Saturday, July 18, 2009

818km race to goal via seven turnpoints

The glider has been relined (and the risers modified to prevent more tree landings!), the rucksack is packed (about 10kg with minimum gear), Alex has stocked and fuelled the van and we're ready to roll. Race briefing is a 7:45am tomorrow morning, we'll be in Salzburg city centre about 10:30am, and it all kicks off at 11:30am (0930 UTC).

Who's favourite? I don't think anyone feels confident that they will be the first to Monaco. So many world class pilots, several strong walkers. And of course Toma Coconea. The forecast is pretty grim: there'll certainly be a few good opportunities to fly, but with strong Westerly winds forecast for the next week at least I wouldn't be surprised to see a Coconea/Toase one-two, maybe with only Toma in goal. But the forecasts are more often wrong than right.

It's gonna be a long race. You don't really get the scale of it until you see the terrain: hundreds upon hundreds of kilometres to cover, valley after valley, mountain pass after mountain pass. The full scale of the endeavour has only really become apparent recently, but I'm really looking forward to the challenge. The past few days here in Austria have been busy but comfortable. Twenty four hours from now I'll be walking though the night and my life will change completely. Not just during the race, but I know that the Tom Payne at the finish of the race will be a different one to the one that started it.

Let the adventure begin.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Pre-race jitters

Of course there were going to be a few problems immediately before the race.

Several competitors have only just received their equipment. Harnesses and gliders are arriving in plastic bags and factories from around the world. It's a bit late for major modifications, but a few grams can be trimmed here and there. Vincent Sprungli was not happy with the glider sent to him, so he's decided to use his glider (a Boomerang 5) from 2007.

I managed to get things wrong today by not noticing a tangle in my lightweight risers on take off. The line lengths on paragliders need to be accurate to within a few millimetres but the tangle meant that one set on the right-hand side were shortened by 10cm. It didn't really fly very well in this configuration, I couldn't even fly in a straight line and so I ended up in the trees below launch. Thanks so much to Alex for organising getting me out and for Jurgen (one of the safety team) for getting me and the glider out unharmed. I need to replace the lines but that's the only damage. A simple modification to the risers will prevent this happening again.

This morning we had a briefing on the rules: the Race Organisation are going to be very strict on a number of rules this year, including airspace and the number of supporters.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Fuschl am See

After three days driving through the incredibly varied scenery of the Alps, we arrived at the Race Headquarters in Fuschl am See near Salzburg today. Austria is a breath of fresh air after Italy. The Italian terrain is a mix of forest, fruit trees, gorges and power lines, but in Austria it seems that every field is a perfectly mown lawn and every mountain has gentle grassy slopes on top.

The teams are converging here at Race HQ and we've already met the Czechs, the Polish, the Canadians and fellow Brit Aidan Toase. The Japanese teams' vehicles have been spotted but we haven't seen the pilots or their supporters yet. Initial race briefing is at 4pm tomorrow so everybody should be here by then.

The next few days will be spent in various briefings on safety and use of the live tracking equipment. We'll also meet the media and have a few official photos taken. There's a whole host of professional paragliding photographers present, including Ulrich Grill and Felix Wolk who'll also be following us during the race so expect some spectacular images during the race.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Approaching the start line

My supporter Alex and I left Geneva on Saturday morning and are driving the first half of the route backwards to the start. We checked out the "South" route via the Sondrio valley and the Nufenenpass that Alex Hofer took so successfully in 2007. It's a commiting route, and we both have renewed respect for Alex's tactical and flying ability. The valley floors are low and the tree line is high, and with many peaks below the tree line there are very few potential launch sites. Landing fields are very scarce in many places, there are far too many vineyards, orchards and power lines. All in all it's a very committing route: if you can fly it, as Alex was able to, then it's almost a short cut, but if the weather's not so good or you make a mistake and land early it can be a very long walk to the next take off.

