Hawaii Legend Joe Ironman on Fireball and Finisher Medals
What do you do with your finisher medals after each race? If you’re like me, you have a special spot in your home to display them. I have several race bib racks and medal displays, and the medals dangling from the hooks have been earned by running everything from 5ks to Ironman.
Some of those medals have sentimental value, reminding me of my first trail race. Or that time I almost quit with 6 miles left in the Lavaman Triathlon after a bike crash but fought my way to the finish despite the blood dripping from my knee.
One medal is missing, however. The medal that was placed around my neck after finishing my first Ironman in Lake Placid, NY. That finisher medal flew to Texas with me in 2016 and never returned.
After a long and amazing weekend of cheering and working at Ironman Texas, I headed to the Texas Children’s Cancer Center with a handful of other Ironman finishers who had pledged to donate their medals to children at the center.
Nothing could have prepared me for what I would feel the moment I walked into the hospital room of a little girl fighting for her life, holding my finisher’s medal.
The wonderful memory of Mike Reilly saying “YOU are an IRONMAN!” came rushing in and I blurted out “Hi, I’m Sara, and this is the medal they gave me when I finished my first Ironman in Lake Placid. It was really hard, and they give you a medal at the end for being strong and not giving up…” I choked on the tears as I held out that nickel and blue and red medal to her.
“I want you to have my medal because you are much braver than any Ironman athlete!”
I placed the shiny medal in the hands of a child who needed to know that she too was brave, more so than I will ever be. My medal was finally in its rightful home.
At the time, giving away one medal seemed like a crazy gesture. Until I met Joe Ironman. At 72 years young, Joe has finished more races than I will probably ever run and has given away almost every medal he received at a finish line.
Joe was completing Iron-distance triathlons and ultra marathons before there were race registrations or any awards at the finish line of such events, let alone medals.
“I was doing ultra running before it had a name,” Joe says laughing. “Really I just liked the challenge of trying to run the jeep roads that I knew of from four-wheeling. I realized how special it was to run the single track in these untouched places in Colorado.”
Joe reminds me that back in the 90s, no one was awarded a finisher’s medal, not even the winners. “If anything, they gave us a cotton tee for finishing. And sometimes the winners got a six pack of beer or a bottle of wine.” Joe recalls, explaining that his motivation for swimming, biking, or running any distance was always bigger than something he could hold in his hand or hang on a wall.
When I first moved to Hawaii, Joe Ironman was that runner at local races with mismatched shoes on his feet and fireball in his water bottle. I didn’t even know what his actual last name was (it’s “Loschiavo” and it’s pronounced “Low-ski-avo”).
Just a Kid in Love
Before he was Joe Ironman, he was a kid that grew up in Chicago, IL. After graduating, Joe went to school in Minnesota. By 1972, Joe had made his way to Aspen, CO, which was a town of “ranchers and hippies” at the time.
“I moved to Colorado for a girl. I was 26 at the time!” In love and overweight, Joe confesses that he started running to lose weight for that girl.
“I was 320 pounds back then, and too embarrassed to run in public, so I ran loops in my basement. 27 loops made a mile. I got down to 185 pounds.”
A whole 135 pounds lighter, Joe began running races in Aspen, driving a bus to pay the bills and learning life lessons from the eclectic community he belonged to.
“In Aspen, nobody cared if you were famous or rich or just a gypsy! I learned a lot from rancher Bob Kopp about how to treat people, and that has carried over into my life as an endurance athlete,” Joe points out.
After running 5k and 10k races, Joe ran his first marathon, the LA Marathon, in 1973. He truly embodies soul running, and I tell him as much as we chat about medals and meaningful miles on this sunny afternoon.
“Soul running is about being altruistic about the event you are participating in. That is true aloha,” says Joe, who has called Hawai’i Island home full-time since 2003.
One Who Runs With Intent
Joe agrees that a soul runner is one who runs with intent, and uses running to make a difference. For him, that means mailing his finisher bibs and medals to the families left behind by military members who lost their lives in combat. Most recently, Joe honored SFC Dennis Murray by donating his Lavaman Triathlon medal to Murray’s family.
“Memories of Honor is a fantastic way to honor our fallen military and the families they left behind through endurance races,” Joe explains, getting notably quiet for someone known for living out loud. “I give my finisher’s medals to families who have lost a loved one in combat.”
