An hour before the cloudy start of the 2019 Red Bull X-Alps I was relaxed and really, really excited to begin our 3rd edition of the “toughest race on Earth.” All the training, preparation, scouting, prologue and endless lists were finally behind us and all that lay ahead was 1138 kilometers (straight line distance) of the hardest course yet. But I’d learned in the previous editions that you can’t think about all that distance still to be done, you just have to think about the next few steps. I felt more confident and definitely more prepared than in 2015 and 2017. My team was stellar. Reavis Sutphin-Gray had already proven during our three weeks of scouting that he was going to be the perfect air supporter. Calm, efficient, optimistic and a tech wizard (invaluable in this race) he would be feeding me critical insights in the air and on the ground and would put me in the perfect position to make moves for the next 12 days (and a bonus- he is a hell of a cook!). Ben was again here to be my beast on the ground and find the most efficient way to get me to my next launch, which in the 2019 edition would happen a record 44 times- an average of 4 flights every day! And Keith was returning for his second edition to handle all of the endless logistics- food shopping, water, laundry, scouting ahead, getting to me if the van couldn’t, relay real-time weather back to us, etc. Our gear locker had some things that previous editions hadn’t needed- snowshoes, micro spikes, ice axes, crampons, climbing harness…record snowfalls and avalanche risk would make all the high crossings massive endeavors if we weren’t flying.
This article isn’t going to be a log of each day, I’ll save that for the podcast or another time. This post is meant to give you, the reader an insight into what happens behind the scenes and a few of the aspects of the race most people don’t know much about.
As always, pretty silly:
- Total distance covered on the ground: 525 km. That’s 47.7 kilometers average per day (29.6 miles). Total hiking time: 94.8 hours.
- Biggest day on the ground: 75.52 km (Day 11, night pass pulled).
- Total distance covered in the air: 1472 km. Longest distance in a day in the air: 261 km (day 3). Total flight time: 40.8 hours.
- Total vertical climbed: 39,322 meters. That’s 3,574 meters per day. That’s climbing a pretty serious ski area 4 times every day.
- Biggest vertical in two days: 8960 meters (29,393′) day 6 and 7 ending with climbing Titlis. That’s climbing the height of Everest from Sea Level in two days.
- Total expense, including three weeks of course scouting with Reavis. This includes the van rental, flights for me and the team, food, tolls, fuel, ski lifts (usually Ben, sometimes Keith), and everything I classify as “training” which doesn’t fit nicely into anything else: $25,597.97
- Time and distance between September 16th (when the official training began) and the Prologue (June 13th):
- Walking: 196 hours (392 miles)
- Ski Touring: 77 hours (158 miles)
- Biking or “other”, including indoor rowing and swimming: 21 hours (118 miles)
- Strength Training: 97 hours
- Total hours training: 391
Our Best Day
Day 2 and 3 were both epic, but probably wasn’t our “best”. But I’ll give a recap of those days before we land on the winner. Day 2 we tagged Wagrain (TP 2) by foot early after a good first day of classic (and very fast) hike and fly in pretty poor flying conditions (mostly drizzle and rain) leaving the Gaisberg, then Ben and I hiked immediately up the ski area only to find a typically easy launch quite challenging. The day was turning on but cloudbase was low and I had the choice of simply sitting to wait for the day to turn on or glide across St Johann and do another quick hike to get into position to connect with the Hochkoenig. I chose the latter, which added 1,000 meters of vertical to my day but gained us 10 kilometers on course line which ended up being important. Finding a usable launch in the forest after the glide and hike, which went all the way to the top of the mountain proved difficult and was made more difficult knowing everyone in my vicinity was in the air so I rushed to launch from a marginal spot in thick bush, blew the first couple attempts and in my haste snapped one of my B lines which then made the wing pretty slippery to fly, especially on bar. Two climbs later I connected with the impressive granite walls of the Hochkoenig with great cloud support just in time to fly over Tobi (Italy 2) and Patrick’s (Swiss 2) heads, who had bombed and were re-launching to get back in the air. I found a climb over their position just as Willi (USA 2) and Eduardo (Mex 1) were gliding in from the Pinzgau and raced off, knowing if I needed help I now had a really solid gaggle just behind me to tap. 20 kilometers down course line I wasn’t sure about the best way to approach the Aschau turnpoint (TP 3) so I slowed down, let the gaggle catch up and headed off with Patrick and Willi with the others just a little ways behind. The last 40 km into Aschau were easy and we made fast work of the distance. We tagged Aschau with plenty of day left and rushed yet another 1,000 meters to get back up to launch. A strong NE meteo was blowing so we chose the same launch everyone in front of us had used. I got plucked immediately in the strong wind with Patrick over my head and a big cravat on the right side of my wing made for an interesting launch, some of which Ben caught on camera:
Patrick and I ended up getting out of Aschau and we both made good distance south towards the Pinzgau before some big cells shut down the day. We were 35 km behind Chrigel and Maxime and at least 15 of us were within a few kilometers of one another. The race was tight.
