From injured footballer to UTMB champion

Former Catalonia five-a-side player Pau Capell was 'prescribed' running for a knee problem and he found a new talent

Pau Capell (credit: Pascal Tournaire/UTMB)

by Paul Halford |

Injuries are our worst nightmare, I’m sure we’d all agree. However, in the case of 2019 UTMB men’s champion Pau Capell, one injury was a blessing in disguise.

If it weren’t for tearing the meniscus of his knee while playing football in 2012, he may never have found his talent for ultra-running.

Capell, who was on Catalonia’s five-a-side team, did not even run as a youngster in school but he was prescribed running by a doctor to help with his knee problem.

“I just started because the doctor told me, ‘Pau, maybe for the recovery it would be good if you run in the mountains’,” he said.

Indeed, running in the hills can work wonders since you’re raising your heart rate without putting your legs through the pounding. Pau’s doctor believed also that it would help to strengthen the muscles around his knee.

Not only did this aid his recovery, but he also found a skill and love for it. “I went there and the feeling that I felt was totally different,” he said.

Pau, who grew up in Sant Boi de Llobregat near Barcelona and now lives in Andorra, began with shorter distances but within eight months he was running ultras. He had seven wins in 2014, concentrating on distances from 80-100km. In 2016, he achieved his best result up to that time with victory in the Sur les Traces des Ducs de Savoie race, the longest race of the Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc festival.

The event is a subsidiary of the one labelled ‘UTMB’, the world’s most famous trail race, and where Pau in 2019 was thrust into the limelight. Going in as one of the favourites, he led from near the beginning and, unlike early frontrunners in this great event, held on for the win. He covered the 170km with 10,000m of ascent in 20 hours 19 minutes and seven seconds.

When last year’s event was cancelled due to the pandemic, Pau decided to take on the course with only his small support crew, aiming to do so in under 20 hours in a campaign labelled ‘Breaking-20’.

Wearing the new North Face Flight Vectiv shoe, he ultimately fell short by 77 minutes and 18 seconds as he found running without competitors to pose a real challenge.

He recalled: “When I won the UTMB in an official race, you have competitors, you know for example that behind you is Xavier Thévenard (three-time winner) and you push because you want to win. In the Breaking-20, it was more difficult because, when you are tired, you don’t have that extra motivation. You have only your goal. Also, the year of 2020 was crazy, with coronavirus, training, the lockdown... It certainly wasn’t easy but it was my first race I was running with the Flight Vectiv and that’s why we created these shoes.”

The shoes Pau refers to are the first trail shoes to feature the carbon plate technology which has proved controversial in road, and track and field settings. The massive improvement in performance offered by the new technology has revised the record books a little too radically and quickly for the liking of some.

On trails, the advantage offered is not quite so clear in terms of performance, admitted Pau. “In road running it’s more useful because each step is the same. Also it’s useful for the UTMB because it’s not a hard race,” he said, although he added that they provide a “totally different feeling” and added much by way of comfort. “When you’re running ultra-distance and you’re running 15-20 hours, you need this comfort,” he said.

Pau trains around 30 hours per week, whether it be running or some form of cross-training, such as cycling, resistance work in the gym or using the elliptical machine. He doesn’t measure his mileage but does his longer run in the morning.

He considers himself to be an all-rounder when it comes to assessing his talents.

“I’m not the best on downhills, I’m not the best on the flat. But I’m not the worst in any of them. I think this is the secret – I love this sport so much. When I’m here in Andorra, when I’m in the mountains, that’s when I’m happy.”

Just so you know, whilst we may receive a commission or other compensation from the links on this website, we never allow this to influence product selections - read why you should trust us