Shooting the Red Bull X-Alps – Episode 3: Honza Zak

In this series official Red Bull X-Alps photographers give us their unfiltered behind the scenes insights of the world's toughest adventure race.

The third in our series where official Red Bull X-Alps photographers share their highs and lows from covering the world's toughest adventure race.
Czech photographer Honza Zak first covered the Red Bull X-Alps in 2017. He explains how he survives off as little as two hours sleep a night, why athletes are a nightmare to keep up with, and the skills that help him track down athletes. 

What’s the best thing about shooting the race? 

The best and the worst is its unpredictability. The race can change within a heartbeat and so it always keeps us on our toes. When the weather changes athletes suddenly start flying hundreds of kilometres which has a simple reaction: all our prior plans are scratched immediately. It makes the race really tricky for us but also incredibly exciting. 

How did you become a Red Bull X-Alps photographer?

I have been specializing in endurance events that require the photographer to locate competitors in the wild while being completely self-sufficient. With a background in orienteering, climbing and long-distance running I have the tools to complete these tasks safely and efficiently. 
How does this compare to shooting other adventure races? 
I photograph a lot of endurance races around the world but the Red Bull X-Alps is truly special because of its popularity. During the race we cross countless tiny villages but it seems that in every single one of them there are passionate fans waiting for the competitors. And when some of them land nearby there is a crowd within minutes! 

What do you find the most challenging? 

Honestly, taking photos is the easy part. It is all the other things that make this race is incredibly tough for us. There is a lot of planning and guessing involved just to find the athletes at a photogenic location and it always includes many hours of driving and usually even more hours of hiking. And then when we find them – the fun part starts – we try to keep up with them. That is not an easy task, they are world-class athletes racing for every minute of decent weather so their pace on the ground is stunningly fast. And finally when they get to a launch site and fly away suddenly you find yourself standing on top of a mountain and you simply have to walk all the way back down! 

Give us an idea of a ‘typical’ day.

It starts around 3:00am to 4:00am when I wake up, double check the plan and start hiking to the sunrise location. Competitors can only start hiking at 5:00 so it is good to have a jump start on them. I usually wait for them somewhere mid-hike and then follow them up the mountain, photograph them launching and flying away. Then I walk back to my car and start planning the next location. Depending on the accessibility, weather and current race situation I might do anything from one to eight sessions a day. Sometimes I get lucky and the launch site is ten meters from my car and sometimes it requires a five hour hike uphill. I always try to deliver the images as fast as I can so they can be used for instant updates. 
After the athletes stop at 22:30, I shoot night photos at their campsite, edit and deliver those and start heading to the next morning location. I usually squeeze in around two to five hours of sleep a day which is enough to keep me functioning but it is quite tough to do for 12 days straight - especially when the race is so physical for us. One also can't forget that there is a lot of driving involved. During those 12 days of the 2019 Red Bull X-Alps I drove over 5,000km! 

What are the moments that stand out?

There was a really special moment at the end of the race - with just over 24 hours to go. I ended up being on a top of a mountain with Aaron Durogati, Manuel Nubel and Gaspard Petiot somewhere in France. We were on the mountain for few hours waiting for favourable conditions that would enable them to reach Monaco. They were all really nervous as the deadline was closing in but at the same time there was a very chilled atmosphere. They were discussing their route choice as well as sharing stories from the previous days. It was really special to see how much reaching Monaco meant to them. Later on, they all launched together and headed towards the Mediterranean Sea. The next day, I was thrilled to see all three of them crossing the finish line. 

Do you have some favorite photos from the 2019 edition?

There are so many images that mean a lot to me for different reasons but if I had to  choose it would be a silhouette of Toma Coconea's wing. After spending the whole day on a mountain I wanted to start getting back down when I saw that Toma was coming. I decided to wait for him at the top and this decision was rewarded by this incredible light coming from the setting sun. 

My second favorite would be this photo from the finishing float in Monaco. I brought a camera water housing to the event just to have a photo like this. It truly represents the camaraderie between the competitors as well as celebrates their long awaited goal of completing the Red Bull X-Alps. 

For Episode 4 of Shooting the Red Bull X-Alps make sure to stay tuned on our Social Channels: Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

For more behind-the-scenes images and videos, check out the series Honza created on IGTV: @honza_zak_photo

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