Finding My Voice With Mike Reilly

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There is no question that Ironman is the world’s greatest endurance event. In this episode, the Voice of Ironman, Mike Reilly, talks about Ironman and the amazing stories he’s had for more than 40 years through his book, MIKE REILLY Finding My Voice. Mike and host Robert “Fireman Rob” Verhelst dive into what it takes to get through nineteen-hour work-days, as well as Mike’s passion for telling each athlete’s story the best he can. Mike also paints a picture of the long hours and effort Ironman athletes put in to compete, and the unique kind of healing that Ironman brings to each individual who joins. Don’t miss this episode as Mike and Rob also dive into stories of success, overcoming adversity, and finding yourself by joining Ironman.

Listen to the podcast here:

Finding My Voice With Mike Reilly

I have a special guest. Most of the IRONMAN competitors will know this as well as those people that like to read inspiring motivational books. I have the voice of IRONMAN, Mike Reilly, with me. Mike, how are you doing?

I am fantastic, Rob. Thanks for having me on.

You are the epitome of many people’s dreams to have you on my show is amazing. I was reading through your book and the best part is chapter one. How do you say it exactly, the welcome party in Hawaiian?

“E Komo Mai,” it means to come into my space or come into my house.

That is the epitome of your book because if you have not read Mike’s book, MIKE REILLY Finding My Voice, you can find it on MikeReilly.net. I don’t even know how you chose the stories you did because you have to have many stories, but you wrote a book about what it is to be an IRONMAN as well as your experiences. You have nineteen-hour days at IRONMANs.

About 5:00 in the morning when we’re in transition until that coveted midnight hour.

It’s crazy because you see that there’s a seventeen-hour maximum for IRONMANs. Mike starts two hours ahead of time. One thing that you said in the book is one of the hardest things that you have to do in your day for announcing at IRONMAN is the swim start?

MIKE REILLY Finding My Voice: Tales From IRONMAN, the World’s Greatest Endurance Event

It’s 50% of the day because when you start something, whether it’s a project at home, at work or a personal goal, you want to start off on the right foot. A lot of times, when you go for a run, the hardest step to take is that first one and if it doesn’t go right, it messes up the rest of the workout or the project you’re on. I’m cognizant of that and I want to make sure that the start of an IRONMAN as much as I can, along with the crew work in the race, goes off smooth, easy, and there’s not as much stress. Everybody’s stressed out anyway and you try to make everything as relaxed as you can. If the start goes off on time, it goes smooth and everybody’s happy even though they’re nervous, the rest of the day will follow. That’s why it’s important

It was funny that you mentioned that the start goes off fine because I was reading in here that one time in Kona when the start went off a little more interesting than you expected it to you. Can you elaborate on that story for people?

It probably rates up there as the scariest moment I’ve ever had at an IRONMAN. When they decided to start the race with an air horn as opposed to the cannon as we always had in the past, the whole thing with the air horn, they wanted to do a warning thing. When they did the air horn, everybody took off and it was five minutes before the race was supposed to start. NBC is yelling in my year, “We’re not ready.” The race director is going, “What’s going on? How come the race started? How come you started it?” I didn’t start it. Somebody else blew their horn but we got them back. We got them back to the start line and I chronicle that in the book of how that happened. We were lucky that it happened, but I was able to figure if we stopped those front swimmers at the top of the pyramid the others will be backed up by traffic on a freeway. If the first car stops, everybody stops. That’s what happened. We got the first three or four lead guys to stop and slow down and once they did well, we brought them back.

That’s an interesting way to start a World Championships especially.

There were some pissed off athletes and I didn’t blame them. We’ve calm them down and got them started.

For your day, it’s nineteen hours for a lot of people, like myself it’s seventeen hours and you have some of the pros coming in nine and under a little bit. It’s a long day and it’s truly a production because you epitomize making every single person feel like it’s their race and that nobody else is around. Can you elaborate more on how important that is to you?

