On the eve of the race things felt a bit surreal. I was sitting in a campground outside Hondarribia with my crew. Pavel was my official supporter who would drive our van and carry food, water, and cloths up the hill with me whenever possible. Sam was along to film and photograph as much of the race as possible. Many of the X-pyr teams were camped in the same busy campground. Some had gear spread around their vans, Maurer’s team looked bored sitting in their camp chairs. I was trying to triage the most important last minute things to work on before the race. As is often the case I was frustrated, coming to terms with all the prep things that there wasn’t time for. I wasn’t even sure the best route to take to turn point 1 which we had to reach on foot before any chance of flying. I focused on putting waypoints in my phone to make a bread crumb trail of what I thought was the best walking and flying routes for the first day.
I had been through this stretch of the route a couple weeks prior but it still seemed confusing. There were lots of low rolling hills with a mix of forest and fields covering them. We had east wind forecast for race day which I was hoping would hold the prevailing west sea breeze from the atlantic at bay. The sea breeze tends to shut down thermals and often brings a low layer of cloud that makes even sledder flydowns from passes impossible. Staring at a paper map and my phone I entered color coded stars marking first and second choice flying routes as well as what I thought would be the best foot route. In my experience with doing support twice in the X-alps, a similar race from Salzburg to Monaco through the central European alps, route planning gets increasingly difficult once the race starts. There’s rarely good internet so I rely primarily on an app called OsmAnd that loads all it’s map files on my phone’s memory and works perfectly with or without internet. My phone would be my only flying and navigation instrument. We had trackers from the race organization that would upload our position for the live tracking website but that was their only function. I also had a little flyte park audio vario on my helmet. Around 10:00 we got to bed to try to get a good night’s sleep.
There wasn’t too much to take care of in the morning. I was almost certain communication would be difficult from the get go since we would be crossing back and forth from Spain to France a lot at the beginning. European cell companies still haven’t standardized their roaming services and we knew the SIM cards the race organization provided wouldn’t work in France. I had an american T mobile SIM card which worked well in all countries and fortunately the race organization was happy to let us use our own SIMs if we wanted. I was hoping Pavel’s phone would work but we had Sam’s american Verizon phone set up on roaming too as backup.We discussed a couple meeting points between the start and TP 1 and then I got my plastic bags over my shoes to go stand around on the beach. Like most athletes I didn’t want to risk getting sand in my shoes from the 100 yards of running on the beach at the start line. I’m lucky to blister resistant feet but I know that a little sand between the toes can lead to raw spots almost instantly.
As the start neared we gathered around the inflated arch for pictures. Music pumped from the sound system and everyone was buzzing with excitement. We counted down to the start and everyone cheered as we took off running. Up on the steet we tore our plastic bag off our shoes and streamed through the sleepy city streets stopping traffic at intersections. We had to follow along a river for the first bit so that kept everyone more or less together for the first couple miles. I ran with Juraij Koren for a little while coming up on the second river crossing. I think he took a better choice of which bridge to cross but I had planned to meet my crew by the other bridge and since I’d had no luck communicating with them I backtracked a tiny bit to my original route, got some energy food and drink and pushed on. I mingled with a couple other competitors as we tried to navigate the maze of roads and trails through the rolling French country side. One of my last minute projects to buy a cell phone holder for my arm was already paying off. I could carry my phone on the inside of my forearm and look at it with out fumbling to take it out of my pocket. Also the clear cover made the “touch screen” sensitive to pressure only instead of reacting to conductive skin, sweat and water, so drops of sweat falling on it didn’t make the screen freak out.
I had been running steady but after the second river crossing we started going up and over small hills so I dropped into ultramarathon pace walking anything that was uphill. Sam and Pavel caught up with me with more water and energy gel and then the plan was for them to go ahead and get ready for Pavel to hike up to the top of TP 1 with me. I had originally thought they could drive near the top but that wasn’t the case and the little cog wheel train that brought tourists up to the peak from the French side was said to be sold out. This was where our lack of communication started to become a problem. As I neared the transition from road to trail I sent messages to Sam and Pavel’s phones but nothing went through and I made contact with them a couple minutes before the road ended and turned to trail. I told Pavel to park the van quick and get ready to hike up. The rules said only the official supporter was allowed to drive the van so this led a little difference of opinion between me and Pavel over whether Sam could or should move the van from it’s improvised parking spot at the end of the street.
