Behind the Mic

By Kim Eagle – July 1, 2015
photography by Nils Nilsen/IRONMAN

Although he jokes that his life isn’t too exciting, he’s being humble. He lives a life full of generosity and passion and has an enthusiasm for his career that will make you envious. Most notably, he’s the man who says the words all Ironman athletes are dying to hear when they finally reach the finish line: You. Are. An. Ironman. 
His name is Mike Reilly.  

How did you get the job of being “the voice of Ironman”?

Well, first off, I don’t think of it as a job. I used to announce a lot of triathlons and running events in Southern California. Then in 1989, I got a call from Ironman (in Hawaii) to help announce that race and the rest is history. I’ve been with Ironman for 27 years.

Tell us about your family?

I have two kids. My daughter, Erin, who just gave us a new grandson, and my son, Andy, who also works in the endurance business. My wife Rose is the real Ironman though. She has put up with me and all of my Ironman travel. (The couple’s 40th anniversary is in August.)

How has your career developed over the years?

I’ve been in the endurance business practically my entire life. I used to own running shoe stores in San Diego and was the first Power Bar representative in California. I started announcing races in the late ’70s, was a sports representative for the Saucony Tri Team in the early ’80s, and started announcing for Ironman in Hawaii in 1989. Ten years later, in 1999, I was one of the first of five team members of Race Gate, which turned into Active.com, and was with them for 16 years. I’m currently the Ironman race announcer and am excited to be starting a new career as the executive vice president of Events.com

Did you create the phrase “You are an Ironman”?

I actually didn’t say that phrase in [my first two years at Kona]. But in 1991, I had a friend doing the race. When I saw him on the street before the event, he was really nervous. He told me he didn’t think he could get it done. “Don’t worry,” I told him. “You’re going to be an Ironman.” 
When he was crossing the finish line on race day, I said his name. And then it hit me. I had told him he was “going to be an Ironman.” So instead I said, “Jimmy, you are an Ironman!” The crowd went nuts when I said it! The spectators had such a strong reaction to those words. So when the next athlete came in, I said the same thing to her and the crowd went crazy. And so did the athlete. I thought, well what the heck! They are an Ironman and this was a way for me to connect one-on-one with the athletes as they came into the finish. After that, it just became what I said.  

Do you announce every Ironman race?

Physically, I can’t do them all. Last year I announced 12 Ironmans. This year I will do 10. It varies because of travel.  

What is your favorite Ironman (although I bet I can guess)?

Obviously, Kona. It’s the golden goose. It’s the Mecca everyone wants to get to, and they have all earned that qualification spot to get there. It’s the best week of the year when it comes to Ironman. My second favorites are Ironman New Zealand and Ironman Lake Placid.

Does your job ever get old?

No. I treat every Ironman like it’s my first. I tell athletes that my best memories with Ironman are still about to happen. I announce every finisher as though they are hearing it for the first time. I treat [each Ironman] like a first love.

Are you at the race for the entire 17 hours?

It’s actually more than 17 hours. Race starts are 50 percent of my stress for the day. Getting everyone started on time and keeping them calm in the morning is like talking to all my kids. I relate it to parents saying, “Come on, get up, get ready for school. Let’s get going and have a good day.” But instead, I’m saying it to an audience of 2,500 Type-A personalities. 

Is it true that you review all the names of the athletes the night before the race?

I actually go through them five or six times the week before the race. I look at all the interesting bios and make notes. Then, when their name comes up on race day, I try to remember if there was something unique in their bio that I can mention when I bring them in. It’s not that I memorize them, but I have that familiarity.  

(My 12-year-old son and I came up with this question.) When so many racers are coming into the finish line for hours on end, how do you get a bathroom break and not miss an athlete?

Ha! Well, I have a second announcer who takes over for me when I’m not there. I try to go for 55 minutes straight. Then I need to stop, catch my breath, possibly use the bathroom, and make sure my voice is okay. I can’t get 100 percent of the athletes though. (If Reilly learns that an athlete is disappointed he missed their name, he calls them on the phone the day after the race.) I have left thousands of messages for people who didn’t get to hear me call their name. It’s just something I do.  

Does it break your heart when the race closes at 17 hours and people are close to the finish, but won’t make it?

When someone is really close, I just can’t believe it! People in the crowd are often crying, and I try not to look at them. I will stay an extra 5–10 minutes if someone is near the finish line. And the crowd goes crazy and doesn’t want to leave. It happens at every race. Someone will always miss the swim, bike, or run cut-off times. It’s just the way it is, and you have to deal with it as it happens. 
Have you ever done an Ironman as an athlete? I was signed up to do my first Ironman in 1989, and that was the year they asked me to announce. I figured I could always do the race another time. That was 26 years ago and I don’t want to get off the microphone yet. One day I will do Kona! It will be the last thing I do in the sport.

What is your sport of choice outside of triathlons?

Baseball! My son played minor league baseball, and I just love that sport. I wrestled in high school and college, but I was always a closet baseball player in my heart.

What is your favorite movie of all time?

Shawshank Redemption.

Favorite food?

I love a well-cooked steak! 

What is your favorite way to spend a day off?

I love working in the yard, gardening, riding my bike, and spending time with my family.

Do you realize that your voice has become the dream of every Ironman participant? How does that make you feel?

It’s humbling. People will come up to me and say “Mike, just talk to me. That voice calms me.” To me it’s just my voice. I don’t know if people like what I say or they like how it sounds. Maybe it’s a combination of the two?

 
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