Day 3 would be a make it or break it day for just about everyone. Those of us on the front end made easy and fast work of the nearly no wind and high base across the spine of the Alps across the Arhntal into Italy and down to the Kronplatz Turnpoint. I got hung up just behind Tom De Dorlodot, Aaron Durogati, Patrick Von Kanel, Paul Guschlbauer, Toma Coconea and several others coming into Kronplatz after I chose the wrong side of the mountain to get in, which took 30 minutes of scratching to dig out but eventually top landed right at the sign board next to Toma. Keith met me with some food, and without even getting out of my harness I re-launched into a rapidly deteriorating sky. To the east were big cells that were dark and menacing and already dropping out and to the south in the Dolomites I could already see lightning and heavy rain. But to the north the skies looked perfect. If it was a normal day of flying I would have called it a day, but this was the X-Alps, just forget about the dicey stuff and forge on! Kronplatz was the first major route decision point in the course. We had three main choices to negotiate the airspace around Innsbruck, which was right on course line to the Lermoos turnpoint (via the Zugspitz). My preferred option was the west line past Sterzing, over the glaciers in the Stubaier into the Soelden valley and then north across the Inn valley. It was the shortest flying option but required a high base and would require fighting the north Bavarian winds to reach the Zugspitz if you arrived late in the day, which at this point seemed likely. The east option was the one everyone in front of me had chosen- basically fly back the way we had come, cross the Arhntal back into Austria down to Mayrhofen and Zell am Zeller then under the airspace at the Inn valley (tricky) and back into the big terrain at Egg that leads to the Zugspitz. Before the race Chrigel told me this was his preferred option and as I dialed out from the Kronplatz this east line seemed like the best call. The third option was one that many of the athletes took who came into Kronplatz behind me as the weather blocked their progress north. It was the least sexy, and definitely the slowest but most direct: fly as far as you could on course line over the Brenner pass towards Innsbruck, land before the CTR airspace and then walk the 15 + km across the Innsbruck airspace and relaunch on the north side of the valley. As you can see in the pic below, one pilot went west- Gaspard Petiot. He moved up from 18th on the morning of Day 3 to 3rd that night! I should have stuck with plan A!
