The sky was grey but the storm had passed, it was moving South and as luck would have it I had just flown North. Waiting at Sacramento airport I pondered what it was going to be like meeting ‘The Honza’.
The Red Bull X-Alps in July 2015 will be the 39 year old’s 5th time in the race. Understanding more about the event it’s little wonder it has gained itself the title, the world’s toughest adventure race. Athletes must travel a straight line distance of 1000km by foot or by paraglider from Salzburg to Monaco.
The bar is raised every year, Maurer – who won last years race in a record 6 days 23 hours – with his bird like instincts has taken the competition to another level. For Honza, of course another podium finish would be incredible but his ultimate challenge, yet to be realised, is to reach goal in Monaco. There’s a rule that means once the winner is in goal, the race stops after two days (as long as the overall race finishes in no less than 12 days). His best result was 3rd in 2009 but he’s never made the finish.
I heard a voice shouting “Squash!” there was a tall, athletic looking man in shorts (it was freezing!) with long hair scraped back into a pony tail, it was Honza. I headed his way. As I approached the car I saw a blond haired little boy smiling and looking up at me, “that’s my son, Martin. I just picked him up from school.” said Honza as he took my bag from me, lifting all 23kgs in one hand like it was weightless.
In the front of the car was a huge black spider, “I made it for Halloween.” Martin told me. I admired the spider, especially all the glitter and jewels it was decorated with.
There’s nothing like a child to break the ice and bring the conversation down to basics. We soon covered our ages and what had been going on at school that day. “Usually I pick Martin up from school and run home with him on my shoulders, then run back to collect the car” said Honza. Immediately I was getting a glimpse into how this guy makes his training work with a young family.
I’d got lucky being able to meet Honza in person. I was in LA and had a weekend to spare before flying home, I contacted him to see if we could meet up for a hike and fly and it just so happened I’d picked the weekend before Honza and his family were departing for Chile – where they spend Christmas. It only gave us a day though, I arrived on Friday evening, we had Saturday and I was leaving again on Sunday morning.
On arrival at Honza’s home I met his lovely wife Barbara and Martin showed me to my room, his room, which he was kindly letting me stay in. Honza told me about the stunning images that were hung on the walls. Many were taken in Chile, where Honza has recently built a cabin, a place for all his family to go to and where he hopes to be able to spend more and more time flying and enjoying the outdoors. The cabin looks out onto the volcano Villarrica where Honza carried out much of the practical side of his Meteorology degree. He said that’s the reason he was in such good shape for the first X-Alps – he hiked up and down it many times that year.
Dinner was a team effort. Honza, Barbara and Martin were all involved. Martin was wielding a kitchen knife to cut the mushrooms and I watched, impressed by the five year old’s competency, as he sliced and chopped. It was a lovely evening. I was made to feel very welcome. Barbara smiled, saying that she was happy I was there to go and hike and fly with Honza as it would give her the day off, telling me, she loves cities but a city break isn’t something that happens too often. “Honza never ever, ever stops. We are always, hiking and camping and doing something active. These days if he’s moving too fast we try and weigh him down with Martin and all the camping equipment!” She joked.
Honza & Martin testing the solar panels before bed!
After dinner, nervous of just what ‘a hike’ with Honza might entail I was conscious a good nights sleep was needed. Honza and I packed our kit for the next morning. We’d leave early.
We really had got lucky with the weather, the storm had passed when I arrived and Saturday was the only day with no rain and light winds forecast. I rose just after 6am, Honza was already up and playing with Martin. He told me that he’s usually up around 5am as he prefers to get to work early so he can leave in time to collect Martin and do the school run! His day job, as an atmospheric scientist, was a compromise, Honza wanted freedom but also had a family to think about. The flexible hours, being able to work outdoors and going on trips that were conducive to paragliding when he’d finished for the day made it a good compromise.
Our plan for the day was to head to San Francisco, grab a couple of photos at the Golden Gate bridge and then hike up and around Mt Tamalpais with a view to flying if the weather played ball.
Honza checking out his Powertraveller kit at the Golden Gate Bridge.
We soon reached a road block, the storms had caused land slides and the roads to the car parks on Mt Tam were closed. Honza thought for a few seconds, turned the car around and we headed to Stinson beach. “We’ll hike from here, it’s better training anyway going from the bottom, and then we’ll land on the beach near the car if we can fly.”
It turned out to be a brilliant plan, the road blocks meant most people had simply turned around so not only did we have a beautiful hike but we had the entire place to ourselves. Wasting no time we hopped out of the car and Honza began organising the most incredible amount of food and water. He had supplies that would have kept us going for days. I looked at him, slightly puzzled and asked how long was this hike we would be going on? He laughed and said, “I know, I know, I have way too much.” He then explained that he had ‘Ruwenzori Syndrome’. “Back in 1991 my family and I did a week long backpacking trip in the Ruwenzori mountians in Uganda, my brother and I felt that we didn’t have enough food and so it’s been an inside family joke that ever since we take too much.”
We left the car and set off, uphill, towards take off. Despite being known for and openly admitting that he doesn’t like social media or attention it was clear that, after less than 24hrs with Honza, it wasn’t because he’s shy or doesn’t like talking. In fact he’s the opposite, Honza has plenty to say, he’s generous and thoughtful in conversation and has a willingness to share information. He just doesn’t see the point in wasting so much time interacting with a screen when there is so much to be done… outside, that’s real. And he’s got a point.
As we hiked up and up I tried to ask questions which required a long answer. The more talking Honza did, the better I was able to keep up with him!
We reached a take off. There was an option to go higher to another one, but we both agreed we should take advantage of the conditions right now and go for this opportunity to fly. We looked out to a tree on the beach, it was the landing zone marker, and discussed a flight plan, with the standard back up ‘if in doubt, fly straight out and head for the beach’.