It is their race, their day, their life, their goals and their family watching it. To me, it’s individualistic that I look at it that way because I know when I get somebody coming out of the water, catch an athlete on the bike, at a hot corner or on the run, it’s all about that person. When I’m able to say their name at the finish line, that’s individual, that’s them, that’s nobody else. They know who it is. When I start spitting out that name, where they’re from, and calling them an IRONMAN. Everybody always says, “Mike, you’re going to have a long day.” I always say, “It’s a great long day in one’s life.” You can’t have enough great long days in your life. When IRONMAN rolls around and I have the honor of being able to call people to the finish line, it’s a one-on-one conversation I’m having with that person because it’s their day and nobody else’s. The next person comes and it’s the same thing for me over and over again.

I do that because my biggest fear is to get complacent. I don’t want to get complacent about anything in my life and I know others don’t either. When I’m at a finish line, it doesn’t fall into complacency. It falls into watching a hero become someone that they didn’t think they could become. When I break it down and I talk about it, it seems simplistic to me, but yet so grandiose because it’s not about doing the race and coming to the finish line. For many, it’s about who they become when they finish that IRONMAN.

It’s many different challenges and different obstacles that sometimes their stories don’t get told completely but you take the time and listened. I’ve at many IRONMAN events and I don’t think a lot of people understand the amount of research that you do. I remember hearing about Bob Costas for the Olympics but for you, this is a lot of stuff in one day. The amount of research that you do is so valuable. Give everybody an idea of what kind of research you do from all the registrations that come in. That’s 2,500 athletes.

The database is my homework sheet. About two weeks before the race, I’ll get that and start looking at names, “I recognize that. I know I’ve called that one an IRONMAN before. I recognize this story. That’s right. She was battling breast cancer, but now she’s cancer-free and here she is doing this race.” I keep reading. I read the database four or five times. It’s not to memorize it. Something clicks with me when I’ll see a name come up on race tag, “There’s a story there.” I don’t exactly know what it is. I’ll look at the computer screen in front of me and I got, “That’s it.” I bring it out in more of a personal way.

I’m not reading four lines of the bio that an athlete wrote even though that’s what I base it off of. I’m talking about that person because I know their mom and dad, brother, their spouse, their partner, or their kids could be listening. I want to make sure that they hear it as much as anybody. I can’t tell everybody’s story because people come in and droves at times and you’ve got fifteen at a time and all you can get the name out. That’s why those names in the call if you are an IRONMAN, I give it everything I can because everybody’s got an amazing backstory. Sometimes you can’t get told because it can’t. Other times when I’m able to tell a story, there’s nothing better.

One of the great things that happen at IRONMAN is the night before everybody gets together. They get psyched up. You said in your book and I’ve heard this numerous times and it still gives me chills every time you say it, you always say, “This is for you, to inspire, entertain you and to relax. You sit back and enjoy the show and on Sunday.” I can’t say it but you can say it, Mike. What do you usually say at the end of that?

You will be an IRONMAN. The E Komo Mai in Hawaii and the welcome ceremony at other races, it is about the athletes. We’ve tried to put together some great videos from BCC, Dave Downey and his crew and bring up some inspirational stories to let them know that we’re ohana. We’re all one family. Even though IRONMAN is such a global brand with many events, it’s still a close-knit family. When you’re standing in front of everybody like I have the opportunity to do, I want them to know that. That relaxes you. When you walk into your aunt and uncle’s house for Thanksgiving dinner, you feel at home. You’re amongst yours. When the athletes can feel that on a welcome ceremony night or at a meeting or whatever we can do to help them feel that way, it sets them up for a successful race day.

The one thing that I always look at and you’ve been with IRONMAN. How many years we’ve been announcing?

I’ve been announcing for many years of IRONMAN. Kona 2020 will be my 32nd Kona.

I can’t imagine you have the tally of the number of people that you have called across the line to fulfill their epic dream of becoming an IRONMAN and at the same time, having you call them an IRONMAN. There are many people that do this race for a reason from a CEO to a breast cancer survivor to a fireman to a mother of four. What is it that draws people into this experience? It’s not an easy experience and it takes a lot of training to get there. What do you think is the factor that brings people in?

Finding My Voice: Even though Ironman is such a global brand with so many events, it’s still a very close-knit family. 

