2015. An absolutely terrifying combination of 4 unique digits. Two reasons. It is a reminder that is bigger than any billboard of how fast time keeps skipping along at an ever faster pace; and it is the year that in just over 6 months time the Red Bull X-Alps will take place. If all goes well between now and then I will be one of 32 international competitors standing at the starting line in Salzburg, heart beating like a snare drum, thrilled and terrified at what is before each of us- quite likely the most grueling adventure race on Earth. My only question now, and my only question at the start will be the same: have I got what it takes?
Doubt isn’t something I’m used to experiencing. And in this case it’s really throwing me off. By nature I’m a confident person, or I guess more accurately- I’m an overly optimistic person. I always think everything will work out because everything always has so I have no reason to believe it won’t. The more implausible the task or dream that I’ve embarked on has always played out rather magnificently. These pursuits haven’t been without their mistakes and bad calls and detours and setbacks, but I’ve learned what has at least for me become a valuable lessen- the riskier the attempt the bigger the payoff. I love competition and I learned from years and years of ski racing that while talent is certainly important, competing at a top level is simply a matter of putting in the time and having a solid head. I’m putting in the time. I’ve got an amazing trainer (Ben Abruzzo) and thus far my Achilles heal- my knees, seem to be handing the abuse just fine. I know from lots of experience that the harder things get, the better I will perform. So why am I so terrified?
Most people who know me well have advised me strongly to stay away from the X-Alps. They know I have bad knees and they know that when things get nasty I like everything better. In an already dangerous sport, this isn’t a good recipe for longevity. In a race like the X-Alps when things will most certainly be sketchy and we’ll most certainly be exhausted the risks obviously go through the roof. I’ve carved out a pretty fun career in this wacky-ass sport of flying around in the sky without a motor and my friends don’t see the point of risking so much. What if I get hurt? What if I suck and embarrass myself? What if I destroy what little I have left of my knees? Is it worth it?
The first time I saw the X-Alps was in 2007, barely a year after I learned to fly. I was awestruck. Dumbfounded. It looked like the greatest adventure a person could ever have. Walking and flying as fast as you could across one of the most majestic mountain ranges on Earth? Wow. To do it you had to be an elite pilot and a world-class endurance athlete. I was neither. Every other year for two spellbinding weeks in July I have been glued to my computer screen, watching phenomenally talented and herculean strong men struggle and scrap their way over snow capped peaks and trudging along hot valley floors day after day and it has bewitched me. My long-time flying partner Bruce Marks mentioned during the last race, in 2013 that I should do it. He knows me well. He knows I like suffering and he knows how hungry I am for cross country flying. We’ve been in quite a few crazy situations together back when I was sailing around the world and somehow came out the other side smiling. He was no doubt joking, but I took him seriously. I did the math- I would be 43 years old when it took place. Not exactly a spring chicken. My glory days of ski racing long behind me. But I had decent flying skills, a good head for nasty conditions, and it seemed like a good bit of crazy was necessary, which I have in spades. Questionable knees…but maybe with enough smart training? Maybe I could do it?
This summer during the Rockies expedition with Will Gadd, who competed in the first edition of the Red Bull X-Alps we had a lot of time to talk about the race. In short, he hated it. When the weather is bad you walk from dawn until well after dusk at a torturing pace, the fastest guys covering 100 kilometers in a day. Endless hot tarmac roads, crazy Euro drivers trying to kill you, blistered feet, sore hips, burned lips, black holes for eyeballs. And then you do it the next day, and then the next, and then the next… Of course if the weather is good you fly a good portion of the day, but the pace and professionalism of the race has skyrocketed since those early days so you’re still covering a ton of ground by foot, even on the great flying days. The teams who excel are clearly incredibly honed machines- organized, practiced, disciplined. Will felt like it just wasn’t a pure way to have an adventure in the mountains. Way too much risk, way too much walking, way too much media, not enough reward.
When I applied to compete in the race this July I didn’t harbor any fantasies that I could win. But I did think I could be competitive. I did very much believe that if I trained like a mad man I could get to the raft in Monaco. Then in September I visited the Coupe Icare festival in France and stood next to Tom De Dorlodot and Paul Gushlbauer, both veterans of the race and my confidence shriveled. Structurally they are built like Chrigel, who has of course dominated the last three events by a WIDE margin. Compared to me they are giants of men, and considerably younger. I started imagining the difference in our strides, by simple mechanics the speed they could maintain given similar fitness levels would be a good percentage faster than I could ever hope to achieve.
I don’t have many advantages to be honest. I’ve flown a lot in the Alps, but I’ll never have the local knowledge that the Euros do. I’m smaller, older, my joints have taken a lot more pounding, and I haven’t flown nearly as long as most of the guys. My experience bag isn’t nearly as full. The only advantage I might have is that I tend to do OK in rowdy, windy conditions. The gnarlier it gets the more I’m smiling. But like Matt Beechinor, one of my mentors and regular flying partners said recently when we were discussing this very topic- my fears, my doubts: “Gavin the only way you could embarrass yourself is if you pound. If you go over there and risk too much and crash and get hurt, that’s the only way to lose.” And he’s right. If you approach the Red Bull X-Alps as a competition, to win at any cost, the cost is going to be way too high. How much am I willing to pay?
Sometime between now and July, amongst the hours and hours and hours of training and miles and sweat and tears that is a question I’ll have to answer. Before that gun goes off I have to have a plan. One and one only. To have fun, to have the ultimate adventure- and live to tell the tale. Right now that is not the plan. The plan right now is to beat those fuckers!