“Ve vant to focus on tree zings: on preparation, on teamverk, und on coolness." Thomas Theurillat's clipped accent sounds like I imagine a Swiss watch would if it could talk. Thomas and fellow countryman, Chrigel Maurer, are the world's premier team and six-time winners of what is billed as the world's toughest adventure race: the Red Bull X-Alps. Travelling on foot and by paraglider, athletes and their supporters race from Salzburg, Austria, to Monaco, on the Mediterranean coast, via a number of turnpoints in the European Alps. The turnpoints, which affect the length and difficulty of the course, are changed every time the race is held, and the winner typically takes between one and two weeks to finish. A typical breakdown for a competitor might be the equivalent of sixteen marathons, 52,000 metres of height gained on foot, and 1,600 kilometres of horizontal distance flown, all in ten days.
Chrigel and Thomas' TedX talk is understated and in the pair's second language, and they appear almost robotic as they discuss their preparation. The image of these two – who exude the archetypal Swiss penchant for precision and calm thoroughness – focusing on being cool brings a round of laughter from the audience. And yet, when they talk about focusing on being relaxed, jovial, unpressured, and enjoying themselves while racing, they are serious. Swiss serious.
I love that. I love the thought that the most successful and straight-faced team in the X-Alps spends a third of their training time learning to be cool.
The need for preparation in a race like this is obvious, and being fit and well trained isn't enough. How much sleep do you need in order to keep racing fast for weeks, how many calories do you need and what type of food works, what heart rate gives the optimum sustainable speed – it makes sense to have answers to these sorts of questions before the start. Got it.
I understand the value of thinking as a team: in one event, these guys found that they had climbed two thousand metres of vertiginous rock to get to a site where they anticipated Chrigel could fly, only to find themselves on a glacier that was too flat to launch from. Team thinking provided the answer. Using their climbing rope, Thomas towed Chrigel into the air by running fast over the flat ground, much as a child can fly a kite on a calm day. How many teams would have found a solution to that problem, I wonder? And this got me smiling, and thinking: Chrigel and Thomas have many, many checklists, including a step-by-step action plan for what to do should they fall out during the race. Wow!
But coolness? Isn't it wonderful that the winningest team is also well prepared for laughing, relaxing, and enjoying themselves while competing in a gruelling, dangerous and highly competitive race? I think so... and I want to learn from that. If those guys can be cool while doing something as intense and exhausting as the Red Bull X-Alps, then maybe I can relax and enjoy my world a little more.