Tomorrow, October 14th the world finds out who’s going to compete in the 10th edition of the Red Bull X-Alps, which kicks off June 20th, 2021. We’ll find out which 33 athletes from around the globe get to spend most of their waking hours over the next 9 months getting physically and mentally prepared for what’s billed as the toughest adventure race on Earth. Team USA 1 has competed now three times and we hope to again in 2021. I know the mileage, sweat and tears that are in store in the months ahead. The endless checklists, the endless refinements, the training that just keeps getting harder…and harder…and harder until finally the blessed taper two weeks before the race kicks off and then there’s nothing but anticipation and unsettled nerves until the gun goes off in Salzburg.
If you’ve been thinking about applying to the Red Bull X-Alps this blog post is for you. I’m not on the selection committee and I know no more about who gets selected that anyone else, but I do know how difficult (and awesome) the race is, and what athletes can expect to endure. And I can guess what the selection committee really wants to see in an applicant. Knowledge is power as they say, so my hope is this post helps the uninitiated navigate the unknown.
When I think back to our first campaign in 2015 the most unwieldy aspect of the race were all the things we didn’t understand and couldn’t totally anticipate or prepare for. How hard was it really when it came to the physical aspect? Could I fly safely in the conditions the race required? What about all the logistics? What were the critical things my team needed to be comfortable doing? How would we handle (and could we prepare for) the inevitable conflict and stress the race would throw at us? And the scariest of them all- did we have what it takes?
Huge projects are like huge goals. They have to be broken down into manageable segments. Otherwise they can never be tackled. So let’s break it down:
For 11.5 days you’re allowed to move from 0500-22:30, and one night you can go all night (all athletes are allowed to use a “nightpass” once in the race, and the top three of the prologue can use two). So other than one night you’re moving either on the ground or in the air 17.5 hours a day. On unflyable days the top athletes will cover 90-120 km. Remember- that’s with a pack, carrying all of your gear (7-10 kilos typically without food and water), going up and over and across the Alps, and if it’s unflyable that means you’re traveling in the rain, snow and wind and often on very busy roads with a ton of traffic. In my three campaigns I’ve climbed at least the height of Everest 4 times (120,000′) in each one. That’s 10,000′ a day (many days are close to 20,000′), and even in good flying years you’ll cover at least a marathon a day in distance. I’ve averaged 4 flights per day in all three campaigns. That’s a hell of a lot of vertical, and even though it’s the Alps which tends to have pretty friendly terrain, I can count on two hands the number of “normal” launches I’ve used, and less when it comes to landings (last year I touched down briefly on a winding road with a car barreling down on me before winging it over a waterfall). Don’t just read those numbers and assume you can tough it out. Think ultrathon every day, WITH a pack, WITH a ton of very sketchy flying, WITH a ton of endless decision-making, WITHOUT much sleep. You cannot simply will yourself across this course. Blisters alone takes out several athletes every year. I read that Chrigel shoots for 30,000 meters per month of vertical. On Team USA 1 we shoot for 8-10,000 feet of vertical per week PLUS a ton of time in the gym working on serious core strength to accommodate the pack and the vertical, PLUS several months of aerobic base training (think miles), PLUS endless foot conditioning (again, think miles). You should be thinking about committing 10-15 hours per week to training in the fall (this does NOT include flying, ground handling, logistics, team planning, etc- this is just the physical training), then 15-25 hours per week in the winter, and up to 35 hours per week in the last three months. My secret is Ben Abruzzo, my trainer and one of my team members in the race. Certainly you can go it on your own, but I don’t recommend it. Overtraining is as sinister as undertraining and getting it right should be handled by a professional. Having a competent trainer allows you to unload one huge stress point- will I be physically ready?
The Red Bull X-Alps is not a game for recreational pilots. In 2015 the legend Toma Coconea nearly lost his life in the race. Ditto for 7-time competitor Tom De Dorlodot. Michael Witschi (one of the best pilots in the game) threw his reserve and veteran X-Alps pilot Michael Gebert pulled out because the conditions were so sketchy. In 2017 Antoine Girard got so broken trying to launch on day two of the race he had to pull out. I saw two other super talented pilots crash in violent Foehn conditions that day. The thing is- to be remotely competitive in the X-Alps flying in conditions that we shouldn’t fly in is just part of the game. You’ve gotta have wicked ground handling skills, acro skills are a must, and you’ve gotta be super duper comfortable flying in the lee, in rotor, and generally in conditions that would and should terrify most pilots. If this kind of flying turns you on, the Red Bull X-Alps could be right up your alley. Here’s a few segments from the 2017 race to give you an idea:)
The race is extraordinarily expensive. If you’re selected you don’t have to pay the organization to compete, but you’ve got to cover all your costs, which are considerable. The Europeans obviously have a big advantage here as they don’t have to contend with buying airline tickets for your team or renting race vehicles, but it’s still three + weeks of things that really add up (there’s a mandatory pre-race week, which includes the Prologue, and then the actual 12 day race). Food, road tolls, and fuel are the obvious ones but also things like gear, apps and maps for your team, sim cards and data plans, and sometimes just getting water for the race vehicle in places like Switzerland can be astonishing (anything you have to buy in Switzerland is astonishing!). Each of our campaigns has cost in the neighborhood of $30,000 USD. Can it be done for less? Of course, but just the van rental alone for the two weeks of the race and three weeks of training before the race is 8,000 euros. Nick Neynens rocks up with a small SUV and his team (his mom and his brother) are happy posting up in a tent, cooking on a camp stove and giving him a big block of cheese every once in awhile, so there is clearly a huge range here, but the point is- give it some serious consideration.
