By Kim Constantinesco
If you ask Nik Hawks, the worst kind of pain can end if you catch a sliver of perspective about human potential.
The 39-year-old from San Diego, Calif. is recognized as the co-founder of Paleo Treats, the first company to focus solely on creating Paleo desserts. However, his drive extends far beyond helping others fuel their bodies with “clean” food.
Hawks is an ultrarunner, a CrossFit advocate, a veteran, and someone who doesn’t shy away from talking about his struggles with depression.
At 23 years old, Hawks had just finished serving in the Navy. Severely depressed and unsure of his post military future, he sat there with a loaded handgun in his mouth. He paused just before pulling the trigger, took a deep breath, and imagined his mother finding him dead, face down in a pool of blood.
“It wasn’t a pretty picture when that surfaced in my mind,” Hawks said. “I had to ask myself, was that the highest potential that I could reach? Join the Navy, get out, and then kill myself?”
It was only after Hawks stared down pain’s endpoint that his new life began.
Sailing Toward A Purpose
Hawks grew up in West Hartford, Conn. and often ventured across the Atlantic to spend chunks of time with his grandparents in England. His parents moved to the Midwest, so he finished high school in Indiana, and, inspired by an uncle who was a Navy SEAL, joined the Navy at 17. By 18, Hawks shipped off to boot camp.
He was a true athlete, though he’ll quickly tell you that he has never played a full game of football or baseball in his life. His passion was planted in sports like swimming, lacrosse, wrestling, and cross country. In fact, he was ranked 5th in swim events while he was on the Navy’s Pentathlon team.
After five years of service, Hawks was honorably discharged in September of 2000. He didn’t have any desire to go back after 9/11.
“I didn’t think the war would last that long. I had been in the military and explored that,” Hawks said. “I felt at the time it didn’t need to be explored any more, and I looked at it like if I signed up for another three or five-year commitment, the war would probably be over by the time I got back into it.”
So, he bought a 22-foot racing boat, named it “Apocalypso” after Jimmy Buffet’s hit song, and cruised intercoastal waters.
“Apocalypse for the guys, Calypso for the girls. It was written on the side of the boat with a sharpie,” Hawks said. “Perfect for a 23-year-old wanderer.”
He took Apocalypso from San Diego and headed south down the West Coast for Central America. He spent time in Nicaragua, but flew home to Indianapolis for a week in March of 2001. That’s when he met Lee Selman, the love of his life and current wife, who also happens to be a professional camel handler who spent time working for an expedition company in West Africa.
After the short trip, he returned to his boat and sailed to Costa Rica, through the Panama Canal, and up the East Coast before finally docking in Ft. Lauderdale, where he landed a job in a boat yard. He was scrapping for food, but doing what he loved most — exploring.
He kept in touch with Selman throughout his trip. Knowing they had a strong shared desire for travel and adventure, Hawks realized he was ready to move on from the open waters to get to know her better. So, he sold his beloved boat to a buyer in Kingston, Jamaica.
Then Hawks and Selman flew to England, where they had experiences like meeting up with a contemporary of Lawrence of Arabia to talk about crossing the Empty Quarter of Arabia by foot and camel.
Upon returning to the U.S., Hawks and Selman moved in together in Indianapolis. He enrolled in a community college, but the long winters and lack of adventure got them to quickly pack up and move west to San Diego. Again, Nik signed up for more classes.
“I realized school at the community college level wasn’t anything close to a challenge,” Hawks said. “I had this expectation while I was in the Navy that I was going to get out and go to college and really understand my brain. I thought it would be this amazing thing. I got to school and found it didn’t work for me. I didn’t have the same connections that I had with people in the military. It’s a pretty common thing for guys. Guys forge these really deep relationships and maybe have some intense experiences that only they ‘get’.”
With muddled thoughts about his future and a lack of military brotherhood, Hawks found himself in a very dark place. So dark that the action he took was to raise a .45 directly to his mouth.
He kept the near-suicide experience to himself for a long time until a buddy was experiencing the same issues.
“After that, it just became part of every conversation when I saw it could help and influence that shift in perspective in people,” Hawks said. “It helps knowing someone else has been through that same thing, not that it’s a good or a bad thing, it’s just part of it. Sex feels great, depression feels terrible, but neither of them last. It’s just part of the human condition — something all of us go through in varying degrees, and as long as you know it’s a natural thing, it’s more bearable.”
Hawks still struggles with severe lows once or twice per year, and hasn’t been able to figure out a main trigger for the slide.
“I don’t think it’s linked to anything in particular,” Hawks said. “I think it provides a contrast that is probably important to a long-lived life. You have these really extreme highs and these really deep lows. As long as you understand it’s part of the pattern, and not unique to you, it seems like it makes it easier to go through.”
Although Hawks can expect a downward shift in his mood, he has found that limiting his sugar intake and staying on top of his exercise regimen has been helpful in regulating his symptoms.
Racing Across The Sky
Hawks ran cross country in high school and during his time in the Navy, but after he got out, he didn’t run for eight years.
