As the Boston Marathon race director since the 1980s, Dave McGillivray has put a powerful microscope on motivation.
Each year, after his race duties are over and while the 30,000 runners who crossed the finish line celebrate their victories, McGillivray laces up his shoes and runs the historic Boston course with 3-4 friends; taking in the quiet streets, soaking in any lingering emotions from the pavement that day, and thinking about the athlete stories that he has seen and heard.
The 61-year-old Massachusetts native has traveled his fair share of miles, most of which with philanthropy in mind, long before it was common to run for children with life-threatening illnesses or for breast cancer research.
With a passion for putting on events and helping others, McGillivray is a pioneer and has done what many considered impossible at one time — he turned endurance events into big business and has helped millions discover their potential along the way.
A First: Running for a Cause
McGillivray turned to running as a means to an end. He always wanted to be an athlete, but his small stature didn’t exactly help on the football field or basketball court. He ran in order to make himself the best conditioned athlete so that coaches took him seriously. That only worked for so long, and after getting cut from team sports, McGillivray turned to track and cross-country in high school.
His interest and aptitude for distance running continued to develop through college and into his work life. After simply looking out his office window one day, he decided to see just how far he could run.
In 1978, McGillivray ran from Medford, Oregon to Medford, Massachusetts, and raised thousands of dollars for The Jimmy Fund and Dana-Farbar Cancer Institute.
“I was working at the John Hancock building; looked out the window and saw a sign in Fenway Park that said, ‘Help Make a Dream Come True. Support the Jimmy Fund,’ McGillivray said. “I picked up the phone and called them and then went to their clinic and saw the kids. I knew what I was about to do was no where as difficult as what those kids were going through.”
McGillivray finished his 3,452-mile run to a standing ovation in Fenway Park.
“Running for a charity was virtually non-existent at the time,” McGillivray said. “I was told by Runner’s World that was probably one of the first times that someone combined running with fundraising for cancer research.”
Getting Off the Couch
After that, McGillivray opened his own running clothing store in Medford, Mass, and started putting on some events to promote the store.
“I realized I liked putting on events more than putting shoes on people’s feet,” McGillivray said.
He sold the store and in 1981, developed DMSE, Inc., a running event business that has helped organize more than 900 mass participatory events since its inception.
“When I started the business, people would say, ‘You really think you’re going to earn money putting on road races?'” McGillivray said. “I said, ‘I’m not putting on road races. That’s a means to an end, but it’s the end result that I’m after. I’m after people feeling good about themselves.'”
Meanwhile, McGillivray continued with his own legendary endurance events for charity. He ran the Boston Marathon blindfolded in 1982, and raised $10,000 for a center that helps those who are visually impaired; he ran from Florida to Boston for the Jimmy Fund and met President Jimmy Carter at the White House along the way; he ran 120 miles in 24 hours through 31 cities in Massachusetts, and he ran up the Empire State Building in 13 minutes, 27 seconds.
With McGillivray and others tackling these seemingly impossible challenges, he noticed a big shift in the industry — more people started participating thanks to the philanthropic intention.
“Eventually, the walls of intimidation in our business started to collapse,” McGillivray said. “People starting believing in themselves a little bit more than they had before, saying, ‘Maybe I can enter this race and participate.’ A lot of people’s way of doing that and not feeling out of place was to combine it with some sort of giving back. People have a greater purpose now for wanting to participate other than just going out there to run and compete and get a time and a place. Now, it seems like that concept has almost become more the norm than the competitive side of the business.”
Stoking the Fire
McGillivray is an athlete, philanthropist, and race director, but he could also hang a shingle as a psychologist. He doesn’t just organize one of the most iconic races of all-time. He provides people with an opportunity to challenge themselves, and in turn, makes them feel good about themselves.
Being every bit qualified, McGillivray has given over 1,900 motivational speeches in his lifetime. In each one, he asks, “Who has run a marathon before?” In unison, multiple hands raise. Then he asks, “Who has not run a marathon, but would like to?” Again, more hands go up. He selects a person who would like to notch those 26.2 miles, brings him or her up on stage, places a personal medal around the dreamer’s neck, and asks the audience to give a rousing cheer.
“Then I say, ‘How did that make you feel, other than embarrassed?’ They say, ‘That felt really good.’ Then I tell them that they can earn that feeling by making a commitment to prepare,” McGillivray said. “I say, ‘You’re on your own now. And I know you will do it, and when you do, you’ll mail that medal back to me, okay? Deal?’ I’ve given out about 400 of these medals, and I’ve got about 350 of them back. A lot of these people just need a little push. They’re in their own mind, and they can’t get over that hump.”
McGillivray is all about people setting goals, working hard, and participating to the best of their abilities.
Self Care is the Best Care
It turns out that like most areas in life, fitness needs a healthy balance, too.
Despite exercising nearly every day for years, McGillivray had his own scare in October of 2013 when struggling to breathe on his runs. His doctor found that he had severe artery and vein blockage (70% in one and 40-50% in the others) in his heart.
Have I followed the best nutrition plan all my life? Hardly. A few of my mottos have been, “anything and everything but in moderation” and “sleep is over rated.”
I realized for the first time in my life that these just might be flawed statements. I always rationalized that whatever I ate, I burnt off. However, it’s like putting a bad grade of gas in your car. The car will still run, but your engine will “gunk up” in no time. (Down the Backstretch)
Too risky to operate, doctors told McGillivray to alter his diet. In doing so, he made his heart healthier and and dropped 27 pounds.
“You’ve got to take care of yourself. Many years ago, exercising was thought of as being selfish because you were leaving your family or work,” McGillivray said. “I think people have realized that by doing that, you create a situation where down the road, you don’t have to burden other people to take care of you because you have done it all your life. You also put yourself in the position where you’re able to help other people because you’re strong mentally, emotionally, and physically.”
A Man for Others
The father of five runs his age on his birthday every year.
“The older I get, the further I’ve got to run,” McGillivray said. “It doesn’t make any sense. That’s why I set that goal.”
Runner’s World named McGillivray one of the ’50 Most Influential People in Running” in their October issue.
“I don’t set out to be an inspiring person. I try to lead by example more than anything,” McGillivray said. ” I’m looking to motivate other people to believe in themselves. I just developed skills that I’m passionate about, and hoped they would catch on, and evidently they have.”
And that passion runs deep.
“When people say, ‘What do you do for work?’ I say, ‘I don’t work. I raise people’s self esteem and confidence.’ That’s what I do. That’s why I keep doing it and that’s why it’s not work.”
He does what he loves, and loves what he does — an accomplishment worthy of a medal.