Today we drove through the Dolomites. The scenery is simply incredible. Once again there are a multitude of possible routes. Here there is no lack of take offs and landings, but the valleys are as narrow as the mountains are steep, which is to say very. There are several high passes to cross, which makes adds up to a lot of height gain and loss if you're stuck on the ground due to weather. It's definitely a section that you'd rather fly than walk! Martin Muller explained to me that to fly successfully through the Dolomites you have to stay high. In the French Alps where I've done most of my mountain flying getting low is not a problem: you can use the regular pattern to valley winds to find ridges facing in to wind and so find a thermal back to cloudbase. The Dolomites are different: the valleys are tight and windy and if you get to low you simply get flushed down to the valley floor. To make progress you must stay high, jumping from peak to peak.

Right now I'm typing this in Leinz in Austria. Tomorrow we'll check out the most likely route past the Grossglocker turnpoint and then up to the Watzmann and in to Salzburg. We have to be at Race HQ in Fucshl am See on Wednesday for several days of briefings and pre-shoots before the race start on Sunday morning.

I don't think that I really realised the scale of the challenge that is the Red Bull X-Alps until Alex and I started driving the route. It is simply a gargantuan challenge. But this will be the subject of a future blog post.

Friday, July 10, 2009

The harness

Sup'air are kindly sponsoring me with an excellent harness. It's a lightweight version of the Altirando XP with a few minor modifications to save weight. The modifications are:

  • No comfort padding on the inside. The normal Altirando XP has some rather luxurious padding for your back, but Sup'air have removed this to save weight. The race harness keeps the full airbag back protection found in the standard version.

  • Lighter buckles. These are a lighter, simpler and a touch more fiddly than the normal light clip buckles. However, it saves a few grams!

  • Fewer pockets. Once again, just to save weight.

Sup'air have added a lightweight removable leg cover. This is streamlined and warm in the air, and can be removed and put in the van if there's a long walk ahead. In rucksack mode it's very comfortable to carry.

The reserve parachute is a Sup'air Xtralite Small which is a fully certified reserve parachute weighing less than 1kg. It packs in to a very neat combined front mount container which doubles as a cockpit for mounting my instruments in plain view.

These are the final pieces of gear, I'll get the scales out tonight to find out how much it all weighs.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Weather strategy

Right now there's a thunderstorm in Geneva. The lightning is spectacular and the rain torrential. There's just a thin sliver of clear sky sandwiched between the towering clouds and the crests of the Jura mountains. The light has an metallic blue quality, illuminating the city in eerie surgical glow. I've never quite seen anything like it.

Despite the years of preparation, the months spent training, route planning and tuning gear, the winner of the X-Alps race will most likely be decided by the weather. Maybe the strong pilots and aerial tacticians will be able to weave a thread through the mountains, keeping them in the air and covering hundreds of kilometres day after day. But if the rain falls and the wind blows then the runners will be kings. Positions in the race will rise and fall based on each team's abilities to exploit the weather to play to their own strengths.

Alex and I have a whole host of weather information sources at our disposal. For the general long term forecasts we use TopKarten which publishes the output of the American GFS model (click on the link then click on GFS). This gives us forecast pressures and wind speeds at different altitudes, precipiation, cloud cover and more esoteric variables like CAPE which allows us to predict the chance of thunderstorms. You can click on the "+6" and "-6" links to animate through the forecast for the next two weeks. We'll use the output of this model to make the grand strategic decisions, for example do we take the north route through Chur or the south route through Bellinzona?

Here's a quick guide to interpreting the output of the GFS model so you can predict the teams' strategic decisions during the race.

The first thing to look at is the wind speed. Meteorologists prefer to use pressure altitudes rather than elevations. To first approximation, 850hPa corresponds to about 1500m -- the altitude at which we normally fly -- and 500hPa corresponds to about 5000m -- the summit of Mont Blanc. Wind speeds less than 10km/h at 1500m are "go anywhere" days and paraglider pilots can fly in any direction. Up to 20km/h pilots can still fly but it's difficult to make progress against the wind, and above 30km/h we are grounded.

