Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Scoping out the competition

Part of my preparations is to learn as much as possible about each of my competitors. Some are amazing XC pilots, others are great runners, a few are both. It's important to know which is which.

This serves several purposes. Training-wise, it helps me understand how I'm doing relative to the others. It's hard to find training partners with sufficient fitness so comparing myself "virtually" to the other athletes helps me understand my progress and motivates me to do more. Running long and hard is surprisingly easy if you picture Chrigel Maurer (SUI3) landing a couple of kilometres in front of you!

During the race, knowing the strengths and weaknesses of the other athletes will help Alex and me understand their strategy decisions and plan ours. Come the final sprint from Mont Blanc to Monaco, you're unlikely to outpace Coconea (ROM) over the ground so if he's ahead of you you'll probably best off looking for an opportunity to out-fly him as Hofer (SUI1) did in 2007. But if it's Hofer ahead of you then you might be able to beat him by running if the weather prevents him from flying. Running can be a hard but relatively reliable way to gain places: witness how Coconea relentlessly reeled in the leaders during the bad weather in Switzerland in 2007.

Two thirds of the 2009 X-Alps athletes have competed in the event before, so there's lots of information to be gleaned from their previous performances. Of course, this year they'll be more experienced, fitter, and better prepared! The "newbies" like myself are still unproven and unknown. A few are competing in the Paragliding World Championships in Valle de Bravo, Mexico which I'm following in detail (alongside thousands of other Internet spectators) on ParaglidingForum.com. For the other competitors I'm following their blogs: see the list of "Athletes' Sites" in the right hand column here.

The flying isn't great here in Geneva at the moment so I'm compensating by training on the ground: if I can't fly then I'd better go running! After a month and a half of base training, I'm now starting to ramp up the weekly mileage. The goal here is to condition my body to day after day pounding pavement. Several athletes were forced to retire in 2007 due to foot and leg problems, including Vincent Sprungli (FRA2) who walked too hard after a 200km flight. As described in my earlier blog post, you're unlikely to win on the ground alone, but it's important both physically and psychologically to know that you can complete the course without taking your glider out of the bag. To give you an idea, I'm currently doing 30km runs in about 2h15m and am aiming to do a sub 3-hour marathon sometime in the Spring. If anyone knows Maurer's marathon time then please email me at twpayne at gmail dot com. Thanks!

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Southern Travels

Well while Tom is ski touring, training, and analyzing routes I've come down south and am working on my tan. Stopped in Fiji for some great island hopping and snorkelling before coming to Auckland NZ for xmas and New Years with family. The flying around the coast of Auckland is very beautiful with sites for most wind directions. Its windy at times and can be fickle but apparently experienced locals have counted more than 60 flown sites within an hours drive of the city over the years! Thats a lot more than Vancouver. Got a golden day with Michel, Hugo, Francois, and Damien at some huge sand dunes on the west coast south of Dargaville. Pacific Pyla. And to make it interesting we had to commit to be being there for a full tide cycle as the sand is undriveable at high tide. The wind was with us and it was on for the full 10hrs we were there! I reckon I flew 7 of those, everything from big to little dunes and an inch away to 300m above. A remote and wild location just made it magic.

After that I escaped the gravity well of the city and went down to go hiking among the big volcanoes of the north island. Crossed Tongariro park from west to east and summited on Ngarahoe. Colorful volcanic landscape and it was very nice to be in the hills and sleeping in the tent again. Next its Australia and some thermal flying. Maybe some more of the addictive dune flying before I leave if the wind happens! See here for more pix:

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Axis Mountain Masterclass dates

The dates for the Axis Mountain Masterclass, the advanced XC course for experienced pilots looking to develop their alpine flying skills, have been announced:

14-17 April: Mayrhofen, Austria with Kelly Farina.
23-26 April: Annecy, France with me. Backup dates are 28-31 May.

You can attend one or both courses. The Mayrhofen course is immediately followed by the Zillertal Open competition. The courses are non profit-making and are run at cost.

For the Annecy course we will meet at Geneva Airport on the evening of Wednesday 22 April. We will travel to wherever the conditions are best, and return you to Geneva Airport by about 10pm on the evening of Sunday 26 April.

