There are few sports as pure as running. It’s just the runner and their body, pacing through movements we were born to make. It’s a solo challenge. But it’s not a solo sport.
The running community is one of the biggest in the world. Whether your idea of running is a Sunday jog in the park, weeknight intervals on a treadmill or daily training sessions focused on a specific goal, you are a runner. Every new achievement in the running community is a step forward for the entire sport.
This was Pau Capell’s goal with Breaking 20: a dream 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.
“When I started the year, the UTMB was one of my main goals,” explains Pau. “When the race was cancelled, I was really sad. I needed a goal to keep me motivated and fit. So I thought, why not run the UTMB course anyway? And then I asked myself what time I could do it in and I thought 20 hours was possible.”
The idea to do it alone wasn’t to grab headlines or make a point. The goal was personal, so the project had to be too. But Pau maintains that he’s never really alone when he’s running.
“I always have the support of my family, friends and The North Face.”
And a whole horde of fans, too. A hundred or so spectators were waiting for Pau at the start line in Chamonix. More lined the trail throughout the night. A large crowd was back in Chamonix to see him finish and he garnered an extra 5,000 followers on his social channels in less than 24 hours. Despite his surprise and humility, he is clearly an inspiration for many.
The pressure to run the 171km route in under 20 hours was immense. But in the weeks before the event, Pau was taking everything in his stride. He focused on his race plan, his nutrition, his fitness. But three hours before the start on Thursday, 27th of August, things fell apart.
“The biggest challenge for me was not running alone. It was to control the pressure before the project from the media, the running community and even from myself. At first, I was able to manage this. But a few hours before the race I couldn’t take the pressure anymore. I was really, really nervous and I started to cry. It was a critical moment for me. I totally exploded. It was tough to know all the eyes of the trail running world were on me.”
Thankfully these nerves evaporated when Pau started to run. And wow, what a start. He arrived in Courmayeur, around the 90km-mark, a full five minutes ahead of schedule. But shortly after things started to change.
“I used my timings from last year as a reference. I planned to run one minute faster every hour to Break 20. I was on time up to about 100kms, but around La Fouly I began to feel tired. By Champex-Lac I started to think maybe it’s not possible to run the full course under 20 hours. I think I ran too fast in the start. The last 40km were the worst I could imagine – I knew I couldn’t break 20 hours. I was just fighting to break my time of last year.”
Pau didn’t complete the full UTMB course in under 20 hours. He didn’t Break 20. But, in the long run this project ended up being so much more than just breaking a time barrier.
“Of course I wanted to run the course in less than 20 hours and I didn’t, so if we only talk about performance then I’m not satisfied. But when I finished, I was really happy because there were all these people following what I was doing. I was really motivated because I was motivating them.”
Pau has always been a person that feeds off a crowd. Running into Chamonix in 2019 to take the UTMB title, he paused to dance with the spectators lining the streets, noting that he didn’t give anything to the people, but they gave their all to him. “I think that’s magic,” he said at the time. And during his Breaking 20 attempt it was, once again, the spectators that made it so special.
“The best moment was at the start when I saw how many people were there to encourage me. I was alone. There were no other runners. They were only there to say: ‘come on Pau, you can do it’. It felt good when I was running, too, because I was sharing it with other people and had a lot of support on the trail. It was amazing.”
Pau completed the 171km UTMB course in 21.17.18. He navigated the course himself, much of it in the dark. He had no official start or finish line. He didn’t have the support of a massive organisation, like the official UTMB, behind him. But he did have all of us.
“Breaking 20 was a personal project. So I didn’t prepare an official start line, a finish line, an expo. I didn’t prepare all the things that are really good for encouraging people to come. But people came to Chamonix anyway. They came to encourage me on the trail. And I’m really grateful for it. I’m so fortunate and lucky.”
Pau will be back, one way of the other, to tackle the UTMB course again. Whether as part of the official event, or to reattempt to Break 20 on his own. He has learned a few things on the way. He’d slow his pace for the first 100km, saving strength to run faster for the final 71km. And he’d stress less about the result. But he’d still want to share the highs and lows with his fans, spectators and supporters who follow him every step of the way. “This wasn’t only my race. It was their race, too.”