After winning many other big mountain ultramarathons around the world, Pau Capell won the biggest of them all, the 2019 UTMB. In the following interview, Pau describes how he ran the race according to the plan and splits he made beforehand, how he was surprised that his prescribed pace meant he was in front of all the other men, how he intentionally pushed his effort from about 100 to 125 kilometers to move away from the rest of the men’s field, if he felt pressure from second-place finisher and three-time-UTMB champion Xavier Thévenard behind him, and what it meant to win this race.
Be sure to read our in-depth results article to find out how the race played out.
Pau Capell, 2019 UTMB Champion, Interview Transcript
iRunFar: Meghan Hicks of iRunFar. I’m with Pau Capell, he’s the 2019 UTMB champion. Congratulations!
Pau Capell: Thanks so much.
iRunFar: It’s the morning after your race. How are you feeling?
Capell: I feel good–a little bit tired, for sure. It was a hard race–170 kilometers around Mont Blanc. I’m a little bit exhausted. The legs feel tired, but I think that tomorrow I’ll feel better.
iRunFar: Today it’s just a matter of moving a little bit to keep the body going.
Capell: Yeah, and slowly.
iRunFar: Everything slowly.
Capell: Yeah, after the race you are tired, but now I am really happy. It was amazing.
iRunFar: It was truly amazing to see your joy on the finish line. There was no hiding your happiness.
Capell: Yeah, I think it was the best moment of my life–in the sport part of my life. Lots of people there… I can’t describe the moment because it was a unique moment. I was only seeing my family behind the finish line so it was… wow… yeah, it was crazy.
iRunFar: Let’s rewind a little bit to the beginning of the race. Here in Chamonix, it’s 6:00 p.m. on Friday night, it was crazy.
Capell: Yeah, yeah. Before the race I was really nervous. I don’t know why, but I was like, “I don’t even know if I can run this race or not.” I didn’t know what could happen during the race. But, yeah, when we started the race, I was feeling the opposite of those other feelings I had. I was feeling really good. In the first part of the race, I was alone and running the UTMB.
iRunFar: You said off-camera just a moment ago that you were following the splits that you had made. But in reality, those splits meant that you were running with nobody.
Capell: Yeah, I had the timings that I wanted to do at every checkpoint. I did that before the race to have a strategy for myself, so I was following the timings that I thought that I could run. Then I was running alone. I was thinking, “I don’t know if this is good or not, because this will be a big race and a long distance. Trying to do this race alone is a little bit dangerous.” Then I was thinking, “You have your timing [split projections]. You need to follow your feelings and your timing and try to do it.”
iRunFar: What was it like to be alone so early in such a competitive race? You were running the paces you wanted to run, and not faster than what you wanted to run, but there was nobody else there.
Capell: The feeling, at your description, was, “Maybe I’m doing a big mistake, because UTMB is UTMB. For me, it’s the biggest race in the world.” I was thinking, “Maybe you’re making a big mistake today.” But, it’s like when you are confident with your possibilities and you think that you can do it, you need to try. Life is this: Try to race with your possibilities. Sometimes, for sure, you’ll make big mistakes and you will not finish the race. But yesterday was different and I was able to run well. The most important thing is to enjoy it because when I’m enjoying running, normally the results are in the same way.
iRunFar: Let’s fast forward to the area of Grand Col Ferret and La Fouly and Champex-Lac. For many people, this section is a turning point in the race. To us, it looked like you were pushing at that time. Were you pushing?
Capell: Yeah, in Grand Col Ferret, I remember that I was pushing on the uphill because for me, I remembered that two years ago when I ran this race, the critical point in the race was Grand Col Ferret: a long uphill with maybe 95k in your legs. I was thinking, “Now, I’m going to push.” But then in La Fouly I was feeling a little bit tired because on the downhill after Grand Col Ferret I didn’t eat well, so I arrived there with the “force meter” at zero. I was like, [mimics a car breaking down] “without petrol.” I needed gas [laughs].
Maybe I spent three or four minutes in the checkpoint of La Fouly to take food and try to recuperate a little bit. After that, I was pushing hard because I knew I lost a little bit of time in La Fouly [109k]. It was a critical point, but I also think I pushed a little bit more than I wanted in order to recover the time that I lost on the downhill.
iRunFar: I was on the trail right before Champex-Lac and when you came through, you were breathing so hard. To me, it sounded like the breathing for a 50k race.
