Everything you ever wanted to know about the world's toughest adventure race.
The toughest huh? Really?
Shoulder a 10kg rucksack, hike 2,000m up a mountain, fly for several hours through complicated weather systems and over treacherous terrain. Land, now run for 30km and climb another 1,000m. Repeat every day for almost two weeks. Tough? We think so for this reason – no other race is as physically and mentally demanding and also requires such a high level of expert technical skill for such a sustained length of time.
Ok, we believe you! What are the details?
Athletes hike and fly across the Alps, navigating their way up and over the mountains via several Turnpoints. It's a straightline distance of more than 1,000km but athletes can expect to cover double that during the race. One thing that is fixed: every kilometer must be covered either on foot or by paraglider.
Not a walk in the park then?
It's a formidable challenge that requires expert paragliding skill, years of mountaineering experience and an extraordinary level of endurance fitness. It's not uncommon for athletes to hike up to 100 km in a single day. On top of that athletes must be mentally strong to make good decisions under stress, when they're tired and in difficult mountain situations.
Woh! So not everyone can do it?
Absolutely not. The athletes who take part are the toughest, fittest, most talented and daring adventurers and paraglider pilots of their generation. These are men and women who will fly in turbulent conditions that most would not dare to brave. To take part, they go through a rigorous selection process.
Is it better to be fast on the ground or in the air?
There's no doubt the race is won in the air. Just witness Chrigel Maurer's magic move on day 8 in 2021 when he put 160km between himself and his nearest competitor. But to be in the right place at the right time to get into the air, day after day after day? That requires an incredible level of fitness, strength and mountaineering ability. Maurer is also among the fittest. In 2019, he won the prologue when it was just a vertical kilometer hike. In a good weather year like 2015, athletes flew up to 80% of the distance. But when the weather's bad, athletes have to hike and run. In 2011 the Romanian running legend Toma Coconea managed to come 2nd, despite hiking over 50% of the way.
Do most athletes reach the goal?
No! 2015 was a record year, seeing 19 competitors (just over half of the lineup) make it to goal, but on average only 14% of competitors make it to the float in the Mediterranean Sea.
What must they carry?
Athletes must carry their paraglider and mandatory equipment at all times. That consists of an emergency reserve parachute, helmet, mobile phone, GPS tracking device, and other safety equipment. Add to that emergency mountain weather clothing, food and water and that equals a rucksack weight of around 7kg that has to be carried at all times. It's a far cry from the early days when athletes's packs weighed more than 20kg.
Yes. In the early days athletes could race non-stop but since 2011, a mandatory rest period was introduced between 23:00 and 04:00 to let them sleep. As of 2013, the break has been extended by 1.5 hours, from 22:30 to 05:00 for safety reasons. Anyone caught trying to gain ground in those hours is subject to a 24-hour time penalty.
Yes. Since 2013 athletes have the option of a ‘Night Pass’, which lets athletes to hike through the night. It can provide a strategic advantage, but that depends. It can be used to get into a better position for the following day, avoid being eliminated but it comes at the cost of increased fatigue which can reduce performance in the rest of the race.
Official supporters are just cheering them on right?
Wrong. Every athlete has an official supporter and they are the unsung heroes of the race whose job is almost as challenging as doing the race itself. Job description includes driver, chef, nurse, psychologist, meteorologist, race strategist, coach, mentor and probably a few others as well...
Are skis allowed?
The answer is simple: no, never – nor any method of traversing other than foot or flight. The race is to be completed via only two methods – moving by foot or by flight. They also can’t use a paramotor! Crampons are still allowed and are mandatory for crossing glaciers. The rules also allow normal showshoes (not the ones you can actually ski with!) for walking over snow.
Where does the race go?
Every year the route changes. Until 2021 the race always finished in Monaco that year a radical new format was introduced – an out-and-back loop around the Alps, starting in Salzburg and finishing in Zell am See. At 1,288km it was the longest race to date. The Red Bull X-Alps 2023 route will be revealed in March 2023
Is all the action at the front?
Actually no. The 'battle at the back' can be just as fierce as athletes seek to avoid elimination. After three days and then every 48 hours the last team is pulled from the race.
How dangerous is it?
While every effort is made to ensure Red Bull X-Alps is a safe race, every athlete has to appreciate the race takes place in the mountains and accept the inherent risks that are involved. Ultimately every athlete is responsible for their own safety, which is why the selection process is so rigorous. Above all, athletes have to demonstrate they can make safe decisions in the mountains in conditions that are not ideal. Athletes are tracked at all times by GPS. They must also fly using EN certified equipment. Prototypes are not permitted.
Who’s the mastermind behind all of this?
That would be the late Austrian pilot, Red Bull Air Race champion, BASE jumper, mountaineer and adventurer Hannes Arch who tragically died in a helicopter accident in 2016. He developed the concept for the Red Bull X-Alps when he saw a TV documentary in which German pilot Toni Bender hiked and glided his way across the Alps. The first Red Bull X-Alps was held in 2003.
The Swiss seem to have a knack for this thing?
Seems so. Swiss domination started with Kaspar Henny in 2003 and has continued with Alex Hofer claiming victory in 2005 and 2007 and then Chrigel Maurer winning every edition since then.
Who else should I look out for next to the Swiss?
As Chrigel Maurer himself acknowledges, anything can happen in a race of this magnitude. The truth is, every athlete who takes part normally experiences enough adventures to write a book afterwards. Some of them have.
Do women compete equally?
Yes, the Red Bull X-Alps is a race that sees men and women compete equally. To date eight female athletes have competed including the Paragliding World Champions Yael Margelisch and Laurie Genovese who both took part in 2021.