Everything went smoothly back across into Austria until I got to Zell am Zeller. Reavis had been sending me updates on the gaggle just in front of me who took a really direct line but my timing or lack of local knowledge or just poor flying stopped me dead in my tracks as soon as I got low and swallowed by the north valley wind coming from the Inn valley. Twice I ridge soared up in the valley wind to attempt a crossing of the west end of the Pinzgau and both times had to run back south. On the 3rd attempt I thought I had the height to make the crossing but again got nailed in the lee and rather than run again rammed it into a tiny sloping field near the top of a ski area that was fully in the lee that made for pretty exciting piloting. Here’s a photo of my tracklog:
I packed quickly, hoofed it up to the top of the ski area a few hundred meters and prepared to launch in winds that were gusting well over 40 km/hr but at least now were coming from the right direction. Two minutes later just before pulling up my wing the honking wind nearly died. I checked in with Reavis, neither of us had an answer so I launched. And then it became clear. Something very big was dropping out to our east that we couldn’t see and I was in the downflush. I lost 1200 meters in less than three minutes, it felt like I didn’t even have a wing over my head. I cursed several times loud enough for the cows and sheep below to wince and slope landed again. I was losing precious time in a near-perfect sky and now the overdevelopment was spreading onto the north side of the Alps. A big cell was blowing up near the Zugspitz directly on course line and several pilots I had been well in front of an hour ago were now sailing past my position. Two hours later and nearly 10km and over 1200 meters of gain and I was back in position to launch on a perfect west-facing grassy slope 2,000 meters above the valley floor. With some luck I could still make 20-30 km in the air. But it was not to be. The cell to our east was still dumping cold air and I was directly in it’s flush. I ran around to several different aspects hoping I could launch in the lee but I couldn’t find a launch that wasn’t suicidal. Thankfully the van could drive up to nearly where I was and we decided it would be better to maintain our high position and get some extra sleep. Five hours were basically lost, several pilots had made Lermoos, capping a nearly perfect day with a gut punch, but sometimes bad luck pays off in unexpected ways, which would set us up for the best day of the race in just a few short hours…
Our BEST, best day:)
Day 4 started with a bang and just kept getting better. I was out the door at 0500 after a perfect sleep under a full night of heavy rain and thunder high in the Austrian Alps. A quick climb of a couple hundred meters to the ridge line above us and a moderate katabatic flow looked promising for a great glide towards the Inn Valley, some 20 kilometers to the North. Shortly after 0600- the earliest time you are allowed to fly I pulled my wing up and turned downwind and immediately found a convergence line. For nearly 10 kilometers I lost almost no height, at times getting better than an 18:1 glide and even found a weak climb on the last peak before the Inn Valley which I happily took, even if it made no sense. No sun, 6 o’clock in the morning, heavy rain all night and…thermals? Bring it on! I easily made the glide over the river through the Inn Valley and landed on the road up to Achensee lake, a 37 minute flight of 20 kilometers that made the loss the night before a non-event. An easy 15 km walk past the lake, where recreational pilots were doing maneuvers and enjoying the beginnings of a perfect day of flying brought us through Pertisau and to a perfect SE facing launch called Grubigstein. Juraj Koren (Team Slovakia 1) arrived just after we did, one of the teams wh0’d flown past me the night before when I was pinned. Our weather expert in Chamonix was calling for major overdevelopment by as early as noon, but thankfully Reavis’ prediction was as always more accurate- it was lining up to be a very, very good day.
Ben and I got to launch just as the day was turning on and with light cycles coming up the hill I was anxious to fly the 60km to Lermoos, a section I’d never made in one go in the previous two X-Alps. I launched and knew the move was around the corner to the southern slopes but if I went and didn’t find a climb I’d be on the valley floor so I quickly slope landed before I lost the opportunity just as Juraj was taking off on a lower launch and easily climbed out. Ahhhh! This was not the time to be such a wimp! I ran to where Juraj launched, got cow shit all over my harness and shoes, took a deep breath, gave myself a pep talk and launched again. This time it worked. After a short time scratching around with Reavis offering encouragement and guidance through my earpiece I found a strong climb, got to base and started heading west. There were puffy clouds showing the way and other than some annoying SW wind on the nose it was relatively fast flying. In fact many times I had to remind myself that I was in a race to keep me from ogling the surroundings. This area of Austria is some of the most stunning terrain in the world, and is built for flying. Big, stark white granite peaks, almost no roads, very few people, turquoise lakes, and rugged and deep valleys which seem totally out of place given the proximity to nearby Innsbruck and other population centers. In short order I made the glide over Mittenwald onto the Zugspitz massif where I caught up with Tobi and Toma and in short order was on glide past the Zugspitz turnpoint and had Lermoos on an easy glide. In just a couple hours I’d moved up from 18th to 12th and had at least 6 pilots within 10 kilometers. We were back in the hunt! Tobi and I signed the board while a couple of locals kindly helped me pack my glider and we headed up together to launch, yet another beast of a climb, one I knew well from previous editions. The flying was so fast and direct my team was still an hour behind but Ben and Keith caught up with me at the top of the ski area thanks to the gondola. After a quick feed, a few jokes and running to three different launches before we found one that worked because the entire mountain was in the lee I was off and quickly found a ripper to cloudbase.