He doesn’t just give away medals either. As a soul runner and Hawai’i resident, Joe Ironman gives away aloha wherever he goes. Joe brought leis with him to Los Olivos, CA when he ran all 62 miles of a Born to Run Ultra Marathon this past May (at 72 years old)!
“I gave leis out to people along the course. There was one volunteer who was dressed in a cow outfit and gave hugs to all the runners during the race. I made sure that volunteer got a lei!” exclaims Joe.
Although he was never in the military himself, Joe believes in the potential running has to be a platform for changing lives, which is why he has been a Memories of Honor Ambassador for almost 6 years. Organizations such as Memories of Honor give runners the opportunity to do just that!
When a soldier passes away, their surviving loved ones look for ways for their fallen to be remembered. They request to be put into the Memories of Honor database, and Memories of Honor Ambassadors are then paired up with a family. Ambassadors then swim, bike, run, and race in endurance events to honor their memory.
Like all Memories of Honor Ambassadors, Joe Ironman crosses the finish line of his races in honor of a fallen American Hero and donates his finisher’s medal to the surviving family. But those fallen heroes and their families are with Joe long before he is handed that finisher’s medal.
“I have arthritis, but I’m alive, so I can still race. When I do, I think about those who lost their lives during the race, not just at the finish line,” Joe admits. “It’s important for me to think about the families when I’m feeling bad, sitting at an aid station, and also when I’m running well and feeling great.”
When Joes decides to compete in a certain race to honor a certain fallen member of the military, he has the honor of connecting with the families.
“They share stories about their loved one with me and it helps them cope. And I get to be part of keeping that person’s memory alive.”
Runners Creating a Ripple Effect
Here in Kona, Joe is also known for giving away other race-related swag, not just medals. During Ironman week, he has given away Ironman emblems to his friends’ kids, including fellow Ironman Dave Daggett.
David is a Georgia attorney who completed the Ironman World Championship in 2016. Daggett is one of many amazing examples of runners who use racing to make a difference that Joe refers to.
“Making a difference… in the lives of people who need us the most should be the most natural gift of giving. I urge everyone to get involved, pick a charity, an organization, and help make a difference,” Daggett said last year after receiving a volunteer service award for his work with the down syndrome community.
“When you use running to help others, it creates a ripple effect. It fireballs from there!” Joe affirms with a smile. Which prompts me to ask Joe why he carries fireball in his water bottle instead of an electrolyte drink or water itself!
“Fireball! Yeah, that started with Mike Rouse!” Joe divulges. “We were over in Maui for the Maui Marathon. We had talked friends into coming over too. We all went out for shots of fireball after we crossed the finish line, and it fireballed from there. I even had a 10 pack of fireball for anyone who wanted some during the Born to Run Ultra weekend!”
It’s tempting to allow racing to become a selfish and serious endeavor. But Joe Ironman works hard to make it a charitable celebration, and is always ready to share a finisher medal or a sip of fireball with others!
Still, many of us find it hard to part with our medals, no matter how important the cause. Joe suggests that this is because we confuse who we are with what we accomplish or win.
“Your job is not who you are. Your race is not who you are,” he asserts. “When we put so much of our identity in our race results it can be disastrous if we get injured. Or if we fail to finish a race. If you don’t finish a race, you aren’t a failure. The only time we fail is if we don’t attempt to start.”
Joe Ironman is proof that racing is an experience bigger than finishing and receiving that medal. And with so many charities and non-profits providing runners a platform for making a difference, you don’t always have to give away a medal to have a positive impact on an individual or community. You just have to commit to making your miles more meaningful.
Memories of Honor is a self-funded campaign that creates living memorials so that no loss of life during military service is forgotten. It was started by a mother of a United States Marine, Amy Cotta. Amy competed at the Ironman Chattanooga wearing combat boots and a military-style pack adorned with 21 photos of fallen military heroes in September 2014.
When she asked the racing community to please donate one medal for a friend of hers, whose brother’s name was on her pack, an amazing and beautiful thing happened. She was inundated with responses from racers wanting to honor the men and women on her pack. Within an hour she had medals for all 21 heroes she ran for. This is how Memories of Honor was born.
“I post photos of my finisher’s medals before I send them away in hopes that maybe I’ll inspire others to give their medals away too!” says soul runner Joe Ironman.
For inspirational posts about using running to make a difference, and photos of Joe’s medals before he gives them away, follow him on Instagram as @joe_ironman.
For more information about joining the other soul runners who race as a Memories of Honor Ambassador, visit www.memoriesofhonor.org.