Categorized | Multi-sport, Sports

Ironman: Q and A with Mike Reilly

(Lee Gruenfeld catches up with the ‘Voice of Ironman’)

Every major sporting event has its athlete heroes, but sometimes the public persona of the overall endeavor is represented by a different kind of participant.

John Madden brought football alive by providing continuity and story lines across the season. For many people, baseball will forever be linked to the sound of Vin Scully’s voice wafting out of radios on lazy summer nights, and for boxing fans it was Howard Cosell who anchored our perception even as champions of the ring came and went.

For the Ironman World Championship, the iconic glue is Mike Reilly. It’s his voice throughout the long day that pulls the pieces together, and it’s his call across the finish line that stamps finality on a racer’s day even more definitively than the last beep of the timing mat.

Here’s how it got to be that way…

LG: So did you grow up in some exotic locale like Kailua-Kona?

MR: Pretty much. It was Toledo, Ohio.

LG: But you live in Southern California, so what brought you there?

MR: My degree was in special education, and my brother Don had some pull in the San Diego school district. He got me an interview and I got the job.

LG: That was in a junior high, right?

MR; Yes, teaching kids with learning and physical disabilities. Very tough school in a very tough neighborhood.

LG: I thought your brother had pull.

MR: So did I. When I called to tell him I got an offer to teach at a junior high there, he was thrilled until I told him which one. Apparently it didn’t have the best reputation so he called his buddy and got me into a different one, then found it was twice as bad as the original.

LG: I know your brother Don very well.

MR: I know.

LG: What actually happened was that he thought the first place wasn’t enough of a challenge, and that’s when he made that phone call.

MR: Are you serious?

LG: You’ll never know. Your family is too tight so I’m just trying to cause trouble. Anyway, you had nothing to do with triathlon at that point, right?

MR: Never even heard of it. But I’d wrestled in college so I was in pretty good shape, and I started running in Balboa Park. I met a few people there and heard about this bunch of athletes that was doing this weird three-sport thing on Fiesta Island.

LG: Do you remember any of them?

MR: I remember all of them, but their names didn’t mean anything to me then. Scott Tinley and his brother Jeff, Murphy Rheinschreiber…

LG: This was when?

MR: About 1978.

LG: The year of the first Ironman.

MR: Whatever that was. My first tri was the Horny Toad and it was a half IM on Coronado Island. My goal was to pass some Navy SEALS on the run after they killed me on the swim and bike, and I did.

LG: So you were a runner.

MR: I’d done some marathons in the 2:40’s, and Don and I had opened up a bunch of running stores. I’d quit teaching to manage them.

LG: When did the announcing thing start?

MR: I was signed up for a 10K in 1980 but was hurt and couldn’t run. The guy who was supposed to be calling the race couldn’t for some reason, and the race director, Lynn Flanagan [who staged running races for thirty years], asked me to step in at the last minute because I knew a lot of the people running. It was fun, but when she asked me to do it again at the next race I turned her down because I wanted to run, not announce. Then at the race after that she offered me a hundred bucks. That was significant money at the time, so I did it, and I kept doing it all through the ’80s: 10Ks, marathons, triathlons…

LG: What happened to the running stores?

MR: We sold them. But I ended up as West Coast rep for a handful of vendors who used to call on me as a customer. The biggest was Saucony but I also had Power Bar and some others. Nine major lines in all, with a crew of about 15.

LG: And you were still calling races, too?

MR: About two dozen a year.

LG: But not Ironman. When did that start?

MR: In 1989 I got a call from Mike Plant, who was the Ironman announcer. He told me that Valerie Silk, who owned the race at the time, told him to bring me in.

LG: The idea was for you two to work together?

MR: Yes, and we did for two years. Then I took over.

LG: And called every world championship since.

MR: Right, along with plenty of other Ironman and 70.3 races.

LG: Aren’t you creeping up on number 100?

MR: March in New Zealand will be my hundredth. Kona this week is number 97.

LG: Okay, let’s get to the heart of what people really want to hear: Where did the “You are an Ironman!” proclamation come from? And how did it get to rank up there with “Gentlemen, start your engines,” and “Let’s get ready to rumble!” as defining sonic emblems?

MR: It sure wasn’t on purpose. In 1992 a friend of mine named Bob was doing the race for the first time. His confidence level wasn’t very high and he was going around kind of mopey and filled with self-doubt, so the day before the race I took him by the shoulders and said, “You will be an Ironman!”

LG: And when he came across the finish line…

MR. I looked down at him from the tower and yelled into the mike, “Bob! You … are … an … Ironman!”

LG: But that was just a very personal statement from you to a friend.

