The Red Bull X-Alps mind game

Competitor flies during the Red Bull X-Alps at Matterhorn in Zermatt, Switzerland on July 12th, 2013
© Felix Woelk/Red Bull Content Pool

In stressful races like the Red Bull X-Alps, mental preparation is key, as Hugh Miller finds.

Right next to the Interlaken turnpoint of the Red Bull X-Alps, there’s a meditation centre. From the car park, you can see men and women walking slowly, placing each foot purposefully, before gently moving on. The exercise in ‘mindful movement’ is then brought to a close by the ring of a bell, and the meditators pause, still, and then move back inside.

It’s a world away from the frantic pace of the event, in which thirty-one athletes are rising at 5:00 and racing full pelt through this beautiful Swiss Alpine scenery, hell-bent on reaching Monaco.

But, bizarrely, the successful mix of both approaches – the calm and centered, and the non-stop madness – is one of the key reasons for Christian Maurer’s incredible success in this race.

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Christian Maurer of Switzerland (SUI1) performs during the eighth day of the Red Bull X-Alps 2013 in Monaco on July 15 2013.
Christian Maurer claims first place on the float.© Sebastian Marko/Red Bull Content Pool

As we’ve all seen, Maurer doesn’t just fly beautifully – he also doesn’t seem to make mistakes. And amid the frenzy of charging instruments, hiking up hills, navigating airspace and, well, keeping your wing flying through some crazy strong turbulent air, it is the athletes that lose their balance that fall by the wayside.

“We’re flying so much in this race, that one bad decision in the air can shunt you back ten places,” explains Jon Chambers, currently in the top 5. “And you pay for your mistake with the pain of more hiking.”

This, then, is as psychologically intense a race as any other. In the Tour de France, athletes use tactics, for sure, but they don’t have to choose which route to take, or when to cycle and when to fly. The workload on these athletes is phenomenal.

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Christian Maurer (SUI1) celebrates on the float during the Red Bull X-Alps 2013, Monaco on July 14th, 2013
Christian Maurer and Thomas Theurillat © Olivier Laugero/Red Bull Content Pool

And it’s no coincidence that the winning team, SUI1, devotes a high proportion of that time to psychological preparation.

“The stress of the event is so high, that it’s really important for the mind to rest, as well as the body,” says Thomas Theurillat, Maurer's support. “In stressful situations, our body’s system is flooded with adrenalin and cortisol, the stress-response”, he says. “It’s our way of getting out of danger fast – but if the system is turned on for too long, we risk burnout”.

Early on in the race, I asked Theurillat if he had any practical ways of helping Maurer avoid this burnout, and he told me he devotes a part of each evening to helping Christian Maurer switch off from the race. Theurillat’s not only a mountain guide – he’s got a masters in psychology and now works as a coach.

The next thing I know, Theurillat is unravelling his iPod and strapping a heart rate monitor to my index finger. He asks me to look at a dial on the iPod screen, and try to relax. The more relaxed I am, the fuller the dial gets. “OK, breath slowly,” he says. The dial drops a little. “Now notice your shoulders, they look a little tense,” he advises. The dial drops some more. Soon we’re talking about our partners, our lives back home, and the race is a world away…

Maurer’s performance in this race is phenomenal – but we are missing a few tricks if we just credit all his success to his gifted piloting skills. It’s the little things like this that make the difference and let him build such an incredible lead on the race to Monaco.

As for me, I’ve got a new way to get ready for another day on the road!