There's more information about the Mountain Masterclass on the Axis UK website, contact Axis UK to register your interest.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Tactical calculations

Strategy and tactics will be critical to success (or otherwise) in the X-Alps. I'll talk about strategy and flight planning in a future blog post, but first here's a quick analysis of tactics: deciding the quickest way to get a few tens of kilometres along the course line.

A few back-of-the-envelope calculations quickly show how important flying is. On the ground you can reasonably expect to average about 5km/h. In 2007 almost all competitors managed this, the notable exceptions being Coconea (ROM) who averaged 6km/h over long distances day after day and Etike (TUR, '07) who seemed barely able to walk up one mountain, let alone down the other side.

In terms of altitude gain, 600-800m per hour seems a fair average over a two to three week event. You'd certainly expect to be faster in a shorter one-day event like a mountain ultramarathon, but if you're walking hard up the slopes of Mont Gros above Monaco at 800m/hour then you can be happy with your physical preparation.

In flight, in typical XC conditions, you can cover 20-25km/h along the course. In favourable conditions you might average 30km/h but in the X-Alps were racing East to West which means that we're fighting against the prevailing winds. History has shown that conditions are rarely ideal. So, let's assume that you average 15km/h when flying, and that you've got a modern glider that glides at 8:1 (allowing for a bit of sink and/or headwinds).

With these figures - 5km/h walking, 800m/h height gain, 15km/h flying, and 8:1 glide - we can answer a few simple questions that will help us plan our strategy.

Is it worth walking up a hill just to glide straight along the course line?

Walking up 1600m takes two hours, add a few minutes on launch to get prepared, fly down, and a few minutes packing up, say three hours total. You glide 1600m * 8 = 12.8km. In the same three hours you could walk 15km, but it's close. If you can glide over a lake or other obstacle that you'd normally have to walk around, then even a fly down can be a winner. Plus you get a rest, of course!

If you're flying, how weak does the lift have to be before you'd be better off gliding down to land and walking?

Assume you're in the last thermal of the day, it's smooth but weak. On the ground your competitor will cover 5km in one hour. In that same hour you only need to gain 5000/8 = 625m, i.e. a shade under 0.2m/s, and you'll cover the same distance as the walker but with much less physical effort. To Alpine pilots, 0.2m/s barely registers as a thermal, but compared to slogging it our on the ground it's the best tactic.

These simple calculations show that you're almost always better off flying. Even a walk up for a fly down is almost worth it. The only time you'd chose to walk if it's flyable would be to get through airspace or if the headwinds were so strong that couldn't even make 5km/h average forward speed. But you have to wonder...

Would a professional ultrarunner carrying the minimum kit win the Red Bull X-Alps?

After Coconea's incredible performance in 2007, many asked if you really needed a paraglider. Would you be quicker just running? In 2007 Hofer (SUI1) took 15 days to cover just under 1500km from Austria to Monaco, that's 100km - two and a half marathons - per day every day for two weeks. The shortest route was taken by Muller (SUI2) who covered 1279km. It's likely that a runner would have to cover a greater distance.

There are road races that cover that sort of distance, such as the Trans Gaule (1150km across France from Roscoff to Perpignan), but they tend to be split into daily stages. For example, the Trans Gaule takes 18 days, an average of 60km each day. There are some non-stop races, such as the Sydney-Melborne race where the Greek Yiannis Kouros set the world record for 1000km on roads of 5 days 2 hours and 27 minutes in 1989. Multiplying up, he might be able to complete the X-Alps course in 8-9 days. However, a direct comparison with the X-Alps is hard: the ultrarunners are covering predominantly flat terrain and without a rucksack.

A minimal rules-compliant pack would probably weigh about 4.5-5kg: 2.5kg for an ultralight mountain glider, 0.8kg for a minimal reversible rucksack-harness, 0.2kg for a helmet, 0.6kg reserve and 0.5kg of tracking devices and other compulsory equipment. Such a set-up would be good enough for a fly down, but you'd be hard pressed to cover significant distance flying with it: it would have poor performance and be rather uncomfortable!

The new course for 2009 follows many classic flying routes through the Alps and this year I think the flying will be more important than ever before. Fitness will be very important, but my focus will be on the flying. In the words of my supporter Alex Raymont "No-one out-walks a 200km flight".