What’s the difference between Red Bull X-Alps and life itself? In both, it’s a tough trek going uphill, with the occasional rapid descent. Both provide many paths you can take before reaching the endgame. And in both, the shortest route isn’t necessarily the quickest. There is perhaps only one major difference: Chrigel Maurer always wins the Red Bull X-Alps. The professional paraglider has won the coveted adventure race across the Alps four times, on every occasion since 2009. “It’s high time somebody else won,” he says, grinning. But the Swiss don’t like to hurry things. When he says “high time,” he doesn’t necessarily mean this year.
Since 2003—when the first event saw only three of the 17 competitors make it through the Alps in Switzerland and France to the finish line in Monaco—the race has built a reputation as one of the most demanding in the world. The actual course varies slightly from year to year but always covers more than 600 miles and thousands of feet in altitude. The competitors often travel double that, carefully strategizing as they make their way across the Alps via preassigned checkpoints.
Racing is by foot or paraglider and is only allowed between the hours of 5 a.m. and 10:30 p.m., and the evershifting wind conditions mean competitors must rely on their support partner for logistics, planning and coaching on a daily basis. Maurer won the last edition of the race, in 2015, with a time of 8 days, 4 hours, 37 minutes. Most competitors finish in 10 days or more.
This year, 32 athletes from 18 countries will assemble at the starting line on Mozart Square in the cobblestoned streets of Salzburg, Austria. But all eyes will be on Maurer and his two fiercest competitors: Germany’s Sebastian Huber and Austria’s Paul Guschlbauer. The German came in second and the Austrian third in 2015.
The two have spent the last couple of years lying in wait, honing their paragliding skills and maintaining their fitness levels. And ever since late March, when this year’s route—with seven checkpoints in seven different countries— was revealed, Huber and Guschlbauer began in earnest to plot their revenge.
THE RED BULLETIN: You were unlucky at the 2015 Red Bull X-Alps. You came very close to winning.
SEBASTIAN HUBER: Yes. That’s not how things should have worked out at all.
Your strategy actually seems to be not to view the Red Bull X-Alps as a competition. So what is it, then?
It’s an absolutely amazing adventure. And it’s an adventure I just want to enjoy. That way everything else just falls into place by itself.
But that doesn’t explain why you’re so quick.
Maybe it’s because I don’t overthink things. I believe that if you let things take their natural course, the right thing will happen all by itself.
What does an adventure consist of for you?
Let me give you an example. If the forecast promises nice weather, I pack my sleeping bag and tent, fetch my paraglider and off I go. In the evening I land wherever I feel like and I set up camp there. And then I fly off again the next morning. You experience things money can’t buy. And that moment when you’re back at your front door after a couple of days up in the air gives you a sense of total satisfaction.
And what is it about Red Bull X-Alps that makes it such an adventure?
The new course and all the unknown sections. I particularly like the turnpoint in Slovenia. As far as I’m concerned, they could have happily made it even further south. And all the surprises there are along the way. You often end up having to land where you had no intention of landing. And then you have to work out how you’re going to get yourself out of the situation you’re in.
Not a situation that most people find themselves in every day.
Indeed, because today everyone always has their head stuck in their smartphone or they’re checking their Facebook account. And all you’ve got to do is get out into nature and open your eyes. You don’t have to book a package tour or spend money to have that adventure. You don’t even need to buy any sports equipment. You’ve just got to step outside your front door.
At the last Red Bull X-Alps, in 2015, you got as close to beating Maurer as anyone has since his streak. What will happen if you’re equally insistent on “just having fun” this year?
To be honest, I’m not all that interested. Last time I wasn’t looking over my shoulder to see who was behind me and how far off they were either. My goal is to get to Monaco as quickly as possible, not to get to Monaco more quickly than anyone else.
What brings you the most joy when you think about Red Bull X-Alps?
The thought of it getting started at long last.
THE RED BULLETIN: You know every inch of the route from Salzburg to Monaco. Could you guide me into the valley by phone if my GPS ran out of juice when I was out on a jaunt?