To cope with life, heal and transform themselves. That’s actually how I built my book around those types of things because the more and more stories I heard of why people were doing a triathlon, 70.3, and IRONMAN or running marathons or getting into the endurance world was to be able to find a better self. People are not always happy with who they are. They could have mental issues, physical illness issues, or have a loss of a loved one. It’s life. IRONMAN is life. That’s why when you say from CEO to cancer survivor, or whomever it may be, that’s a cross-section of life.

If we’re walking down Fifth Avenue in New York and you pass 4,000 people on your eight-block walk that’s the cross-section right there. Whether it was someone battling PTSD or someone who lost a child, some people instinctively always go, “When I found IRONMAN, this has saved me. This has made me more whole. Sure, I’m still sad and mourning, but I’m moving forward. I’m not standing still or walking backward. I’m moving forward.” IRONMAN has an interesting way of beating you up through training, through mental capacity, through physical on race day but yet people are truly internally healed because of it.

I am a testament to that. I remember the first race I did in full fire gear in 2011 in IRONMAN Wisconsin. I remember getting to that finish line and it was the journey of the whole day that culminated at that finish line of I can heal, move forward. I can show through my action actions that anything is possible. You’ve got to call my wife across the finish line at IRONMAN Arizona. She got challenged by my middle daughter. That finish line for her she slowed down to make sure that you were going to call her across the line.

She was looking up to see if I was there and I wasn’t in the bathroom.

You have to go to the bathroom. Nobody thinks that you have to, but you do. The impact that you create through that those simple words, the voice and you were down there, I want you to talk about the last hour of IRONMAN. Most people work eight hours and they get tired or they have to go on social media at the end of the day. You’ve been working for eighteen hours and that last hour of the day, you go crazy. You go down to that finisher shoot and you go nuts. Tell me more about how you do that?

First off, I don’t work and sitting in a cube at an office type thing. This isn’t work to me. It’s a passion. It’s something that I want to be able to do for others. When you can help enhance someone else’s life a little more than it has been in the past, that’s why that last one or two hours are special. People have been out there working for a long time and most of them thought they couldn’t do it. Probably more than they could do it. Many probably doubted themselves. A lot of the last finishers in the last hour or two were told by someone else they couldn’t do it. The reason why I want to go down is I want to get the crowd pumped up.

I want the crowd to give the athletes all the accolades they deserve. The screams, yell, applaud, clap and everything. When I look into the faces of those final winners as I call them, to put it in into a few words, it’s like, “I did this. Are you kidding me?” They look at me like, “Mike, I did this.” I see their face and I go, “Yes, you did,” even without them talking to me and they go, “Yes, I did.” It’s changing their lives. The last hour at the IRONMAN is special. Sometimes I go down maybe sooner than that. If we find out how many are left out on the course and it is interesting. You’re doing your thing all day long. It’s a long day. We’re working hard calling out names, going from one spot on the race to the other, a hot corner and you get to the finish line for the final eight hours or so and go hard that last hour. Don’t ask me how I am at a half-hour after the race finishes because I go to bed with a leg throbbing, I put the NormaTec on, and I’ve got the Theragun out. I’m working my legs. I go, “I should do the race. I know I wouldn’t feel this bad. I don’t think I would.”

It wouldn’t be half as bad if he did the race because they get you catered. You’ve got to do a lot of work during the day. That’s the hardest part.

I’m not are not 38 anymore. I’m not saying I’m over it but the recovery time is a little longer even when I do an 80-mile bike ride. The next day I go, “Why am I hurting?” You’re not 30 anymore.

The interesting statistic is the number of hours that you’ve been on your feet because that’s got to be crazy. It’s hard enough to swim, bike and run, but you’re on your feet the whole day. That’s not easy.

I’ve never been a sitter and you can’t project well when you’re on a microphone sitting down. If I’m sitting down, calling somebody, it means I’m changing my shoe, my sock or trying to do something while I’m bringing people in. I’ve announced with one shoe on one shoe often. One time, Tom Zeibart goes, “Mike, you don’t have your right shoe on.” I go, “It’s busy. I can’t get down and get the shoe on.” I was painting socks or something. We had a camera on stage you’d see some stuff like, “What is he doing now?” He’s announcing.

