Imagine if you had the responsibility of helping to produce the world's oldest annual and most notable marathon. In Boston of all places. On the city's biggest holiday (well maybe second behind the Brady's birthday). It's pretty mind-blowing to think about the legacy that goes along with the Race Director role of The Boston Marathon. This job is not just about putting on a flawless event, it's about showcasing and celebrating a region each year. Annnd... if I was really a Boston homer, I'd say the entire US of A.
The reality of the role and the person that fills this role, is that they not only need to represent the sport, they need to represent the city and all of the core values that the people of Boston subscribe to.
LET'S SET THE SCENE
Rather than go through a lifetime of achievements (which would be pretty damn awesome in and of itself - the guy ran across the country for charity, for heaven's sake), my goal was to dig into his production experience and understand how he and his team continue to execute at such a high level.
So... I thought the best way to do that was to hit on the following:
- What keeps him motivated after 35 years in the business (literally the guy doesn't sleep)?
- Why moving cones and porta-johns is so important to millions of people each year?
- How he has coped with an influx of technology in the sport?
- What he sees as some of the challenges the marathon industry will face in the next 10 years?
- His advice to his successor and his younger self.
- And a whole lot of inspiration (there's some solid tweets in here).
You ready to do this Dave.
Let's do it.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Medford. But, we affectionately call it Meffa, Ma. Which is about seven miles north of Boston.
Big family, small family?
Well, big family but we all were small! I was the youngest of five.
What was the 15 year old Dave like?
I wanted to be an athlete. I was vertically challenged, so I was always the last one cut or the last one picked when I went out for the teams, That's why I wrote the book called, "The Last Pick".
After a few drinks how would your friends describe you?
Probably anal. Obsessive about setting goals and achieving them. Let me put it to you this way, I believe sleep is overrated. It’s a waste of time. So they poke fun at me because I'm always awake, working on something and trying to overcome some challenge.
If you could work on any event in the world, and it can't be yours, what would it be and what would you change about it?
I'm still looking to see what else might be out there to challenge me. So, it would have to be a really high profile event. When Boston was in the running for the Olympic Games, 2024, that was it right there for me. That would have been the culmination of everything. Unfortunately, it wasn't meant to be.
If you weren't producing events, what do you think you'd be doing?
I don't know. I've been doing this for so long, that without it I’d probably be a lost soul. I honestly have never given it much thought. I love what I do so much that, the worst day of the week for me is Friday when everyone takes off.
We all have to earn a living, but I'd be doing some of this even if it wasn't my job. I guess I wish that everyone could be in a similar situation. The world would be a better place if they were.
Not that I couldn't do other things, but I don't know what they would be, and I don't think that I would ever be faced with that conundrum because even if no one hires me anymore to manage their races, I'd just make them up myself. I'd just create new ones, right?
I'm always fascinated with that kind of mindset. Clearly you're doing what you love, but I'm curious if you've always been as confident in this career path as you are now.
Yeah, the feeling definitely ebbs and flows. There's highs and lows and significant challenges. I mean, I have a button in my office that says, "My job is secure, no one else wants it." I'm jumping into dumpsters and putting out road cones and throwing barricades around. It isn't like I'm just pointing all the time necessarily. I don't do as much of that anymore as I used to, but again, for me, people used to say, "What do you do for a living?"
And I would mumble, "eargh... I'm a Race Director." They'd say, "What's that?"
It was almost embarrassing. No one knew what that was, what do race directors do? Chalk mark on the road? Yell, 'Go!'?" What the heck is that?
But now, when people ask me what I do for a living I say, "I help to raise the level of self-esteem and self-confidence of tens of thousands of people in America."
Now that sounds like a pretty good gig my friend.
Yes it is.
The fact of the matter is that without these events, people wouldn't have a magnet, or a target. They'd be left on their own to motivate themselves, to get out of bed and get out on the road. By having these events it gives them something to shoot for.
Obviously I'm not a rocket scientist or a technological expert, but I do feel that what we do has impacted the world. For me, it's all about giving people confidence and self-esteem, so they can do other things in life that they never thought they could do before. It isn't just about health and fitness, it's emotional and mental, there's so much to this. I feel like we are making a huge difference in peoples' lives by producing these events. God bless all of the race directors and race management folks in this country! It's a group I am proud to say I am apart of.
