Dawn - Sometimes An Ultrarunner

Dawn - Sometimes An Ultrarunner

August 25, 2015


From the Red Bull X-Alps Site:

American athlete Dawn Westrum got the furthest of any women to have competed in Red Bull X-Alps. She’s writing a book about her race and shared with us five tips she wishes she’d known before the race began.

Former US army soldier and Red Bull X-Alps 2015 athlete Dawn Westrum is half way through writing a book about her experiencing racing across the Alps.

She posted excerpts of the coming book's content on her blog, but says the book – to be completed by Christmas – will contain more than just a day-by-day account of her race.

“[The book will be] chronological but with a lot of training information and the kind of knowledge I had to find out for myself that might be helpful to next year's rookies,” Dawn says. “Plus, I'm trying to include shorts blurbs from other athletes – the guys had some pretty spectacular flights this year!”

Here are Dawn's top five tips she wishes she'd known before the race kicked off.

1. Choose your supporters wisely!

I had a couple great supporters but one bad apple can bring the whole group down. It’s important to be clear about what you need from each other before the race so that everyone knows their role and is on board with the plan.

2. Be patient waiting for a good thermal!

On day one I missed one thermal and it cost me an easy 50km in the air. That’s a pretty big mistake as I ended up walking more than 50km the next day to make up for it.

3. Learn how to fly in the late afternoon.

Although I had some great flights, I wasn’t able to keep them going into the evening. The valley winds always seemed to put me on the ground but I know it was possible to go further.

4. Keep track of the flight lines!

Take some time during the race to look at the flight lines of other athletes on Live Tracking (as long as you’re not in front, anyway!). Several times I didn’t fly deep enough into the mountains, not realizing there was a better route. If I had looked where the competitors in front of me were flying I might have really improved in the standings. It’s definitely worth a little time to study this, as it could save a lot of miles on the ground.

5. Dream big!

I don’t think I set my sights high enough. I was trying to be realistic and practical with myself and my supporters, but ended up getting much further along the course than we had expected, forcing us to scramble to find maps and to plan flights. That’s a good problem to have, though!

August 18, 2015

Zion NP: The Narrows

The Narrows gorge is found at the end of Zion Canyon, where the walls narrow to only 20 feet wide and the cliffs tower 1500 feet above you.   There's no trail along the canyon, only packed sand where many feet have gone before.  But most of the way is in the river.   Water levels were actually pretty low when we were there, with the river mostly about calf deep and occasionally thigh deep.  I avoided actually getting my shorts wet.   The overnight hikers coming down river weren't so lucky, they had some sections about chest deep, and had to carry their packs over their heads.  It wouldn't have taken much more flow for the water to be considerably higher, either.  We decided to turn around before crossing a deep section.  
There's a very narrow window in the year where it is possible to hike The Narrows in Zion National Park.  Since most of the hike is in the river, it needs to be warm outside.   It also needs to be dry in the sky...nothing like a flash flood to ruin your day.  Check Current Water Levels before you go!

It was surprisingly cool in the canyon.   Considering we would see 109 F in our car heading to Las Vegas later that afternoon, the chilly air was a nice reprieve from the heat.   Walking in wet shoes helped keep us cool as well!   We had smeared our feet with waterproof goo, but it only helped a little bit.  After hours of walking in water, our feet were pretty trashed when we got out.  No blisters, though!

The scenery was amazing.   In places there was only the canyon walls and the river, with a narrow stretch of sky above us.  Sun rarely touched us down at the bottom.  Water clarity was pretty good on the way up, less so heading back when many feet had thrown up silt everywhere.  We walked about 4 miles up river, and the rocks seemed to get bigger and rounder further in, making footing slippery.  We kept our gear in dry bags in case we did slip, but our walking poles helped maintain balance and we didn't take a dunking.

Of course, with a narrow window of opportunity to see this natural gem, it means everyone else has the same idea at the same time, so don't expect to be the only ones there!  We're lucky, we got up early to start our hike up the Narrows.  We were able to wade upriver in relative solitude, with a few people here and there in the canyon.  By the time we headed back downriver, the hordes had shown up.  I'm talking too many people to count clogging every inch of the river.  I bet we saw 1000 people by the time we were back at the trailhead.  Still well worth the hike.  If we do it again we might think about getting a permit for the 16 mile downriver trip from Chamberlain's ranch, that would be quite an adventure!  

The Mongol hordes arrive by midday!

August 11, 2015

Red Bull X-Alps 2015: Day 11

There was no shortage of launch options here in the Goms valley.   It was pretty nice to see all the green pastures on the hilltops and know I could land on any of them.  Such a change from most of the course where the trees had covered everything but the rocks.