The other part of IRONMAN and one of the things is the people that don’t finish, the people that don’t hit the cut-offs. It’s a big part that translates into this world and translates into business and personal life of an epic disappointment. For most people, they’ll come back because they want to hear your voice. They want to find that finish. What is it on that grand stage, how do these people find this tenacity to come back

It’s as they do during their everyday life. We have all not found our finish lines with many things we’ve done in our life. Even with conversations with a spouse and you said the wrong thing you go, “That wasn’t too smart.” You had to learn from it. You also try to learn from knowing that you got to the start line of an IRONMAN. That is a huge win. Not many people can say they got to a start line of an IRONMAN and they told the line to go 140.6 miles. If you didn’t finish that day, you didn’t come across that line under the allotted time, that’s tough. Sorry to see it happen but life isn’t over. What you learned on the journey to get to that start line, however far you got into the race before you had to drop out or missed the time cut off or anything like that, you learn tremendous things about yourself. That’s a win.

I’ve had people attempt eight IRONMANs before he finally finished one and keeps coming back. I see a lot of people, “Mike, I’m number four. I’m going to get it done.” I go, “Yes, you are.” If that person never finished an IRONMAN and starts five or six of them, that person is a huge success in life. They didn’t get to their finish line. I understand that. We all want to get to a finish line whether we’re doing schoolwork, a project at work, trying to build a family and relationship, we all want to get to those daily finish lines. When you don’t get to an IRONMAN finish line for a lot of people, it’s devastating. 99.9% strap on those running shoes within a week or two and go, “What am I going to do now? I’ve got to get this done. I’ll enter another one.”

You have a great story here in your book. You can get that book at MikeReilly.net. That’s exactly what you said about Sarah Reinersten. That is an epitome of I didn’t finish and on a grand stage, but yet I’m not going to wait at that point. I’m going to keep going and find that way. It’s an amazing story that you can read in this book. Mike, the question is always posed and I love this part in the book, people always ask you what is your favorite IRONMAN event?

I’ve seen many athletes not finish or not make the bike cut off like Sarah did as I talked about it in my book did not make the seventeen-hour cut-off. The devastation on their faces, crying and grabbing their family and friends is gut-wrenching. At that moment, I know those athletes truly believe, “I’m a huge failure. I failed. All this training and everything for not.” They realize a short time later, and Sarah realizes it at the finish line. When she came back and she was there with her mom after she didn’t make the bike cut off, she was hearing me call people an IRONMAN. That’s when she broke down and lost at the worst because that’s what she said she wanted to hear. That’s also what she said to herself, “I am going to hear it.” She went back to work and the following year, she finished her unfinished business as she calls it and came through that finish line. I’ve seen hundreds of people not make it and I’ve seen hundreds more come back after they didn’t end and finish it.

The best part is everybody feels like you’re their uncle, dad or brother and they feel an attachment to you. They may have never known you before they have only heard your voice at IRONMAN but as soon as they finish an IRONMAN, they feel attached to you and it’s such a powerful thing. There are people that try to get you to leave their voicemails.

I did an audio promotion for the holidays. They could get a 32-second audio from me in a signed book. I had no idea that I’d be recording two, three days in a row of stuff but it worked out. As I talk about the family, sure they may look at me as their uncle, brother, dad or whatever it may be, I look at them in the same way. When I bring in one of our older competitors, even in my book I said, the title of the chapter is Better, Not Older. When I bring the better ones in and I know they have led a life that maybe they were sedentary and all of a sudden, they’re 69 years old and finishing an IRONMAN for the first time in their lives. I love announcing that. When someone comes in, I got, “Here comes so and so, Barbara, Bobo and she’s 68 years old. They’re doing their first IRONMAN.” The crowd goes, “Are you kidding me?” They go nuts. I’ll kid with the crowd I go, “What’s your excuse?” They all laugh and look at me. I’m looking at a 34-year-old down there. The athletes challenge themselves and each other. They do it in actions speak louder than word way. They don’t look at somebody and go, “You need to get in shape, you need to do this.” What they do is they go out and they show others by the example of what they can do and people follow them.