Course line didn’t look so great. Reavis confirmed a big cell was dropping out over Davos, 100 km down course line and the north, more direct line which several athletes had chosen just ahead of me (Durogati, Dorlodot, Nubel) were going to get shut down and have a hard walk. The south less direct line also didn’t look great, but it was still flyable, an easier walk and while I was mapping out this route in my mind I cut the corner to Imst too tight and suddenly found myself in terrible position. I was within meters of where I’d bombed out in 2017 leaving Lermoos, also on a good day and it was everything I could do not to panic. I raced across the valley to a cement factory and west-facing terrain and willed myself back into the sky. “Be calm Gavin, be calm. It’s 4 pm, the day is booming, just stay in the air.” On a normal day of flying bombing out is little more than an inconvenience. It’s annoying, sure, but you just pack up, hang your head, find a train or a car or do some hitch hiking and prepare for another day. In the X-Alps, and especially THIS X-Alps where the pace was so incredibly fast, a bomb out on a good day could mean the difference of 10 positions. You try to stay calm and cool but the pressure can be paralyzing. Thankfully my vario confirmed I’d made a good move and a little ridge soaring and patchy bubbles of air slowly got me high enough to begin turning circles in real thermals and eventually I was away again, now concentrating on staying below airspace instead of staying off the ground. YESSSSSSS!
I transitioned within meters of the airspace to the west facing south side of the Inn Valley, climbed through 4,000 meters and assessed my position. The sky to the south and to the west was becoming terrifying. There was visible rain and several streaks of lightning not far off my course but the air still felt great. I wanted to milk everything possible out of this day. Reavis and Ben were driving as fast as possible up the Pfunds valley towards Scuol as I wanted a report on what was happening at the Nauders pass and was prepared to top land high if conditions on the ground became dangerous. Just before Nauders a grassy ridge presented itself and I quickly landed around 2700 meters to check in with Reavis. “The radar to your west is definitely active, but right now there is only light wind in the valley and so far no rain.” I was on the ground less than two minutes. The air was lifty and I had a discernible tail wind as I pressed farther west up the valley. At Nauders the air went from silky and easy to turbulent and strange. Light rain fell on my instruments and after a few circles in a strong but weird climb I pressed on, pointing for the north side of the valley where a top-landing would be easy. Just before I arrived Reavis jumped back into my earpiece. “Ok, we are now getting large drops of rain and I would describe the wind as dangerous.” Reavis is about the coolest cat there is when relaying information and my translation of this message was simple- GET ON THE GROUND! My position couldn’t have been better. I was a couple thousand meters over the valley floor, flying 55-60km/ hour downwind only meters off the deck and I could land just about anywhere- most of the slope I was whipping along was grass and mostly free of obstacles. While I could see sheets of rain ahead and to my left in the valley the air was smooth and I was cracking off distance at an amazing clip. I carried on another few kilometers literally skimming the surface thinking there couldn’t be too many ways in the world to be this tuned into your environment. On the razors edge! And then suddenly the air got really weird, I yanked hard on my left brake, turned 180 degrees into the wind and side hill landed. 20 seconds later the rain began in earnest and a minute after that the gust front hit just as I was balling up my wind and nearly blew me off the mountain. That was close!
Here’s a little recap of the day thus far:
I contoured around on course line about 15 minutes, watched the bulk of the storm pass, the sun came out, Reavis confirmed the rain had passed in the valley, I laid out my wing and again took to the air and rode the back side of the gust front right up the valley! Another 15 km covered with no effort at all. I landed near the road just after the van raced by with Ben and Reavis hanging their middle finger out the window as per our typical protocol just minutes before the 9 pm cut off and did a little celebratory jig:
A short walk down the road to Scuol put us in perfect position for a launch I knew well the next day. We were in 12th position and only a few kilometers out of 5th as a whole gaggle were clustered together right in front of us and all but Chrigel and Maxime were well within reach. It was one of the most perfect days I’ve had in the X-Alps. Efficient flying, good decisions, solid ground game, a proper low save and most importantly- a hell of a lot of fun. I even had the chance to contemplate how ridiculous it was to be nearly twice the age of Tobias (Ita 2) at Lermoos as we hiked to launch. We would be within a few kilometers of one another until the end of the race and share many, many hikes and thermals together.