Dave riding the lead scooter shouting words of encouragement to Adrianne Haslet, on of the bombin survivors participating in her first marathon, the 2016 Boston Marathon.
When did you really start getting serious about producing events?
I ran across the United States in 1978 for charity (the Jimmy Fund of Boston). I ran from Medford, Oregon to Medford, Massachusetts (Medford to Medford) averaging between 45-50 miles a day for 80 days.
My boss at the time said that he wanted me back right away, after I had taken three months off to run across the continent and raise money for children with cancer. I said, "Well, if I could take a few days to recover, that would be great." Three or four days later I got a termination letter.
It was the best thing that ever happened to me in my business career.
So, I opened up a running store, affectionately called Dave McGillivray Running and Sport Center in my hometown. I started putting on some races to promote the store. Then I realized I liked putting on events more than shoes on people's feet. This led to a job with Saucony Running Shoes as director of promotions. Luckily I realized early on that instead of being okay at a lot of things, why not be really good at one thing. So, I left my job at Saucony, sold my running store, and started focusing on the event management business.
What an incredible series of circumstances and decisions.
It really was and I am so thankful. Things really do happen for a reason... if you believe.
So if you cloned yourself and the Boston Marathon hired Dave McGillivray number two to analyze its entire operation, what do you think would be areas Dave Number Two would come back and say, "We need to work on these things."?
There's two entities that I work with, there's my company DMSE and there's the Boston Marathon. I'll speak to my company first. When I first started the company I owned everything I managed, because there were hardly any events out there back then, back in the late 70's and early 80's. We were a full service bank, we did everything, marketing and PR and management and everything. Then after about 15, 20 years of that, I just said, "You know, I know what we are good at and I know what we are passionate about and that's operations, so I want to focus on that."
We've gotten away from those other areas. And now DMSE is severely deficient in the social media side, the marketing side, and the technological side. So, if I had a second Dave McGillivray I would pick somebody who was well versed in those disciplines to sort of help us become a little bit more well-rounded than just operational and logistical experts.
With regard to Boston Marathon, that's a tough one. I did a survey a couple of weeks ago of our organizing committee of about 100 people and asked them to tell me how long they've been involved with the Boston Marathon. About 40 people have been involved for 20 years or more; 30 people 30 years or more; 10 people 40 years or more and for one person, this is his 51st year involved with the race.
I looked at that and I said, "Well, that's both good and bad." Good in the sense that there's no other institution or event on the planet that has this kind of collective expertise, but on the flip side it just shows you that succession planning is paramount. Obviously when people start to decide to move on you have to replace them. How do you replace somebody who's been doing something for 30 years with someone else that steps right in? How are you going to be able to do it at that same level? That's our current focus.
You're obviously around a ton of events and are working on a number of different events. What are three common production or operation mistakes you typically see with other events?
Everything has to be looked at in perspective.
So, if you're observing or you're critiquing an event you have to first look behind the curtain and say, "Okay, what are we dealing with here?". Because you can't expect a race that has 10 volunteers managing it to rise to the level of the Boston Marathon that has 25 employees and 100 members of the organizing committee and 10,000 volunteers and sponsorship and everything else.
With that being said, one of the most common mistakes or areas that aren't covered as well as I think should be, is course management. The fact that in some races runners go the wrong way or the fact that some races are longer than advertised, or shorter than advertised. Somebody wasn't paying attention.
Another motto of mine is, I don't want to put out fires, I want to prevent them. There's a big difference between the two. If you're putting out fires, you might get credit as a hero because you came along and something was ablaze, and you put it out. But, another other part of me says, "Okay, why did that fire start to begin with?" Maybe the person who put it out, is the person responsible for it happening.
It's all the stuff that goes on behind the scenes, and so many of these things can be prevented, but people either don't have the time, the resources, or the money to be able to do it right.
Don't forget manning the beer garden Dave.
Hah. Although I don't drink anymore, even I know you can't let the beer sit too long :)
In 10 years, what do you think will be the biggest accomplishment for the marathon industry?