Pavel had to run to catch up to me after he grabbed everything we needed out of the van. It was starting to get really hot and there was less and less shade as I powered up the hill. The race rules said that I had to carry my glider, harness, reserve parachute, helmet and tracker at all times. Everything else like flying clothing, food, water, cameras etc Pavel could carry whenever possible. My pack only weighed about 15 lbs. when it was down to the mandatory gear and often Pavel was carrying as much weight as me when he hiked up with me. I was pushing hard as the trail got steeper and steeper ending in a scramble to the top. I felt like it was worth wearing myself out on the first day though because the flying generally gets better the farther away from the Atlantic one gets. my strategy was to push as hard as I could the first day to have a better shot at getting to better flying conditions by day 2.
When I got over the top and made the little run down the other side to where our launch had been designated there were only Chrigel and Aaron were geared up waiting where the race organizers had designated the take off. There was no wind, and although launching probably would have been possible it didn’t look promising for lift. I started getting ready anyway and sure enough the wind switched and they told us we could launch from a different spot facing east. I finished getting ready as Chrigel, Aaron, and Stanislav took off. I followed them thinking we were taking sledders down into the low hills but they found a tiny bubble of a thermal and managed to get to the next low ridge to the south where there was more lift. I couldn’t connect with their thermal and I landed in a grassy hill in the low lands, packed up and started hiking for the next hill I had marked on my map a mile or two away. Other gliders were in the air now, I passed another pilot folding up as I hurried along the road.
It was about the hottest part of the day by then and I didn’t have much water. As I headed up the next hill I came to Michal Krista, out of water as well. We shared the last bit of mine and we hiked together so we team up once we were in the air. At the top of the hill there a bunch of huge birds, I think they were golden eagles, sitting on rocks and doing little soaring passes. Michael found a huge wing feather from one of the on the ground. As we got ready another glider thermalled up below us showing there was no time to lose. I texted Pavel and Sam my current location and told them to head a little ways east and wait, there was a maze of roads and I had no way of knowing where I’d land next. I didn’t even know if live tracking was working either. Michael and I got in the air and soared easily maintaining our altitude but we couldn’t get much higher than the top of the little hill we’d launched from. My next peak I wanted to fly to fairly close but south on the other side of a forrested valley that I didn’t have the height to cross. Our Peak was part of a ridge and we followed it NE a little bit which provided reliable lift but didn’t follow the course line. I saw some birds climbing in an unlikely spot out over the middle of the valley and broke away from the two other pilots to try to connect with the bird’s thermal. I didn’t see any thermal triggers as I glid out over the narrow valley but sure enough I was able to connect with a weak thermal and start climbing.
That climb didn’t take me high but I thought I was within glide of my next peak I had marked. As I left and flew south other gliders came out towards where I had been circling. I found sink and didn’t make the next peak but landed up high, out of the valley only a short distance away. I sent my location to the crew again as I really needed water at this point, packed up and walked towards the nearest road. I was surprised to find Sam and Pavel waiting for me when I walked out of the field. I was stoked that our communication was working and guzzled down water and electrolytes. I had less than a mile down the road to walk before a trail took off to my next peak. Pavel carried some extra gear and Sam followed with his heavy camera gear to try to get close enough for shot of my next launch. I watched a couple groups of gliders fly overhead which was a little frustrating but I knew we were all playing leap frog at this point. One of the groups tried to follow the sunny south side of a ridge connecting to the next peaks but as I hiked I watched them get flushed down into the valley below by a north wind blowing over the ridge. I knew not to try to follow that line.
I launched with expectations of little more than a sledder but I found my peak and the ridge that ran south soarable in the NE wind. I worked my way south until I had to head east out over the valley to follow the course line towards the village of Erratzu. Fortunately I saw some eagles thermalling over the valley and went to join their thermal. I was surprised to find lift out over the low lands and it turned out to be a convergence line that many different eagles helped me follow east. I eventually had to leave this lifty line and headed towards the road leading up to the last pass before a nice straight valley followed the courseline between Saint-Étienne-de-Baïgorry and Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port. As I dropped into the valley I found more headwind that stopped my progress. I landed in a cornfield and made a quick transition to walking, offloading all but the mandatory gear with Sam and Pavel who had pulled up as I landed. I wanted to hurry to make the pass since I hoped to fly from there as well. Even though it was getting too late for thermals I wanted to save my legs the pounding descent on pavement.