Hike and Fly
Day 5, 6 and 7 were rainy, stormy and ones that in most places on course line very few athletes would experience much noise from their varios. But the pace remained incredibly fast as we passed into Switzerland and even though the flying was at best marginal it was terrifically fun if you like hike and fly and challenging route finding. The mileage and vertical was intense but so were the views, and some of my best (albeit shortest) flights of my life were in this section into Davos and up the Rhine to the Titlis turnpoint.
On day 6 and 7 I hiked just shy of 9,000 vertical meters between short glides, much of it on snow with microspikes, ending in the ascent of Titlis, a grand, beautiful but imposing monstrosity of rock and glaciers that seemed to never end. When it did finally end near 6 pm in a near white-out snow storm there were two people on top- my supporter Ben and a lone employee left behind to bring Ben back down the mountain as the ski area had closed at 5 pm. I signed the board, which was decorated with a note from two wonderful friends from Germany who had spent the whole day on top hoping I would arrive earlier (thank you Thomas and Adriena!) and then we ducked out of the snowstorm into the “Panorama Lounge” to dry out my gear. The clock was ticking. If I didn’t get off the mountain before 8:20 I would be stuck. Even a terrible glide from this position would take 30 minutes towards the Eiger turnpoint and I’d worked my ass off to get here, I couldn’t accept a later launch and a spiral to the ground- I wanted to get as much distance as possible. But the winds were gusting over 40 km an hour directly from the west (the direction I was trying to go) and you couldn’t see anything. Eat, get warm, dry out, get the gear totally ready to go and go outside every few minutes to see if a window would present itself.
To be honest sleeping in the Panorama Lounge was starting to feel like a heavenly prospect and I was content that it was so obviously unflyable. I was tired, wet and cold and the forecast for the next few days promised plenty of sunshine and good flying (read on, the “good flying” never materialized)- why not just get a good sleep and start from here tomorrow? But Ben reminded me our goal this year was to keep moving and do everything we could to not get stuck. And Reavis was of the opinion that the next day might not turn on until well after noon, and we would lose a ton of valuable time if I couldn’t fly. In other words, be ready!
The snow kept falling and the wind kept howling until a brief break in the clouds just after 8:15 gave us a dose of hope. But just as soon as it arrived it slammed shut like a bank vault door and I was pretty sure our day was finished. But then 5 minutes later we could suddenly at least see the horizon and I ran out to launch with Ben and the lone worker in tow. I threw my wing in the snow, Ben stretched it out and I yanked it into the air. After recovering from a big cravat in my left wingtip which nearly sent me over a cliff I was flung skyward directly between the tram cables and a chairlift cable as if I was on a reverse bungee-jump. Ben said seconds after I launched he couldn’t see me as our “window” again slammed shut but I could see nearly all the way to Interlaken even while Titlis remained engulfed in cloud. I banked left to get on course line towards Grindelwald and pressed my speed bar as far as it would go, urging my Zeolite to fly as fast as she could.
A headwind didn’t help my glide and I began to fret our decision to launch but once I was below 2,000 meters the wind eased and I got an acceptable glide to an easy landing near the road that led to the pass above Grindelwald. On cue the rain started dumping just as I set off up the road and it pelted down for what turned into a mostly sleepless night. And that…would be my undoing on Day 8.
