Stephan Haase broke a Nevada state distance record this summer on a flight he describes as a practice run. He's always been ambitious, but this year the Tahoe paraglider has big goals that he hopes will lead him from the proving grounds of the Sierra Nevada to the highest peaks in Europe.
As he stood atop a ridge in Kingsbury, Nev., around noon on a sunny September day, Haase, a self-described over-achiever, had his sights set at the typical height.
"I said to the group, 'I have two goals today - one is to break the Nevada distance record. The other is to make it to Oregon and break the U.S. distance record,'" Haase said.
He didn't make it to Oregon, but he did crush the previous Nevada state record by more than 37.2 miles with his 124.5-mile flight. The were a lot of ups and downs - literally, he thought he might have to land three separate times before his goal when he started to lose altitude - but Haase managed to hang on and after about six hours in the air, he landed near the road just outside of Ravendale, Calif., where his brother, Mark Haase, was waiting to pick him up.
"I thought I would land several times on the flight, but I reminded myself not to think negatively. There's so many excuses in the air, but you have to find the reasons to fly," Haase said.
One of those reason concerns Haase's application to participate in the 2013 Red Bull X-Alps, an event that race spokesman Tarquin Cooper called "the world's toughest adventure race." It tests both the athletes' mountaineering and paragliding limits as they fly and hike from Salzburg to Monaco in about two weeks.
"The Red Bull X-Alps can can legitimately claim a league of its own. Competitors not only have to be incredibly fit endurance athletes - its not uncommon to hike over 60 miles a day - but they must also be world-class paragliders, flying in often marginal and challenging mountain conditions," Cooper wrote in an email.
Michael Gerbert of Germany, who's nabbed two top-10 finishes at the Red Bull race, hiked 616 miles and flew another 294 in 13 days during one race. And according to Cooper, that kind of distance is the norm. It's no wonder 40 percent of the pilots never even see the finish line and the selection process is uber competitive.
It might be tough to qualify for a starting position in the race, but Stuart Polack, another Sierra Nevada paraglider, said he thinks Haase has a shot.
"The state record is pretty cool. But on a good day, you can go another 100 kilometers (62 miles). I think he could have broken the U.S. record on a good day. He's basically become a world-class pilot. He's accelerated his abilities in the past few years," Polack said.
The biggest factor holding him back might just be his nationality. The race, put on by the Austrian-based Red Bull company, is dominated by Europeans. In fact, paragliding as a sport is dominated by Europe. Even though membership in the U.S. Hang Gliding and Paragliding Association rose 10 percent between 2010 and 2011 according to spokesman Nick Greece, the number of pilots in Europe dwarfs the amount of American pilots.
And in Europe, 124-mile or even 186-mile flights are routine, Polack said.
Luckily for Haase, it seems the Sierra Nevada offers a perfect crucible for pilots to hone their skills. Honza Rejmanek, one of four Americans ever to compete in the Red Bull-X Alps, grew up in Davis, Calif., and would often train around Lake Tahoe. He broke into the European community in 2007, and has now raced across the alps three times.
He described that paragliding community as one big family. Once you're in, you're in, as long as you behave yourself. They key is getting recognized in the first place, he said, and connections matter.
"Unless you've been on the world circuit and made a name for yourself, they take the word of someone who is respected and who will speak on your behalf," Rejmanek said.
Haase knows that if he does make it to the race, he needs to be both physically and mentally prepared. Much suffering will be in store.
"It attracts really adventuresome people who are accustomed to suffering. It means switching from a hobby sport to a real professional commitment," Haase said.