In order to give readers a unique perspective of this year’s Hawaii Ironman, we’re going to look at some of the essential pieces that make this event special — be it a person, a group of people, or even a place—that makes the Ironman World Championship completely different from every other triathlon in the world. These are the parts of Hawaii Ironman that make it insanely difficult, incredibly inspiring and totally singular.
In 1989, Mark Allen ran down Ali’i Drive to the welcome of a loud roar. For hours, he had been locked in battle with rival Dave Scott—the wind rushing over his helmet on the Queen K, Scott’s and his footsteps on the hot pavement and his own breath providing the soundtrack to his first-person view of Iron War. There were pockets of fans as he traveled 140 miles just to get from Dig Me Beach to the finish line that was only technically only a few hundred feet away. But as Allen ran toward his first of six Ironman World Championship wins, a loud voice rose above the din. Allen would not only become the first person to cross the finish line that day, but he would also be the first Ironman world champion to be welcomed home by the sport’s most iconic greeter, Mike Reilly.
Every single year since that day in October, Reilly has been at the finish line at the Ironman World Championship. He’s been there on the wet years. He’s been there on the hot years. Last year, he was there with a back brace—doing his best not to twist under the watchful eye of his wife as he danced to the music.
Reilly is one of the first to arrive on race morning around 4 a.m. and never goes home before midnight. After midnight, sometimes it’s off to the bar for two beers (he admits he’s a cheap drunk), a shower and into bed. Once in bed, though Reilly may seem more alone than he’s been all day, the faces of the finishers and their stories flash through his subconscious. Here, he gets a moment of self-reflection: “Did I do a good job? Did I give them everything I could?”
We sometimes see documentaries about artists who are so loved because they can take in the crowd’s emotion, sensing everyone’s feelings deeply and then reflecting them back outward. Sometimes it’s a bad thing, and the outpouring leaves them drained. The opposite is true for Reilly. He feels that each person who finishes in front of him fills a little bottle of energy, and that bottle gets refilled each time another athlete crosses the line. For Reilly, the crowd only gives him energy; it never takes.
While the everyday finishers and their extraordinary stories top off his tanks, he’s also witnessed Ironman magic. Reilly was there in 1994 to watch and report to the crowd as Greg Welch crossed the finish line as the first non-American male winner in the 16-year history of the event. As he did, Reilly understood that the Hawaii Ironman would never be the same. Mike Reilly was also there only one month after the twin towers fell in Manhattan, when an American man (Tim DeBoom) won Kona for the first time in six years. It was a proud moment for Reilly.
Reilly can shuffle through the deck of stories and always produce the right card at the right time. There’s the one about an excited 60-year-old man who had accepted his first Kona slot at Ironman Australia—another of the many Ironman events Reilly announces. When Reilly asked if the man had ever competed at the Hawaii Ironman before, all he could say was that he’d never even left Australia. The first thing to take him out of the country he grew up in would be the Ironman World Championship.
To athletes like the older Aussie, the Hawaii Ironman is the culmination of countless hours of hard work—to some, it could be one of the high-water marks in their lives.
People give up work, relaxation and even family time just to train to qualify for Kona. From there, athletes spend thousands of dollars on their equipment, on entry fees and on travel just to tread water on the starting line. After the cannon sounds, they still have 140.6 grueling miles through the worst conditions imaginable. From Reilly’s perspective of announcing at the finish, they go through all of this and end up right in front of him at their best possible moment. Reilly says it’s like an international family reunion—everybody was invited, and everybody came.
Sure, Mike Reilly is the “Voice of Ironman,” but that’s just a pithy tagline—reductive almost to the point of understatement. Reilly is more than that. He’s the people’s keeper; he’s the midwife of Kona. Reilly is the man present when so many Hawaii Ironmen and Ironwomen are born, and he is simply honored to have the privilege of announcing their arrival.