Despite a massive effort, he missed out on Breaking 20. But this year, on 27 August, he’s attempting to do it again – this time armed with new knowledge to push him through the finish line in under 20 hours.
In 2020, Pau Capell dreamed of running the 171km UTMB course in less than 20 hours. It would shave off more than 19 minutes from his course record-breaking win from 2019. There wouldn’t be any aid stations, spectators or other competitors. It was a massive ask.
Though Pau beat 2299 competitors to win the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB) in a course record-breaking time of 20 hours, 19 minutes, he didn’t quite break 20. But that hasn’t stopped him. This year, on 27 August, he plans to break his own record by completing the 171km route in under 20 hours. Can he succeed?
After a football-career-ending injury, Pau turned to trail running for rehab. Just a few years later, he had become one of the world’s best ultra-runners, winning the Ultra Sierra Nevada, the Ultra Trail Mallorca and Transgrancanaria. He was crowned Ultra Trail World Tour champion in 2018 and 2019.
KENYA: THE REVELATION
When you want to improve, you must go to the best. In Pau’s quest to lose one minute from every hour from the 20-hour run, he ended up where the world’s best runners live - Iten, Kenya; the home of the champions.
Here, the best of the best all live in a single village on the plateau that dominates the Rift Valley. Runners there live a simple life centred around running, resting and living together.
Through training with the Kenyan athletes, Pau encountered many difficulties. The terrain, the altitude and the overall conditions made the experience quite intense. However, the more familiar Pau became with the Kenyan running culture, the more he realised that the solution he sought was not at all what he thought it would be.
Pau went to Kenya with the serious intention of improving his speed and bettering his technical performance – particularly on flat ground, where he felt he had a greater margin for improvement. But what Pau learned had little to do with technique.
He learned that you never run alone, but with others. You need others around you to run better – even those that run better than you.
Before the first training session, Pau was surprised by how aloof the Kenyan runners were with each other. But that soon changed the second they started the clock and started running.
“We didn’t share that friendly camaraderie right from the beginning. Maybe because of nerves. When we started running, it was the opposite feeling. We started to talk. We came together, went out as a group. And our friendship grew from there. It’s like our friendship began when we started running”
The Kenyan athletes’ elegance was unquestionable; their technique perfected in their earliest years. But after spending time training with them, Pau learned that Kenyan runners have a remarkable ability to relax while they run. They still make full use of their bodies, but they bring down the tempo and remain in the moment while they run, which helps to push them through.
“In Iten, I felt like I was in the birthplace of running. Where it all started, its roots. I started trail running because I was told to run. And when I got to Iten, I said, “Now I get it. Now I see what running truly is”. It’s going out at 6 a.m. with a group of 100 people to start a fartlek run. And I saw the essence of running.”
FAMILY MEANS EVERYTHING
Every athlete is first and foremost a human, and like all humans, they aspire to be happy.
Pau is happy – and that’s because he’s able to do something he loves; running. Although his approach to running might have been accidental, his choice of discipline was not. Ultra-running allows him to run most naturally and spontaneously.
But running aside, Pau is not just a happy athlete – he’s a happy individual. And that’s because he’s not alone. In fact, running brought him the opposite of isolation. It allowed him to approach his relationships with his family and those around him in a new way. Although he runs alone, he wouldn’t get very far without a team supporting him.
“In races, you run with people, but everyone has their story, and everyone has their emotions, their family. And that also makes it special because you can share it with other people.”
What Pau learned in Kenya had been hidden inside him all along, but it was brought to light through a few simple words shared with him by the Kenyan athletes: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go further, go with people.”
For Pau, his outlook on running has now changed.
“Don’t ever forget the people by your side. When you forget about the people you love and only focus on your goals, the castle will crumble. It’s important to maintain that balance.”
“Now, I obviously want to win, but I want to share it. I want to have someone to embrace when I cross the finish line. My partner, my parents. That’s winning.”