I arrived Europe May 8th, about the same time an article came out in Cross Country magazine summarizing a few of the athlete’s approaches and how they have trained. The title of mine was “The Cocky American.” They weren’t being divisive or derogatory, they were using the exact words I’d fed them. I had said in the interview that even though I was a rookie; I don’t live in the Alps (home court advantage is something most pilots say is impossible to overcome); I’m 43 and well past my used date in terms of my professional athlete years; and I haven’t been flying nearly as long as most of the pilots in the race, I am by nature confident but more than than I feel like I’ve done everything I can possibly do to prepare, and I expect to do well. I’ve got an awesome team, one of my supporters Ben Abruzzo has turned my body into a machine through months of months of continuously pushing me to get stronger, faster, and more capable of suffering. In short, I arrived Europe physically and mentally ready and really excited to get to the fun part- learning and flying the hardest course line in the races’ history.
It’s been a month to the day and I wish I can report it’s all been a merry tryst through the Alps, that I feel great, and that I’m still the cocky American. Much of the course line has been flown. A ton of it has been walked. Many, MANY launches have been re conned. Bruce Marks, my official supporter and myself have studied, refined, learned, altered and made a lot of adjustments to our plan. And when the weather has been bad, which it has for the most part until the last week the physical training has carried on without a hitch. My body still feels strong, even though I have punished it harder this last month than at any other time in my life. All good things. A lot to be thankful for, a lot to feel confident about. But truth be told until we finally got some decent weather this week and I was able to rip off a few proper flights and get my groove back I have been anything but the cocky American.
For one it’s been a lonely road. Without a driver I keep getting separated from the Niviuk mobile, which is stocked full with the foods and supplements I’ve come to rely on. At times I get separated for 4-5 days, which means walking for 30, 40, or 50 k and a lot of vertical without proper food really challenging. The van has all of the rollers, bands and balls I need to mash my body every night so it’s ready to perform the next day. I hike up to launch solo, fly solo, land solo and then prep for the next day solo. Sometimes I reconnect with Bruce and the company is fantastic. Let’s be honest- it’s nice to have friends around. But for the most part the training has been a solo affair. Pretty much every single one of the flights I had the first two weeks here were WAY sketchy, ending in terrifying landings in strong winds. Exactly the same conditions we can expect for the race. Usually I relish conditions like this. But I wasn’t. I was scared, and getting more scared. Was I off my game? Why did I keep looking at my reserve handle? Why was I constantly leaning forward, a sure sign I’m nervous as hell? What was this new found nervousness and distrust in my abilities? Was it simply that I needed a break, or was it something more sinister?
I’ve been interviewing pilots for the podcast who have been in the game a lot longer than I have. My mentors, my confidants, my friends, and guys I trust. Over the past years they have often given me that wise look like “hey man, this is supposed to be fun, you don’t have to push so hard.” They have all gone through periods where they have had to back off, turn down the volume. I’ve never experienced this in my flying career but there is no doubt it will come as it does for everyone. My own supporter, Bruce Marks had a really scary crash two summers ago in the Saas valley and is still trying to overcome that dark head space.
Every morning I head out and my head says no but my body says yes. The sweating starts, the cursing follows but the body just does the work. “Shut the fuck up head!” I keep saying, but it keeps grunting relentlessly. “I’ll shut up when you take a break!” But I don’t feel like I can afford a break. Just a few more weeks and that gun goes off in Salzburg and there won’t be any more time to prepare.
But finally this week our relentless bad weather broke. Instead of terrifying flights I kept getting long flights where everything made sense. No huge surprises, no unreasonable wind, no excitement beyond the normal excitement of being in the air, participating in the absurd. The kilometers racked up and I returned to taking the deep lines that I love so much. My smile returned. My heart patched up a bit. One day I hiked 8 kilometers and 1300 meters vertical only to find I lost my helmet on the way up. So I walked back down. And then back up. And then all over the place. And then back down. And then back up again. I racked up nearly 50 km going up and down that fucking mountain, nearly all of it without food and water. Finally I gave up on the helmet and launched in very ratty sketchy conditions and flew back to town where I’d started the day, cool as a cucumber. A miserable day…and a perfect training day. After I ate three dinners and two desserts and looked in the mirror at my sun burned unkempt face and my rotten shirt that I’d been wearing for 5 days I noticed a funny smile on my face. I felt GOOD.