Herbalife Ironman 70.3 Pucón

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I decided to start the year off early in 2016. After flatting out of Austin 70.3, I didn’t feel like waiting very long before I gave it another shot. Ironman 70.3 Pucón, I was told, is one of the “can’t miss” races for any triathlon career, so I was excited to get racing again. While the scenery lived up to the expectations, it was the crowd, the volunteers, the town of Pucón and the grueling run course that really made this race a highlight of my career. It also helps that I won.

The travel to Pucón is daunting. With two short layovers in Panama City and Santiago, it took 24 hours from my inlaw’s house in Pasadena to my hostel in Pucón. I arrived Thursday, feeling as one should feel after three flights and a bus ride, but the cloud of jetlag evaporated when I had my first glimpse of the Volcano, Villarrica. Stunning.

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Pucón is pretty far south. At -37 degrees latitude, it’s as far south of the equator as San Francisco is north. The small town sits on a pristine lake next to Villarica, surrounded by green hills, cliffs, rivers, and mountains. The town itself is a mecca for backpackers, recreation tours, hikers, vacationers, and – this week – triathletes. The people, however, are what set this place apart from other South American hiking villas I’ve visited. People in Pucon have been incredibly accommodating – and I can’t even credit that to anyone knowing me as an elite triathlete. They didn’t. A fact I learned in post race interviews as I was repeatedly called the “tabado”, which was translated for me as “a competitor we know nothing about” – a dark horse. On the finish line, waiting for the next finisher,  my interviewer, struggling to find the right question, said, “But you weren’t even a pre-race favorite.” Perhaps my name was overlooked.

As I’m here on my own – and because tadados don’t get put up in fancy hotels – I’m staying in a wonderful little Hostel – though “little” is the operative word here. Again, it’s the people that make this place great. That, and some ear plugs (Chileans stay up late and like to laugh).

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The whole schedule here was actually tough to get used to. Breakfast doesn’t start until 9:30. Lunch begins at 3pm and dinner isn’t until 8 at night, with most people eating at 10pm or later. My own schedule at home is about four hours earlier for each of those, which would have been perfect, given the time change, except the race still started at 7am, so staying up late was a poor option. Still, I love it here. At this moment I’m sitting at my hostel with the family that runs it offering me their home brew beer, while the sun begins to set (at 9:30pm). People are laughing in every direction, enjoying the temperate evening and sharing smiles that don’t need translation. In front of the hostel is a giant wooden sign that was painted this morning congratulating me on my victory. I have never felt so welcomed in my travels.

By now you understand a little about the town, the people, why this race has been so popular for so many years. Perhaps I should tell you about my race.

 


It was a wetsuit swim, starting on the black sand beach of Caburga Lake the swim goes out and back twice, with an 80m run between. It’s not actually two laps, as the second time out and back are on a different set of buoys. The swim was fast for the start, but after a short time it quieted down and I found a comfortable set of feet to follow. My plan was to lay it all on the line, but the swim is not where you win races.

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Onto the bike I found myself with a group of about six athletes. I led on and off for about 10km, at which point I made a small surge and Igor Amorelli – a talented Brazilian who I’ve raced with many times on the ITU circuit, came around and said something like, “let’s go Collins.” I didn’t fully understand the words, but the meaning was clear. I didn’t look back I just accelerated and stayed with him. He led to the turnaround, and I took over from there. We finished with a seven minute lead over the next few athletes.

Still, the bike seemed slow. The course is not particularly hilly, and the roads are in excellent shape. I believe it was the wind. Starting the race there were low hanging clouds and a mist in the air, but as we returned to town the wind had picked up and blown the fog away. I think we had a slight head wind in both directions.

Beginning the run, I was a little worried. Igor is an excellent runner, and in the past he outruns me by more than a marginal amount. I took off from T2 and immediately made the right hand turn onto “The Peninsula”. Which is, in fact, a peninsula. I was told this part of the race would be challenging, but it’s a private community, meaning I wasn’t able to preview that part of the course. That was good, as it turned out, because it was so hilly, so challenging, that knowing what I was getting into may have caused some fear in the back of my mind that could have slowed me down on the bike. As it was, I suffered. The first hill my legs were wobbly from the hard ride, but I kept telling myself to pretend like I was holding it together. At the top of that hill the road turned, then it went up again. Then again. Then down, then back up, then down, then back up, then a U-Turn, all of those hills the other way, then a short flat section through town before doing it all over again.
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At the first U-Turn I had about 30 seconds on Igor, and much more on the chase pack. I estimated about six minutes by my watch. The next turnaround Igor had fallen to 90 seconds and the chasers were about even. My second lap was slightly faster than the first, but I knew to hold back, as I have plenty of experience with how painful the last 5 kilometers can be in a hilly half ironman.

The last lap was painful. There was an athlete a lap behind me, who I had convinced myself was actually about to catch me. I ran as hard as I could, even after I realized the 2nd place bicycle was still five minutes behind me with a group of chasers. My legs had been cramping, but I pushed through it. I hit the sand, and only then did I realize that I was actually going to win. I took some time to high-five the fans, to let a wave of emotion come over me. Then I crossed the line with the biggest smile.

This was my first win at the 70.3 distance, and I’m proud to have done it where I did. I think the challenges I’ve faced moving into long distance, and the time it has taken me to overcome these obstacles has actually made me a better, smarter, more humble athlete. I’m proud to be the 2016 Herbalife Ironman 70.3 Pucon Champion.

Finally, I want to thank the continued support of my loyal sponsors. Garmin, Blue Seventy, Rudy Project, SRAM and Cervelo have been integral to my success. They’ve stuck with me through business school, through ups and downs of my career, and through this entire learning experience moving into longer distances. It’s a difficult sport to make a career in, but these companies believe in me as much as I believe in their products. Thank you.

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