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In the delirious mind of Eduardo Ugaz, there was only 200 meters left to go at Ironman Maryland. But Ugaz was so disoriented after crashing on a wicked downhill during the bike leg and bleeding through the marathon that he didn’t realize he was actually at the finish line at a different Ironman race – one taking place hundreds of miles north, in Lake Placid, New York.
As Ugaz rounded the final corner of the Ironman, he was exhausted from the crash and 17 hours of swimming, biking and running. He slouched over like a ghoul on Halloween, completely sapped of energy. And then, it began: a sound like an approaching thunderstorm, generated by hundreds of adoring spectators banging on the sideboards of the finisher’s chute. It was only a few seconds before the midnight cutoff time for the race, and everyone was invested in seeing Ugaz finish in time. Could he do it?
Ugaz was so disoriented that he could not make out which direction to run in. Race officials took his arms and carried him forward. Sparks shot up in the air at the finish line. The rattling sideboards and raucous reached a crescendo. Here, at the stroke of midnight, a few hundred strangers gathered to create the ultimate welcoming committee to cheer Ugaz home in one of the world’s toughest endurance races.
“Eduardo Ugaz from South Yarmoth, Massachusets!” a voice boomed over the speakers. “You are an Ironman!”
In that moment, Ugaz collapsed to the ground. But there was no grimace on his face. It was a smile.
Most Ironman triathletes are not running toward the finish line. Instead, they’re simply following the voice of Mike Reilly, who has announced Ironman races since 1989. His signature phrase – the very one he cried into the microphone for Ugaz – is often cited as the reward for finishing a race. Forget the finisher medal and t-shirt – all we want is to hear Reilly to confirm that yes, you are indeed an Ironman.
Shortly after welcoming Ugaz as the final Ironman finisher at Lake Placid, Reilly made a different kind of announcement. He doesn’t like the word “retire,” so instead he calls it “hanging up his microphone.” His final race in North America will be Ironman Arizona on November 20, and his final race ever will be New Zealand on December 10. He’s spent the past 33 years perfecting the art of getting strangers to come out at midnight and conducting them into a celebration of suffering and life: an Ironman finish line.
If anyone deserves to rest, it’s Reilly. Since he began announcing Ironmans, Reilly has welcomed some 350,000 finishers home. But there’s no denying that when the final finisher crosses in New Zealand, something special in Ironman will also cease.
In a sport that is becoming dominated by social media, elite training plans and aero gains that require a second mortgage, Reilly is a champion of the everyday triathlete. Yes, Reilly calls the professional athletes home. He does an excellent job of that. But if you want to see the magic of Mike Reilly, then you have to see him at midnight, whipping up a crowd into a frenzy to push a last finisher home. Few other sports celebrate the final finisher home more than they do the first one, and that’s because Reilly made it so. As the clock ticks down, the division and selfishness that has spread throughout modern society disappears. The midnight finish is a communion, with Reilly at the altar as he blesses the final finishers with his famous words: “You are an Ironman!”
Reilly is so much a fixture in Ironman races that when he does not call a finisher home – because he is going to the bathroom or eating a quick snack – they are often upset. Ugaz is like many Ironman finishers – he wanted his name called because it was, as he says, “affirmation that I am alive and I can do this.”
The Legend of Mike Reilly
Reilly had a perfect concoction of personality and genetics that made him the ultimate vector to celebrate the human conditions at its most extreme.
The legend of Mike began in Toledo, Ohio, and around the age of 16 when he embraced one of the secret ingredients that made him the voice of long-distance triathlon.
“I figured out as a young man at 16 that I had to stay positive my entire life,” says Reilly. He embraced that positive spirit after university when he worked in San Diego as a schoolteacher. He saw gangs and drugs, but he didn’t focus on it. “Positivity is what saved me as a teacher,” Reilly recalled.
Eventually Reilly moved into sales, where he took that can-do spirit with him. “When I got into sales, nobody wanted to buy from a negative person. Nobody wants to be around a negative person.”