In terms of industry accomplishments, I would say Roger Bannister breaking the 4 minute mile was one of the most significant events in our past. That brought a lot of attention to the sport. Same thing can be said for the 2 hour barrier for the marathon.
I believe anything is possible but it has to be under the right conditions. Under normal circumstances for marathons in Boston, Berlin, Chicago, London or Tokyo I don't think so. It has to be staged with people whose only goal is to break the 2 hour barrier and not just win the race. That would be the next eye catcher for this sport.
What is your biggest concern for the marathon industry 10 years from now?
It seems that races are currently decreasing in size versus growing, probably because there are so many options now. And sponsorship is a big factor, because with more races the money is thinning out. Future participant numbers are also a concern because I'm not sure where the millennial sector is headed.
Those two factors are the major sources of revenue. We need both to survive and we can't do that with just one. So those are my biggest concern for the road racing industry.
Given that you've been around the industry for so long, You've gotten to see the initial impact technology has had and is having today. What has your learning curve been like with technology and how are you dealing with it?
In all honesty, I'm just overwhelmed at times. I can't keep up with it. I'm old school and for these young kids who grew up with all this, it's second nature. But for this older generation, who have been around the sport for so long, we're having a little difficulty adapting and accepting. However, if we don't we're going to be left on the curb.
My whole M.O. in that area is to surround myself with the right people. I may not need to know exactly what's under the hood and how the entire engine works, I just need to be able to drive the car. So I have to have that person next to me who does know how the engine works, in case it breaks down or if I want things to work more efficiently or reach my goals.
You’ve been producing races for years now. What keeps the adrenaline pumping?
For Boston, I think it's the obligation that we have to perform for our participants. The bar is so high and the expectation is so great here we really have to perform. That's what keeps me going, I like that. That's the adrenaline. I like the pressure and have always felt that that pressure is a privilege.
What advice would you give 22 year old Dave just starting out in this business?
First of all, have realistic expectations and be patient. Patience is a virtue. People have to understand it takes time to percolate and to mature. A lot of times, people think that the initial investment should produce immediate dividends. They typically don't until year two, three, four, five.
Also I always say, "Surround yourself with good people." It's tough to do it alone. A lot of times people try to convince you that it's impossible, you can't really do that, or you shouldn't try. I've always said those who say it cannot be done, should not interrupt those who are doing it.
Whenever the day comes when you pass the torch to your successor (even if it's 30 years from now) as the Director of the Boston Marathon, what advice will you give him or her?
Good question…”well, I have always said I, like so many others at the BAA involved, are simply caretakers of this venerable event. It was here long before us and will be around long after we have moved on. We are charged to take good care of it for a while. The staff and team at the BAA is the very best in the industry. I am just a “conductor” more than a “director” – it’s the BAA team that deserves all the credit. After all the staff at the BAA handles the all of the administrative and marketing aspects of the race such as registration, qualification, information technology, marketing, contracting with sponsors, contracting with suppliers, timing & scoring, hordes of media, special events, permitting, financing, dealing with invited athletes (with Hancock, of course), dealing with national and international bodies, drug testing, etc.
I try to live by this quote: “there are two kinds of people - those who do the work and those who take the credit. Try to be in the first group, as there is much less competition there.” So my advice to the next race director is to embrace this ideal and to truly appreciate the importance and significance of this race to so many runners and supporters from around the globe.”
Always put a pair of running shoes in your car so that you're never stranded. I always facetiously say, wherever my car breaks down in this country I'll be able to run home.
I truly believe that the worst injustice we could ever do to ourselves is to underestimate our own ability. So many times people have a tendency to be a little bit focused on their own self-pity, rather than appreciating what they do have. It's all relative. They don't have enough motivation.
I was driving down the road a few months ago and I saw a billboard and there was one word on the billboard. The word was 'ACCOMPLISHER'. Right away it was like an epiphany. I said, "Wow. That's it! There it is, right on the billboard! That's what I want to be. I want to be an ACCOMPLISHER.” I hope everyone (especially in this industry) feels that way. If they do, imagine the millions of lives that would be positively impacted.
And, that's the goal right?