He's broken distance records and made the first known crossing of the Sierra Nevada with a paraglider, but Stephan Haase has never competed in a race like the Red Bulll X-Alps before.
"It's wild. I didn't think it would happen," the Kingsbury paraglider said. "It's really exciting and it's a big slice of humble pie. I'll have to get comfortable being uncomfortable."
Thirty paragliders from around the world will compete in the X-Alps event this July. It's a more than 500-mile race against the clock that will take athletes from Saltzburg, Austria, to the Monaco coast and over some of the toughest terrain in Europe, including the Matterhorn and Mont Blanc.
The application process is extremely competitive - only five American pilots have ever been selected to race - and 40 percent of the athletes quit before reaching the finish line.
"The Red Bull X-Alps 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," race spokesman Tarquin Cooper wrote in an email to the Tribune last fall.
Mountaineering skills are a must since paragliders will have to schlep their gear over tricky terrain when grounded by poor conditions. Honza Rejmanek, a paraglider from Davis, Calif., who podiumed in one X-Alps race, walked 150 miles in three days during the 2011 competition when weather prevented him from flying.
Haase won't be alone when he competes in July. The X-Alps athletes can pick two teammates as support, so paragliders Dave Hanning and Brad Sander will hit the course with Haase this summer to help with supplies.
Hanning describes his job as the "rolling 7/11, a house on wheels for the athlete" who carries anything from fresh socks to water and food. Hanning, a veteran supporter who accompanied Rejmanek over the Alps for the past three years, calls the event "the most extreme adevnture race on earth," pitting athletes against physical and mental obstacles.
"Each day brings different challenges, but the most constant is the wearing down of the body ... To fly the sky requires more skills and knowledge than you know. This level of piloting is rare and takes years of experience to gain the insights and skills required to not crash and die. This is the Olympics of paragliding," Hanning wrote in an email.
Detailed knowledge of the course is critical, Hanning said, and Haase plans to spend the next four and a half months living in Austria to survey the route.
Haase has also practiced flying fast - the winner of the 2011 X-Alps race flew 821 miles at an average of 23 miles per hour - and honing his physical fitness. Haase told Red Bull in December that he had cut all animal proteins and alcohol out of his diet to prepare for the event.
Paragliding is still a niche sport in the U.S., and Haase said it can be difficult to find sponsors. Sierra Designs gave him camping gear and clothing to showcase the company's merchandise on the top paragliders, Sierra Designs representative Jeff Haynes said, and other groups have sent Haase other products.
Collecting the money to travel across the world is another story. Las Vegas real estate broker and paraglider Tony Lang wanted to change that. Many European countries fund their paragliding teams - think masseuses, chefs and trainers --and U.S. competitors would enter the races as the underdogs, Lang said.
Lang established the U.S. Paragliding Team in 2007, a nonprofit dedicated to raising money to send the country's top paragliders to international competitions. This year he'll need about $40,000 to send his 13 racers to Europe.
"[The X-Alps] is a very technical race and you have to plan your flight strategically. It's one of the most amazing races on the planet ... [Stephan] is young, aggressive. I think he's got what it takes," Lang said.
What: Haase speaks on the upcoming X-Alps race
Where: Fifty Fifty Brewing Co. located at 11197 Brockway, Rd. #1, Truckee, Calif.
When: Sunday, Feb. 10 at 5 p.m.