The Red Bull X-Alps
Written by Squash Falconer
The Red Bull X-Alps is known as the toughest adventure race in the world, and for good reason. Athletes and their supporters race from Salzburg to Monaco, a straight-line distance of over 1000 km, by foot or by paraglider, tagging 10 turn points as they travel along the spine of the Alps.
‘It’s cool I can still walk,’ a bright-eyed and beaming Gavin McClurg said as he strolled up to me just two days after finishing the Red Bull X-Alps 2015 in a very impressive 8th place. Seeing him like this you would struggle to comprehend what he, alongside 31 other athletes and their teams, had just endured and achieved.
The Red Bull X-Alps is known as the toughest adventure race in the world, and for good reason. Athletes and their supporters race from Salzburg to Monaco, a straight-line distance of over 1000 km, by foot or by paraglider, tagging 10 turn points as they travel along the spine of the Alps. The race takes them through deep valleys and over the highest mountains, including iconic peaks such as the Matterhorn and Mont Blanc.
McClurg is one of four American athletes in the race line-up this year. He’s no stranger to big events. At 17 he was selected for the USA ski team, in his twenties he became a very accomplished climber and kayaker, and then he spent 13 years sailing around the world, during which time – to the surprise of many – he learnt to paraglide.
The Red Bull X-Alps came onto his radar back in 2007. His good friend Bruce Marks planted the seed that this was the race for him – and although he knew he wasn’t good enough at the time, he was transfixed by the event. ‘I watched the last edition at home, in my living room, while hanging from my paragliding harness and I just loved it,’ he told me.
In 2012, soon after returning to live back on solid ground in Sun Valley, Idaho, McClurg spent a golden week paragliding. ‘I got two personal best flight distances, and then at the end of the week I broke the North American foot launch distance record and flew 240 miles.’ He continued, ‘I was selected to compete in the Pre-Worlds Paragliding World Cup in Colombia where I raced with Red Bull X-Alps athlete Clement Latour. That’s when I thought maybe I was good enough to compete in this awesome race.’
In 2014 McClurg was named a National Geographic Adventurer of the Year after he and Will Gadd completed the longest ever connected vol-biv flight – a combination of cross-country flying and backpacking, in the Rockies. ‘Every day Will told me not to do the event,’ he said, to my surprise. Will, having competed in the first edition of the Red Bull X-Alps, told McClurg: ‘It was just miserable and in order to race you start taking risks you wouldn’t normally take. That’s the difference between living and dying when you do the sports we do.’
McClurg was undeterred. Once qualified for the Red Bull X-Alps, he became utterly immersed in the project and wanted to be in the shape of his life for the event. 10 months before the start he hired Ben Abruzzo, a friend and personal trainer, to work with him to prepare for the race. ‘It was totally the right thing to do to get a trainer. You can’t train yourself – I would have trained too hard for starters and not specifically enough. I needed Ben’s expertise because I can’t run after multiple knee surgeries from my ski-racing career. We focused on strength and endurance so that I could hike with a pack and be able to go on … and on … and on and on.’ In the race you can expect to do two marathons a day on the ground and climb the height of Everest four times in ten days. That kind of conditioning requires serious training.
McClurg did arrive in amazing shape. I met him in Salzburg a week ahead of the event and the confident American grabbed everyone’s attention when he finished the Powertraveller Prologue Race in an impressive third place. New to the Red Bull X-Alps this year, the Prologue was held three days before the main race start. It involved a mini triangle hike and fly in and out of Fuschl am See, taking in the Zwolferhorn and Schafberg peaks. The first three athletes gained a five-minute head start in the main race and an extra Led Lenser night pass. The rules state that all athletes must rest between 22.30 and 05.00 during the race; however, each team has one night pass that they can pull and continue racing through. To win the extra night pass was of course a fantastic bonus, but coming third in the Prologue was a big deal for McClurg mentally: ‘Having never competed I didn’t know how I would compare to the other athletes, so to know I could go head to head with the best was a huge boost.’
In the race you can expect to do two marathons a day on the ground and climb the height of Everest four times in ten days. That kind of conditioning requires serious training.
McClurg had a strong start in the race. He was with the lead pack jostling between first and second place when they reached the second turn point, the Dachstein. The weather was good and it was a fast start for the race: ‘I was so excited when I realised I was flying with Chrigel, that’s always really special.’
Chrigel – Christian Maurer – is known as ‘The Eagle’. He won the previous three editions of the event and previously smashed the record race time in an incredible 6 days and 23 hours.
