left the trail.

Visit HikeRossHike.org for more info.