Behind The Photo: Heartbreak in Hawaii
In 2015, Hiroma Inada made his first attempt to become the oldest finisher of the Ironman World Championships—he faltered just feet away from the finish line and missed the cut-off time by five seconds. Read the story behind the iconic image from those who were there.
The final hour of an Ironman World Championship is unlike anything else on earth. It’s an emotionally-charged parade of participants, some exhausted and weary, others ebullient and triumphant, others simply shuffling along, seemingly in a state of shock after hours upon hours of movement. And then there’s the palpable despair from those who do not, or will not, make the 17-hour cut-off time. Those who will not be heralded as an Ironman at the finish line. Those whose dreams are cruelly dashed by the ticking clock.
Hiromu Inada knows the specific agony behind that hard cutoff. In 2015, the then-82-year-old from Chiba, Japan, was aiming to become the oldest finisher in the history of the Hawaii Ironman. Throughout the day, he remained on target to do just that, although as he progressed on the run, his elapsed time began flirting closer and closer to 17 hours. At first, there were minutes to spare. Then just seconds. It would be close, for sure, but the boisterous spectators—many of whom were waving Japanese flags in Inada’s honor—were ready to lift him in spirit and carry him home.
Inada, overcome by exhaustion, did his best to get there. But then his body gave out, and he collapsed to his knees. He got up, only to fall again. Photographer Nils Nilsen happened to be standing just a couple of feet away at that very moment, and trained his camera on Inada. The result? One of the most iconic images ever taken at the Ironman World Championships.
Nils Nilsen, an award-winning photographer and fixture on the triathlon scene, describes the moment in his own words:
“Every person who finishes in the final hour of the Ironman has a story. You see the struggle and the celebration, and there are these huge emotional and physical hurdles you have to get over just on that day to get to the finish line. The crazy thing is that I am watching all of these stories unfold through the lens. I am aware it’s all happening, of course, but I am just taking the photos and then I process it all later. Like, I’ll look at a particular photo and suddenly see it from another perspective and think, ‘Wow, that’s a big deal.’
That’s how it was with the image of Inada. I was out there all day, starting at 4 a.m., and I knew that all of these incredible moments unfold closer to midnight, so there was no question I’d be out there for as long as I could. We were waiting for Inada to come in, and everyone was so excited.
I just happened to be there, right as he fell. So of course, I just started taking photos. Here he was in his most dire and fragile moment. He fell, and he tried to get up again. He hobbled, he fell again. He was struggling, but he just would not give up.
And then there is the other, just as powerful layer of this photo: The support of the crowd. These are all strangers to Inada, but they have embraced him and welcomed him as their own. They’re all rooting for him. We all want to see people achieve their dreams. And there he is, on his knees, and people are screaming right there trying to encourage him to keep going. And he did try.
I would say that this photo tells a story of perseverance. Regardless of making the cut off or not, Inada got himself to the finish line. At 82 years old! It’s just incredible. And the best part is that he came back and finished under the cut-off when he was 85 (in 2018), and plans to do it again. I hope I get to see that happen.”
As the longtime World Championships emcee, Mike Reilly is on the mic for hours at a time, welcoming finishers home with his signature “you are an Ironman!” greeting. (It’s no secret that a majority of Ironman participants will themselves to the finish lines just to hear him say that.) In 2015, Reilly was well aware of Inada’s quest to become the oldest-ever finisher, and had hyped up the crowd to bring him home, feverishly checking his watch and the overhead clock as though he was willing to pause time, just for a few brief seconds. When it became clear Inada wasn’t going to make it, Reilly dashed over to help him up, gingerly supporting him across the line where he received medical attention.
Though Reilly has ushered in hundreds of thousands of Ironman finishers, this moment, he says, was one of the most memorable in his career, for more reasons than one.
“It tore my heart out, to put it simply. I never thought for a minute he wasn’t going to make it, and then when he didn’t it was like the air just left the lungs of everyone on the island witnessing it.
But Hiromu, through it all, graciously kept acknowledging the spectators with his gratitude of appreciation. Human Spirit at its highest form in thanking others for their kindness and applause even though he didn’t accomplish his goal. Everyone there walked away better people seeing and feeling this moment. An Ironman finish line does that!”