By Margaret S. Burns
The terms: 1) race 640 miles from Salzburg, Austria to Monaco against 30 other pre-selected top athletes; 2) race only by flying (paragliding — without an engine) or hiking.
Honza Rejmanek of Davis said, “Yes, I will.” In fact he has said it several times as just he completed his fourth Red Bull X-Alps biennial race.
The race began at 11:30 a.m. on Sunday, July 7, with a very simple set of rules:
* Competitors may only fly or walk and may have no physical assistance in moving,
* Competitors may fly/walk from 5:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. and must rest for the remaining seven hours of a day,
* Competitors may have one or two supporters in a ground vehicle, and
* Competitors must touch base at 10 designated sites or turnpoints.
The turnpoints are Gaisberg, Dachstein, Wildkogel, Zugspitze, Ortler, Interlaken, Matterhorn, Mont Blanc, Saint Hilaire and Peille, ranging from Austria through Germany, Italy, Switzerland and France. Otherwise all strategic and logistic decisions are up to the athlete and his team — which valley to follow, which pass to go through, where to launch, when to fly, when to walk, when and what to eat.
Breaking any rule results in a time penalty of hours when the athlete can neither fly nor walk. The penalties range from six to 48 hours (for crossing airport no-fly space). Each competitor is monitored continuously with sophisticated GPS tracking that can be followed live during the race or used to recap the event at www.redbullxalps.com. The race ended at an arbitrary time of noon on Friday, July 19.
Rejmanek, who has flown since he was 17, called with a post-race evaluation from the Czech Republic, where he is enjoying a well-earned rest with his family.
“Every moment is memorable,” he said. “This is a race of flying and mountaineering, constantly evaluating the best next move to make.
“Crowds at the race start in Salzburg were energizing,” he added. “I carried my co-pilot, my 3-year-old son, Martin, on my shoulders for the first 500 feet, which is what I do when I train. For the first 12 miles, all athletes pretty much flew together. I didn’t have enough height to get through the first pass, so I started hiking, then got another glide in. That night I was in 26th place when Jesse Williams, supporter, and I camped on the trail.”
He didn’t stay too far behind the pack for too long.
“On Day 3, I caught up with Andy Frötscher of Italy,” Rejmanek said. “We shared stories from prior races, Andy has done all six. I walked most of that day through the Innsbruck valley and moved into 12th place. That evening the local soaring club asked me to dinner. It was like being in a food-eating contest. After so many meals of bars and gels, pizza and beer is a luxury.”
After filling up with solid food, Rejmanek was off again — apparently not weighed down at all by the pizza dinner.
“Day 5 was glorious. The weather was perfect,” he said. “The official record says I flew eight hours that day and made a total of 177 miles. The danger in long glides is that the harness rocks you like a cradle. I kept telling myself, ‘You fall asleep, you die.’”
The reported 177 miles is based on the Live Tracking website, which is used to compare other competitors and is converted from kilometers to miles. The algorithm used for distances flown includes the circular distances when riding a thermal so it does not represent the forward distance flown. For example, Rejmanek calculates his forward distance on Day 10 was 50 miles, much different from the 125 flying miles reported.
On Day 7, he faced additional challenges in reaching Interlaken.
“I thought I needed to head north of the airspace,” Rejmanek said. “When I couldn’t raise my supporters or the internet, I called my mom. She told me I needed to go southwest and so I did. I rested early and at 6 a.m. on Day 8 the wind was still flushing down the mountain giving me a 2 to 3 mile per hour tailwind, I took off and flew on towards Matterhorn.
“Flying towards Matterhorn was another extraordinary flying day,” he added. “Seven hours in the air and the views were spectacular. Gliding in to the Matterhorn, with cloud base at 12,000 feet, seeing all the snowfields glinting below — just ‘Wow.’ ”
The amazing views turned into a long haul the next day.
“(It) was exhausting as I had a total of 12,000 feet of vertical ascent — over 2 miles,” he said. “Day 10 was the last of the great flying days, making 125 miles in six hours of paragliding. I stopped just outside of Saint Hilaire.”
After talking with his crew, they came up with a plan for the final push to the Mediterranean.
“The last two and a half days reminded me of the 2011 race — almost constant cloud cover and intermittent rain,” Rejmanek said. “We decided to use our one night pass to allow us to hike at night. From Day 11 to Day 13, when the race ended, we moved only 130 miles, a distance we had flown in one day last week. I got in one nice final glide, landing outside the village of Barcelonette. It was noon on July 19 and the race was officially over.”
Rejmanek finished in 11th place. All athletes who finished ahead of him live in Europe; eight of the 10 live in Alpine regions; and five of the 10 are paraglider test pilots or instructors. It was a solid finish for a flatlander who works for the California Air Resources Board.
“What have I learned,” he said, thinking on this year’s race. “Two things. Good weather makes all the difference in this race. You can fly at 21 to 24 mph and walk 3 to 5 mph. More flying equals faster time. The leader in this race, Swiss test pilot Christian Maurer, flies incredibly efficiently. He finished in seven days, an unheard of record!
“Secondly, knowledge of the local terrain and weather conditions are crucial to a good result.”
He concluded: “Would I do it again, if asked? Yes, in a Davis minute. But I would do more studying of the maps, particularly near the turnpoints.”