If there are also light winds at 500hPa then expect some very long flights, if you see a "snake" of strong winds (Stromlinien) over the Alps then it means that jet stream is near and flying will be difficult.

The precipitation (Niderschlag) is accumulated over several hours, so a little bit of light blue is not a worry: it means the occasional shower at worse. However, once you start seeing purple on the forecast charts then you can expect a wet day with limited flying opportunities between the rain clouds.

As I'm finishing off this blog post at my kitchen table the sun has set and the cloud above is as black as ink. Out on the road and in the mountains it will be a long and dark night.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Getting geeky

During the 2007 race I was glued to the internet, following the teams' progress through the Alps. Suddenly my phone rang: it was Aidan Toase: "Hi Tom, it's Aidan -- I'm trying to find a take off but I'm in the cloud and I can't see very far. Can you have a look on Google Earth and see if there's one near me?" Thanks to the live tracking I could find Aidan's exact position as he was on the phone, and was able to tell him that if he walked a few hundred metres north through a forest he'd come to a clear area where he could launch.

Technology has made an incredible difference to how we paraglide. Through the internet we have access to the latest detailed weather forecasts and up-to-the minute information from the sites. Using Google Earth and online databases like Paragliding Earth and XContest's incredible Skyways Map we have fingertip access to experience that would otherwise take years to acquire. Once in the air live tracking systems like Leonardo Live allow others to follow our progress in real time and are a great safety feature. Pilots who were flying ten years ago may remember analysing every word of the TV news forecast and somehow organising to go flying without using mobile phones. How archaic it seems now.

We'll have a whole host of technology on board to help us in the race. Here's a quick overview.

The 2009 live tracking, written by Harry Gergits, will be even better this year, with live updates every minute. Red Bull Mobile are supplying us with Sony Ericsson C702 which talk to our Brauniger Compeo+ altivario GPSs via Bluetooth. The Compeo+ collects a minute-by-minute log and packs eight track points in to an SMS which it sends every eight minutes.

Alex will use the live tracking to find me using a satellite car navigation system, and we'll both be watching the other team's movements to observe their route choices.

We'll also use the mobile phone to connect to the internet for the latest weather information and plan our moves on Google Maps and the Skyways Map. We'll make regular diary updates though MMS messages from the phone, which should be able to to text, photos, audio and video.

Suunto are supplying us with their new Suunto Core watch which includes an altimeter, compass and thermometer. All these features will be very useful for navigation in the mountains. For example, you can use the thermometer to measure the environmental lapse rate as you walk up to launch to get an idea of the atmospheric instability on the day.

I'll also be flying with the Leonardo Live tracking system created by Manolis Andreadakis which means that you'll be able to follow my flights in greater detail, it'll act as a backup tracklog in case I have problems with the official tracking devices, and will be further safety device.

Those of you who know me will know that I have a bit of a fetish for computers and have written quite a lot of software for paragliders. If you're an XC pilot then be sure to check out my XC planner and to analyse your flights with my Google Earth flight analyser (now integrated in to Leonardo). There are also a few geekier projects on my GitHub home page.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Grub's up!

Eating right is going to be critical if we want to survive the race. 2007 competitor Ulric Jessop perhaps put it best, he said:
I think my greatest advantage was [my wife and supporter] Ruth's cooking. She put a huge effort into preparing a set of recipes for the race. One night, we were parked next to the Czech team. They were tucking in to their pot noodles. Ruth had prepared stuffed veal cutlets. At that point, we knew that the battle was won.
You need to be fit and fuelled on the start line, but there's a big difference between single day events and multi-week events like the Red Bull X-Alps. In a single event you need to focus on getting enough energy in to your system to allow you to complete the race, you can recover afterwards. In shorter events like marathons you'll focus on carbohydate with a touch of protein and salt towards the end. In the slightly longer events, like ultramarathons, it's more important to eat slower energy sources like long chain carbohydrates, protein and fat. But we're not on our feet for a single long day. We're going to be pounding pavement day after day, week after week, and this is going to take a horrible toll on our bodies. We need to eat not just for energy but to recover - or at least slow down the inevitable damage.

