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Athletes

Aug 09, 2017

Gavin McClurg’s Inside Perspective on the Red Bull X-Alps

Gavin McClurg may be the only person ever to learn to paraglide while living on a boat—spending a year sailing around the world.

WRITTEN BY

Gavin McClurg

After finishing again just last month at the Red Bull X-Alps 2017, with other athletes like Tom de Dorlodot, this is an exerpt from the book he was writing on his experience as a 2015 rookie in the “Toughest Adventure Race on Earth”.

“Those who overcome great challenges will be changed, and often in unexpected ways. For our struggles enter our lives as unwelcome guests, but they bring valuable gifts. And once the pain subsides, the gifts remain. These gifts are life’s true treasures, bought at great price, but cannot be acquired in any other way.” ― Steve Goodier

Photo courtesy of Red Bull

It is billed as the toughest adventure race on Earth. 32 athletes race over one thousand kilometers via a series of turn points from Salzburg to Monaco across the spine of the Alps. The race gets longer and more complicated and difficult with each edition, which takes place every two years, and first began in 2003. Progress is allowed only by air (by means of flying a paraglider) or by foot; athletes must carry their wing, harness, helmet, instruments and a handful of other mandatory equipment (safety flares, tracking device, etc.) across frozen glaciers, along congested motorways, suffer through blistering heat, snow and rain storms, and oxygen-starved frigid alpine environments. Depending on the weather some athletes will cover over 100 kilometers on the ground each day and will typically climb the height of Everest 4 times during the race. Every 48 hours whoever is in last place is eliminated and typically several athletes drop out of the race due to exhaustion, severe blisters or other injury. There are very few rules. Other than hitting the mandatory turn points athletes are allowed total freedom in how they navigate the course. Movement is allowed between 0530 and 2230 every day, with the exception of one “night pass” which every athlete can elect to use at any time during the race, which eliminates the mandatory rest period. Each athlete is allowed one official supporter, who can provide technical advice, and mental and nutritional support. In the history of the race only 11% of the field has finished.  The combination of physical torture, lack of sleep, and dangerous flying conditions that only the most bold pilots in the world are willing to tackle certainly puts the race in a special category. But is it the “toughest adventure race on Earth”?

Lets take a look.

Photo courtesy of Red Bull

Adventure racing isn’t new. Humans have been devising creative ways of inducing severe physical and mental punishment for time immortal, but the birth of the modern adventure race is often credited to the two-day Karrimor International Mountain Marathon, an unsupported two-person double marathon through mountainous terrain, first held in 1968. Today there are ultrathons (100+ mile races) all over the world. From racing in 120F degree heat in the Badwater ultra marathon in Death Valley to the Marathon De Sables in the Sahara desert- both of which claim to be the hardest foot race on Earth; to the 146 mile bug-infested Jungle Ultra in Peru; to racing across the frozen wilderness of Alaska with no navigation aids in the Alaska Mountain Wilderness challenge, there is no shortage of proper sufferfests. Each of these races might take 3 or 4 days and while unremitting and certainly dangerous clearly don’t compare to the kind of distance, time, punishment and danger of flying and hiking across the Alps.

Longer, more demanding and dangerous races include the Iditarod Invitational, a 1,000 mile solo race by bike, foot or skis following the legendary Iditarod trail from Willow to Nome, Alaska. Long, cold and rugged, it is billed as the “world’s longest winter ultra marathon” and its lack of rules is similar to the X-Alps in that the athletes must make a myriad of decisions and live with the consequences. The fastest time it has been completed was 10 days, and in one year no one finished. A race with probably the lowest completion rate is the 6633 ultra, a self-supported 350 mile race along the arctic circle where participants tow a gear sled by foot. Athletes have to deal with temps that hover 25 degrees below zero, ferocious winds, and ruthless terrain. Runners are allowed 8 days to complete the event and only 11 participants have done so in the race’s seven year history.

Gavin McClurg, St.Moritz, Switzerland on July 11th 2015. Photo courtesy of Red Bull

Weather is clearly a major factor in all of the hardest races, and the X-Alps is no exception, so the “toughest” in one year may not be the toughest in another year. The only race that may be on par from a danger level with the X-Alps is the Alaska Mountain Wilderness Challenge where a combination of fatigue, terrain and weather conspired to kill a highly skilled athlete in 2015 while attempting to fjord a river. Flying a paraglider is dangerous in the best of times, but during the X-Alps athletes become mentally exhausted and reaction times to potentially lethal situations in the air are compromised. All of these difficult and long adventure races are a matter of endurance and being able to withstand extreme physical hardship. The X-Alps has these elements in spades, but it is also a game of finesse and skill and tactics. You can’t muscle your way through the X-Alps, you have to think your way through, and this may be where the X-Alps stands alone. The fastest endurance trail runner in the world would have no chance in the X-Alps. You have to be fast on the ground, but you also have to be a fearless magician in the air. You can’t just put your head down and grunt it out. You have to think. Training for an endurance event that also encompasses the nuances and art of flying a piece of unmotorized plastic hundreds of miles across a mountain range must include training in conditions that can be expected in the race. These are conditions that even the best (and crazy) pilots in the world would not be willing to take on.

