When Grant Miller ran through the deafening cheers of the spectator-frenzied finish line during the 1994 Ironman World Championship race, he knew someday he would return to hear Mike Reilly’s golden words, “You are an Ironman.”
Twenty years later, the Kailua-Kona resident will get another chance to compete among the world’s best and embark on a 140.6-mile journey — an ultimate test of mind, body and spirit — on Oct. 11.
This time around, things will be a little different. No longer the eager 30-year-old looking for a personal best, Miller will be competing for much deeper gratification.
Miller said the crazy idea to qualify for the world championship race began three years ago with longtime friend Bill Barto of Kailua-Kona, an event they had hoped to do together.
“Bill and I did our first Ironman in 1994,” Miller said. “We sort of talked and joked about doing it again to mark our 20th anniversary, but it didn’t work out for the both of us.”
And, it almost didn’t work out for Miller.
Barto had foot surgery in January and spent several months rehabbing his foot. He wasn’t able to compete in June’s Ironman 70.3 Hawaii — the state’s only qualifying race for residents.
While Miller, who was neither able to secure his slot at the half-ironman distance nor selected in the statewide lottery, thought his chances were long gone.
That is until the unexpected happened.
“I got an invitation from (race director Diana Bertsch) when I didn’t get a slot,” Miller said. “Since we have been the official tech support for the bike course for 15 years and she knew how much I wanted to do it this year, Diana offered the invitation.”
Miller and his wife, Janet Higa-Miller, co-own three retail shops specializing in bicycle and triathlon gear. Having to help organize six support vehicles and crew on race day along with motorcycle tech support for the top pros during the bike course each year, gave Miller a different perspective of the race.
“I thought this is crazy, this is nuts,” Miller said of doing Ironman. “Watching and helping out with the race over the years made me realize how hard it is. It didn’t make me want to do it again. So I’m not sure what clicked in my head, although I blame Bill for planting the seed, but I felt like doing it again.”
Miller said that along with the advantage of being “20 years wiser” entering the race and with more Ironman-specific training guidelines available to help him than when he first competed — comes with its challenges.
“Just trying to fit it all in my busy schedule is probably the hardest,” he said. “Running around between three shops while gearing up for Ironman on the business side of things and trying to train through it all, it’s a lot.”
For Miller, there’s a bigger incentive than just crossing the finish line that has him grinding out an average of 15 hours per week of training time. Miller has decided to use his entry into Ironman as a platform to raise funds for ALS, on behalf of close friend Karen O’Riordan Kelly, who passed away from the disease nearly a year ago.
Miller said he was just a young boy when he first heard of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis — also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. The progressive neurodegenerative disease affects nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord.
“I just couldn’t believe that a great player such as Lou Gehrig could get it,” he said. “And even now, after all these years there still isn’t much of a cure yet. Karen was a special friend to us who worked in our shop for six months. I’ll be racing in her honor.”
Many have become aware of ALS through triathlete Jon “Blazeman” Blais, who began waging a public “War against ALS” in two short years — the time of his diagnosis to his death on May 27, 2007.
In an uncanny twist, within minutes of Blais passing away, Kelly, who was the president of the Blazeman Foundation for ALS at that time, crossed the finish line at Ironman Brazil and qualified for Kona that year. She went on to finish the world championship event proudly wearing his Kona Ironman bib number, 179, and raised a considerable amount of money for ALS.
Having lost her mother and grandfather to the disease and testing positive for the SOD1 gene never discouraged her courageous spirit. Kelly, who was a busy attorney from Atlanta before moving to Kona and immediately falling in love with the community that welcomed her with open arms. By 2012, she began showing symptoms of ALS that progressed rapidly — she died Sept. 13, 2013.
The war against ALS has only just begun. In an email regarding Kelly’s death, Blais’ mother Mary Ann wrote, “Needless to say our resolve is even stronger to fund the best research we can find … this horrific disease has gone on too long and with too little coverage. There is no treatment or cure and nothing known to man can prevent it … it does not discriminate.”
Blais was a powerful voice for ALS using triathlon as a means to promote awareness and fundraising to find a cure. Five months after being diagnosed, Blais became the only individual with ALS to complete the Ironman World Championship race. He crossed the finish performing his “Blazeman roll,” a human log roll over the finish line now graciously performed by countless athletes as a symbol of hope. In addition, his Kona race number, 179, has been reserved by the World Triathlon Corporation, and only offered to special athletes competing on behalf of ALS.
More recently, ALS has been at the forefront of the social media circuit with the popular “ice bucket challenge.” Within the last four weeks, the challenge generated nearly $100 million in donations for ALS research.
Though Miller said he has yet to be nominated for the teeth-chattering, bone chilling soak of a challenge, he will wear race bib 179 and plans to do the Blazeman roll at the finish line — all with hopes to reach his goal of raising $25,000 for ALS by race day.
With older age groups within the sport becoming more competitive and pushing better performances than in years past, Miller said he is interested to see how his 50-year-old body will compete against his then 30-year-old self.
“I think doing Ironman once every 20 years is good for me,” Miller said. “I know so much more now. I think I will do it again when I’m 70 years old as I’m curious at how 20 years will have an effect on me. I’ll probably be faster and by then, it will be a normal thing for 70-year-olds to do it.”
For more information on donating to ALS, visit community.als.net/grantmiller.
Note: Miller’s wife, Janet Higa-Miller, is also racing for a cause and will dedicate her Ironman 70.3 World Championship race in Mont-Tremblant, Quebec, Canada, slated for Sept. 7, to raise funds for Patty Barufaldi of Waikoloa. Barufaldi is fighting an aggressive form of lymphoma of which Higa-Miller has raised $4,850 for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. For more information on donating, email Higa-Miller at firstname.lastname@example.org.