Our WORST day:(
Day 8 was historically a good one for Team USA. Day 8 was the magic day in 2015 when I flew a much more direct route to the Matterhorn than the other teams and jumped from 18th to 7th, which also secured getting to Monaco. In the 2017 race Day 8 was the day I clawed ahead of a tenacious group of pilots in the middle of the pack on our way to the Garda turnpoint and bought myself some breathing room for the days ahead. Day 8 in the 2019 race had all the beginnings of another banner day. I was well ahead of the chasing pack behind us and we had 8 teams all within less than 15 kilometers. Some good moves would see us in the top 5. An easy walk up to the pass above Grindelwald set up a lovely glide across the village at 0700, I landed right next to the Eiger trail, met Ben at a train station, had a coffee and a bite to eat and carried on up the trail to tag the turnpoint and again met Ben at our planned launch across from the Wengen ski area. My body felt fine but my brain was fuzzy at best. A few monster physical days and a sleepless night had taken their toll. I was having a hard time putting together complete sentences but Ben and I laughed it off, this was the X-Alps after all, operating while tired was part of the game.
And then the problems started. Even though we’d had several days of rain and storms and this was the first sun we’d seen since the beginning of the race this was a high pressure system that was uniquely stable…and scorchingly hot. Those were actually the words the Chamonix weather bulletin used to describe the heat that day. “Scorchingly hot.” So while I prepared my gear under the Eiger listening to Reavis’ weather brief come through my headset we incorrectly assumed the day was still well short of being “on”. We were on a west facing slope and it was just past 11 am. The plan was to glide across to the SE facing mountain above Wengen, slope land, hike to the top and be in position when the day would support cross country flying. I saw no reason to carry all my gear with me, Ben could just keep it and fly over after I did, hike to the top and then I’d grab my gear. So I launched. No jacket, no pee tube, only the bare essentials. And immediately I found a climb. If my brain had been working I would have just left the climb, landed where I’d just taken off, grabbed my stuff and relaunched. But my brain wasn’t working. I called Reavis and ecstatically told him “dude the day is ON, I just climbed through 2700 and am going on glide to Murren!” He replied back that Simon, Manuel and Marcus were one glide ahead of me climbing at the Shilthorn and I could easily reel them in! I considered it was going to be a very cold day flying in only a t-shirt and speed sleeves, but I was so excited to be actually thermalling again that the saying “if you’re gonna be stupid you gotta be tough” rattled around in my fuzzy mind and I just pressed on.
I flew under the tram cables at the Shilthorn, no doubt distressing some of the flummoxed tourists and pieced together a climb to base, which was just below peak height, about 2800 meters. The gaggle in front of me had just passed Frutigen and gained the Niesen ridge. They were two glides away. But the shaking was already becoming untenable. By the time I cleared the col to the west by no more than a few feet I was completely frozen. I called Reavis and he put the team into action. We needed to find a place down course line where they could get to quickly and I could top land and get my gear. I was operating on very little bandwidth and this distraction had to be put to bed.
I joined some very vocal and enthusiastic recreational pilots above the town of Kiental who rooted me on, finally dug out of a tricky spot and and went on glide south of Frutigen, where Chrigel (SUI 1) and Patrick Von Kanel (SUI 2) live. Recognizing there was a very strong inversion at about 1800 meters to be safe I topped up near the Elsighorn on the ridge before the Niesen ridge (see photo above) and then crossed. The pilots in front of me had made quick work of the Niesen ridge SW towards Adelboden but when I arrived I found the air dead. I was clearly below the inversion and somewhat strangely, cloudbase was visibly dropping. A few recreational pilots were happily cruising along under the clouds 500 meters over my head but I was down in the soup. I turned left, up the valley and found only broken little bubbles. When I reached 1300 meters I had two options and no time to choose- punch across to the other side of the valley while I still had a bit of height and hope it was working better, or slope land and walk above the inversion. I chose the latter. Which of course in retrospect was the wrong choice. Cloudbase continued to drop on the Niesen ridge (which is mostly east facing and I now should have been on west facing slopes) as I hiked as fast as I could in the scorching sun while clouds continued to pop on the other side of the valley. This was the mistake we’d avoided the entire race- being on the ground, on the wrong aspect, in the best part of the day. The only consolation was that the pilots in front of me were also struggling with the stability and making slow progress. BUT- they were at least in the air while I was torching myself.
