Killer kilometres: last dashes of Red Bull X-Alps

The end is in sight, but the last leg to Monaco is often the hardest for Red Bull X-Alps athletes.

Clement Latour of France (FRA1) arrives at the eights day of the Red Bull X-Alps 2013 at the turnpoint St Hilaire in France on July 14 2013.
Pure joy, adorned by the French flag. © Sebastian Marko/Red Bull Content Pool

Never in the history of the Red Bull X-Alps have so many athletes reached goal — in fact, only three have ever made it in each edition. But right now, most of the field is still out there, striving onwards. All they want to do is finish the race – and to do that, they must reach Monaco by midday Friday.

Jon Chambers of Great Britain (GBR) performs during the sixth day of the Red Bull X-Alps at the Turnpoint in Interlaken, Switzerland in front of the Jungfrau on July 12 2013.
Briton Jon Chambers in flight. © Sebastian Marko/Red Bull Content Pool

This year the race has been exceptional. The main difference has been the weather — much better flying conditions has meant faster progress for the athletes. Cold air has swept over the Alps from the north, creating absolutely perfect paragliding conditions. To climb high, athletes need to ride thermals — rising currents of air — and the strongest thermals are created by a big temperature difference. Cold nights and hot sunshine have led to days upon days of spring-like conditions.

Ferdinand Van Schelven (NED) performs during the Red Bull X-Alps 2013 at Brevent in Chamonix, France on July 15th, 2013
Van Schelven had the longest glide of the contest.© Vitek Ludvik/Red Bull Content Pool

Of course, hiking has still been a big part of this year's race. Winner Christian Maurer hiked 250 km over his seven days. But with good flying weather, most athletes have been airborne for six or seven hours a day, travelling vast distances in quick time. Ferdinand van Schelven flew 153 km on Tuesday, the longest single flight of the event.

Clement Latour of France (FRA1)
Clement Latour, on a late-night run to the finish.© Sebastian Marko/Red Bull Content Pool

But while the mind may still be strong, bodies are starting to hurt now. Most athletes by now will be familiar with sores, chafing, sunburn and blisters. For Stephan Haase from the US, a bad foot infection developed from a blister, meaning an early retirement from the race on Monday.

The final section of the race historically has run from Mt Blanc south to Monaco, but this year it takes in St Hilaire, something of a spiritual home for paragliding. Each year the locals organise the 'Coupe Icare', a mad four-day long festival that features a fancy-dress masquerade. It captures everything crazy and inspirational about free flying, and when athletes have come through the village, they are being chased through the streets by flare-wielding kids and cheering adults.

From St Hilaire, it gets a whole lot tougher. The last 30 km is known as 'the labyrinth.'

“It's just crazy, a maze, there's no logic to the terrain,” says Jon Chambers. “There are no easy valley systems, just a jumble of hills and it becomes an orientation exercise.” It's also impossible to take-off or land in the last 20 km as the terrain is rough scrubland. “You could land in a tree, I guess,” admits Chambers.

Toma Coconea (ROM) on the road during the Red Bull X-Alps 2013 at La Grave, France on July 17th, 2013
Toma Coconea is known as a warrior on foot. © Vitek Ludvik/Red Bull Content Pool

The last hours of racing have been on foot for all. For most athletes, it's absolute torture, but some soak it up. Toma Coconea claimed second in 2011 by running non-stop for 20 km, and Clement Latour repeated the same performance this year. For obvious reasons, a lot of athletes save their night passes for this last push and it was used to great effect by Latour and Girard to clinch their 2nd and 3rd positions.

Clement Latour hikes through the night.© Olivier Laugero/Red Bull Content Pool

But going through the night brings its own challenges. Athletes have to cope with energy crashes when all their body wants to do is curl up into a ball and go to sleep. Some may cat-nap like a round-the-world sailor for just 20mins before carrying on again. For athletes going all the way through the night, sleep deprivation can cause what adventure racers refer to as "the sleep monsters" — wild hallucinations. This is when athletes might start seeing shapes or people in the road, bushes or the sky.

But the one thing that will keep them all going is absolute desire to reach the sea at Monaco. For these athletes, finishing this race is the ultimate achievement in paragliding adventure racing. It's a niche discipline, but an incredibly well-respected one.

As Jon Chambers' supporter and dad Richard points out: “There are much easier ways of going for a dip than walking and flying all the way from Salzburg.”