However, after reading about the Tarahumara Indians of Mexico’s deadly Copper Canyons, and their ability to run hundreds of miles without rest in New York Times Best Seller, “Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen,” Hawks was re-energized.
“When I read it, I thought it was pretty cool, but I didn’t have a strong desire to go and run 100 miles,” Hawks said. “That seemed like a lot. The more I started doing little runs here and there, the more I thought about it and realized it had been a long time since I had a big physical goal.”
So in 2013, he signed up for the Leadville 100, a 100-mile trail run in the Colorado high country where runners “race across the sky” because at a starting altitude of 10,152 feet and peaking at 12,500 feet, the thin air steals one-third of runners’ oxygen.
“All of us are drawn to something different. For me, the big driver is exploration and adventure,” Hawks said. “I love all the possibilities inherent to running out into the mountains and on trails. I wanted to see what was out there, and see what I had inside myself. What am I capable of, and can I do this, or is this for only certain kinds of genetically gifted people?”
That year, he put in just 15-20 training miles per week. He did a lot of lifting and CrossFit workouts, but didn’t pay much attention to nutrition. The result? He got 75 miles into the race and missed the time cutoff, so he was pulled from the course.
“I didn’t know what I was getting into,” he said. “I didn’t know when to run and when to walk, or how to move through a race of that magnitude.”
In 2014, Hawks made the commitment again, this time putting in 20-30 miles per week with more focus on the nutrition piece.
“I was into Paleo, and eating really strict, but wasn’t paying a ton of attention to in-race nutrition,” Hawks said. “I made my own Paleo wraps but once I started in on one at mile 13, I couldn’t swallow the stuff. I had never had that problem with food.”
Because he had trouble refueling, he locked up with cramps around mile 30. By mile 60, he missed the time cutoff again and had cramps so bad that he couldn’t move.
Figuring the third time was the charm, Hawks buckled down, increased his mileage even more and hired a nutrition consultant for the 2015 attempt.
“Once you put it all together, it’s hard to get stopped by anything,” Hawks said.
He finished the race in front of a group of supportive friends in 28 hours, 45 minutes, and 46 seconds.
“What was driven home to me was that it doesn’t matter what you look like, or how much weight you carry, or how big you are. You can be a great runner,” Hawks said. “I got passed by plenty of people who I would have looked at on the street and said, ‘There’s no way they can run 100 miles faster than me,’ and they did it easily.”
Again, Hawks took his experience and made it his own case study for human potential.
“We look at marathons still from this 1950’s or 1960’s view, where we think it takes a special person to run 26.2 miles, and I guess it’s elitist of my to say this, but I can take almost anyone, and have them running a marathon in six weeks. If you’re way out of bounds, it’s going to take longer, and some just can’t do it. But, most people, whether or not they believe it, can run a marathon with minimal training and minimal preparation because of the way humans were designed to move. It’s just not that long of a distance compared to the potential inside of us.”
After the Leadville 100, Hawks decided to hang up his ultrarunning shoes. The level of time and commitment required for training was taking away from other things he wanted to do. But, the sport and its community will always hold a special place in his heart.
“One of the things I miss most about ultrarunning is the community,” Hawks said. “I think outside of the military, that’s the greatest community I’ve been a part of. People cared for each other without reservation and there was really very little sense of competition. In 10Ks or half Ironmans, people are always kind of looking you up and down at the start line, and I never saw any of that in ultrarunning. The thing is, there’s a really high barrier to entry. You know if someone is out training seriously for any of these events, there is something about them, because those events require something extraordinary.”
Going Against The Grain
Accompanying his active lifestyle, Hawks practices what he preaches in terms of nutrition. He doesn’t eat strictly Paleo, but he does feel better physically and emotionally when his diet aligns with its principles, and when he curbs his sugar intake.
Paleo Treats came to be after Hawks “failed” for 10 years as an entrepreneur, and finally emerged from bankruptcy. Before they launched the company in 2009, Hawks and Selman had a Paleo-eating friend named Dave who moved across the country and lived with them for six months. Within two weeks of following Dave’s lead and loading up on vegetables, fruits, nuts, roots, and meas, and cutting out dairy products, grains, sugar, legumes, and processed oils, Hawks and Selman immediately felt better. But, that after dinner treat was still something they longed for.
“At the time, there really wasn’t anything,” Hawks said.
So, the three began experimenting in the kitchen. Then they looked at business models.
“We looked at Patagonia, the clothing company, and what they were doing and decided that’s the kind of company we want to have,” Hawks said. “We wanted to do good things, make good things, and get rewarded for that.”
Their company’s straight-to-the-point mission?
“We want to add beauty, quality, and joy to the world, we want to have f$@%ing fun, and we want to make money,” Hawks said. “None of these things have anything to do with Paleo food. If we thought we could do a better job of meeting those goals by selling bicycle parts, then I’d be in the bicycle business tomorrow.”
And that’s what makes Hawks a success. He doesn’t box himself in. He redefines his limits because he has a strong understanding what he’s actually capable of achieving.
“It’s just this idea of continually reaching toward self actualization. When that happens, I think a lot of other pieces fall into place,” he said.
Spoken like a guy who’s in it for the long haul.