What drives someone to want to be the best in the world? INCH spoke to Steve Nash, a chartered electrical engineer who works at INEOS’ Runcorn site in the UK. He has been reaching for the stars for years
IT was an experience like no other.
As Steve Nash paraglided over the 8,130ft (2,478m) Nufenen pass in Switzerland, he got caught up in turbulent glacial air.
“I was losing height so fast that I thought I had been disconnected from the paraglider,” he said. “It was like flying in a raging waterfall.”
As he hurtled towards the ground at eight metres per second, he battled to regain control of his collapsing paraglider and keep his cool.
“Thankfully I had been trained to get out of a situation like that,” he said. “But I was still incredibly relieved to stand on solid ground again after that flight.”
But that brush with near disaster didn’t stop him from waking at 5am the next day to continue his epic journey across the Alps. And that’s the point. That’s what separates life’s great achievers from the rest, or, in the words, of the man who conquered Everest, Sir Edmund Hillary: “It is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves.”
Steve was competing in the one of the toughest races in the world, The Red Bull X-Alps.
Competitors – and every two years there are only about 32 international paragliders brave and fit enough to take it on – can face torrential rain, turbulence, storms, fierce headwinds, white-outs, and freezing temperatures as they hike, run and fly from Salzburg in Austria to Monaco via Germany, Italy, Switzerland and France.
There is no set route. Athletes must pass 10 ‘checkpoints’, mostly iconic mountains, but they can decide how to get there.
This year’s race was won by Swiss paragliding legend Christian Maurer who landed in Monaco eight days four hours and 37 minutes after setting off from Mozartplatz in Salzburg. It was the fourth time he had won the competition.
forty-eight hours later, the race officially ended with Steve, the only Brit and at 52, the oldest in the competition, just 178km away.
“For me it had been a unique opportunity to pitch myself against the very best pilots in the world,” he said.
After being selected in October 2014, Steve had sought advice from fitness experts, nutritionists, and those who had already done it.
“Anyone who competes, at whatever level, wants to perform at their very best,” he said.
But it’s not just a head for heights that are needed.
“The real dangers are all related to the weather,” said Steve. “Rough turbulence from thermals can collapse the fabric wings and massive cumulonimbus clouds are so dangerous that passenger plans avoid flying near them.”
What sets competitors apart is the ability to fly in conditions that most paraglide pilots would never consider safe.
“The real top pilots in the world are experts at using adverse weather and making the very best of it,” said Steve. “And that matters because almost all the race is won in the air.”
Steve last competed in the race four years ago but was eliminated after he flew eight metres into forbidden air space around Locarno Airport.
“I’d never flown into restricted airspace before, but pushing yourself to physical and mental limits means the ability for clear thinking is impaired,” he said.
This year he had no intention of making the same mistake twice. And he didn’t.
On a good day, he was literally flying, clocking more than 130kms in the air and 70km on foot.
On a bad one, he was forced to run or hike with a 9kg back pack.
“The worst flying day was from Zermatt, where very difficult flying conditions from strong winds meant I actually went backwards on the course line to Monaco,” he said.
The Red Bull X-Alps does take its toll on the body with lack of sleep leading to fatigue.
“I remember being asked what I wanted to eat and I couldn’t process the question,” he said.
He also lost about 5% of his body weight, despite consuming 4,500 calories a day.
Competitors are allowed to hike between 5am and 10.30pm and fly between 6am and 9pm.
“Several times I launched from very high mountains at 6am on the dot,” he said.
One of the unique aspects of the race is that spectators can track the athletes’ every move online.
That would have included Steve’s unexpected landing on someone’s garden lawn near the Swiss/French border.
“The owner came out of his chalet to check I was okay and needed a drink,” he said.
Steve began paragliding in North Wales in 1990 where the highest peak is just 3,560ft (1,085m).
“For me, paragliding is about freedom,” he said. “You can travel more than 100km with no idea where you might land or how you are going to get back to your starting place.”
He keeps fit by running and cycling from his home to work at INEOS’ Runcorn site most days.
As an employer INEOS understood what drove him and granted unpaid leave so he could train in Brazil, in the winter and spend two months in the Alps in the run-up to the race.
“Not many employers would allow you that flexibility,” he said. “But INEOS believes that keeping fit benefits all because fit employees are less likely to fall ill.”
So does he want to compete again in 2017?
“Absolutely,” he says. “This race has captured the imagination of every pilot who has ever dreamed about crossing a range of mountains as stunning as the Alps. It is simply like no other endurance competition. And having tried twice and got very close this time, I can’t help thinking third time lucky.”