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Explaining Endurance: What's Behind the Ironman

Triathletes bicycle along the Queen Ka'ahumanu Highway during a workout for the Ironman Triathlon Thursday, Oct. 7, 2010 in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii. (AP) AP

After his third Guinness Mike Reilly wants to be preacher. But as the self-inscribed "voice of Ironman," he already is.

Reilly has been announcing the World Ironman Championships in Kona, Hawaii for nearly two decades. His voice brackets this competitive 2.4 swim, 112 mile bike ride, and 26 mile run. For this, Reilly has achieved cult celebrity status in the endurance sports world. He is hailed in airports, has pets named after him, and has officiated at weddings.

"It's the strangest thing" he tells me between sips of his favorite brew. "Athletes think I do something special...even spiritual. But it's just that my voice is what they remember about the race; what they equate with a very special day."

Reilly is correct, of course. Competing in the Hawaiian Ironman is a unique and powerful experience. Come-to-Jesus moments are the norm for the 1800 competitors from a dozen countries. It's part of the powerful pull that draws thousands of triathletes to the Big Island every October. And though many have tried to explain why this event fills such reflexive chasms, I'm not sure that you can. The best that you can do is shrug, scratch your chin, and quote some dead guy from a long time ago.

The event, in its 32nd iteration on October 9, is uniquely conflicted. It's the flagship event of a growing and profitable brand that associates with dozens of products and events. But like Reilly's voice over the loud speaker, it's what the event represents that gives the products cultural cache. But no one really knows what that is.

The simple ideas like dedication, camaraderie, and excellence have worn holes in the rhetoric. And the more esoteric quests for existential explanation seem trite. Too many hyperbolic journalists gush on about the local Hawaiian spirits, the lure of owning the Ironman Finisher's title, and the wrath of Pele seen in the heat and the winds.

I raced here 20 years in a row with perhaps 2,000 motives. But I can't remember more than a few. There was no prize money when I won in 1982 and 1985. But I'm pretty sure I have the koa wood trophy out in the garage somewhere. I enjoyed myself.

I think.

People come back here year after year, some to compete and some to just be a part of the experience. It's a nice little town and the locals who constitute the 5,000 volunteers are a great lot. But there's much more behind the streets that are wall-papered with sponsors' banners. A special thing is created when so many come together to do something so hard. I suppose it's like golf--you spend your day with others, hacking away at a little white ball because along the way you experience a variety of emotions that you don't have access to in the office or on the couch. 140 miles under a tropical sun and 5 hours in lime green pants and white vinyl shoes--sounds the same to me.

The best thing about the Ironman is how you can mortgage it. People dream about the event for years, some in anticipation and some in memory. Few are unaffected. But it's a drug as well, and once you've had a taste of it, well, you're never really free from its power.

Reilly has stopped trying to explain the Ironman's grip on people's lives. "It's much too personal" he suggests. "It's like war. Unless you've been there you can only imagine."

Legend has it that George Mallory, in trying to explain his quest to top Mt. Everest for a multitude of inquirers simply gave up and coined the best explanation of all--because it's there.

And Kona is still here.

Scott Tinley, a retired professional triathlete and two-time Ironman World Champion, writes about fallen heroes and teaches sport humanities courses at San Diego State University. His book Racing the Sunset: An Athlete's Quest for Life After Sport explores the world of pro athletes in transition.