On July 5th 33 athletes from 18 countries will set out to hike and fly 1000km from Salzburg to Monaco via Germany, Italy, Switzerland and France. Among them will be Britain’s Steve Nash. In this article he tells us why he’s back for a second attempt.
The sheer scope of the Red Bull X-Alps is difficult to take in. The route has a straight-line distance of 1,038km but that doesn’t do it justice. The race begins in Salzburg, Austria and then heads east to the upturned limestone seabed that is the Dachstein massif (from where the famous old-school woolly mitts take their name).
Athletes then head west, hugging the northern Alps to reach Germany’s highest mountain, the Zugspitze, before heading due south, crossing the whole range to Italy’s Brenta mountains. Then it’s west again, passing the iconic peaks of the Matterhorn and Mt Blanc before heading south through the Alpes Maritimes until ending, literally, in the sea off Monaco.
It’s not unusual for athletes to clock 100km on foot in a day and a vertical ascent of 3,000m. In the air, some athletes have come close to flying 200km in a single push.
“It’s the duration of the effort day after day,” says Steve, who at 52 is the oldest competitor in the lineup. “You get to a point where you can’t believe you can carry on. Having said that, the reward is amazing. During the event we saw some amazing things and flew some amazing places that I wouldn’t dream of doing. It’s an event that pushes you past the limit both on the ground and in the air.”
Steve is back for his second outing after taking part in the 2011 race. Despite preparing intensely last time, he was disqualified after entering forbidden air space 385km from the finish.
“That was hard to deal with,” he says. “We knew it was instant disqualification.” This time around he’s taking no chances and studying the maps harder than ever.
“It’s the perfect combination of running, hiking and paragliding,” he adds. “I’ve come from mountain marathons. I started with KIMMs way back and then alpine, transalpine runs and some of the bigger ultras. Then I got into paragliding. It’s the perfect synergy. And the race is a totally different concept to any other event.”
Race director Christoph Weber says it demands a much higher bar on skills than other adventure races. “You have to be a brilliant all-round mountain athlete with an incredible level of fitness and skill, and a sixth sense for reading the weather, the terrain and the competition. It's not just about being a great paraglider pilot – but you do need to be one of those as well!”
“You really need to be all-round mountain savvy,” adds Steve. “You need to understand the vagaries of mountain weather, where to go, where not to go, combining things like orienteering skills of a mountain marathon with paragliding experience.”
The race kicks off with a one-day prologue on July 2nd in the Salzburg hills made famous in the Sound of Music. The race proper then starts on July 5th. There is only one main rule – every kilometer to Monaco has to be covered by foot or paraglider.
“Its simplicity is what makes it most appealing,” says the race mastermind Hannes Arch. “We start in Salzburg and whoever arrives in Monaco first wins. That’s it. It’s about body and soul, not about hundreds of rules and regulations.”
One of the features that makes it unique is the state-of-the-art Red Bull mobile Live Tracking. Updated every second, it lets fans follow every minute of the action. Users can analyse flight paths and hiking routes, switch between satellite and topo views and use it to explore the Alps. There’s also a constantly updated news feed with the latest videos, images and stories from the race as well as contests and gear giveaways.
On the startline will be some pretty impressive adventurers from around the world. Among them is Gavin McClurg, a National Geographic adventurer of the year and fellow American Dave Turner, himself a Piolet d’Or nominated alpinist, big wall climber and now adventure paraglider pilot.
To prepare for the race, he arrived a month early and hiked and flew the whole way, his fourth hike and fly traverse of the Alps. “It was beautiful,” he says. “My style has always been no assistance, so no gondola, no van, no train – I just love the adventure.”
Also in the lineup is the indomitable Romanian character Toma Coconea. In one year he clocked a remarkable 981km on foot! Then there’s the unchallenged race champion, Chrigel ‘the eagle’ Maurer, who has won the race three times in a row, the last time setting a new record of 6d 23h 40m.
Every athlete has one dedicated supporter whose job description includes cook, driver, psychologist, strategist, weather forecaster – all round race bitch. Often, they are the ones making the winning calls on route selection.
“You do become addicted to it,” adds Steve. “I can’t wait.”
FOLLOW THE ACTION: on Live Tracking on redbullxalps.com from July 2nd
Steve will also be sharing pics and videos during the race. You can follow him, send him a good luck message and check out his blogs here.
WATCH: the teaser video
EXPLORE: the route in this 3D animation