Capell: I think Champex-Lac is also a critical point of UTMB in general. It’s at 120k. I wanted to cross Champex-Lac fast to not think about feelings, to not think about the race–only thinking about crossing this point. I knew that after crossing Champex-Lac, it’s only three climbs more until the finish. I was running, not really hard, but running with [effort]. Yeah, I think we did a good job at Champex-Lac.
iRunFar: Were you aware at that time of what was happening in the men’s competition behind you?
Capell: I knew that Xavier Thévenard was behind, following me by maybe 20 or 15 minutes, depending on the point in the race. For the other runners, I didn’t know the timing. I was focused on my own timing because I did the strategy to win the race and I know that Xavier Thévenard is, for me, one of the best athletes in the world. For ultra-distance races in Mont Blanc, for sure, he’s the best one. I was thinking that he could be with me for the last part of the race. I was asking my team, “Where is Xavier? How close? Is he moving faster than me or not?” They informed me all the time about it. It was more controlling the race, I think, in the last part.
iRunFar: For me, I can imagine that having the defending champion–and a three-time champion–in Xavier Thévenard right behind you at the end of the race… that’s probably kind of a nightmare, to have him 20 minutes behind you, no?
Capell: Yeah, when I was running with Xavier Thévenard behind me, I was like, “Wow, I am running against him and I’m trying to beat him.” He’s like, as you say, the best one at this distance. It was a big responsibility for me, trying to push against him. The feeling was of doing a big race, but also of a big spectacle of doing trail running here with Xavier, so it was nice.
iRunFar: The final climb of the race to Tête aux Vents is, I think, really mean. It’s so steep.
Capell: Yeah, so steep and rocky. You’re really tired and you know that it’s the last one, but the problem is this: it’s the last one. You know that after this, it’s the last downhill, so it’s the last push of the race.
iRunFar: I also think it’s mean that when you’re at Tête aux Vents, you can see Chamonix, but it’s still so far.
Capell: Yeah, because after Tête aux Vents you have an undulating part, up-down-up-down. Chamonix is there, but you don’t arrive there. It was like, “I want to finish!” But I wasn’t arriving, so… yeah, a little bit of a crazy moment, but you only think, “You’ve run 20 hours. One hour more is not a lot.”
iRunFar: For most of the race, there must have been a lot of pressure: “I’m in the lead. I have all these fast men behind me. I’ve kept the lead for so long, I don’t want to lose it.” When did you relax? Or did you relax at all?
Capell: I relaxed maybe in the last 5k. On the last downhill, maybe. It was like, Xavier was, I don’t know, maybe 40 minutes behind. I knew that if all was in the normal way, I could win the race. It was relaxed–trying to walk or run well among the rocks. It was a good moment for me. During the race, though, I don’t know the word in English, but it was a crazy moment all the time with the pressure. You are all alone first, people are behind you and trying to catch you and the pressure is so big. It’s the moment that you choose. I chose this strategy at the start, and then you need to do it and run with it.
iRunFar: Last question for you: Many people watching this interview with you also watched the UTMB TV. They got to see on video your last kilometer of coming through all the crowds in Chamonix. There’s only one race where that can happen, where there’s so many people lining the course. Can you describe how that felt, and what that was like?
Capell: I would describe as this [gestures to the hairs on his arms standing upright and his skin getting goosebumps]. The skin starts to be with energy. I imagined this moment a lot of times. When I started running seven years ago, I was at home with my computer watching the same–the UTMB race on my computer–I was thinking, “Wow, I would like to live this moment.” Not even winning the race, living the moment of the arrival of the UTMB. Yesterday, living the moment of winning the race and all of the people that were there as they say your name and give you a small lane to pass through, and all of the hands reaching out… I thought I wasn’t going to finish because I wanted to stop there and enjoy it. It was amazing, an amazing moment.
At the finish line, I said, “I didn’t give anything to the people, but they gave me a lot.” Throughout the race and at all of the checkpoints, they were encouraging me. They were saying, “Pau, come on, you can do it! Try to push! Try to push!” I was thinking, “Why do they want me to push harder?” I didn’t give them anything [to deserve the enthusiasm] and they are giving all to me.” It was a really nice experience and I finished so happy.
iRunFar: What an incredible feeling.
Capell: Yeah. So, so amazing.
iRunFar: Congratulations to you on your win of the 2019 UTMB. Enjoy that feeling.
Capell: Thank you so much.