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One of a Kind: Interview with Race Director Extraordinaire Dave McGillivray

The Boston Marathon race director talks about the industry, the future and his own endurance goals.

A shorter version of this interview appears in the January 2016 issue of Competitor.

Back in 1973, while still in college, Dave McGillivray organized a 2.5-mile running race between two parks in Medford, Mass., and something inside of him clicked. It was a tiny event, but it was the dawn of the running boom, and he sensed recreational running was going to grow for years to come. While pursuing his own running and triathlon goals, he opened a running store, twice ran across the U.S. for charitable causes and became a full-time race organizer in 1982. In the past 35-plus years he’s put on more than 1,000 events—and in doing so, has helped raise millions of dollars for charitable causes. The resident of North Andover, Mass., is now 61 and still going strong, competing in numerous events in 2015 while also directing about 30 events per year. He’s competed in the Ironman World Championship nine times (most recently in 2014) and run 141 marathons, including every Boston Marathon for the past 43 years. (He’s run the past 28 late at night following the completion of his duties as race director.) One of his last races of 2015 was the New York City Marathon, where he ran a respectable 4:04:50.

How has running changed since the late 1970s?

The bell curve of runners has definitely shifted to the right. When I ran 2:29 at Boston, I finished about 180th place. This year 2:29 at Boston would have finished about 50th place. There are plenty of people who can run 2:29 nowadays, but back then they were a dime a dozen. I was a third-tier guy back then, but we all trained and raced hard. I was a fruitcake back then. We ran, on average, 120 to 130 miles per week. I was doing double workouts on most days. I was a ship bum compared to the faster guys. You had Billy and Randy Thomas and Bobby Hodge and Dick Mahoney, all those guys were running repeat miles at 4:50-4:55, then you’d have the second group at 5-flat. Then you’d have the rest of us slugs at 5:05 or so. We never said we were “running just to finish.” That was a given, obviously. We were running to race, to beat each other into the ground.

RELATED: Bill Rodgers—40 Years After His First Boston Marathon Win

How have increased popularity and slower median finishing times changed the way races are organized?

There are still fast runners and moderately fast runners and average runners and slower runners. From my perspective, that’s all OK. We all can coexist; it just makes the dynamics and the management of it more complex. I’ve always said when the starting gun fires, there are three races going on: the front end, the back end and the big one in the middle. You could have three people run the race at the front, in the middle and at the back and when you asked them how the race went, you’d get three entirely different answers . They’d have a totally different experience even though they ran the same race, but they’re all equally important.

Do you think all marathons should have prerequisite qualifying times?

I’m a fan of having people, in order to be able to run a marathon, prove that you’ve at least covered a half marathon under a certain time. Other people don’t necessarily agree with me, but I think it’s prudent. We want people to strive to set the goal of running a marathon, but my motto is that you have to earn the right to do it. It isn’t just about signing an application. What you find now is an interesting dynamic in which you have some people who, because they have signed an application and paid the entry fee, feel they can take all day to cover the distance. On the race management side, we’re only given permission to keep the roads closed for so long, volunteers are only required to be out there so long, medical stations are only prepared for so many people and for so long, and the list goes on and on. But when you’ve got people out there for a long time—way beyond what your road re-opening program has specified—that’s when you have some challenges.

How did the explosion of running for charity happen?

It was a natural fit. Running is an amazing sport, and when you combine it with philanthropy, it doesn’t get any better than that. You set a personal goal of running a race and you accomplish that, but you’ve also done some goodwill in the process. You can really put your head on the pillow at night and think, “Geez, that was a good day. Now let’s wake up tomorrow and let’s do it again.”

Why does recreational running continue to grow?

The massive growth in running is just about people wanting to do something in which they can feel good about themselves. That’s what running has become. That’s what the finisher’s medal symbolizes. That’s why people want to go to a race where there’s a nice medal because they go home feeling good about themselves. When people ask what I do for a living, I tell people I help raise the level of self-esteem and self-confidence of tens of thousands of people across America every year. That’s what it is and that’s why I do this.

Why has running become such a passion for such a wide range of people?

There are so many different dynamics to it. There’s health and fitness benefits, it’s the lifestyle, it’s the social camaraderie, the weekend-away-with-the-girls type of stuff. And it’s all about self-esteem and self confidence. There is still the element of competitiveness at the front end and the people who are running hard in their age groups. Then you’ve got races like the Boston Marathon, which serves as a measure that, if you work hard enough, you might be able to get in the ultimate bucket list event, kind of like the World Series or the Super Bowl … the Holy Grail or running. Running is convenient—all you have to do is head out the door. You don’t have to drive to a facility or gym, you don’t have to pump up your tires. There’s everything right about it. That’s why you’re seeing what you’re seeing: races selling out at record pace, races popping up all over the planet. It really is a phenomenon what’s going on.

What do you think think about all of the novelty runs and obstacle races that have popped up?

Those races serve a whole different clientele, which ultimately I think are going to roll back into our community as runners. I’m not against those events because they create the incentive to get people off the couch to do something. Once they start doing something, maybe they’ll say, “OK, I’ve done enough of those and have crawled through the mud enough and jumped over barbed wire, but I still want the health and fitness benefits as a lifestyle.” And that’s great.

