“By Champex Lac I was fighting with myself. And at that point I knew breaking 20 hours was not possible”
Pau Capell is smiling as he says this, ironically just about 20 hours after he finished his attempt to run the course of the UTMB in a record time of 19 hours and something.
In fact Pau appears so relaxed that it is hard to imagine how much the challenge has meant to him for the past few months and how, as he says;
“At two o’clock on the day of the challenge, I was by myself in my apartment, eating my spaghetti with chicken and crying my eyes out. The challenge seemed so enormous and I felt so alone.”
The idea for Breaking20 was devised by Pau and his friend and manager Jordi as a response to the cancellation announcement of the UTMB at the end of June. Covid-19 had already laid waste to every runners’ race calendar. But Pau says that even two weeks before the UTMB told everyone that the event would not happen, he still believed it would take place and he was discussing race strategies with his support team.
Once it was clear that the UTMB would not happen, Pau switched focus. And the Mont Blanc is such a draw that he knew he would challenge himself there.
His winning time from the 2019 race – 20 hours and 19 minutes – provided the opportunity. Could Pau race himself from the previous year? And perhaps break a barrier that, like the 4 minute mile or the 2 hour marathon, felt impossible just a few years ago but was tantalisingly close now?
Understandably, training was a problem;
“I tend to be an athlete who does smaller races to get ready for my key races.” Explains Pau “So normally I would race one or two times per month, often around 100km or more. And with UTMB as my key focus for 2020, I would have raced many times in the six months leading up to the big race.
“Of course this year there were almost no races for me to do. So I really lacked ‘competition speed’. My training had been anything from 25 to 32 hours per week on a treadmill or a spinning bike in my house in Barcelona. Actually training that way was really exhausting mentally. Once the lockdown was lifted I was really happy to be able to get outside again.”
As we talked, in an apartment in Chamonix during a downpour that shrouded the surrounding mountains in thick cloud, Pau considers why he did not manage to beat 20 hours or indeed his time from 2019.
“I had a strategy to go out fast.” Says Pau “My idea was to get ahead of the time and I knew that I would have to run really fast to break 20 hours. So I ran the first 8km at 3m45s per kilometre. Of course towards the end I realised that I had gone too hard at the start and I really suffered over the last marathon.
“And during the challenge I had a few problems. The course was not marked and I had to turn around a couple of times – at Saint-Gervais and Les Contamines. Plus at Les Chapieux I fell, which wasn’t great … “
Pau pulls up the sleeve of his black hoody to reveal a forearm looking bright red and scored deeply with scabs.
“I also realised that trying to run alone was really hard.” Says Pau “I’m sure that it would be easier to break 20 hours in a race. You push harder and run better if you have other athletes around you.
But he is still smiling.
“In the end my feeling was one of gratitude. Last year when I won, I felt ‘I have achieved my dream’. This year I was really overwhelmed by all the people who came out to support me. I had given these people nothing. And yet here they were, in the rain, to support me. I feel so fortunate for that.”
So what comes now? Well it is clear that Pau has a powerful reason for why he runs – competition. He loves the UTMB and says that he will definitely be back in 2021, if the race goes ahead. Because what he really wants to to race the best trail runners in the world.
And Pau also has unfinished business with Breaking20.
“Because I am sure that the challenge is real. I have shown that yesterday. It is possible to break 20 hours. But it is certainly not going to be easy.”
But what about that competition? Surely other athletes have been watching Pau’s attempt over the past couple of days and are wondering whether they could achieve the time he came so close to?
“There are lots of athletes who I believe could take on the Breaking 20 challenge. People like Xavier Thevenard, Kilian Jornet and Francois D’Haene for example.”
So as for Roger Bannister trying to run a mile in under 4 minutes and Eliud Kipchoge breaking the 2 hour barrier for the marathon, does Pau feel the pressure to have another go before someone else makes history?
Pau smiles again.
“Well all I can say is that I will definitely be back to try again. Who knows what will happen in the mean time. But I am excited because I know that if I make a few changes, I will achieve my goal.”
We have no doubt, Pau and we’ll be watching.
Header Photo: Tom Schlegel / BUFF®.
Thanks to BUFF® for making the interview possible.