It is an amazing journey as well as the support from fellow competitors, from the IRONMAN crew, you, the fans and everything that. It’s an amazing event. If anybody’s reading that has never been to an IRONMAN, it is one of those things that will change your life. There are people that go to the finish line at midnight that never thought of doing it and all sudden signed back. It’s a crazy and intense environment. Mike, in your book, and I’m sure you get asked this question all the time and there’s a lot of races that wants you to say there is, but you make a point of saying that you get asked, what is your favorite race to go?

I get asked all the time and that easy pat answer is Kona, the World Championship in Hawaii. I don’t have favorite races one or the other, but there are races that are near and dear to me Lake Placid. I’ve done it every year since 1999. I have announced the Mont-Tremblant and Wisconsin every year. There are races that are near and dear to me, like Arizona. I love going over and doing some of the European races. Truly the most favorite IRONMAN, for me is the one I’m at. How can I not be? I would never ever let that type of attitude invade any of my thinking that, “I’m in so and so, but I can’t wait to get this so and so two weeks from now because that’s better than this one.” No one’s better than anybody else when it comes to the events. Everyone is going to hold and make dreams come true right in front of our eyes. I don’t care for Frankfurt, in Wisconsin, in St. George or down in South America, it doesn’t make any difference. Dreams are going to come to you at that race. Sometimes when I’m at that finish line at the races, I get to be a part of it. I’m a lucky guy.

Mike, it is such an honor to be able to talk to you. To give people an idea of Mike’s accolades, I know Mike loves it when I do this, but you are known as the voice of IRONMAN worldwide. You’re part of the IRONMAN Hall of Fame, USA Triathlon Hall of Fame and Running USA Hall of Fame. Over 400,000 athletes it says, you’ve called across the land. That’s amazing. That’s a lot of dreams that have come true because of your words and mainly because of your actions. That’s a lot of time that you put into people. I always end my show the same way. I have three questions and we have a rapid round, which is exciting. Everybody gets an idea based off of other people. The first question, what is one thing that you haven’t done but it’s outside your comfort zone?

I can’t think of anything on the top of my head. I’ve never felt anything was outside of my comfort zone. What’s outside of my comfort zone? I don’t know. Would I want to climb Mount Everest? Maybe I would but is it outside my comfort zone? No. I don’t think there’s anything outside my comfort zone. If there is, I’m sure my wife can tell you what that is, but that’s for her to say.

What’s your favorite quote and why?

You are the cause of your own experience. The ‘why’ is easy because you are. There are things that will come along in our life that we didn’t have control over. Somebody’s rear end you in the car but if you live by the premise that you’re the cause of your own experiences, your life will always run in a positive direction. You take responsibility for who you are, what you did, what you say, and how you performed. It’s very simple. We live by the premise of you are the cause of your own experience.

The last question here is if you could pick to have coffee with three people that can be deceased or live at a firehouse table, that means that nothing is off the table when you’re talking about things they have to answer questions, who would it be and why?

I would like to sit down and talk with Oprah. That woman is an amazing person and what she’s done for people throughout the world. I’ve been a reader. I love how she promotes reading and literacy in our schools. I’d like to sit down with Vin Scully. He was the Dodger announcer for 54 years and retired. He was the most fluent speaker I’ve ever heard in my life. He would come up with stuff at the spur the moment doing a nine-inning baseball game that you can’t believe. It would be cool to sit down with him. I’d like to sit down with my dad again, who passed away in 1993 and ask him some stuff that I hadn’t asked him because I wasn’t knowledgeable enough to do that. See and hear a little more about his background. It was a tough one and it’s evident to me why he was a tough guy because of his upbringing, but I didn’t know that at the time. It would be cool to sit back down with him.

I love that answer. That’s what it’s about. It’s about getting that information out there. Here’s the rapid round. All I’m going to do is I’m going to say two things and you’ve got to pick one of the two things. There’s no right or wrong answer. It’s not a psychology test. The first one is paper or plastic?