Reilly’s sunny disposition made him a natural race announcer, but he actually got into the job as a fluke. He was injured for a 10K race that he had trained for, and the event director asked if Reilly wanted to host instead. Reilly had often been told that he had a great announcing voice. It is deep and gravely, and it sounds like it has been aged in a barrel of whiskey. It was perfect for the microphone. At that first race, Reilly was so popular, the director asked if he wanted to announce again.
“I’m healthy now,” Reilly responded. “I’m going to race.”
The race director upped his offer – what if he was paid for the work? Reilly’s wife, Rose, urged him to take the job – money was tight – and so began his announcing career. Soon, Ironman heard that there was an upstart race-caller in San Diego, and invited Reilly to start hosting finish lines.
“You are an Ironman”
As a new race announcer, Reilly tinkered with his craft. He credits Toastmasters with teaching him the importance of storytelling while public speaking. He pored over athlete biographies to learn the stories behind their Ironman race, and studied announcers at various sporting events. Reilly loved baseball, and noted that announcers had a go-to call sign, like “Gone, gone gone!” when a player hit a homerun. In races, he tried different catchphrases, but nothing stuck.
That is, until 1991. Reilly was talking to a friend who was training for Ironman San Diego and had expressed nerves that he wouldn’t finish the race. Reilly assured him that he would.
“You will be an Ironman,” he said reassuring. The next day, Reilly welcomed his friend down the finisher chute. “You are an Ironman!,” Reilly yelled into the microphone.
The crowd roared. To Reilly, it was the kind of instant and raw reaction that he always wanted from an audience. Reilly kept the slogan when the next person finished, and then the next as well. Years later, he’s still saying it – and the awe still hasn’t worn off.
“I try to give it to everyone like we are having a one-on-one conversation like the one I had with my friend,” says Reilly.
But anyone can say words into a microphone. What makes Reilly so special is that he means those words. Empathy guides Reilly in everything he does, from the way he communicates with his family to the way he welcomes athletes at the end of 140.6 grueling miles of racing. This is perhaps most evident in his book, Finding My Voice, which has a different training secret than almost every other triathlon guide. There are no workout plans or paces. It is a book about hope. When professionals are mentioned it is for what makes them mortal and how they found hope through triathlon. Reilly’s ultimate trade is connecting with athletes and telling their stories.
The best job in the world
Besides, Mike wouldn’t know the first thing about writing a training manual for triathlon. Despite calling hundreds of events, he himself has never actually done an Ironman. His son Andy explains that even though he was considered the voice of Ironman, Reilly was worried about his job security. Announcing is gig-to-gig employment, and Reilly wanted to do everything he could to keep it going. Any weekend Reilly was racing rather than announcing was a chance that he might lose his microphone.
“He had a little bit of fear that if he did an Ironman then he was not announcing it. He would tell me ‘I don’t want them to take my role,’” his son Andy explained. His father would say “I don’t want to let someone take this away, so I am going to keep announcing.”
As much as he loved the job, however, Reilly began to notice the hard work took more and more of a toll as the years went on. His voice would often not recover for four days after an event. He missed family events, and wanted to see more of his grandchildren as they grew up. How many personal sacrifices am I going to make? Reilly often wondered to himself.
When Reilly announced earlier this year that he was hanging up his microphone, he was most surprised at the adoration from the triathlon community. Reilly doesn’t see himself as a big deal, only the one lucky enough to be present in the right place at the right time.
“The finish is probably the one point that they think about during all that training, all those miles. I’m just the guy at the finish,” says Reilly.
That may be true, but there are other Ironman announcers who don’t have the same following. What made Mike special was that he believed the finish line did not just represent the end of a race, but a larger process of personal transformation. As Reilly approaches the last mile of his own career, he awaits his own evolution:
“When you go through a finish line,” Reilly smiles, “there is always another one waiting.”