I was still 70 km from Zermatt by Turnpoint 7, my (new and improved) goal for the end of the race.   With elimination coming up in 24 hours, I was on the chopping block.  Gold (AUS2) was 17 km behind me, but on the same ridge as I was with an easy glide to get to me.  Ahead of me were a few biggish valley crossings so it was probably inevitable that he would catch up.   Plus he hadn't used his night pass yet and would probably pull it as this was the last elimination of the race (he did use it).

Mental stamina is a fickle thing, and with the end of the race in sight, it was hard to charge ahead with the same enthusiasm that I can carried through for 10 days.   From the valley I had a 1000 meter climb, which today felt like I had reached the top of Mt. Everest.  It didn't help that it was steep pass, not nice stair steps or any thing but loose dirt and tree roots and eventually grassy pasture.

I arrived pretty early, in case it turned on early as this valley can do sometimes.  Although I was alone on my hilltop, a steady stream of paragliders cruised by me from nearby launches powered by cable cars.  They were going with the wind, not getting very high, and it wasn't time for me to go yet.  I would need to fight upwind and could use every bit of height in the air for that.

So I took a nap.  It was rather nice to languish in the sunshine and check out the scenery.   A few hours later, it looked like the lift was getting better.  I launched into what still weren't great conditions but getting better.   Unfortunately just as it was getting good, Gold did catch up to me and we found a great thermal together.  At this point, I saw the scenery behind me and my jaw dropped.  It was the Aletsch glacier, the largest glacier in Europe, and it was beautiful.  I made the decision to let Gold go ahead of me and flew slowly to take pictures and enjoy my last flight of the race.  But i was able to keep him in sight, so together but separately we flew onward to Zermatt.

The valley winds were strong as usual, which affect even our flight which sometimes was up at 4000 meters.  Then it was time to cross the main valley at Brig, a difficult move at anytime I think.  Luckily the wind was blowing where I needed it, and I was able to climb up in ridge lift and get into the Zermatt valley.  I won't say it wasn't difficult, a lot like my flight along the Oetztal where I just sat in ridge lift before speeding down to the next ridge.

I caught up and passed Gold here, but I was like a horse to a barn and had Zermatt in sight.  All I could think about was landing there and finishing my race in style.  Unfortunately, a mixup with my vario meant that I didn't tag the turn point before i landed.  Oops.  I would end up walking about 5k through town and up to the Matterhorn to finally tag it.  Oh well.   I was able to find my friends, Jim and Chuck caught the train into town, and we had a nice celebration dinner and drink!

The Aletsch glacier behind Fiesch

Zermatt with the Matterhorn towering over it

The mess of electronics that needed to be charged every night
Reminders for morning and night when I was too tired to think very clearly

August 10, 2015

Red Bull X-Alps 2015: Day 10

The clock was counting down toward my last day in the race. Whether that was 2 days or 4, I didn't know, but the winner, Mauer (SUI1) had finished in just over 8 days, putting the cap on the whole race at 12 days.   What I had to do was keep flying the best I could, and hope to make some progress.

My flight for the day would be another midday "put all your chips in the pile" attempt.   The isolated pass was out of phone contact, and all my supporters had left to make the lengthy journey around to the south to find me on the other side.  This time, hiking over and flying down was probably easier than their drive past Lake Como and Lake Lugano.  I needed to fly down one way or another.   And a sled ride wouldn't be a good option, as the valley were twisty and I would no longer be on an optimal route.

The pass itself was a tough place.  A finger of rock shot up along the ridge itself, only passible along a narrow gap.  There was no where nice to launch, and the sharp rocks meant I needed to launch either facing west or east.  The west face was in total shade, but nice thermal were coming up on the sunny side, so I choose that.  It wasn't too steep and had the option of landing amid boulders if the lift wasn't working yet.   Even so, launching meant hopping from rock to rock as my wing inflated, not an easy one on a deserted mountaintop where tracking was still not working.

Yet again, it went perfectly and I was airborne, scratching and then climbing out above the peaks.  Joy!   I could see where I needed to go, and pointed my wing at the first valley crossing.  Conditions were really perfect, and with no wind, I could thermal up on all sides of the mountain tops.   I made a few bold moves in the air that I think showed my growth as a pilot during this race...before this I might have taken the secure route and ended up on the ground.

90 km later, I had been up to 4000 meters at times, and had a wonderful flight to the Neufenen Pass.  It was getting late in the afternoon and somehow I couldn't figure out how to get over the pass with a headwind.  So I landed near the pass instead, walking down to the vehicles and having a snack while waiting for the wind to calm a little.

Launching back off the pass was easy, although my equipment deck zipper broke, and I couldn't see the screens of my vario.  At least I could hear the beeps, and I was on basically an extended sled ride into the main Goms valley.  As I flew by a glider port hugging the hillside,  I wondered why this hadn't been on my airspace map.  I had checked airspace before my flight, and seen nothing coming up.   Unfortunately there did seem to be airspace here, as I found out after landing just past it.  An irate lady showed up, insisting that I pack up and come to the glider port to apologize.   After calling the race officials to check, they agreed that I could travel by car to the glider port, apologize, then drive back to where I had landed to continue on.   Oops.   Another new valley to fly through, and it's impossible to know what is coming up without some local knowledge.