How would you describe the essence of being a race director?

Race directors, in my opinion, are the heart and soul of the industry. They’re people who make the commitment to produce these events. They’re stepping up to the plate and taking all the risk. I always say that the genius is seeing it in the seed. Someone has to have the vision first, then they have to have the guts to commit to it. And then they have to go shop it around, whether that means sponsorship or getting resources or permissions. You have to make all that happen before registrant No. 1 signs up. And then you’ve got to recruit all of these people, and hopefully you can get enough of them. Then you have to get another set of people who are willing to volunteer and make sure people go the right way on the course and can get their water at the aid stations. That’s all on the shoulders of the race director or the race management group. So that’s a lot of pressure and a lot of work.

Do you think most runners understand or appreciate what it takes to be a race director? 

I think people appreciate it, but I don’t think they have a real good understanding about the magnitude of what goes into it, especially for a first-time event. No one knows from nothing. You’re guessing. “How many are going to run?” I don’t know. “How many are you planning for?” I’m planning for 1,000. “What if 5,000 show up?” Good question. “What if 100 people show up?” Good question. Somebody’s taking a huge risk. But that’s why you need to be passionate about it. There have to be other motives, and for me, it’s just knowing at the end of the day I’ve helped change lives. That makes me feel good. I know I’ve made an impact.

What are the ways race organizing has changed?

The industry of mass participation races now has three main disciplines: technology, security and medical resources.

Technology: Nowadays people aren’t comparing races for the courses or the water stations or course directional signs, it’s about who has the most toys, whether it’s some kind of video streaming mechanism or whether it’s instantaneous results that are texted to you right away to tracking. Technology has taken over, and those of us who are old-school race directors are clueless to what is available out there. So you have to bring onto your team those who are tech savvy and experienced in that world because it’s so important to what we do now, even though it didn’t exist 15 years ago.

Security: Obviously, given what happened in Boston in 2013 and now what’s going on around the world, your race is not really your race anymore. It’s in the hands of public safety to determine what is needed and necessary to create a safe environment, whether you can pay for it or not or whether you think you need that much security. You don’t have much of a choice. You want to be able to create an event that’s as safe as possible, but it’s certainly making things extremely complicated now. It’s very complex. It’s not just a road race any more, and that’s taken a little bit of the fun out of it, but you have to put it in perspective. You have a responsibility to do all that can be done to keep it safe.

Medical resources: It’s so great that the walls of intimidation have crumbled and so many people are running races and believing in themselves and can do this. God bless them, we’re all for that kind of inclusion! But at the same time, we all recognize that some people probably didn’t do enough to work to get there, and so they get out there and get into a little trouble and they can become our problem as much as they become their own problem. So we have to be prepared to be able to deal with the volume of a variety of casualties that can occur. Ramping up medical coverage and doing education seminars so people understand what they’re getting themselves into, what they need to do to properly train and earn the right to do these things and the degree of difficulty they’ll be facing are all very important parts of what we do.

How have you remained so fit and so healthy through the years?

We were really hammering ourselves as runners in the late 1970s, early 1980s, but when you look at it now, 90 percent of those guys are gone. They’re not running anymore. They’ve got artificial hips, knees … whatever. We were all asking ourselves back then, “What is this kind of training going to do to us later in life?” The Johnny Kelleys of the world never did that kind of stuff. So it was a different world. “What’s the long-term effect of this?” I think you’re seeing it, in that a lot of those people aren’t running anymore. I keep saying to myself, knock on wood, that I should be thankful that I can still put one foot in front of the other. I think what saved me is that I morphed from being just a runner to being a triathlete. I spread my thirst and hunger for working out over different disciplines, whereas those guys were banging away on the track and doing the long runs, and I think today you’re seeing the results of that. Billy (Rodgers) is still running a little and Joanie (Samuelson) is a phenomenon, but not many of those other runners are still running.

RELATED: The Faces of Boston 2015

You’re still a competitive age-group runner and triathlete. What do you have planned for 2016?

I ran four half marathons and two marathons in six weeks [as of Dec. 1]. I think I’m done until Disney’s Dopey Challenge in mid-January. I’ll regroup a bit and see what kind of fitness I have. I don’t want to do it unless I’m competitive and ready for it. It’s nice not always have something hovering over you. Sometimes it’s kind of nice just to go out and train just for the sake of training as opposed to having to training for something specific. I’m going to start looking at the calendar and start deciding where I want to race in 2016. I might have one more Ironman in me, but I might wait until I’m closer to 65 for that. I keep asking Joanie Samuelson when she’s going to do one with me.

Based on your passion for endurance sports, do you have the best job in the world?

People always ask what I do for work, but I say “I don’t work.” When you think of work, you think of “9 to 5 to stay alive” and what you do for the paycheck but probably not something you would do if you were independently wealthy and didn’t have to do it. For me, if I had no financial concerns, I honestly would still want to be doing what I’m doing. Maybe not as much, but I’d still would want to be doing some of it because it’s in my DNA.