Not only does the food need to be nutritious, it also needs to be quick to prepare using easy to find ingredients and easy to eat. Strong flavours and tough textures are likely to cause upset stomachs and a loss of appetite. In the van we have two gas cookers and a fridge, that's it.

Here's my favourite recipe which I've modified slightly from the original by my friend Alice Handerson. Preparation time is about twelve minutes start-to-finish. It's delicious, nutritious and easy to make and will be my secret weapon in the race.


Ingredients (per person):
- 125g of smoked salmon (economy salmon is great)
- 100ml of creme fraiche
- half an onion
- one clove of garlic
- quarter of a courgette
- 100g of fusili (spiral) pasta
- sea salt, ground black pepper, olive oil

Start heating the water for the pasta in a large saucepan. While it is heating up you can do all the preparation. Chop the onion in to small squares. Heat a couple of tablespoons of olive oil in a non-stick pan and once the oil is hot, add the onion. To tell when the oil is hot, add a single small square of onion. When the oil starts to form bubbles around it then it's at the right temperature. Heat the onion over a medium heat for a few minutes, stirring occasionally. While this is cooking finely chop the garlic. When the onion is soft, add the garlic, keeping the heat medium. At this point the water for the pasta is probably boiling so put the pasta on with a bit of salt and a splash of olive oil. The olive oil reduces the formation of bubbles, allowing you to cook the pasta at a higher temperature for a better texture. Chop the courgette in to quarters lengthwise then cut these in to small chunks. Throw the chopped courgette in with the onion and garlic with a couple of grinds of black pepper and sprinkle of salt and fry, stirring occasionally. Chop the salmon in to small cubes. When the pasta is done (al dente is best), drain it and add the onion/garlic/courgette mix. Mix well: the oil prevents the pasta from sticking. Then add the creme fraiche and the chopped salmon. Mix everything up well in the pasta saucepan with an extra grind of black pepper and serve in bowls with a glass of freshly-squeezed orange juice. Delicious!

We're looking for other good food ideas. They need to be quick and easy to make, nutritous and simple. If you have some good food suggestions then please email me at twpayne at gmail dot com. Thanks!

P.S. Addie and Fatty Puff will recognise the title of this post.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Final stage of preparations, first glimpse of the race weather

Alex and I leave for Austria next weekend. In the meantime we're frantically getting together the remaining equipment. Last night we put a lighter set of risers on the glider (thanks Martin Orlik at Axis Para) and I test flew the glider with them this morning at the Saleve mountain near Geneva before the storms arrived and stopped play. The afternoon was spent putting stickers on the glider. There's a lot of them and the Red Bull logos are really fiddly. However, by the third sticker we were starting to get the hang of it and can now put them on quickly and cleanly.

On Wednesday I'll finally be able to collect the harness from Sup'air. I've chosen to use a third generation Altirando XP. Sup'air are producing a special version for the X-Alps which is a couple of hundred of grams lighter than the standard version. It's a really nice harness in the air, nicely aerodynamic with the removable leg cover and with some excellent back protection in the form of an airbag. Equally importantly, it reverses to become a very comfortable rucksack. I've asked for a couple of minor modifications to adapt it better to my rather skinny body shape. Stay tuned for a more detailed description of the X-Alps gear towards the end of the week.

Finally, the race start is just fourteen days away now. It's scarily close and the first long term forecasts have just been published. Two weeks is an eternity in weather forecasting and you can't really believe anything they say, but I can't resist peeking! The current forecast is that Austria will get quite a lot of rain the day before the race but race day itself will be dry with light winds at 1500m, which means that we'll be able to fly from the first turnpoint above Salzburg, the Gaisberg. The winds at altitude are moderately strong Westerlies, which could be a problem for making progress in the air. We're racing from East to West, against the prevailing winds and consequently the 'hard' way. This is the Red Bull X-Alps, after all...