Paper.

Soup or salad?

Salad.

McDonald’s or Taco Bell?

Neither.

Camping or hotel?

Camping.

Fly or Drive?

Drive.

Sleep in or wake up early?

Always early

Run or walk?

I’m walking. It’s not public out there

Partly sunny or partly cloudy?

I hate partly of anything. I would go with sunny.

Fire or water

Water

Use a porta-potty or continue to drive a run to the next physical bathroom?

Porta-potty. I’ve announced inside a porta-potty.

Coke or Pepsi?

I’m not a sugar water guy, but if I had to choose, it’s coke.

Go big or go home?

Go big.

Mike Reilly, it’s been such a pleasure to have you here. If you want to have some great reading, motivation, inspiration and more insight into the life of Mike Reilly as well as the stories that he’s had, go to MikeReilly.net. Get his book, MIKE REILLY Finding My Voice. It’s also on Amazon

Also in Barnes and Noble. One of the biggest reasons they showed is because of page 147, which starts out in chapter ten. There’s a picture of a guy on there that I threw in at the last minute and figured, “I feel sorry for him.” He served me Thanksgiving dinner one time, so I figured I had to do it.

My kids call you Uncle Mike and everybody’s like, “Who is Uncle Mike?” They’re like, “The voice of IRONMAN.” “That sounds good.” Mike, it’s always a pleasure to talk to you. I am excited to see you at the next IRONMAN event. I’m sure there are a lot of people out there waiting for you to call them an IRONMAN.

Keep doing what you’re doing. You inspire a lot of people, Rob. Never give up on that because they are listening to you.

Thank you. I appreciate it. Thanks for reading, people.

Important Links:

About Mike Reilly

Mike Reilly, the official “Voice of IRONMAN” worldwide and a member of the IRONMAN Hall of Fame, the USA Triathlon Hall of Fame and the Running USA Hall of Champions, is the only person to have been inducted into all three.

Mike has also done on-site announcing and television coverage for over a thousand other triathlon and running events in 10 countries. This past October marked his 30th appearance in a row as announcer* of the IRONMAN World Championship in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii.

He’s called over 180 IRONMAN races around the world altogether and his iconic call of “You are an IRONMAN!” has been heard by over 350,000 finishers.

​It all started in San Diego, CA, where Mike found his passion for endurance sports while training and racing local events in Southern California. He ran the first of twelve marathons in 1978 and competed in his first triathlon in 1979. That was the same year he picked up a microphone for the first time. Two years later he announced the first ever professional triathlon in Solana Beach, CA. He also called the first ten years of the Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon, the most popular marathon series in the world.

At the time, Mike was a middle school teacher. In 1983 he started a running shoe store, “The Swift Pair,” with his brother Don. After selling the store, Mike became a sport sales representative for Saucony running shoes. While there he began his long association with Road Runner Sports, which would grow to become the largest running shoe retailer in the world. In 2017, Mike took his place alongside other endurance sports luminaries with a star on the company’s “Run of Fame.”

Mike Reilly Biography

Mike Reilly with the Swift Pair

In 1984 he and his wife Rose started RACEPLACE Magazine in San Diego. Rose ran it for 30 years until it was taken over by their son, Andy. RACEPLACE today is one of the top ten most visited event websites for runners in the United States. In 1999 Mike was one of the first ten members of what was to become Active.com, and headed endurance event sales for that pioneering Internet company for 15 years.

Mike is an Ambassador Captain for the IRONMAN Foundation, the charitable arm of IRONMAN that provides grants and funding to the communities in which events are held. He was co-host with Bob Babbitt of the Competitor Endurance Sports Awards banquet for 19 years, and for the past 16 years he has been a lead committee member and emcee for the Running USA National conference. He is also a co-founding member of Triathlon Business International, an industry business organization that is dedicated to promoting the sport and the business of triathlon.

Mike and Rose, his wife of 43 years, live in San Diego. They have two children, Erin Paulson (a Boston Marathon finisher) and Andy Reilly (an IRONMAN finisher) and two grandsons.

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