KNOWLEDGE OF THE ALPS
Take a look at the results of the race since its inception in 2003. The first thing to notice is that it has an 11% finish rate- one of the many statistics that gives credence to its billing as the “Toughest on Earth”. The second thing is that is has never been won by a non-Swiss athlete. The third is how only a fraction of the already small numbers who have completed the course are non-Europeans. The first was legendary Japanese pilot Kauro “Ogi” Ogisawa in 2007 (Ogi competed at the age of 59 in the 2019 race!). The next wasn’t until 6 years later when Jon Chambers came in an impressive 4th in 2013. The next was me in 2015. Through the 2019 race only 6 non-European athletes have made it to Monaco! The point is- the Alps are a complex maze of dense, imposing mountains that create their own weather systems. It can be totally flyable in one valley but suicidal only 15 km away! Did you watch Chrigel fly from Davos up the Rhine and top land Titlis in the 2019 race? Not many pilots on Earth could have pulled that off that day, but I’d gamble that number goes to zero if that wasn’t your backyard, as it is for Chrigel.
IS IT TIME TO APPLY?
This is a question I think many overly-ambitious pilots get wrong. There are two main approaches here. The first is to just wing it and apply even with a thin flying and mountain resume and see if you get lucky (although if you are French, Swiss, Italian or Austrian sorry, you’ve gotta be a top-notch contender!). The problem then becomes if you aren’t really ready for the race placing in the top half and not getting eliminated is a tall order, which then means your chances of getting invited back go way down. I actually have no idea how much favoritism the race committee gives to veterans, but they have published that if you don’t place in the top half, it’s certainly no guarantee. Case in point- in 2017 polish pilot Michal Gerlach who is a seriously accomplished comp pilot and came in a respectable 16th in the race did not get a slot in 2019. There are dozens of examples like this. I know a lot of people who just go for it and apply. What isn’t maybe obvious is how awesome the race is to experience. Before my first race in 2015 I never for a moment thought I’d want to do it more than once. As we closed on Monaco in the 2015 race we were already planning the 2017 race! And here we are going into what is hopefully our 4th. In other words- play the long game. There’s no rush. The race isn’t going away and I’m proof that you can overcome age! My suggestion is first to get a bunch of shorter, more reasonable hike and fly races under your belt. Do a ton of bivvy trips. I suppose race to goal competitions also get their attention but I doubt they weigh nearly as heavily as races like the EigerTour, Dolomiti, IronFly, VercoFly, X-Pyr or the many others. The top 10 competitors in 2015 moved fast, but you could make mistakes and stay in the game. The pace of the top 20 in the 2019 race was ridiculous, it’s become a completely different game. These days most of the field is insanely fit, their teams are absolutely prepared and professional, and the competition is STIFF. Hell Chrigel even has an X-Alps school for his protegés! You pay for mistakes dearly and making up ground is nearly impossible. So…better be prepared!
Firstly, listen to the podcast I did with Race Director Christoph Weber. He doesn’t totally disclose what they are looking for, but he stresses that they want to see not just excellent piloting skills, but a solid background in operating in the mountains. The race takes you through a lot of really serious terrain. They want to see that you can be autonomous in sketchy places and you’re going to make good decisions. They don’t want yahoo’s who say things like “I’m fearless and I’m going to kick ass!” Think confident humility. Experience in the Alps is invaluable. Documented bivvy expeditions through remote terrain a huge plus. The more videos, articles and media you can generate in advance that show you’re a serious pilot and a serious student of the sport and the race has to weigh promisingly.
Yes, it’s the Red Bull X-Alps. It’s got the name and it’s by far the biggest thing in paragliding. But…it’s still paragliding. Once again I think Europeans have a massive advantage here as flying is just such a much bigger thing in Europe than anywhere else, but getting even free gear, let alone money for competing is harder than you think. My guess is less than a handful of the veterans of the race get much help beyond gear. By all means go for it, but remember that fulfilling big promises to potential sponsors is going to be nearly impossible to do unless you bring your own photographer or videographer over to document your race (they better be UBER fit!). In my three races I’ve had maybe 5 seconds of footage total in the hour-long documentaries Zooom (Zooom is the race organizer) creates, and in two of the races I had one of their film crews with me for several days. If you aren’t Chrigel, a female, or a Red Bull athlete don’t expect much. Blunt- but true. And trust me, your team is going to be too busy to document much on their own.
Without an amazing team you don’t have a chance. That’s just a fact. Chrigel himself had Thomas Theurillat for his first four wins, without a doubt our sport’s greatest sports-psychologist (not to mention he’s an accomplished mountain guide!). Check out Thomas’ incredible company OneDay to find out more (he was also on the podcast recently). Your team gets less sleep than you do and will be doing almost all of your thinking. The X-Alps is 12 days of physical chess with a big dollop of random thrown in to make things interesting. You can’t bull your way across the course, you have to think. You’ve got to all get along and have a blast even when shit isn’t going right. They have to juggle not killing themselves AND try not to kill you. The supporter role in the X-Alps is about the furthest thing from a holiday there is. The race is awesome on so many levels- the flying; the incredible beauty of the Alps; the intensity; the competition; seeing what you’re made of and a lot more. All of it- awesome. But I keep coming back for more because none of it compares to the experience you have with your team. You’re going to war with people you totally rely on and the laughter and joy we’ve experience in our X-Alps campaigns isn’t replicable anywhere else. So pick your team carefully!