The Red Bull X-Alps 2013: Ten years of pain and glory

Nick Warren, communications manager for the Red Bull X-Alps in 2011, relives the decade-long history of the world’s toughest adventure race

Navigating by headtorch in the 2011 Red Bull X-Alps. Photograph: Red Bull Content Pool / Vitek Ludvik

Navigating by headtorch in the 2011 Red Bull X-Alps. Photograph: Red Bull Content Pool / Vitek Ludvik

The Red Bull X-Alps 2013 will be the sixth edition of the world’s toughest adventure race. Athletes must either hike or fly approximately 1,000km across the Alps from Salzburg to Monaco in the fastest time possible.

Every kilometre must be covered either on foot or flown in a paraglider. It’s a formidable undertaking and takes place in one of most breathtaking yet also unforgiving environments. Each team consists of one athlete and up to two supporters.

No technical or outside assistance is allowed. It requires expert paragliding experience and a very high level of endurance fitness — it’s not uncommon for athletes to hike up to 100km in a day. The 2013 edition comes on the ten-year anniversary of the first Red Bull X-Alps.

***

On a scorching hot day in a small French village, a strange tap-tapping sound breaks the sleepy silence. A few moments later, the source reveals itself as a dishevelled and unshaven Toma Coconea, carrying a huge rucksack, part running, part walking, propelling himself along with walking poles.

The 35-year-old Romanian is in a determined bid to make the finish line of Monaco — and second place — in the 2011 edition of the Red Bull X-Alps. But up against him is the Austrian, Paul Gauschlbauer, just a few kilometers behind, and the deadline of the clock, which ends the race 48hrs after the first athlete finishes. With the race already won two days previously by Switzerland’s Christian Maurer, time is running out.

After almost 800km and 14 days of pain, sweat and struggle, this is what it has come down to — a desperate scramble through the southern French countryside to reach the Mediterranean sea. But it’s exactly the kind of drama that makes the Red Bull X-Alps so exciting to follow, whether live, or online via GPS Live Tracking.  It’s also why the race has grown from strength to strength over the ten years and five editions of its existence.

The idea for the race began 10 years ago after Red Bull X-Alps Mastermind Hannes Arch saw a TV documentary in which German pilot Toni Bender crossed the Alps from North to South by paraglider, carrying all his equipment, sleeping rough and hiking the parts he could not fly.

“What an achievement that was!” says Arch. “I thought it would be cool to base a paragliding competition on this format and developed a basic concept for it — and the idea was born! Together with Red Bull, we have developed it over the years to be the Red Bull X-Alps it is today — the toughest and most extreme endurance and outdoor race in the world.”

“Its simplicity is what makes it most appealing. 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.”

In 2003 the first Red Bull X-Alps was launched from the Dachstein Glacier in Austria and with three turnpoints, the Zugpsitze in Germany and Mont Blanc and Mont Gros in France, 17 athletes took to the skies. Kaspar Henny reached Monaco first after almost 12 days, becoming the first of a series of Swiss winners.

Compared to the ultra-lightweight gliders, harnesses that double as backpacks and meticulous preparation that has become the norm for today’s Red Bull X-Alps athletes, things were done a little differently in 2003, explains fiver-time participant Andy Frötscher of Italy:

“Back in 2003 I thought Red Bull X-Alps would be a flying competition and that we would spend most of the time up in the air. I took my usual flying equipment, put it in a sack and started the race with 21kg of baggage. Looking back it was completely crazy!”

By contrast today’s athletes will carry less than 10kg.

In 2005, Alex Hofer succeeded countryman Henny as champion. He won again in 2007, pipping Coconea to the post by virtually flying over his head. His exceptional flying ability and excellent local knowledge gave him an aura of invincibility. That was until Maurer decided to have a go.

In 2009 Maurer, a former paragliding world champion, smashed the opposition, reaching Monaco in under 10 days, a record for the event. Maurer took preparation to the next level, famously bringing ring binders of information about the course with him in his supporter’s van, and even laying stashes of food and drink on various mountains before the race.

Maurer followed it up with a dominating display in 2011, when he appeared to skip from peak to peak while his competitors floundered in the valleys. But he was not as fast as 2009, partly due to a 24-hour penalty incurred for entering a no-fly zone, his only mistake.

Among those struggling to keep in contention was the ever determined and dogged Coconea, who has taken part in every Red Bull X-Alps. Despite countless wrong turns and flights a fraction of the length of Maurer’s, he won his place in the hearts of fans with his gutsy, never-say-die attitude and reputation for extreme endurance.

However, he’s just one of many extraordinary characters who have featured in the Red Bull X-Alps history. Urs Lötscher, second in 2005, was often filmed hiking over snowy mountains in his sandals. Swiss clockmaker Martin Muller’s paragliding skills are incredible but his race campaigns are peppered with massive ups and downs.

In 2007 he reached Mont Gros first but had to serve a time penalty for flying through a no-fly zone, then in 2011 he had a disasterous first few days, completely out of the picture at the rear of the pack. By race end however, he had brilliantly flown his way into the top ten, finishing a superb fourth just 73km from Monaco.

Frenchman and piano teacher Vincent Sprüngli has taken part three times but has a tendency to end his races abruptly. He dramatically crashed into a tree after take off in 2009, and hit a service gondola cable in 2011.

American Honza Rejmanek memorably had to walk backwards downhill and constantly spray his knees with water to keep them working during the 2009 event. Also in 2009, Jouni Makkonen of team Finland turned up with a portable sauna!

Many athletes have tales of fans following them on Live Tracking, then coming out to find them, offer food or encouragement, or even to point them in the right direction.

For Coconea’s final foot march to Mont Gros in 2011, the launch pad for Monaco, the fans were online and on the streets, cheering and willing him on before the time cut-off. He made it with just hours to spare, claiming the runner’s up spot for the second time in his career. Maurer was there to congratulate him, running with him over the final few metres. It was a great moment, and just one of many from the incredible Red Bull X-Alps.

Red Bull X-Alps on XCmag.com


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