MAHOMET — Roy Riley will compete in the world championship of the Ironman Triathlon in Kona, Hawaii, on Oct. 8. It would be a momentous opportunity for any triathlete, a chance to race alongside the best in the sport.
But it's also Riley's first full Ironman event — ever.
"I'm not trying to win," the 26-year-old Mahomet man said. "I'm just trying to finish."
But then he corrected himself.
"Not 'trying,'" he said. "I'm going to finish."
Riley won the opportunity to compete after entering an online essay contest. The original prize was a spot at Ironman Wisconsin — but since then, it's become something much bigger.
Riley, a Decatur native, started out as a runner. But after college, "naturally I wanted to do something harder," he said. He began competing in shorter sprint triathlons, and during the past few years he's completed several half-Ironman events.
He decided that Ironman Wisconsin, held in mid-September, would be his first full Ironman event and began training. When he saw a contest sponsored by Ford on Facebook, asking entrants how the Ironman motto, "Anything is Possible," reflects their life, Riley wrote a quick 250-word essay — in under two minutes, he estimated — and sent it off.
Drawing on his experiences as a P.E. teacher at the Gerber School on the campus of Cunningham Children's Home, Riley described the kids he works with: kids who've experienced abuse, poverty and separation from their parents. He contrasted the challenge of competing in a triathlon with the challenges his students face every day.
"I never expected to win," he said. "I thought, 'What can it hurt just to sign up?'"
And then, in the excitement of training, he forgot all about it.
Three weeks ago, he got a phone call. His essay had won him a VIP spot at Ironman Wisconsin and the opportunity to meet his idols, the legends of the sport. He was thrilled.
A few days later, the phone rang again.
Would he like a chance to race in the Ironman world championship in Kona, Hawaii — the "Olympics of triathlon" — instead?
Riley quickly accepted, sure that it couldn't get any better than this.
Twenty minutes later, he got another phone call, this time from NBC. They liked his story and wanted to profile him on their nationally broadcast coverage of the event, filming segments at home in Illinois and at the race itself.
"Is this a joke?" Riley asked, stunned.
Now, Riley is preparing for the adventure of a lifetime. He'll fly out to Hawaii on Oct. 2, a few days before the race, to acclimate himself to his surroundings. He's never been to Hawaii before, and he's never swum in the ocean — something that he's sure will be a big change from what he's used to in Illinois. He's already got current weather for Kona pulled up on his iPhone, and he's been researching the course online.
Recently, an ESPN camera crew was filming segments at the Cunningham Children's Home and at Riley's parents' home in Decatur. He'll also be interviewed at the event itself and in the days leading up to the race.
An Ironman triathlon consists of three parts: First, a 2.4-mile swim. Then, a 112-mile bike ride. And to top things off, a full marathon—a 26.2-mile run.
He said the run is his least favorite part. "I've been a runner my whole life," he said. "But by the time you get to the run, it hurts."
Riley wakes up at 4:45 a.m. and starts his day by swimming at Urbana's indoor aquatic center. He teaches an indoor cycling class at Refinery, and in the afternoons he runs — his favorite training course is at Lake of the Woods, near his home.
In the meantime, he teaches sports and physical fitness to the kids at Gerber — kids who often didn't have a parent to show them how to catch and throw in the backyard.
The Gerber School provides special education services to young people in Cunningham's residential program, who have an array of emotional and behavioral issues. Despite the challenges, Riley said, "I truly, truly love my job."
Relationships between kids and staff members like Riley are vital, said Cloydia Hill Larimore, Cunningham's vice president of advancement. "These are the people who are the adult role models for them."
Riley is inspired by his students' determination — and, in turn, they're inspired by him, Larimore said. After so many other authority figures have failed them, "someone like Roy can be an adult they can look up to," she said.
Televised coverage of the race won't air until Dec. 10 — two months after the race. Riley said that he taped last year's national finals and has watched the footage "at least 10 times." He's excited — and nervous — to think that in future years, potential Ironman competitors could be watching him.
"A month ago, I was so ready for Wisconsin," he said. "Then it got pushed back another month, and now the pressure is getting to me. I'm very nervous at this point."