In a garage in Hyde Park, Ben Collins has transformed himself from a formidable competitor in Olympic distance triathlons into the top-ranked Ironman 70.3 American athlete through mid-March.
Collins had a standout career as a collegiate swimmer at Columbia University, setting school records in the 200 and 400 IM and winning the 400 IM Ivy League conference championship in 2004, and after graduation, moved to Honolulu to take an engineering position. While looking to meet people and make friends in his new city, Collins started participating in triathlons and discovered his athletic calling.
“I ended up finding that I was actually a lot more talented at triathlon than I ever was at swimming, and got this bug where I wanted to go for the Olympic team, which was one of my childhood dreams,” Collins says. “I got a coach, got more and more into triathlon, had a couple of sponsor offers, decided to quit my job as an engineer and started racing full time.”
After winning several major events as an amateur, including the 2007 USA Triathlon Age Group National Championships and the 2007 ITU Age Group World Championships with a course-record time, Collins turned pro and moved home to Seattle. In 2009, he made the U.S. National Team and relocated to the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. He consistently logged top three finishes during that time, but began to experience particular success, most notably in 2014 when he won half the races he entered, after leaving the altitude and amenities of the Olympic Training Center, moving to Chicago’s south side and enrolling in the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business.
“At the end of 2012 I moved to Chicago with my now-fiancée who started medical school at the University of Chicago,” Collins says. “I followed her here, got into the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and started working towards my MBA while still racing.”
Though fellow pro triathlete and Collins’ occasional training partner Andrew Starykowicz also lives in the Chicago area, Illinois rarely tops the list of ideal places to train professionally for triathlon, particularly due to the winter. Because of that, Collins mostly trains solo, riding in his garage or basement or south to Gary on nice days, swimming at the University of Chicago’s pool or in Lake Michigan and running around Hyde Park, particularly in and around the Jackson Park Golf Course and Washington Park for low-impact surfaces.
In the past two years, Collins has won back-to-back New York City Triathlons, setting the course record in 2014, was the first American finisher at the Ironman 70.3 World Championships in 2014 and the second American finisher at the same event in 2015 and through mid-March of this year already has two half Iron-distance titles to his name.
“It’s definitely not Colorado, but I’ve gotten better every year I’ve been here,” Collins says. “I don’t know if it’s made me tougher—I wish I still had the national team and training partners to go through this with—but Chicago has a lot to offer and is a beautiful city.”
After years of focusing on Olympic-distance races, Collins moved primarily into half Irons last year and completed his first full Ironman in Chattanooga, where he took 13th.
“It surprised me that I really enjoyed the Ironman,” Collins says. “It’s a completely different experience, and I do think it’s in a lot of ways easier than short races, or at least less painful, but it’s a whole different challenge with nutrition and the mental aspect and the patience it takes to get through it. I enjoyed it, so this year I’m going to do two full Ironmans.”
In addition to transitioning to longer events, last year Collins also started racing with Aaron Scheidies, a visually impaired paratriathlete who aims to compete in the Paralympics later this year. Because the Paralympics will not include Scheidies’s category, PT5, in this year’s games, he hopes to qualify in paracycling, with Collins servings as his guide.
“We spend so much time doing all these individual sports, and it’s rewarding, but there’s something about having someone else depend on you that brings out the extra little bit in my performance,” Collins, who met Scheidies in Seattle while Scheidies was studying physical therapy at the University of Washington, says. “I find when I race with him, I’m doing it for him and at the end of the race I end up just so exhausted and in much worse condition than I can put myself into on my own.”
Collins will do all this while continuing to balance his MBA studies. His business, Ben’s Muffins, which sells a microwavable muffin mix made from gluten-free grains and nuts on bensmuffins.com, was recently accepted in to the Accelerator Program at Booth. While working towards his MBA has decreased the amount of time he can dedicate to training, Collins says having balance in his life between school, training and family has led to a more rewarding life.
“I’m a self-proclaimed time management expert,” Collins says. “I’m really strict with myself on schedule. I plan my days to the minute and I stick to it, so I know I have a block of time to study, a block of time to train. I try to be very focused on what I’m doing while I’m doing it.”