I was running through my final checks and Honza was set up next to me waiting for me to go. He would take off after me. What an honour it was to be sharing the sky with this man. A Red Bull X-Alps athlete! I took a deep breath, using the fear that is always present every time I fly to focus, I waited for the moment and went for it. Commitment to a take off is as vital as fuel is to a jet plane. You won’t get off the ground without it. I was in lift immediately. It was perfect conditions for flying.
Honza took off straight after I was in the air and found lift, he went higher and higher. I wasn’t so bold and played safe, soon heading out towards the ocean and a very satisfying beach landing. I looked up for Honza, he’d reached cloud base! I was delighted he was having such a good flight and wondered if I’d been too quick to head for the landing when there was clearly lift to be had.
Taking off just before Honza.
Sharing the sky with Honza.
I packed up my glider, sat on a chunk of driftwood and looked out to the ocean.
Honza landed with a smile as wide as his glider! He had been up to cloud base, which unbeknown to me was almost unheard of in this flying location. It was now after lunch time and rather than a stop for lunch we decided to eat while we hiked and try and get in another flight.
I asked Honza about food. I wondered if he had a strict plan or followed a particular diet. “Not really” he answered. I wasn’t surprised. Having already covered this topic when I met Red Bull athlete Tom De Dorlodot I had a feeling they would have a similar theory about food…. and training for that matter. These guys don’t separate their everyday life from their training. This is what they do, it’s who they are. The most important thing for them is to listen to their bodies. Honza said for the X-Alps itself he had figured out a diet that worked well for him during the race. He had juice soaked chai seeds for breakfast, an egg sandwich once he’d got going, energy gels during the day and quinoa with veg/meat in the evening and plenty of water.
By the time we reached take off again the wind was coming over the back and it was impossible to take off, so we continued our hike. There was another take off higher up but the chances of flying now were very slim. Wandering up through the woods we came across a banana slug! It was huge. Honza suggested I took a photo of it next to the powermonkey explorer 2 so that you could get an idea of its size.
Powermonley explorer 2 with a banana slug
The powermonkey is not only a brilliant portable, waterproof and tough power solution that can be used to show the size of slugs, it’s also the reason I got to meet Honza in the first place. Powertraveller, who make the product are partners of the Red Bull X-Alps 2015 and as their ambassador I have the wonderful job of getting to meet the people who are using the kit and work alongside them to understand their needs and how the product can be the best it can be. I asked Honza for a photo of him with his new powermonkey explorer 2. I said, “you can do what you like in the photo” not thinking for a minute he’d find the nearest rock and back flip off it! But that’s what he did!
Honza doing a backflip with his powermonkey explorer 2
We reached the higher take off and the sun was beginning to set. The wind was still coming over the back and we both agreed at least we’d been lucky enough to get one good flight that day, inwardly, obviously, both not wanting to hike back down. We didn’t rush to start walking, instead we wandered around and stalled… hoping the wind might die down. It did! Not quite believing our luck we had our gliders out and wasting no time I ran as hard and fast as I could in order to make the nil wind (bordering on slight downhill wind) take off. Once airborne I knew there was still a chance of not making the beach, there was no lift at all and a ridge and trees to clear before it was a glide to the landing tree on the beach. I lifted my legs high, as if that would make any difference!! and focused on judging the ridge, could I make it? I was at the point of no return, I held my breath as I cleared the trees and looked behind to see Honza was right there. It was a magical flight – ocean, beach, a sunset and Honza. There I was with The Honza!
Flying out over Stinson Beach
We drove back to Sacramento, both elated from the perfect day we’d had. We’d managed to time it so well with the weather. Martin was pretty exhausted when we got back. He and Barbara had been at a party and he needed to go to bed. He assured me though he would show me his moves on the trampoline before I left in the morning.
Martin wasn’t the only one tired that night, I was pretty tired too. I suspect, for Honza, it was a very easy day, but we were both happy with getting two flights.
In the morning we were up at 6am again. Honza and Martin took me on a tour of the neighbourhood, Martin on his bike and Honza and I ran. Honza thought it would be good if I got some movement in before my day of travel that lay ahead. We ate fresh fruit from the trees, tomatoes from the garden and stopped for a game of frisbee in the park. Back at the house Barbara had made pancakes – it was a good job we’d been out running afterall!
I was all packed and ready to leave when Martin remembered the trampoline, we rushed out for a quick display and then I left for the airport.
Like father like son! Martin & Honza on the trampoline.
It was, even by my standards, a whirlwind trip, but in less than 48hrs I was able to get to know Honza and his family just a little bit and to understand the man they call ‘The Honza’.
Before I met him, a friend of his described him to me…
“His loyalty goes beyond reason. He doesn’t fall to group ideas because he is his own man. He would be the unknown Samari of the sky without the X-Alps. He is the paragliding bum turned into respectable family man. He truly believes the X-Alps is the perfect game. He believes in earning the right to compete and has the up most respect for guys who get the Red Bull ride. His concern for fellow athletes is more powerful then his desire to win and he of course gets caught up in the excitement of the race. To him the race is as real as life and to not give your all, to not go to the wall and beyond it is just plain disrespectful to the whole concept. He knows you win nothing real, but to race without honour, to cheat or to not go into it with your full passion and heart is an insult. He will do his best to race and focus on trying to beat the next closest guy until its over. Even when its over he is wishing it would go on. He is a true vol bivy spirit. A true X-Alper. He does it for the passion he has for racing and flying. One of the few who enjoys a punishing hike against the clock always, as a measure of fun.”
… and I couldn’t have put it better myself.