A sweaty and frustrating hour later I was just over 1700 meters and good cycles were coming up the hill so I launched again. And then basically ridge soared for over an hour in the same spot, gaining and then losing a few meters with every pass. Every time I flew around the corner to a better aspect to the sun I got flushed and was too nervous to press on so I just kept trying the same thing over and over again, even though it wasn’t working. If I was thinking I would have recognized right away that I was under a thick inversion and would have just kept flying along under it down course line and survive until I punched through. Make progress. But I wasn’t thinking. So I landed again, balled up my wing, hiked another 200 meters, which was now close to cloudbase and flopped 5 launch attempts before finally getting off the hill. The launch was a nice grassy slope and I had a light uphill wind- aka, a perfect launch. But my brain was muddled. I was dehydrated, frustrated, not thinking clearly and furious. Once in the air I did actually start making some progress down course line but it was painfully slow. I was no longer getting updates from Reavis which meant I’d been left in the dust. He knew I didn’t need confirmation I was having a terrible day. At the end of the Niesen ridge I didn’t find a climb and top landed near some chairlifts and a few folks flying RC gliders, balled up the wing again and stormed up high enough where I could launch, fly downwind and clear the col and keep going. I then flew nearly 2 hours and maybe made 5 kilometers near the town of Lenk. My track log looks like a two year old scribbling with an orange crayon. There were clear signs in the sky showing the way to go but I wanted so desperately to regain the high ground and get out of the stable air I ignored them. Finally what little energy the day had to give ended and I landed at the local LZ in Lenk.
Several local pilots showed up seconds later and offered advice for the next day, a handful of delicious Swiss chocolate and huge encouraging grins that immediately made me feel better but the math looked dismal. As I hiked to our camp spot Tobias flew over my head (he’d started the day on top of Titlis) and I added it up: The gaggle I was right with was now 60 kilometers ahead near and around Chamonix and with more super hot and stable days ahead and the St Hilaire turnpoint nearly impossible to reach in the air in these conditions (St Hilaire is low and there is no high terrain to connect to it), Monaco and a top-ten finish had gone from probable to impossible in the span of a few hours.
In the months leading up to the 2019 Red Bull X-Alps my trainer Ben Abruzzo mostly duplicated (but tweaked in fun ways) the enormous physical training that had worked so well for us in previous editions but we also took a much closer look at my nutrition. I’d made a pretty concerted effort in 2017 to ditch a ton of the carbs and replace them with more protein and fat, shooting to become metabolically “fat adaptive”. We weren’t shooting for a full-on ketogenic diet and I wasn’t shooting to be in Ketosis, but by eating foods rich in animal protein (which included at least weekly organ meats- kidney, liver, sweetbreads, etc.) and free-range on-the-bone meat, animal fats, and plenty of veggies instead of carbs my body would fuel itself more efficiently by using fat instead of glycogen. Our belief was that sugar-based “fuel” that works well for much shorter duration races like ultrathons, but are toxic for longer races like the X-Alps contributed to my blister nightmare in 2015 and caused a ton of inflammation, which of course leads to pain, lack of sleep, restlessness, etc. Flying, and especially flying in cold weather keeps your brain on high alert, and the brain can suck down as much or more reserves than a monster hike. The type and quantity of fuel you ingest and burn is critical. Unlike other very long duration physical races (although I don’t know of any that last as long as the X-Alps!) where you can mostly just put your head down and go hard, the X-Alps also requires a TON of thinking. Fuel is critical not just for the body, but for the mind. In 2017 my feet were mostly fine, I slept better and didn’t have any of the problems with inflammation so clearly we were on the right track but for this race we took it even further, and the results were extraordinary.
