Found on Ironman.com and written by Jennifer Ward Barber
The Voice of IRONMAN is gearing up for another five years. Here’s what keeps him coming back.
Mike Reilly has been announcing at IRONMAN races for 25 years, and isn’t about to quit anytime soon. The gregarious San Diegan recently signed on for another five years as the “Official Voice of IRONMAN Worldwide.” For the thousands of athletes who hang their hats on hearing Reilly’s voice at their own IRONMAN finish line, this will come as good news.
On a sunny Thursday afternoon in Del Mar, Reilly and I share iced coffee in a beachside café. Dressed in light and airy “California business casual,” and with tanned skin and and youthful demeanor, he seems at ease to be back home. He’s fresh off back-to-back announcing in Lake Placid, which he’s done for each of the event’s 16-year run, and the new IRONMAN Boulder.
Like the athletes he serves, Reilly is a man on the move. He has to be, as appetites for his unique finish line flair keep growing. “I get hundreds of emails and phone calls asking what races I’m going to,” he says. “I keep telling people no, I’m not retiring.”
Finding his voice
The germ of Reilly’s current celebrity can be traced, unsurprisingly, to Kona. The year was 1989, and Reilly had made a name for himself as a local race announcer. Valerie Silk, the race director of the IRONMAN World Championship, asked Reilly to help her at the race on the Big Island, and ever since Reilly’s voice has been synonymous with the event, and many others around the globe. In addition to his work at many North American races, he’s been a regular in New Zealand and Australia for years.
It wasn’t until a few years after that first day in Kona, however, that Reilly found his signature line. “You…are…an IRONMAN!” came about somewhat by accident in 1991. “I had a buddy racing that year,” Reilly recalls. “I saw him on the street a few days before the race, and he wasn’t in good shape. He kept saying ‘I’m not going to be able to do this.’ He was so down on himself.” Reilly remembers trying to cheer him up and, at the end of one of their conversations, assuring him that he would indeed become an IRONMAN on race day.
As Reilly’s friend approached the finish line, dispelling his own fears, Reilly remembered their conversation. “I just confirmed what I’d told him.” The crowd went crazy. He decided to try it again, even though the next finisher was a woman. “She and the crowd went crazy again. I started to think it was maybe too repetitive, but the crowd wanted it. They kept yelling, ‘call them an IRONMAN!'”
Mike Reilly remembers the first time he said: “You are an IRONMAN!”
Honing the craft
Reilly’s saying has grown into a trademark, worming its way into the hearts of not only 15-time finishers (who remember every single time Reilly has called them an IRONMAN), but also first-timers who’ve never met Reilly, but tell him that his finish line words keep them motivated to train.
Despite his popularity, Reilly is adamant that he is not a celebrity. “I’m just a guy who has the honor of glorifying what these athletes do. I’m glorifying the eight months of training, the family sacrifices—we all know the deal.” He tells spectators to go home with sore hands and voices—that it’s their job to help him tell the world that these people just accomplished something 99 percent of the world will never even think of doing.
After so many finish lines and even more names, I ask Reilly how he keeps things fresh. At this point, he looks me in the eye and gives me a personal compliment.
“It’s just like that. Everyone is an individual to me. That’s what keeps me doing it.” Reilly doesn’t work with facts, he works with people. “I don’t say, ‘Jim Brown you are an IRONMAN. Jim is racing today for his father who passed recently of cancer.’ I say ‘Jim Brown, you are an IRONMAN and your dad loves you.'”
Like the athletes out on course, Reilly also trains for his 17-hour day on the microphone. His preparation is simple: He reads every name five or six times before the race, and picks out 10 or so standout stories and writes them down. He says it’s harder to make mistakes if you’ve already read the names out loud. “We didn’t miss a name in Boulder,” he says.
With 25 years under his belt, Reilly could write a “War and Peace” of finish line stories. But he also has a few of his own stand-out moments. Like last year, when football MVP Hines Ward said his day wouldn’t be complete until “Mr. Reilly” called him an IRONMAN. “I didn’t even know he knew who I was,” Reilly exclaimed.
Another, from a few years ago, took place on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.
“All of a sudden, I see some guy in a three-piece suit running toward me and screaming my name. He gives me a high five and a hug and tells me his IRONMAN was the best day of his life. He’s rambling on like a kid,” Reilly remembers. It turned out that man was the Vice President of the New York Stock Exchange.
These anecdotes are trumped by one, however: Calling his son Andy an IRONMAN in Arizona last year, with his wife, Rose, and daughter Erin next to him. “I almost didn’t get it out it was so emotional,” he says. “Erin was 6 and Andy was 3 when I started announcing IRONMAN.”
Reilly has made some observations from his unique vantage point over the years. “I don’t care if you’re a CEO, or a laborer in Toledo, Ohio, or a rich woman from Miami Beach. All through life we’re told we can’t do this or that. So when we do something like an IRONMAN—well, let’s just say I’m the guy at the playground telling the kids, ‘Look how high you can swing!'”
Mike, we’re glad our playground has someone like you.
Reilly’s race regimen
→ Tips from a jet-setter I look forward to it as an adventure. It’s a relaxing time for me. I don’t work a lot on planes—we work all the time.
→ Fitness on the move: “I run while on the road a lot, and ride all the time, even when in Kona. The year before last I rode 80 miles the day after the race. It was almost eerie being out there with nobody else.”
→ Pre-race rituals: “Ninety percent of the time I don’t set an alarm. I wake up ready to go around 4 a.m. I don’t drink coffee. I don’t need caffeine—I stay pumped all day.”
→ Fueling and hydration: “My backpack looks like I’m going mountaineering. As for hydration, I drink just enough to stay hydrated, but I keep my drinking to a minimum, for obvious reasons. It’s an art.”
→ Physical toll: “During the day I stretch or do some pushups to keep the blood flowing. One of the hardest things is bringing in the final finishers at midnight, when I sprint up and down the finish chute with sore hamstrings from standing all day. I could go for a six-hour ride on my bike and feel better than when I get done announcing.”
→ Recovery: “Back at my hotel, I always throw compression on.”
→ No DNF’s: “I’ve never lost my voice during a race.”
→ In a changing sport, some things stay the same: “The passion at the finish line. Seeing the dreams and desires, from 1989 to last Sunday, that is the same.”
Look for Reilly over the remainder of the season at IRONMAN Mont Tremblant, Wisconsin, Chattanooga, Kona, and Arizona.