In the end, each of these races is a deeply personal experience lived, felt, agonized, triumphed or defeated by the athlete and the athlete alone. There is only one way to get to “that place.” The X-Alps is a one-way elevator that will take you there.

Day 1, Out in Front

The big day finally arrived.  Months and months of training and preparation and doubts and fears and excitement was now officially in the past. It was GO time. And it was excruciatingly hot. Thirty-two athletes were bunched under the huge Red Bull tent in downtown Salzburg hiding from a vicious sun. I drank a few more bottles of water and sank into a beanbag and shut my eyes, instantly falling asleep. I’d dreamt of this moment for so long it felt totally surreal to finally be here. I was unreasonably calm, I could feel my heart ticking away like it was just another day. I had been adding sleeping pills to my nightly routine all week in an effort to add some much-needed nocturnal rest, but they hadn’t worked.

I’d heard stories from some of the pilots who had competed in the race previously that they actually caught themselves dozing in flight. Others talked about hallucinations. Paragliding is intense even in calm conditions, I really hoped I didn’t get so sleep deprived that taking catnaps in the sky became necessary!

My internal clock gave me a shake a few minutes before the start and then we were off, running through the cobbled streets of Salzburg with throngs of people cheering us on towards the first turn point, the Gaisberg.  

As the ascent steepened the pace slowed and I checked my heart rate. I was using the Garmin Fenix watch (Garmin was a major sponsor of the race) and heart rate monitor instead of my trusty Suunto and hoped I had a setting or something wrong when it said my heart rate was 188! That was well above my maximum and totally untenable for any length of time. I felt great and couldn’t understand why it was beating so hard. Was it heat? Adrenaline? I knew I wasn’t going any harder than I had in training. But it didn’t drop. About six kilometers into the race I met up with one of my supporters, Ben, as planned, who had walked down from the launch with extra water and a few packets of Gu. I told Ben about my heart rate, which at that point had been above 180 for over 30 minutes. I was afraid I was going to bonk or just pass out, even though I felt fine. “What the hell is going on?”  I asked.

“How do you feel?”  Ben questioned.

“I feel great man, awesome. I’m worried my heart is going to explode, but it feels fine.”

“You’re fine then, you know your body and you know your heart rate better than any monitor does. Trust your training.”

This would be the first of literally hundreds of times Ben’s confidence would put my mind at ease. We rallied the rest of the way to launch, arriving in eighth place amongst a sea of screaming fans.

Gavin Mcclurg and his support team during the Red Bull X-Alps in Annecy, France on 13th July 2015. Photo courtesy of Red Bull

My team was ready with a big lunch, extra water and all the non-mandatory gear that I would take with me into the air. Crampons and via-ferrata harness for the Dachstein in case we had to hike to the 2nd turnpoint over the glacier instead of flying to it, extra clothing, a dry shirt, gloves, sun block and electrolytes. In this heat, water and electrolytes were critical and our biggest fear behind bombing out (landing prematurely) was bonking. Bruce (my tactician and air-strategist) refreshed me with the airspace regulations in the area. The airspace all the way to the Dachstein and then towards turnpoint 3 at Aschau is really tricky. Violating airspace meant at best a 24 hour penalty, and at worst a disqualification. Screw it up and the race is over.

I took stock of my surroundings. Throngs of screaming fans, the Red Bull filming helicopter buzzing loudly overhead, all the athletes laying out their gliders and preparing to fly. I was so excited and pumped up I felt like screaming, but I tried to keep a calm outer demeanor.

“Be cool Gavin, be cool!” I kept repeating to myself.

Then Nick Neynans (New Zealand) launched into the air, followed quickly by Aaron Durogati (Italy) and then the Eagle himself, Chrigel Maurer (Swiss 1). They were climbing easily. Time to go. I pulled my wing into the gentle breeze blowing up the hill, gave my team a nod and turned and lifted off the ground. Flight number one of the 2015 X-Alps! The plan was simple: Fly conservatively; stay in the air; don’t do anything stupid.

