From the Finish Line: The Face of an Ironman

After just finishing up two Ironmans—a three week stretch that took me to Louisville and Wisconsin—it’s become clear to me that each event takes on a face of its own. While flying home from Madison I was reflecting a little on these events, and realized that the personality of an Ironman is shaped by many influences.

When we meet a person for the first time we assess what type of person they are. We do this selfishly, to evaluate whether or not we’ll like them, and whether or not we’ll want to associate with them. But how does an Ironman event create its own personality?

An Ironman’s personality is always in your face—the only constant you can count on.

With Ironman you don’t have that luxury, even if you’ve done the event before. You show up race week and go through all the required rituals of unpacking, picking up your bike, checking in for the event, attending the expo, and enjoying the welcome dinner (hopefully). But yet you know you will be meeting the real Ironman on Sunday morning. Many people have told you about this mammoth personality, the one that has crowded your already overloaded brain with preconceived notions and expectations. Then, as the cannon thunders, you get your first wet dose of its true self.

With IM Louisville the morning displays a soft character. You stand in line waiting your turn while “Old Kentucky Home” is brilliantly played on the bugle. The canon fires, the line starts to move, and you jump off a boat dock into the expansive Ohio River, one by one. At this point Louisville is going pretty easy on you. This should be a clue, but you ignore it.

IM Wisconsin is a different story. You are rushed down a three-level helix parking ramp from transition to the water, then prodded to get into Lake Monona as fast as possible. The overworked Ironman cannon performs its job again, and you are thrust into a washing machine of arms and legs. This race is like a bad first impression—like meeting someone for the first time, and they are up in your grill right away, almost nose to nose. With Ironman you resign yourself to the fact that it’ll be with you all day and night, so you’d better make the best of it.

I’m an Ironman announcer, not a psychiatrist or therapist, but I do know that a person can take on different personalities to fit the situation they’re in. Ironman is no different. How many times during the event did you loath it and then love it, both in the same hour?

After the relatively easy Louisville swim (if 2.4 miles is easy!) you hit the lovely Kentucky hillside roads. If their undulating personality wasn’t enough for you, how about what Mother Nature threw in? She decided to take a sauna early in the day, and pull riders in with her. I was out in LaGrange calling out to the cyclists at the 48-mile mark, and the heat-drenched, blank stares weren’t what we were expecting at that point in the race.

At almost the same point in the race, IM Wisconsin was now the softer personality. You exit the swim and head for the bike—a little bruised, but realizing that it’s a nice, windless 75 degrees. Yes, the never-ending quick inclines will sap you of quad strength, but a good weather day in Madison is just the personality you want to meet. At the Verona bike loop just short of 50 miles, Wisconsin turned the athletes into giddy school children. Waving arms, cheers of joy, and smiling faces make it feel like the final summer school bell just rang. The crowd loved it and gave the athletes much-deserved support. At this point they were in love.

As the Louisville athletes reached the Ford Motivational Zone on the run, full of messages written by their loved ones, they were having a difficult time figuring out where the calmness of the morning had gone. One mile from the finish line party, the sounds of music and frenzied spectators floated to their ears. It was a side of the event they hadn’t yet experienced. Near the end of an excruciating day, Louisville held out its arms and awaited the heroes of the day.

In comparison, the IM Wisconsin run felt like Mom fixing you breakfast. The athletes’ faces told the story: they were in love with this “IM Moo” race, as it’s affectionately called. The rambunctious crowd on State Street dictates a big part of this event’s personality. The athletes couldn’t wait for Wisconsin’s embrace in front of the state capitol at the finish, and it wasn’t just because they wanted to end the pain.

During an Ironman, athletes will divert their thoughts to take their mind off the pain. But what they can never do is lose the sense of who they are and how they got there. IM Louisville and Wisconsin simply are what they are. Their personalities are always in your face—the only constants you can count on.

Remember when someone would write in your high school yearbook “Don’t ever change”? They obviously loved your personality, and most of you have probably maintained it until today. If there was a yearbook for Ironman events, the notes would probably read something more along the lines of “I like you and I don’t like you, but in the end you made me stronger. Don’t call me—I’ll call you”.

On to Kona!


Mike Reilly was the first announcer at a professional triathlon in 1982 and has been the main announcer at the Ford Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii, since 1989. He has worked over 1,000 endurance events worldwide, and spent more than 2,200 hours behind the microphone at Ironman events. His famous phrase “You are an Ironman” is a coveted prize to professional and age group athletes alike. He is also famous for his ability to create a party atmosphere at race finishes, bringing out thousands of spectators to cheer each athlete across the line.

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