MEET THE NEW UTMB CHAMPION
Pau Capell wins the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc 2019
The anticipation in Chamonix at 2pm on August 31st, 2019 was rising even faster than the summer temperature. People traffic on Rue Joseph Vallot, Avenue Michel Croz and Place de l’Eglise was virtually at a standstill, except for swaying hips and tapping feet as a samba band filled the streets with music. Everyone was now sure who they’d see first. Afterall, he’d maintained his lead for the entire race, over some 20 hours and more than 160km up and over mountains. As the minutes ticked by, the music got loader. The feet tapping and hip swinging got faster. Then it started: clapping. People thronged together. The band upped their drumming pace. As the volume of cheering reached a crescendo, Spanish ultra-runner and The North Face athlete, Pau Capell, appeared. After pausing for a quick little dance with the crowds of cheering supporters, he crossed the finish line of the 171km Ultra Tour du Mont Blanc course in 20 hours, 19 minutes and seven seconds – more than 45 minutes faster than Xavier Thevenard in second place.
“It had been my dream since I started running seven years ago to win the UTMB, so the feeling of crossing the finish line was amazing,” says Pau. “I was really exhausted, but at the same time I was really, really happy.”
Pau left Chamonix at 6pm on Friday, 30th August along with more than 2,500 other runners, both elite and amateur. They were all running the Ultra Tour du Mont Blanc – a long distance trail that circumnavigates Mont Blanc, passing from France into Italy and Switzerland before returning to Chamonix. For most people, the 171km route is an 8-to-10-day hiking trip. But for the participants of UTMB it’s one long stint through some of Europe’s most spectacular scenery, with a total altitude gain of more than 10,000m.
Rarely for an event of this length and magnitude, Pau led from the beginning. “By kilometre three I was alone. I looked back and saw the other athletes maybe 200m behind me and I thought that I will just follow my timings and if someone catches me and wants to run with me, perfect, if not I will continue to run alone. When you’re running alone you think that something can go wrong. But at UTMB I wasn’t thinking about the other athletes; I was just thinking about myself and my timings.”
Pau had trained intensively for the event. A month before D-Day he’d travelled to Chamonix and run the UTMB loop in four days, with a goal time for each section. These timings were written on the back of his number two bib and he referred to them throughout the race. “My goal going into the race was to improve my 6th place from 2017 and finish in the top five. I think before the race we did a good job with the training and I just tried to follow those timings.”
Although Pau looked strong throughout and maintained a long lead, he did have some challenging moments. “I arrived at Grand Col Ferret (2,490m and 103km in) feeling good. I’d just done a big uphill walking and running, and I wanted to eat something salty because all I’d had was sweet food. But I didn’t have anything salty with me. I asked there, on the top, if they had some salty food and they told me that I had to go to the checkpoint at La Fouly, 12km down, and there I could eat this kind of food. I started to run down, I didn’t eat anything during this part, for 12km. When I arrived at the checkpoint I had really low power and my body was still asking for salty food. They had some at the checkpoint, so I spent 3-4 minutes there. I lost a little bit of time, I know, but at the same time I think I needed to stop to recover power and recover the feelings that I had before this checkpoint. So, I think La Fouly was the hardest point for me.”
As the time rolled on, Pau powered through the next checkpoints. As he reached Tete aux Vents, the top of the last big climb before running down into Chamonix, Pau thought – for the first time – that he might just win. “I saw that Xavier Thevenard (in second place) was just starting the climb as I was on the top. It was there that I thought I could win the race because with a 35-minute lead I would have to twist my ankle or something to cause me to not win.”
Pau powered down the last kilometres and into Chamonix where he was welcomed by hordes of fans and spectators. “I can’t understand why they gave me all that support,” says Pau. “I didn’t give anything to the people, but they gave their all to me. I think that’s magic. They made it the best finish line in the world.”
For now, Pau is taking a well-earned – though, no-doubt, short – rest to enjoy the moment before planning his 2020 race calendar. “The best thing right now is to think in the moment and enjoy it, but also try and understand how we did it. Then this weekend I’ll have a barbecue and party at home with my friends and relax a little bit.” Yeah Pau, we think you deserve a bit of rest! Congratulations!