No less than twenty gliders climbed up to within a few hundred meters of prohibited air space and went on glide towards turnpoint 2, the stunning Dachstein, the highest mountain in Austria, 50 kilometers down course line. I counted maybe sixteen wings in front of me as I too went on glide, but chose a more direct line out front and began to quickly pick them off. I looked up at my wing and smiled. “Let’s go baby!”

Photo courtesy of Red Bull

Twenty kilometers into the flight I’d pulled into 3rd place, behind Pascal Purin (Austria 4) and Maurer.  Maurer was leading the charge as expected on a deep line but he was getting held up, so I stayed wide out front, linking onto a long spine that leads directly onto the Dachstein. We were in the big mountains now. The climbs were strong and the wind was light. A perfect flying day to start the race and the only real stress was staying below airspace. Nearly all of the pilots chose the deeper line behind Chrigel, and they were all higher than I was so I figured I must be OK. I liked my line better out front and in no time was coming in high over the glacier and the turn point, flying fast. I was in 4th place! What an amazing start!

The lead gaggle then broke up, nearly all the pilots headed southwest towards our planned route towards the town of Bischofshofen, where we could glide onto the impressive walls beneath the Hochkonig, which then lead to a very well-traveled glider “highway” that leads off in a northwest direction toward Turnpoint 3 in Germany. It was a route I’d flown twice during our scouting missions that spring and was the sensible way to go, but the conditions were so good I felt a more direct line was possible, shaving the corner and diving behind the Hochkonig. I set off on glide and was suddenly totally alone, right up in first place!

Photo courtesy of Red Bull

Even though I was in the lead I was starting to get nervous about my call to take the deeper line. But then I got jumped by Stephen Gruber (Austria 3), who was not only an amazing pilot but more importantly lived near here and knew this area probably better than anyone else in the field. Lead on! Then a wing I recognized was suddenly right next to me. Chrigel! He’d crawled up from way back in the pack after getting stuck before the Dachstein and was skillfully picking off pilots one by one. He looked up and while I couldn’t see his face I knew he was smiling and then he seemed to find another gear and accelerated past me like I was standing still. You son of a bitch!!! But knowing Chrigel was taking the same line gave me a huge boost in confidence and I set off, trying to reel him in. The Red Bull helicopter swept in to film the lead three pilots as we found our next climb. You couldn’t have wiped the smile off my face with a cheese grater. The Aschau turn point was only 70 kilometers away and I was in the top three! If we could stay in the air we could cover 15% of the course on the first day! We were high, the flying was magnificent, the scenery mind-blowing and I thought that it was doubtful anyone on Earth was having more fun than I was at that moment.

At 1900 hours Bruce called with a strategy update.

“Gavin you need to slow down now, stay high, stay in the air. Change gears, stop racing, STAY IN THE FUCKING AIR, I don’t want you to land until 9 pm!”  

The race rules allowed us to move between 05:30 and 22:30 hours, but we could only fly between 06:00 and 21:00.

I limped onto a shaded hill above a lake and thought my day was over but as I ground around to the west still-sunny side found an agonizingly slow climb. I worked ever-so-slowly higher and just as I got to where I could have some breathing room Paul Guschlbauer (Austria 1) flew right over my head and lead the way.

Photo courtesy of Red Bull

We squeaked over a treed col to the east of a small town called Unterwossen and landed near a small airstrip just after 8 pm, just a few kilometers short of turnpoint 3 at Aschau in Germany. 170 kilometers of the 1100 kilometer course had just been covered in the air. As soon as I landed I started ripping off my gear and throwing it around instead of neatly piling it as I’d practiced so many times. Bruce called and I impatiently tried to give him directions to where I was, but he had no cell data and couldn’t pull up Google Maps and I just said “goddammit, I’m on the airstrip, come find me!” and hung up. I packed up my wing, lost my bluetooth earpiece in the grass and ran off in the wrong direction. A woman ran out from her house and offered me some food and asked where I was going, and handed me a glove that I’d dropped. I’d been running towards the turn point but hadn’t noticed a large river blocking my path because I hadn’t taken the time to check my maps. The woman said I either had to wade across or backtrack a kilometer to the main road. I thanked her for the food, grabbed my glove and ran back the way I’d come cursing myself for being so hasty and unorganized. I was making a rookie mistake that we’d been warned not to do.

Our beautiful van, easily recognizable with the huge Patagonia stickers pulled up and Bruce and Ben hopped out wearing big smiles. I was handed an energy shake and we briefly discussed strategy. I was in 4th place. I knew there was a hotel at the turnpoint and Ben and I raced off thinking there was something to be gained by hauling ass. There wasn’t. It was our team’s first big lesson of the race. SLOW DOWN. In our rush we forgot spare batteries and chargers; my mouthguard which I can’t sleep without; money for the hotel or dinner; and appropriate clothing for the storm that was on its way, which we knew nothing about.

