"There is no comfort zone"

Two supporters give the lowdown on what it’s really like being part of a team.

Red Bull X Alps 2023 Supporter 3

The job description for a Red Bull X-Alps supporter is endless – strategist, psychologist, driver, cook, masseur, social media manager and bag carrier. They share the hardships and struggle, get up earlier, go to bed later and accompany their athlete on the hikes.

They have to be supremely fit, well organized, good team players and maintain an ability to stay calm when everything goes crazy. Psychologically it can feel like they’re as connected to their athlete as if they’re an avatar.

That happened on day three to Lars Meerstetter, the last-minute replacement supporter for Chrigel Maurer. In a rare mistake the eight-time champion had lost height and was scratching close to the ground near Davos. “It was the most desperate moment for me,” Lars recalls. “He almost had to land. I was there sitting in the bus looking for route options, watching on the live tracker. And I knew if he lands, he will lose two hours. It felt like I was flying myself on a big cross-country flight in a competition, and I was frustrated myself not getting up. It was a hard hour sitting there watching the tracker every second. Is he rising or is he sinking? That cost me some nerves!”

Christian Maurer performs during the Red Bull X-Alps in Ferden, Switzerland on June 14, 2023.
It's been the first time for Lars as Chrigel's supporter. © zooom / Lukas Pilz

As a supporter, whatever you’re feeling, you can’t let your athlete see it.

“The support team can really affect the athlete’s psychology,” says Paul Guschlbauer’s supporter, Serge Durrant, a former Australian fighter pilot. “No matter how bad it gets you must stay positive and shield the athlete from whatever drama may be occurring logistically (such as) toilets over-flowing through the camper, breaking down, accidents, low fuel, missing equipment, etc.”

He says the job requires long hours. “I did six 20-hour days and one 24-hour day. The good stuff will be there, but you should not expect a two week paragliding trip around Europe!”

Often supporters aren’t just helping their own athletes but others too. “Pal Takats needed a pee tube half way up a mountain,” adds Serge. “I gave him mine. It’s a race but also a great family that supports each other.”

One of Pal’s supporters in the 2017 edition was the current race director Ferdi Vogel. He says supporters have more tasks than the athlete. “Essentially, it's all about keeping the athlete hydrated and well-fed. If the supporter can also strengthen the athlete's weaknesses, it's a match!”

He adds: “As a supporter, however, you need a thick skin, because every team has been on edge at some point and there have been disputes. Many athletes become big babies during the race and need the supporter's help for everything. Daily tasks include weather, navigation, finding a place to sleep, food, physio, laundry and lots of driving. Most important tip: don't forget to sleep yourself!”

Red Bull X Alps 2023 Supporter 2
Paul's supporter Serge is a former Australian fighter pilot. © Maximilian Gierl

"Systemized approaches work best"

Lars echoes the hard challenge of the job but says it is more than worth it. “There is no comfort zone, not for a single day. If you start thinking, oh, maybe here I can save some energy and sleep, that's not a good idea. You'll be tired anyway. You'll be dirty anyway. You have to get completely into the race as if you would participate yourself.”

“But we were such a good team,” he adds. “It was like we were in a movie. Everyone was so into it. It didn’t feel like effort to wake up at 5am and get to bed at 11pm and hiking and cooking. We were so part of the adventure – there was no bad part.”

On the practical side Serge says your focus as a supporter has to be on the athlete. “Systemized approaches work best. Lots of checklists, alarms to ensure nothing is missed - even when really tired.” He also says you need to learn how to dry a wing quickly in the car: “Heat on full, open wing with sharks mouth to front to inflate. It can be done in about 15min.”

Christian Maurer performs during the Red Bull X-Alps in Ferden, Switzerland on June 14, 2023.
Psychologically it can feel like the supporters are as connected to their athlete as if they’re an avatar. © zooom / Lukas Pilz

Most supporters are world class pilots themselves – something demonstrated by Lars before he even got to the start. While most supporters turned up to Kitzbühel in a van, Lars made the journey from his home in Switzerland in the air in his paraglider! “The weather looked very promising, and instead of having a train ride of eight hours, I had a flight of nine hours and a train ride of two hours.”

The flight was about 230km which would have been among the most impressive had it occurred during the race. Lars removed his back protector to carry his laptop but there wasn’t enough space for everything and he tied his trainers to the harness. “It was a very nice way to Kitzbühel,” he reflects.

“Good supporting can be lonely - you may be driving a lot, resupplying the athlete and not seeing them all day if the weather is good,” adds Serge. “But it’s a real privilege to be part of a Red Bull X-Alps team.”

Top image © Maximilian Gierl

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