MR: Well, that’s all it was supposed to be. But for some reason the crowd went absolutely nuts.

LG: My guess is that they’d never heard that as a declaration before. They obviously knew that people were finishing a tough event, but maybe it hadn’t dawned on them that, as soon as the athlete crossed the line, he was instantly transformed into a new kind of being.

MR: An Ironman.

LG: Right. And no matter what else happens to them in life, that’s one thing nobody can take away from them, ever.

MR: Bragging rights for life. I think that’s right. So here was this ordinary guy and as he passed under the arch, this voice booms out over the PA and —

LG: Officially confers the title.

MR: And people just went crazy. So the next guy that came across, I did it again: “You are an Ironman!”

LG: And the crowd reacted again?

MR: Again, and again, and again. I started to get a little hesitant, because it was feeling pretty redundant, but then I realized that, hey: Those people coming across the line were hearing it for the first time. And it was about them, not me, so I just kept on doing it.

LG: And the crowd?

MR: Kept going berserk. I think they understood before I did how much significance it had for each athlete.

LG: But that could easily have been a one-night phenomenon, quickly forgotten.

MR: Except that, at the next event, someone came up to me before the start and said, “Will you say that for me?” I asked her what she meant, and she said, “You know: You are an Ironman!” So I said, Sure, and then it happened several dozen more times that morning.

LG: I heard you actually recorded it for someone’s wedding. True?

MR: Yes, but it was more than that. I recorded this whole thing, calling the walk down the aisle like it was a race, etc. I heard it was a big hit.

LG: What happened in Wisconsin a few weeks ago?

MR: I wasn’t on the mike when one guy came through, so when he ran into me at the airport, he said, “Man, you gotta say it! And do it right!” So I yelled it right there in the terminal.

LG: That wasn’t the first time.

MR: God, no. I’ve done it in stores, on the street, as anniversary gifts from one spouse to another…

LG: There’s something I always wanted to ask you. I’ve personally watched you call about two dozen races—

MR: And you’ve been in the tower with me a few times.

LG: Right. An amazing experience, by the way, and that’s what got me wondering: Your day starts at about 5:00 am, at least in Kona, and ends nineteen hours later after you’ve yelled some fifteen hundred people across the line. Yet at midnight, you’ve got the same energy level as you did when the sun was coming up. How do you do that?

MR: First of all, it may seem like the same energy level, but believe me, it isn’t.

LG: Even more remarkable, then. What’s the secret?

MR: I think it all stems from my passion for the sport and profound respect for the athletes. Who am I to claim fatigue at eleven at night when that guy coming across the line has been out swimming, biking and running all day without quitting?

LG: Very romantic, but that kind of attitude will only get you so far.

MR: So long as it gets me to midnight. And it’s more powerful than you might think. My biggest fear is missing an athlete or getting laryngitis, not running out of gas. By the way, Kona is actually easier than some other races.

LG: How so?

MR: A lot of the U.S. races are nonstop, because after the swim I head out to spectator hot spots and announce athletes as they pass by. But Kona has one long bike loop, so there’s a lot of waiting once the swim is over.

LG: So you get a nice break.

MR: It’s a break, but I don’t like it much. I get all this adrenaline pumping as a result of the start and then I have to go down-tools. Once things get going in town again, I’m higher than a kite for the rest of the day.

LG: How do you feel when the race ends?

MR: Like I’ve been hit by a freight train. I sleep about six hours, then have to somehow get out of bed and start working on the awards ceremony. At least in Kona I have the whole day. Most of the mainland races do the awards at noon. What’s funny is, people who did the race express concern for me. They say, “How’s your voice?” and I look at them in amazement: “How’s my voice? Never mind that…how’re your legs!”

LG: It’s a good question, though. How is your voice?

MR: Depends where I am. Kona is as good as it gets, because all that warmth and humidity feels great in the throat and it feels fine.

LG: What’s the worst?

MR: Arizona, hands down. That bone-dry air hurts like all get out. Two years ago, heading home, I pulled into this In’n’Out Burger after not having spoken for a couple of hours, and when I tried to talk into the speaker, nothing came out but this weak little rasp. I couldn’t say a word. Kind of scary.

LG: Do you use the same crew at every race?

MR: Tom Zebart is always with me at the U.S. races. He’s a terrific announcer himself and we have this routine where he steps in for about ten minutes every hour to give me a break. At Kona we add Whit Raymond, and that’s fun because he speaks fluent Japanese and there’s a large contingent of racers from Japan.

LG: Wait, back up: Tom relieves you for ten minutes at a time? What happens to all those athletes who don’t get to hear you call them across?

MR: Why do you think I do so much yelling in airports!

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