Third Time's a Charm!
The Red Bull X-Alps is the most challenging and awe-inspiring paragliding race that exists and may be the wildest and coolest adventure race on Earth. Of course I’m jaded as I’ve done it twice, but I can confirm that at its core it is 100% diabolical. It’s known as the “toughest adventure race on Earth” because…well- it’s diabolical! The rules are simple: from Salzburg to Monaco fly your paraglider or carry it on your back via a series of epic turn points that zig zag across the Alps. Since it’s inception in 2003 every edition has gotten longer and harder. In the 2017 race five athletes were eliminated (whoever is in last place every 48 hours is thrown out), seven retired due to injury or exhaustion and only 2 athletes made it to goal in Monaco. You have 12 days to complete the course (but don’t plan on it as the race has an 11% finish rate!). In those twelve days you will climb the height of Everest at least four times, do well over a marathon a day (all the while carrying all of your gear), and fly repeatedly in sometimes pretty horrific air.
The statistics beg an obvious question: why in the world would anyone want to do it? For many years I thought the same. I learned the paragliding basics and got my novice license in 2006. In 2007 my flying partner Bruce Marks told me about the race and as soon as I started watching the live tracking I was hooked, but none of it made any sense. Fly and hike often in totally sketchy weather across the entire Alps? Preposterous!
By 2011 my paragliding skills had improved to a point that I could now watch the race and understand how the pilots were capable of flying huge distances (sometimes over 200 kilometers in a single flight) using thermals and skill to navigate the sky, but the ground game still seemed not just dreadful but impossible. On non-flyable days the fast athletes cover over 100km in a single day. And this isn’t jogging along in the flats in nice weather with a water bottle. This is head down in pouring rain or snowstorms and howling wind, 10 kilo pack on your back, up and down the spine of the Alps!
In the fall of 2014 the legendary Red Bull athlete Will Gadd and I teamed up to cross the Canadian Rockies to the US border by paraglider. I had been chasing airtime like a man possessed, but the X-Alps still seemed totally out of reach. Will had competed in the first edition in 2003 and frequently mentioned during the expedition that ever since the race he didn’t find walking with a backpack one of his favorite endeavors (like most competitors that year and every edition since- he didn’t make it to Monaco). A few days into the trip I mentioned to Will that I had applied for the 2015 race. He begged me not to do it. “It took a year for my feet to heal after that race. A year! Don’t do it!” The expedition took 18 days to complete and was physically a tiny fraction of what would be needed for the X-Alps but the flying was demanding and at times treacherous. I was building up a high tolerance for scary air, a requisite for the race. When I got home from Canada I received the news- my application for the 2015 edition had been accepted. The immediate sense of elation was quickly squashed by an overwhelming sense of anxiety. Could I be competitive? Would I be embarrassed and eliminated? Would my knees hold up? I wasn’t an endurance athlete by a long shot and I’d just signed up for possibly the most grueling race that exists. What was I thinking???
Ten months later I stood on the beach in Monaco with Bruce (air support guru) and Ben (ground guru and physical trainer) and a bottle of champagne. We’d finished in 8th place and were the first US team to reach Monaco in the race’s history. In ten days and four hours I’d covered nearly 500km on the ground and over 1400km in the air. My feet looked like someone had bludgeoned them with a hammer. Bruce had to carry me to the toilet the next morning because I couldn’t walk. But there was only one thing on all of our minds: the next race in 2017.
I’d trained absurdly hard for the 2015 race, but in 2017 we were no longer rookies and knew exactly what to expect so now we could also train smart. I got blood work and a host of lab tests done and changed my diet to reduce the swelling at night (and foot problems!); Ben still pummeled me with vicious training loads but we tweaked the regimen to make my body even more resilient to injury and better equipped to recover; we had our tech (maps, gadgets, route, instruments, weather sources, etc.) dialed; gotten professional sleep coaching; two more years of experience and training in the Alps; and we had the same team which meant less mistakes and even more laughter, the most important ingredient of all!
And laugh we did, even though the result was disappointing. Horrific weather combined with a course that zigged and zagged even more than usual across the spine of the Alps (seven countries!) to make for the hardest edition yet. When the race ended on day twelve only two athletes were in Monaco and I’d run two back to back marathons to stay ahead of the tenacious Canadian team to lock up 14th place. A long ways from the podium we’d hoped for but just as in 2015, one hell of an adventure!
This June Team USA 1 will head to Europe to compete for the 3rd time. Just like no paragliding flight is ever the same so it goes with the race. The route will be different; the weather will be different; the challenges and dangers different; and sadly we lost Bruce this year in a tragic (non-flying) accident so our team will also be different. The serious physical training for the race began in September and will get harder and harder every month until the taper three weeks before the gun goes off. By Christmas it is a full time job. But winning the race goes to the best pilot, so the flying training is even more critical. He or she (there are two women in the race this year!) who clicks off the most kilometers in the air and makes the least number of mistakes goes home with the glory. The fastest endurance athlete alive would get destroyed in the X-Alps if they never took to the air. That’s why the X-Alps is so unique. The physical requirement even on years where the flying weather is good is preposterous. Now add in the stress of flying in dicey conditions, very little rest, very little time to recover, and the million decisions that are required both by the athlete and their support teams (who often get even less sleep than the athletes) and you see why the X-Alps is in a category all it’s own. But bizarrely it’s also an absurd amount of fun. For nearly a year you’ve got one simple goal: get strong and fly as much as possible. That kind of simplicity is surprisingly addictive. Then the gun goes off and you get to play an absurd and amazing game for 12 days, one that will take you to physical and mental places that are ordinarily (and probably for good reason!) out of reach. As long as you focus on what you’ve accomplished and not what’s ahead, the kilometers keep ticking off and pretty soon what seemed impossible was in fact possible and it’s over and all you want to do is Just. Keep. Going.