Day two was tough and saw McClurg slip back to 12th place. A bad route with the ‘Italian Stallion’ Aaron Durogati up a mountain left his feet soaked and trashed, and decisions to leave on glide too quickly meant missed climbs. ‘Progress was slow but the day was salvaged with a magnificent 20km flight at the end of it.’ McClurg smiled. ‘I was bummed but still optimistic – this was the Red Bull X-Alps, it’s a long race and I knew we would make mistakes.’
He did admit that early on, when it got to him, the dark humour of his support team lifted him back into action. One night they served a very unhappy and miserable McClurg cat food and laughed at him before sending him back out on course.
The optimism wouldn’t last long. The next day McClurg made the decision to try and fly in strong winds while other athletes, like race legend Toma Coconea, known for running over 100km a day, moved out to the road. After making only short flights in horrific conditions McClurg finally gave in, landed and walked. He was frustrated – it could have been a 90km day had he walked sooner, but he’d only progressed 30km. He did squeeze in a short flight at the end of the day but was now back in 20th place. The time had come to pull the Led Lenser night pass – a tactical decision – and although the team’s spirits were low, a grinning McClurg said to me, ‘I guess I love the suffering.’ He hiked until the pain in his feet stopped him at 3am, tagging turn point four at Lermoos. Altogether he covered 75km and pulled himself back to a respectable 12th place.
The next few days saw McClurg go out on his own. He didn’t follow the pack – when it works out it’s called a magic move, when it doesn’t it’s a mistake! But Day 4 was a good one. Using local knowledge of great take offs McClurg achieved two 20km flights on what looked to be an unflyable day. ‘You should always try – that was our strategy and this day it worked for us.’ Day 4 saw the team back on a high, although physically hurting.
Next came a five-flight day – a real crusher with over 4,600 meters of vertical gain on the ground. By the end of it McClurg was in 20th position.
Talking about the tough times, when you slip back from top 10th to 20th, McClurg told me, ‘It’s about the mental game, never give up, this is a long race.’ He did admit that early on, when it got to him, the dark humour of his support team lifted him back into action. One night they served a very unhappy and miserable McClurg cat food and laughed at him before sending him back out on course.
The next day, after a huge climb and only achieving a 2km flight, McClurg was mentally done in and physically exhausted. He left his phone and Garmin behind on take off – he just forgot them. The race was taking its toll. He did manage a nice flight landing high on the Bernina pass, which was something, but he’d moved back up the pack. ‘This was when it set in that I wasn’t flying how I needed to fly. I was flying too fast, I needed to slow down. I was learning, though – when we make good moves I move up really fast, when we make bad moves I go back really fast. The key to the game is staying in the air.’
Despite the stresses of the race, McClurg was still completely in the game, managing physically and mentally. By Day eight his luck would change and his tenacity would be rewarded.
Unbeknownst to him the route everyone else had taken wasn’t working. He did a 2000m climb on foot, conditions were good, the flight went perfectly, and he followed a deep line that ‘no one flies through’. After a 160km flight past the Matterhorn and nearly to Mont Blanc he was in 7th place by the end of the day. ‘It was a good reminder that this can happen in the Red Bull X-Alps. You just can’t stop and you need to stay creative.’
McClurg pulled his second night pass and didn’t stop, although he desperately wanted to. As he made his way to the final turn point the next day, in his words, ‘I was done. I had 14km to go, but I was completely done. I wanted to call it – my race was over. I’d done over 100km on the ground in 16 hours and my feet were a mess.’
But his solid support crew refused to accept defeat. There was no cat food this time – they laughed at him, encouraged him, reminded him of the man he was and that he would and could keep going. It was just enough to keep him on course. Just enough to get him to the finish line. McClurg finished in style in 8th place, 48 hours behind race winner Maurer. McClurg had become the first American to ever reach goal in Monaco.
His race time was 10 days and 4 hours.
When asked if he would compete again in 2017, he paused before saying, ‘You know, I’m just not sure the risk is worth it. I flew in some of the worst conditions I have ever experienced, and I made choices to fly where normally I wouldn’t have.’ I repeated the question to him again – ‘So you’ll be entering for 2017 then?’ and he replied with a sparkle in his eye and that infectious smile, ‘Yeah probably.’
This article is kindly supported by Powertraveller
Gavin McClurg is the adventurer’s adventurer. He spent over a decade sailing around the world – and may be the only person ever to learn to paraglide while living on a boat. He’s a boat captain, expedition leader, climber, former ski-racer but it’s his skill under a wing that’s his true strength.