This year’s Ironman Lake Placid event seemed to capture the Ironman experience like no other. The energy of the athletes and the crowd’s enthusiasm permeated the North Country region of New York and much of the Eastern seaboard—up to, and well after race day. There are so many things seen and felt at an Ironman event, things that capture the imagination. None of it, however is imagined, but all very real.

I will start at the finish. It was 11:30 pm. Only 30 minutes left until that coveted midnight hour. Seventeen hours of constant movement to come to a close in front of the largest Lake Placid spectator crowd I’ve ever witnessed. I was down to working the finishing chute. Tom Ziebart (one of Ironman’s race directors) stayed in the tower to let me know who was coming in. The crowd had worked themselves into a frenzy cheering all day, but I knew they had more to give, as they always do.

The overall goal of my work at the finish line is to make sure each finisher is bathed in the glory of it all

The story up my sleeve this year was coach and spectator Matt Long. On duty as a New York City firefighter in 2005, Matt was run over by a bus. He came out of the near-death experience to finish Lake Placid in 2009, and was back this year to cheer on the finishers. There was no way I wasn’t going to recognize him, so out he came to medal the last athletes to cross the finish line. 

During those tense final minutes it’s like being in the middle of a Rolling Stones concert on New Year’s Eve, and the crowd energized Matt like I knew it would. He become part of the scene playing out on the arena floor—the finale that never gets stale, and despite its craziness, seems always to move in slow motion. The overall goal of my work at the finish line is to make sure each finisher is bathed in the glory of it all, and when I looked at Matt’s face, I knew it was as it should be. With his experiences bolstering him, he was now giving back, and making sure all those finishers were taken care of.

When it couldn’t get any more emotional, I was stopped by a spectator running along the fencing. He yelled to me, “Do you remember my finish? (I get that a lot!). He reminded me that he was the final finisher last year and I immediately remembered. As I was interviewing Matt last year at the finish (having been told he was the last finisher), the crowd started to roar again and there was Paul Goldstone from Pennsylvania, struggling along.  I looked at the clock—it showed 25 seconds to the 17-hour mark. I ran out to him, and as I reached him, the look in his eyes wasn’t that of exhaustion or pain, but terror.  It scared the hell out of me that he might miss the cut off by just a few seconds. Exactly what I said to the crowd then, I don’t know, but I made sure Paul heard me tell him he would make it if he just ran! As I ran next to him, I looked ahead toward the finish, and there was Matt. With only 8 seconds left on the clock, each step seemed like a mile. I put my hand on Paul’s back and he stepped on the finish mat at exactly 17 hours. Matt grabbed Paul to congratulate him while the crowd roared and I hit my knees.

How does it happen that one year later the three of us are at the same finish at the same stroke of midnight making sure each finisher gets their just reward?  That’s why I wanted to begin at the end. The end is where droves of earlier finishers come to pay homage to those that have been on the road hours after most have eaten a recovery meal and taken a shower. This final hour—not to take anything away from the winners and early finishers—is a place in my mind that defines Ironman and its mantra, “Anything is Possible”.

The Ironman day is beyond words; do yourself a favor, and at the next Ironman you attend or compete in, be there at the end. I guarantee it will feel like you’re sharing life’s happiest moments with every dear friend you’ve ever known. 

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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.