This time around I had no physical problems whatsoever until the very last night when we pulled my nightpass and I walked all night. Eventually my feet exploded. Which was understandable after three very physical days in a smoldering heat wave. But the hugest difference between 2017 and 2019 was the huge reduction in food required to keep me going. After months of eating a fat adaptive oriented diet, and using a combination of Vespa 2-3 times during workouts and then during the race, which is a catalyst for helping the body burn fat for fuel instead of glycogen, and adding a host of supplements, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants (these were all suggested by our nutrition guru Peter Defty, the creator of Vespa) that your body can’t make enough of and the diet can’t supply for the insane output needed I required a LOT less calories and never once got close to “bonking”. The supplements included magnesium, potassium, L-Carnitine, vitamin D, Tru Niagen (NAC), gelatin and bone marrow collagen for the joints, and Niacin for recovery. And from my good friends at the ONNIT lab I added Glucosamine for the joints, Joint Oil (also for the joints- this stuff is AMAZING), Alpha brain (memory and focus), Mitochondria (gut), Total Human (immune system), and during the day anytime I needed a little fuel any of their plant based protein bars which are hands-down the best protein bars I’ve ever used or their Warrior or Elk bars– easy on the stomach and PACKED with calories and good fuel.
My breakfast and dinner weren’t much bigger than what my team was eating. And I felt incredible. It was taking a lot less energy to convert food to fuel and I had no gastro problems (always an issue when you’re red lining for long periods, day after day). My body was simply using it’s own perfect fuel- its own fat. Given I was maybe 3% body fat at the end of the race and not much more than that at the start I’m not sure where it was getting it, but the proof was in how I felt. I slept better, felt better and could push harder than ever before.
And now what?
That is a very good question. The Red Bull X-Alps is a year of serious endeavor. Physical training. Flying as much as possible, especially in tricky conditions. Tightening up the game. Packing fast, moving fast, thinking fast. Assembling the team, getting all the tech dialed (this is endless in itself), the preparation and planning never ends. And then FINALLY 11 am arrives on the first day of the race in Salzburg and all of that is behind you and for the next 11+ days you have an adventure that is nearly impossible to articulate. It’s heaven a lot of the time and it’s also hell some of the time. And it’s everything inbetween. As much as I love the flying and the crazy places you find yourself and the mind blowing things you see along they way and all the incredible interactions you have with the locals and the other athletes what I consistently love the most is the bond and the friendship and support of my team. In every edition thus far the laughs and camaraderie far outweigh the mistakes and set backs and frustrations. It’s a dynamic that I’ve never been able to replicate outside the war that is the X-Alps. When the race ends all that magic vanishes almost immediately. There is a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction that spins up and wraps around and around you like a big booming thermal that you and your team can feel even if it isn’t possible to explain but then like all thermals it dies, breaks up, drifts apart and there is a listlessness to the days after the race that is more than just physical and mental exhaustion and the toll of so little sleep for so long. It is this nagging, terrible, relentless question I cannot answer. Now what? I have said many times the worst thing about the X-Alps is that it ends. I thought this time I was better prepared for the end but I’m not. It’s over.
Now what? I’m 47 years old. It is ridiculous to keep doing this. Ben said he was done in 2017 and reiterated that he was definitely done this time. I said the same on that last day. ENOUGH. This is enough. Climbing up mountains in a heat wave for three days is stupid. Spending so much money on a game that contributes to mankind very little is stupid. But now, two weeks later it’s all I can think about. If I’d flown better on Day 8 we would have made it to Monaco. But would that have made any difference in how I feel? If I’d won would it make any difference? Could I then call it quits? I doubt it. It was the best race we’ve ever run, even if the result wasn’t. If I could honestly say that results don’t matter I would in fact be a more enlightened human, but that’s not my reality. Doing well is more fun than sucking. Even though I should never, ever do it again I’m going to find it impossible to pass up in 2021. So maybe…that’s what.
Here’s a recap highlight reel of the race. HUGE thanks to the following folks for providing pics and video so we could put this together:
Vitek Ludvik, Marcus King, Honza Zak, Federico Modica, Tobias Grossrubatscher, Reavis Sutphin-Gray, Ben Abruzzo
And a very grateful THANK YOU to the following companies and people for your support. We could never do it without you:
Tony Lang, Patagonia, Garmin, Onnit, Salewa, Vespa, Zenergy Sun Valley, Munch Machine, Smith Optics, Play Hard Give Back, Ozone Paragliders, Niviuk Paragliders, The Foundation for Free Flight and all of you who supported the US Team- THANK YOU.