The goal? To traverse the length of the European Alps
The Red Bull X-Alps is an event like no other endurance competition. It takes place every two years and entries are hard to get as organisers select a field of just 32 international athletes. The race format is one of pure adventure; to traverse the length of the European Alps, from Salzburg in Austria to the Principality of Monaco, using only a paraglider and a pair of legs.
Competitors have to pass 10 ‘turnpoints’ (essentially checkpoints) along the route, with many of them being iconic mountains such as Mont Blanc, Matterhorn and Piz Corvatsch. This means that there is no set route. Instead, competitors decide how to cross mountain ranges and valley systems as they progress. The total race distance from start to finish via all the turnpoints is 1,038km but the actual distance travelled is much, much further.
I will likely cover up to 80km and thousands of metres of ascent per day, all with a 10kg paragliding pack on my back to get to the next launch site, in the hope that I can fly a considerable distance (up to 200km in perfect weather conditions). By covering distance on the paraglider, I’m able to conserve energy, whilst passing over spectacular scenery. However, it is rarely that easy, as the weather in the Alps changes very quickly and all of us must be capable of flying in conditions that ‘normal’ paraglider pilots would never consider safe! Flying challenges include turbulence, strong valley winds and worst of all, mountain storms. The weather also presents issues on the ground as, if it is not flyable, we have to run and hike across some of Europe’s highest passes. In such areas it’s not uncommon to get white-outs, storms and freezing temperatures, even in July.
The Red Bull X-Alps record stands at 7 days, 1 hour and 23 minutes
One of the unique features of this event is that our every move is followed by an online audience of millions via a live tracking system. We all post images online to record our progress along the route.
The race finishes 48 hours after the winner has reached Monaco, with everyone placed by their remaining distance to the goal. The record for this race is held by the Swiss paragliding legend Chrigel Maurer, who has won the event three times in a row. It took him seven days, one hour and 23 minutes to get from Salzburg to Monaco in 2013.
In preparation for the event, Team GBR (Great Britain), who I’m representing, spent the whole month of May in the Alps exploring the route and the many options available. We spent a significant amount of time with ‘local expert’ paraglider pilots who know specific areas of the Alps. They were able to advise us on the best flying routes, the best paths to reach launch sites and, most importantly, the effects of localised weather conditions.
The running and hiking terrain is incredibly varied and launch spots are often well off the beaten track
I have been wearing inov-8 trainers, which combine effective performance with a total confidence in their ability to protect my feet. The terrain that The Red Bull X-Alps throws at us athletes is incredibly varied; from hot, hard tarmac, through wet, steep grassy slopes and calf deep snow. The paraglider launch spots are often well off the beaten track and good grip from your footwear is essential. I have chosen two different shoes -the waterproof Roclite 282GTX for the off-road sections and the Race Ultra 290 for harder trails and tarmac.
The distances covered on foot in a typical Red Bull X-Alps day varies significantly depending on the amount of flying that is done per day; this in turn is heavily influenced by the weather. So on a perfect flying day it would still be necessary to start by finding a morning launch knowing that the flight would be a glide only; this would be at least a 1,000m climb. Then more distance to get to a suitable launch spot for a thermic flight may involve another significant climb of more than 1,000m. Hopefully after flying maybe 100km, one last flight of the day in the late evening would require a similar climb. In bad weather however, all of the distance would be on foot, over mixed terrain. The majority of the field would be looking to cover between 50 and 80km in a day, with some of the frontrunners covering more than 100km.
I first learned to fly as a light wind alternative to windsurfing; as you get better at windsurfing you just want more wind, so it was something to do when it was light! Once I started, I was hooked. Since then I have acquired experience of Alpine conditions in the French, Austrian and Swiss Alps. Further afield, I’ve been a member of expeditions in Russia, where I climbed Mt Elbrus (5,642m) twice, flying off the summit the second time and in Kyrgyzstan where I have climbed Peak Lenin to 6,200m, again flying off at this height. My 2011 debut at X-Alps remains my proudest moment.
In terms of running, I completed Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc race – CCC (Courmayeur-Champex-Chamonix) in 2009 (98km distance, 5,600m of ascent, all off-road) as well as the longer tougher TDS course and the Gore-Tex Trans Alpine run in 2008 and 2009 (8 days, 3 countries, 300km and 14,300m ascent).
Over a third of Red Bull X-Alps competitors fail to the finish
So what does it take to train for the Red Bull X-Alps? Well my typical week looks something like this: I cycle to work most days, covering up to 150km a week. Then I run off road every other day, covering at least 50km per week. I also hike with a 10kg pack and once a week suffer hill interval training on a 70m hill local to where I live. Finally, if I go flying I will usually hike up to launch, as in the UK there are very few cable cars up to take off!
Armed with the experience gained in the 2011 Red Bull X-Alps race, I’m aiming to push hard on the ground and fly whenever opportunities present themselves. I understand the importance of pacing myself, as endurance events are rarely won in the first few days. Over a third of Red Bull X-Alps participants fail to finish the event, but I know I have the endurance to do so.
I will also have my supporter, Richard Bungay, to help me reach the finish. We first met in 2004, when we had both started our first season of paragliding competitions in the British Paragliding Cup. Since then we have flown together in competitions and become good friends. This friendship was cemented during the intensity of the 2011 Red Bull X-Alps event. He is very well organised, super-motivated by the challenge and his technical skills are second to none.