Mike Reilly, voice of the Ironman
by Slowtwitch/TriBiz Reader editor Amy White
INTRO: Sometimes a person and their job are a perfect match. Such is surely the case with Mike Reilly, known to many as "The Voice of Ironman."
The popular race announcer has been the main announcer at the Ironman World Championships in Kona since 1989. He began his involvement in triathlon as a participant in 1979 and is still at it.
He announced seven Ironman events last year, along with several other marquee short-course events. He is one of the founders and vice president of The Active Network Inc., which houses Active.com, one of the largest participatory sport websites.
Reilly began his career in sport after teaching special education for two years. He and his brother founded and ran The Swift Pair running shoe stores in Southern California and Arizona. In the early 1980s, he joined with Murphy Reinschreiber and Neil Finn to form a race production company called Road Promotions Inc. He and his wife, Rose, founded Race Place Magazine in 1984, and it is still the top regional source for event listings and entry forms in Southern California. And he founded MJR Sports in 1996, a company that consults to the industry and sells sponsorships for events around the country.
Although he has never competed in the Ironman distance (he's on the microphone at most of them), his goal is to complete one very soon. He and his wife, Rose, live in Poway, California. Daughter Erin is a sophomore at the University of Arizona and son Andy is a sophomore at Poway High School.
"IM New Zealand next month will be my 29th Ironman announcing, and when the gun goes off and the athletes start to swim it will still feel like the first," Reilly said, and he plans to stay on the job "as long as they will have me." Slowtwitch/TriBiz editor Amy White thought you'd like to hear a few of the great stories he's got to tell.
SLOWTWITCH/TRIBIZ: How did you get into triathlon?
MIKE REILLY: My brother and I owned a few running stores in San Diego in the late 70's so I was a part of the scene. Then a friend of mine, Murphy Reinschreiber, took me down to Fiesta Island to do a standard Wednesday night ritual of a swim/bike/run. Before I knew it, Murphy and I were putting them on. We would even have fun with them and change the order of the disciplines. We even did some of the swims making everyone pull along a car or truck tire innertube. Scott and Jeff Tinley always did them; Tommy Warren would show up. One race I even paid off the top three with the entry money we collected and awarded the winner my San Diego Chargers season tickets for that Sunday's game. So unofficially that was the first prize money triathlon. Haha!
ST/TB: You were the first announcer at a professional triathlon. Which race was that, and can you tell us a bit about it?
MR: I announced the first USTS race in Del Mar, California, at Torrey Pines State Beach, I think in 1982. It was a mass beach start and Speedo put out a great poster of everyone lined up on the beach ready to go. Jim Curl was the race director, and I remember breaking down the barricades on the course with him afterward. It was really the birth of the sport when it came to the community supporting and coming out to watch; the crowds were huge.
ST/TB: Can you tell us some of the best moments you've experienced when working the finish line of a race?
MR: That's a tough one because there have been so many, but I'll stick to Ironman on this, breaking them up between the pro and age-group ranks. Top five pro would be: 1) the Mark Allen and Dave Scott duel in 1989 at Ironman Hawaii; 2) Paula Newby-Fraser breaking 9:00 in IM Hawaii, going 8:55 and change in 1992; 3) the Allen/Scott-type duel that Peter Reid and Chris Legh had at IM Australia in '98 and Reid outsprinting him to the finish line; 4) Wendy Ingraham and Sian Welch crawling to the finish line at IM Hawaii in 1997; and 5) Lori Bowden's performance at IM Canada in 2000--while I didn't announce, I worked the on-air broadcast with Ironmanlive.com. My job was to follow Lori on the run on a mountain bike and report in. I must have heard Lori's name yelled from the crowd over 1,000 times on the run, and watching Lori respond and smile to almost everyone was very special.
Top five age-group: 1) Rick and Dick Hoyt finishing IM Hawaii in 1989; 2) Bill Bell making the 17-hour cutoff at IM California in 2000 and then thanking everyone for staying; 3) Judy Molnar finishing IM Hawaii on her second attempt, it was a touching moment with no dry eyes in the house as she spoke to the crowd; 4) Missy LeStrange's constant domination of her age group; 5) challenged athlete David Bailey going 11:05 in 2000 to beat Carlos Moleda, who had beaten him the prior year. Also, all the Iron Spectators who are at the start of the race and stay until we bring in the last one in 17 hours later at midnight. They are the heart and soul of everyone's best moments!
ST/TB: What makes the job so special for you?
MR: That's simple--the athletes and their accomplishments. It's my honor to be able to bring an athlete across an Ironman finish line announcing their name and telling the world they are an Ironman. The other reason it's special to me is a selfish one. Ironman is a big part of my self-motivation process throughout the entire year. No matter what may come my way, I know I'm prepared to handle it--how can I not be after witnessing so many positive people accomplishing an incredible goal!
ST/TB: How do you prepare for a race? Please tell us a little bit about how the announcing works--the technology of it. How much time do you have between seeing or hearing a number and the time the person comes across the finish line? What sorts of things do you have to have on hand to do the job properly, and are there any little things that you also like to have in the announcer's area with you, maybe for good luck?
MR: On the preparation side, I am sent the bio information on all the athletes entered weeks prior to the event. I go through it as many times as I can and make a ton of mental notes. Then on race day when that bio pops up on the computer screen it is somewhat familiar. Technology has come a long way; we use the paper system as a backup but we rely on the spotting system with chip technology. But I still feel safest with spotters I assign at the transitions and finish line to relay data to me. The things I like to have around me are good people. I'm very fortunate to work with others in the business who are top-notch and very professional. In Hawaii I work with Don Ryder and Whit Raymond, and Whit works with me at some of the Ironman North America races. They are a part of a team effort, which is the No. 1 reason we are successful.
ST/TB: Are you noticing an evolution in the way athletes, particularly at Ironman races, are crossing the finish line?
MR: Not really. Unlike marathons over the past five years with the influx of walkers and slower runners, Ironman has remained constant. With the Ironman distance there is no faking; you are either ready or not. You still witness at the finish lines athletes sprinting, jumping, falling, crawling, crying, screaming and laughing.
ST/TB: I was in Kona for the first time this fall, and I headed to the finish line in the evening after covering the race all day. When we turned the corner onto Alii Drive, it was like a giant street party. I couldn't believe the lights, and the sound, and the energy. It was like this force that just enveloped everybody. I'd been out on the race course all day, and it was positively silent by comparison. Tell us a little bit about how you get the crowd involved, and keep them involved, all the way to midnight.
MR: We challenge them. All day long we'll tell the crowd, "You need to be Iron Spectators. These athletes on the course who are your family and friends need you." I've actually told them, "Can you imagine being out on the course all day competing and finishing just before midnight and no one is there to cheer you in?" I've had people come up to me and thank us for "making them stay" because what they witnessed was beyond belief. It is a force that envelops us all--I like that! I'd call it a Force of Passion. Plus Ironman is an international event, and the one language of music and partying is tough to beat.
ST/TB: Do you have much time for training and racing between your work at Active.com and your announcing duties?
MR: Not as much as I'd like. I'm riding more than anything else right now. I spin a couple of times a week and get out on the weekend for long rides. Plus working at Active keeps you fit, with almost all team members working out everyday. As a matter of fact, I've had the pleasure of bringing some of my fellow employees across Ironman finish lines the past two years.