I made good time to the pass where one of the french teams was getting ready to launch just above the road. We were above a long narrow side valley that led out to the main valley ahead and I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to glide all the way out. The side valley was so narrow I wasn’t sure there would be and good landing options in it further down. At first I thought I should hike a couple miles south to a higher peak that would give me plenty of height but after 5 minutes I decided it was too far and I should just go back and fly from where the French team had been getting ready. A race like this has so many variables, flying is much faster than walking but flying is always a bit of a gamble, will the wind allow launching? will there be a big enough grassy clearing? how far away is the launch? making quick decisions is important but I’ve decided through the race it’s definitely good to second guess myself and not be afraid to change my mind. This turned out to be a good move to turn around, walk back to the road and hike up towards the french team just as the pilot took off. It was windy and cross in the little clear area on the ridge but after getting yanked off my feet once I got in the air. I could see the french pilot ahead of me had landed by the road about half way down the on the north side of valley. He was apparently worried about the poor landing options in the narrow valley ahead. I decided that there were a couple small hillside fields that I would be ok with landing in if I had to, and went for the longer flight, keeping on the south side of the valley where the NE wind was making less sink. I made it easily to the main valley beyond the narrow spot and had nice landing on the edge of Saint-Étienne-de-Baïgorry.
I texted Sam and Pavel a spot to meet and took off running and walking, taking a little shortcut over a vinyard covered hill to where a nice straight highway ran east following the courseline. Sam’s american phone was proving to be more reliable than Pavel’s with the Spanish SIM cards as we were in France again. I found the easiest way to show them where I intended to go was to navigate to a place on my map and then take a screenshot of the highlighted route to send by SMS of messenger app. I tried to minimize my time texting of looking at my phone because I knew every little distraction slowed me down. I got to the highway and and started running as much as I could, slowing to walk for hills and to eat dinner but not stopping to sit down. We got to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port with around an hour to go before we had to stop for the mandatory rest period at 10:30. I didn’t think much about which road I should take out of town and headed out on the road I’d taken when I came scouting a couple weeks earlier.
I was very surprised to find out that I was in 4th when I was texting with my friend Morgan back home. The live tracking site is too hard to use on a phone when I’m trying to go fast so I never try to look at other athletes positions. I get updates from my crew if they’re able to find good enough internet to make it work or from people at home. I was also surprised that the 3 leaders were on another highway that ran paralell to my road but slightly north. I wondered if I should take the other road but decided to keep on since Sam and Pavel were already up ahead setting up camp.
I walked up to the van a couple minutes before 10:30. We had a nice pullout along a quiet little country road. I ducked behind the van and tested out the little camp shower we’d bought the day before. It worked great to get me feeling clean and happy, relaxing in a camp chair with flip flops on my tired feet. At that point I my body was feeling pretty good, a little sore from the final push running down the road but nothing bad. My right ankle that I’d mildly sprained in a rough landing a week before the race was holding up well. We were all quite wound up and we looked at maps as I ate a little more food. It looked like strong wind in the morning so I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to fly before I got to TP 2. I didn’t look at the map thoroughly and I let my anxiety that I wasn’t following the more experienced lead group take hold of my decision making. I picked a trail route for the morning that would run down the hills between out roads and eventually put me on their road about half way to TP2. I thought this would give me a chance to fly early from the hilltops if the wind wasn’t as bad as forecasted. What I didn’t see was that I had the option of sticking with my road for a few more miles and there was a connector to the other road that wouldn’t involve so many hills and was pretty direct. We all bedded down, 2 in the van and one on the ground. Not surprisingly though we were so excited that none of us could sleep very well in the warm, mosquito ridden, night. Eventually we managed to get a little rest before the 5:10 alarms started going off in the wee hours of the French dawn.
Photo credit: Sam Thompson