But, again I had a great flight, and now I was in a paragliding highway in the Alps.  I hadn't had to land going backwards today either!  Better yet, I was ahead of Gold (AUS).  So walking down the valley wasn't really necessary as I could fly from any grassy hillside within view.  I walked a few miles down the road to my campsite, we got pizza along the way, and I had another shower and an early night.  I could get to enjoy this type of racing :)

My morning commute

This dog's bark is worth than its bite...look closely at the one on the left.  
Launch is up there

Back in Switzerland!

Landing at Neufenen Pass

August 9, 2015

Red Bull X-Alps 2015: Day 9

Morning found me still walking the valley between St. Moritz, Switzerland and Chiavenna, Italy.   I had made it to Switzerland, only to leave again!   The high valley where I landed was flat for a while, then dropped off sharply, continuing all the way down to 300 meters ASL in Chiavenna.  It would be hot down there.  But at 6 am, I was only concerned with the question of whether I could fly some of this descent instead of walking it.

The day was mostly unflyable.  Strong north foehn meant that the rotor and the winds wouldn't be my friends in the air.  Today would be a walking day...unless I could get a short flight early this morning from a hillside near where we had camped.  I had checked the winds and it seemed like I might get away with an early morning sledder.  This would save me at least 500 meters of decent and a few hours of walking.   Jon Chamber's book about the X-Alps had told of a launch from the south side of the pass.  I hiked up in still air but I could see the fog curling down over the northern mountains and knew I need to fly and then land quickly before the day had any heating to speed the winds along.

Luckily a launch found me fairly easily and the winds were still.   I could find no reason not to launch even with that ominous fog on the peaks.   So off I went!   Boy, did I quickly have a tailwind.  My supporters were watching and saw me flying at 80km an hour for a short time.  It was smooth though and there were plenty of pastures below me.

However, when I saw the valley narrowing in front of me, while I was still high, I decided to land because I didn't know what my options would be on the other side.  I hadn't flown here before and wasn't sure if it would widen out again.  In the meantime I was speeding along, and picked the biggest pasture below me.  To be safe I lined up almost upwind of it in case the valley winds were stronger at the ground.  I had an exciting ride down, getting jerked up and down and never sure when the next big sinking air would hit...hopefully not near the ground.  The hardest part was trying to control the wing while looking behind me as I definitely wasn't flying forward.   It all worked, but that was the 4th time in a row that I had landed in strong valley winds.  I really wasn't enjoying that part of flying in the Alps.

The winds were going to continue all day, but conditions would improve after that.  So I was back to walking for the whole day, further down the valley to Chiavenna, and then back up into the mountains.  To cross back into Switzerland, I had to climb up and over a 2100 meter pass.  I hoped I could fly down the other side tomorrow.  In the meantime, it got hotter and hotter as I made my second descent of the whole race.

I met everyone in Chiavenna for a late lunch, and they gave me the bad news.  Colas (ESP) had dropped out of the race rather than get eliminated.  This meant that Stephan would get eliminated instead in the morning, and I was on the chopping block two days later, unless I could pull ahead of Gold (AUS).   This was quite a bummer, as I had hoped to get to Zermatt before I finished.  I had planned on having 4 days to get there, and not possibly only 2.   Zermatt was 200 km away by road with some high passes thrown in for good measure.

All I could do was continue on and hope for the best.  What I wanted most was to dip myself in the cold river running through town, but it was impossible to get to.  What I got was a hot walk down the valley before starting my climb up to tomorrow's launch.  About halfway up the 1900 meter climb, we figured we could find a place to park the vehicles that would be cooler and more scenic than this hot valley.   So I climbed.  And climbed.  It was a beautiful river gorge, with canyoneering sections far below me.  Didn't that sound nice!

Jim and Chuck finally appeared to tell me that our camp was only a mile away.   I was still going strong but motivation is a fickle thing.  After a mile I could see no sign of them and wondered if I had missed a turn.  After closer to 2 miles Jim finally appeared to lead me to the motorhome, and I was almost in tears.  Phones weren't working in this valley and even my live tracking was lost.   But pain is temporary, and I got buoyed back up by soaking my feet in a cold stream and eating a huge plate of pasta.   Plus I had an early night, and knew I didn't have too far to go in the morning, so perhaps I would sleep in a little!

An empty dam and lake at the pass
Hiking up to launch
You can see the Foehn winds coming over the mountains to the north
Looking back to Switzerland

Launch will be somewhere on that hillside
And here it is!
The biggest LZ I could find

Walking through a tunnel is hot and loud

Final climb of the day was hot and steep
Leaving Chiavenna behind me