PAUL GUSCHLBAUER : I’d try. I know the main chain of the Alps pretty well. And once you get south of Lake Garda, my knowledge is still not too bad.
So how do you prepare for the new course?
Pretty thoroughly. I’ll inspect it three times from the start: by flying over it, by car and on foot.
Why go to all that effort?
Because I want to understand in detail what I’m going to confront along the way. Where does the wind in the valley wash over the mountain? Where is there a [wind] shadow due to the mountains being so tall?
Are these the details that make the difference between victory and defeat?
They can, because the level has gone up a lot in recent years, and the gap between those out in front has gotten smaller. You can’t just take off and hope for the best anymore. You have to go about Red Bull X-Alps as methodically as if you were playing chess. You’ll only beat your opponents if you’ve worked out your next three moves in advance.
The perfect equipment is another part of planning perfectly. Are you equally meticulous about that too?
It’s another area where everything has become more professional. When I started out in Red Bull X-Alps, we still used to sew our seats and harnesses ourselves. The paragliders were a rotten compromise; they were either easy to carry and hard to fly or the other way round. Now my supplier provides me with high-tech material that was designed especially for this competition.
It all sounds like an enormous amount of work.
On the contrary. It saves time and energy. First I define my goals and then the measures I’m willing to take to get me there. Now all I have to do is put my plan to good effect to achieve my goals. It’s actually very easy. You can apply the same philosophy to your job, as can amateur sportsmen to what they do.
Most of us just drift through our day-to-day lives without a plan, though. Even management books say we get 80 percent of our results with just 20 percent effort. So shouldn’t that be enough?
Only if we don’t enjoy what we’re doing. As soon as we feel passionate about something, we become interested in every little detail.
Does the perfect preparation give you a psychological advantage in the end, too?
Of course it does. I feel less pressure when I know that I’ve left nothing to chance. And I’ve always done my best at Red Bull X-Alps when I’ve started without feeling any pressure.
THE RED BULLETIN: You often say how important your gut instinct is. Did your gut win Red Bull X-Alps four times?
CHRIGEL MAURER: In some ways it did. I got fit with mountain running and ski-touring races. All you’ve got to do there is go at it as hard as you can. But when it comes to a complex competition like Red Bull X-Alps, you have to listen to your intuition.
What does your gut understand more quickly, thoroughly and clearly than your head?
There are decisions you take in the course of Red Bull X-Alps that you have time
for, such as should I run or do I want to fly? How much should I eat and when? To some extent you can work these decisions out in your head, even when it makes better sense to follow your gut feeling. But there are other decisions you don’t have the time for. And on those occasions you just have to go with your gut. If I start thinking when I’m in an extreme situation, I react too slowly.
Does that only apply to Red Bull X-Alps? Or should one not be too cerebral when going about one’s day-to-day problems either?
It depends. In day-to-day life, as in Red Bull X-Alps, you should focus on your own strengths and not what other people think is right for you.
What does that mean in practice?
If you’re the cerebral type, you need to go about things in a logical fashion. If you’re the emotional type, then you need to go about things intuitively. It’s about getting the best out of what you’ve got.
Some of your competitors go over the course with a fine-tooth comb. You prefer to train at home in the Swiss Alps. Doesn’t it make sense to prepare extensively for approaching challenges?
Of course it does. You need to have done your homework. You need ability, knowledge and experience before you can rely on your intuition.
But those tactics still won’t get you very far. If I go and inspect a starting point in Italy, the conditions might still be different the next day. In the end your head’s full of all the wrong data and you’re stuck.
In one talk you gave, you said the best starting point for success was “a situation where you didn’t quite feel certain.” Does self-doubt lead to success?
Uncertainty has two positive effects. First, it forces you to sweep away all the factors you’re unsure about. That way you train harder, say, or you observe the weather conditions more closely.
And the second effect?
If you think you’re too great, you can be successful for a while. But you won’t stay at the top long-term.
The start: July 2, 2017 in Salzburg, Austria. For live tracking, go to redbullxalps.com