That night as the wind howled and the rain thundered down relentlessly and sleep stayed out of reach I replayed the events of the day in my mind and imagined the days ahead. I didn’t know it of course at the time, but I would finish in a respectable 8th place and be the first American to reach Monaco in the race’s history. In ten days I would cover 498 kilometers on the ground (12+ marathons), climb and absurd 52,000 vertical meters (Everest 5 times) and fly 1560 kilometers across one of the most iconic and stunning mountain ranges in the world.

I would have some of the most memorable flights of my career. Some beautiful, some terrifying. But that night, even though the race had barely begun it was already was more adventure, more fun, more difficult and more terrifying than anything I’d ever done. In the days ahead I would learn you had to give it everything you had. You had to risk it all. You had to think with an exhausted mind and you had to move fast with an exhausted body. You had to ignore pain.

You had to have an awesome team who could stay optimistic and solve the plethora of problems that came up on the fly. All the logistics and strategy and being there for me whenever I needed them, at any time of the day or night; anticipating my every move; figuring out routes; keeping me fed; working out weather forecasts; keeping my instruments charged; and making sure I didn’t forget anything.

That night I should have dreamt of Monaco but instead I worried about the inevitable. At some point the race would end. At some point the magic that we were experiencing would come to an abrupt halt. We had poured our lives into this race for the better part of a year and in one moment it would be over. We had 865 kilometers to go, the most difficult and dangerous part of the course was ahead but that wasn’t what was on my mind that night. What was on my mind made me sad because I knew that when this craziness ended I would no longer have the precious gift that the race had given me. The gift of being right here, right now. Kung Fu Panda said it best: “yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, but today is a gift. That’s why it is called a Present.”

 

Did Gavin inspire you to go take a hike! (Or a climb)? Head to The Outdoor Voyage to make your own story.

This article was a feature in Issue 10 of The Outdoor Journal print magazine and can be seen on Gavin’s website, Cloudbase Mayhem.

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Athletes & Explorers

Feb 15, 2019

Flow State: The Reason Why Alex Honnold and Steph Davis are not Adrenaline Junkies.

“When you’re pushing the limits of ultimate human performance, the choice is stark: it’s flow or die.”

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WRITTEN BY

Brooke Hess

Recently, while watching Alex Honnold’s film, Free Solo, I began questioning the motives behind why he does what he does. I imagine that like me, you asked yourself, what is the driving force behind his compulsive need to risk his life? Why does he have such a passion for free soloing difficult routes, while the rest of us sit paralyzed in fear, simply watching in awe?

Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, the directors of the film (which has recently won a BAFTA and has been nominated for an Oscar), touched on Alex’s reasoning a little. For Alex, it is when he is climbing without a rope and is closest to death, that he actually feels most alive.

As an extreme sports athlete myself, with a background in whitewater kayaking, I can relate to this feeling. When I am kayaking a difficult and consequential rapid, my brain is 100% focused on the present moment. In the book, “The Rise of Superman” (if you haven’t read it, do so now), Steven Kotler discusses Flow State. Kotler describes it as being “so focused on the task at hand that everything else falls away. Action and awareness merge. Time flies. Self vanishes. Performance goes through the roof.” Dr. Ilona Boniwell, a European leader in positive psychology, says, “The State of Flow happens under very specific conditions – when we encounter a challenge that is testing for our skills, and yet our skills and capacities are such that it is just about possible to meet this challenge. So both the challenge and the skills are at high levels, stretching us almost to the limit.” Flow State is very difficult to achieve. The perfect balance between challenge and skill must be met, and the result is a very elusive zone, which is tricky to replicate. In Kotler’s book, he describes action and adventure sports as the only way to consistently trigger this flow state. Flow state is often triggered by a sense of being close to death, which, in return, triggers the maximum sensation of being alive. Kotler describes it simply, “When you’re pushing the limits of ultimate human performance, the choice is stark: it’s flow or die.”

I remember the first time I experienced Flow. I was running Itunda Falls on the Nile River. Itunda is known for being one of the biggest rapids on the Victoria White Nile stretch of whitewater and is a rapid that, if not executed correctly, could be fatal. I recall Flow State kicking in as soon as I entered the rapid. My mind went completely blank, and I experienced a hyper-focused state in which every paddle stroke I took, every drop of water that hit my face, every little bit of it was a slow-motion, full experience. I felt nervous before entering the rapid, but as soon as I dropped in, my nerves faded, and I relaxed into a calm state of execution. While in that Flow State, I was able to do exactly what I wanted to do, perfectly. I made zero mistakes and had a perfect line through the rapid. It was the first time in my life that I felt I had 100% fully experienced something – not only in a physical sense but also in a mental and emotional sense as well.

