Dave McGillivray is Thinking Big

By Don Allison

So, you want to put on run. Not just any run, it's got to be big, important, something that will get some major attention, raise major money, even raise the consciousness of everyone who comes in contact with the event. You need a location, then decide the entire USA will be your location, coast to coast, west to east. You decide the run will go all day, every day for two weeks straight, no stopping. Then you decide to invite some of your running acquaintances, people that might help attract attention. So you get in touch some of the biggest names in marathon running and triathlon, people who have won the majors such Boston and the Hawaii IronMan.


Dave McGillivray finishing the 1998 Boston Marathon
Preposterous, you say-no one can put on a run of that magnitude. Then you learn that Dave McGillivray is behind this project. You nod your head and say sure, he can pull it off all right. That's the kind of admiration, confidence, and respect Dave McGillivray has earned through the years, with emphasis on the word earned. You learn quickly that word is very big in Dave's vocabulary. This is a guy who truly has earned everything he has accomplished in the sports of running and triathlon, which is plenty. After talking with him for while you wonder if you have ever met anyone so immersed in the sport?

Pretty much all you need to know about McGillivray's motivation, drive, and get-things-done mentality is contained in the story of how he arrived at the decision to run across the country in 1978, 20 years ago this month. Always the smallest guy on the team in his schoolboy years, McGillivray was frustrated in his attempts at playing traditional sports. Here was a kid who was thinking BIG, while everyone else was seeing the small picture. The coaches all kept telling him he was not big enough, so he put a big sign over his bed that said "Dear God: Please let me grow!"

What grew was his burning desire to achieve. He just needed the right forum, a place where there would not be a coach to tell him to go home because he wasn't good enough or big enough. He found his place in running, a sport that was all substance, no style. Go out and get results. Put on your shoes and go until you can't go anymore. That was Dave McGillivray's kind of sport. But he wanted to do something in running that would make a statement. Running a marathon was nice, but lots of people were running marathons. So he decided he would run the country. Yup, the entire US of A.

But could he do it? That was the question. Even for a little guy with a heart the size of Alaska, 3,000 miles is a long way to run. You don't just head out the door for a run of that length. So Dave planned a test run. He explains, " My sister lived in Rochester, 240 miles from Boston. So I drove there and made motel reservations for the following week, every 40 miles along route 20. Then I took a backpack, a book, and a change of socks and ran to Rochester, all 300 miles, in seven days." That gave him the green light for his cross-country trek. " I felt if I could run 40 miles every day by myself, I could run go all the way across the country with support."

And so he did. From Medford, Oregon to his hometown of Medford, Massachusetts, McGillivray ran his way across the country and into the consciousness of runners and non-runners alike. Thinking big even then, he concluded his journey by running into Fenway Park during a Boston Red Sox baseball game, which tied in nicely with his charity the Jimmy Fund, the official charity of the Red Sox. I mean, if you are going to run across the country, you might as well have 30,000 cheering fans applaud your effort at the finish.

There was more to come. As McGillivray says, "I'm not one to live off my accomplishments." No, he is not. A run up the East Coast of the US from Florida to Boston, 1,520 miles, and a 24-hour run for charity followed in 1980. He also heard about a new kind of race in Hawaii called the Ironman triathlon. It was a crazy challenge that involved 2.4 miles of swimming, 112 miles of cycling, and a full 26.2-mile marathon to top it off. Who could possibly finish that kind of race? A few loonies out west had done it, so Dave wanted in. Along with two buddies, he went to Hawaii and finished this new race, "the triathlon."

Instead of just telling people how great it was, Dave decided to bring the sport back home with him. As usual, he was thinking big. He would put on his own triathlon in New England. Who's to say he couldn't do it? He ran across the country for heaven's sake; how hard could staging a triathlon be? So it was that the Bay State Triathlon was born and the sport was introduced to New England.

McGillivray found a new passion in organizing events. He had worked so hard to feel good about what he accomplished, and here in one fell swoop he was able to make all of these other people feel good about their accomplishments by completing a race he was directing. His talent for organizing and seeing the big picture was made to order for race directing. In addition, he was a natural leader who had the rare ability to inspire people to believe what he and they were doing really mattered.

It wasn't long before he had an entire series of triathlons in New England. A corporation DMSE (Dave McGillivray's Sports Enterprises) was founded and he was off and running on his business career. In addition to directing events, Dave became involved in the administration of the sport on its highest level and branched off into a new venture of representing elite triathletes as an agent for marketing and sponsorship.

By the late 1980s the Boston Marathon was making a comeback, having secured the major sponsorship of John Hancock. A couple of embarrassing logistical incidents exposed the lacking technical coordination of the race. Who ya gonna call? Someone who can get things done-you know who. In short order, as the newly appointed Technical Director of the Boston Marathon, McGillivray had the race running like a Swiss watch. Not only that, but each year after the Boston Marathon was long over, McGillivray would head out to Hopkinton to run the course alone, in order to keep his streak of consecutive Boston's alive. Gotta keep proving he had what it took. What-you think he's not big enough to organize the Boston Marathon and run it too?

The technical director position, which he has now performed for more than 10 years, is special to Dave. "I am truly honored to be associated with an event like the Boston Marathon," he says. "I grew up with the Boston Marathon-it was everything to me, the Olympics of the sport."