“My favourite state of being.”

In a collaboration between The Outdoor Journal and Mercedez-Benz, I recently had the opportunity to speak with one of their sponsored athletes – free solo climber and BASE jumper, Steph Davis. When asked about Flow, Davis described it as, “the feeling of taking a deep breath, letting it out and feeling totally good and at ease with nothing else in my mind and truly in the moment.”

When performing high-risk activities, like BASE jumping, Davis says her brain has no choice but to enter a hyper-focused Flow State. “With BASE jumping and wingsuit BASE, getting there is pretty much guaranteed because it seems like there’s no choice but to enter that state of pure focus when leaving the edge – although it’s a pretty short-lived experience because BASE jumping is over very quickly.”

Read Next: Steph Davis: Flow, Focus, and Feeling in Control

The film, Free Solo, suggests Alex’s ability to achieve Flow State. When I spoke with Alex Honnold about the topic (also in a collaboration courtesy of his sponsor, Rivian), he shared a similar sentiment towards free solo climbing. “I think that has always been a big part of the pleasure in free soloing is that it forces you into that state more than other kinds of climbing do.” Alex says that he can tap into the Flow State while climbing with ropes as well, but it is rare and doesn’t come as easily.

For Davis, Flow State while free solo climbing isn’t as much a result of being close to death, but rather a result of getting away from external influences. “For me, a big factor for reaching focus, or Flow, is getting away from outside energy – so free soloing inherently works really well because you are alone.” No matter how she achieves Flow State, Davis can’t seem to get enough of it. “It’s my favorite state of being.”

The Science

According to Kotler’s book, Flow State originates in the brain. The release of five mood-boosting chemicals – dopamine, endorphins, norepinephrine, serotonin, and anandamide – creates a high that athletes, just like Davis, “can’t seem to get enough of”. It’s a wonderful experience – Flow State. So wonderful, in fact, that when you achieve it, it can become addictive. Dr. Ilona Boniwell describes the addiction to Flow State well. “Even activities that are morally good or neutral, like mountain climbing, chess or Playstation, can become addictive, so much that life without them can feel static, boring and meaningless. A simple non-gambling game on your computer, like solitaire, which many people use to ‘switch off’ for a few minutes, can take over your life. This happens when, instead of being a choice, a Flow-inducing activity becomes a necessity.”

Searching for Perfection

This addiction to Flow is different from an addiction to adrenaline. An athlete addicted to Flow is not an ‘adrenaline junkie’. They are not searching for that adrenaline rush that comes when you do something risky – like bungee jumping or skydiving. They are searching for perfection in what they are doing. Honnold says he is searching for the feeling of effortlessness. “When climbing feels good, when it feels effortless, when it feels flowy. That’s Flow State. And that is the appeal of climbing in a lot of ways is to get into that state. To feel like you’re doing something well and that you’re performing well.”

“I really belonged there and I wasn’t just scraping through it”

Davis says when she has had experiences BASE jumping in which something almost went wrong and she “got lucky” – which may be a situation where an adrenaline rush could be triggered – she is usually unhappy with that experience. “For me, it’s not really seeking an adrenaline burst. It’s more seeking the ability to do something that maybe should be impossible, and yet doing it in a way that’s actually pretty reasonable… When I’ve had those moments where it just barely worked out, and I almost felt that I got lucky, I’m usually really dissatisfied with that experience. I prefer to feel like I’ve entered the situation in a very calculated way. I’ve really prepared. I’ve gone through Plan B, Plan C, Plan D scenarios. I’ve tried to really think through everything that could ever go wrong and feel like I have a plan for that. And then when it starts happening, I feel like I’m very in control of the situation because I chose to get into it feeling like I’m really ready for it. To me, those are always the most satisfying outcomes. When I either land from a jump or top out a climb and I feel like, ‘wow, you know, I really belonged there and I wasn’t just scrapping through it’.” A perfect balance of challenge and skill.

But for Steph, addiction to Flow is not the main reason she continues pursuing these high-risk activities. For her, it is simply a way of life. “I’m 46 now and I’ve been climbing since I was 18, so my entire adult life I’ve been doing these sports in various forms… it is honestly really hard for me to imagine not being out in the mountains and the desert and just doing these things that I love doing.”

Thanks to Rivian and Mercedes for the interviews.

Cover photo: Vincent Kleine for She’s Mercedes.

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