You think he might become complacent in the job, but then you remember whom you are talking to. "There are always challenges involved with coordinating the technical aspects of this race," he says. "Everyone looks at the Boston Marathon with a very critical eye. If you do everything right, that's expected. If you make even one mistake, you will be called on it. The bar is constantly being raised on this race; we are always looking for ways to improve"

As you might expect, McGillivray did not shirk the challenge of getting 40,000 runners down the narrow roads that make up the Boston Marathon in the 100th anniversary in 1996. "I lived for that race!" he exclaims. "The big story of the 100th was not who was going to win, but rather how were we going to do it? How were we going to handle that many people? I'm proud we met that challenge."


Bob Hall
The special interest groups, such as amputee Mike Welsch and the hand cyclists, presented yet another concern for the Technical Director this year. But like other aspects of the Boston Marathon, these situations too were seamlessly merged into the event. Dave explains, "Everyone knows how I feel about physically challenged athletes. I went all the way up the East Coast with (wheelchair racing pioneer) Bob Hall. I will go to the nth degree to include anyone who wants to participate. You have to try to do that without compromising the big picture, however."

By the beginning of the 1990s, Dave's professional career was becoming more and more refined. "I have become more of a consultant to events, rather than directing them," he says. He turned over the triathlon series to his buddy Rich Havens, gave up much of the agent business, and focused on the few really big events that continued to stoke his fire: The Boston Marathon, the Jimmy Fund Walk, the 1998 Goodwill Games Triathlon, and his series of Thanksgiving Day Races.

The rocky road was not finished however. Married and the father of two, McGillivray suffered through the woes of a divorce, which took him to a new personal low. "I went right to the bottom, and took a long time for me to work my way out," he says. Between that and his business commitments, Dave's athletic accomplishments tailed off somewhat. "The only things that I kept doing every year were the Boston Marathon (always after his duties as technical director were over) and running my age (in miles) on my birthday."

Could it be that he had finally exorcised the demons of his youth and was now satisfied that he had proved all there was to prove on the playing field? Nah. As he says, "I feel you have to earn the right to set goals. When you publicly state that you are going to attempt something, it has to be legitimate. Where I was in my life the past several years, I felt I did not have the right to set goals that I could not achieve." But with the ship righted, McGillivray's mind was racing again with dreams and possibilities. And unlike many people who have grandiose dreams, this is a guy who can not only dream big, but execute even the biggest of plans.

"I started thinking that it had been 20 years since my run across the country; I wanted to so something special to commemorate that run." He also realized it had been a while since he had really challenged himself physically. " My last real endurance race was 10 years ago at the IronMan Triathlon World Championships," he adds. At age 43 however, he knew realistically that another solo run across the country was just not possible. Thus, the idea of his Run Across America was hatched.

More than just a run, McGillivray's real mission is to reach out to young teens just getting into sports, in order that he motivate them to realize their own goals and dreams. He is in the process of writing a book, which will be targeted at that audience. He knows what it's like to be a youngster all fired up with nowhere to go, because others are dousing rather than stoking the fire. He wants to let these kids know that it's all right to dream big even when others tell you you are crazy and you can't do it, because he dreamed big and realize those dreams even beyond his own wild imagination.

The way he envisions the relay, it will cross the entire USA during a two-week period next May or June. It will be a moving caravan that will stop at schools along the way, so that he can deliver his message to thousands of young people en route. He hopes to achieve this by enlisting the support of superintendents of schools along the way. Having elite "name" athletes participate will help attract the media so that he can increase the size of the audience that hears his message about being "The Last Pick," the proposed title of his book. He explains: "I was always picked last in any games I played in as a kid, because I was always the smallest kid. I want to show that even those who are the last picks can achieve great things if they have the desire and motivation."

"I realized a while back I had the burning desire to be involved in another trek," McGillivray says. "This run will have many benefits and it will be just as much of a thrill as running solo across the country was 20 years ago. I will also be a good physical check and keep me involved." When asked about the incredible logistical concerns such an event would present, he dismisses them with a wave of the hand. "That will not be a problem," he says. "Getting the athletes to be available for the run will be the toughest part, but once that is worked out, I could have the run organized in a week." He adds, "Once I set my mind on something, I don't give up until it is done," as if you were not already convinced of the irrefutable truth to that statement. McGillivray is also fired up about the late 20th century technology that offers all kinds of possibilities for the run. He looks forward to working with Cool Running, providing up to the minute updates and photos of the run.

So there you have it. Things have come full circle for Dave; he thoughtfully reflects upon the fact that 20 years have passed since a brash young man filled with dreams and desire ran across the USA. "I started out all by myself 20 years ago, built up a company with 10 to 20 full and part-time employees, now have gone back to working for myself again," he says. He feels that he would like to take all he has learned and offer up those lessons to as many people as possible, that those prayers asking God to let him grow were answered. You think he's big enough to make it happen? Oh, you bet he is.

If you would like more information on Dave's cross country relay next year or would like to help out in some way, you can e-mail DMSE at davemcg@baa.org.

Cool Running welcomes Dave to it's editorial team. You can expect to see regular articles from Dave, starting soon.

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