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Before there was “Forrest Gump,” there was Dave McGillivray.
Gump, the fictitious simpleton played by Tom Hanks in the 1994 Oscar-winning film, trotted across the U.S. because he “just felt like running.”
McGillivray did the same, but with a singular purpose: Forty years ago this month, he completed his own cross-country running odyssey from Medford, Oregon, to his hometown of Medford, Massachusetts, to benefit the Jimmy Fund and its fight against cancer.
On Thursday, McGillivray — now race director of the Boston Marathon — will dash into Boston’s Fenway Park, re-enacting the last leg of his 80-day run in 1978. Hundreds of people since have matched or exceeded that feat, but McGillivray was one of the first.
“Running into Fenway Park after running 3,452 miles (5,555 kilometers) across America for the Jimmy Fund remains the absolute highlight of my athletic career,” he said. “It proved that anything is possible and gave me the confidence to continue to set goals in my life, not limits.”
Four-time Boston Marathon winner Bill Rodgers and former Boston Police Commissioner William Evans will accompany McGillivray to Fenway, where he’ll run to home plate just before the Red Sox take the field to wrap up a four-game series against the Cleveland Indians.
As he did in 1978, McGillivray is raising money for the Jimmy Fund, which supports cancer care and research for adults and children at Boston’s Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. Next year, he’s releasing a children’s book, “The Home Run,” about the cross-country trek, with proceeds to benefit the Jimmy Fund.
“People like Dave make Dana-Farber’s strides into patient care and research possible,” said Zack Blackburn, assistant vice president of the Boston Marathon Jimmy Fund Walk. “We simply can’t run our operations without it.”
McGillivray was a 23-year-old recent Merrimack College graduate when he began his slog on June 11, 1978, after a ceremonial start at a Red Sox-Mariners game at Seattle’s Kingdome.
Averaging 45 miles (72 kilometers) a day, it took him through the Nevada desert, the Rocky Mountains and the cornfields of Iowa en route back to Massachusetts on Aug. 29, 1978.
The notes McGillivray scribbled during his adventure read like postcards from the edge of the world.
“Day 3: Stayed the night at the base of a mountain — was afraid the bears were going to attack us!”
“Day 19: We are 50 miles from the nearest town, so have to stay in the desert for the evening.”
“Day 28: Finding lots of coins on side of roads. A lot of broken cassettes and 8-tracks on the road, also.”
“Day 39: The grasshoppers are unbelievable — I think I’ve stepped on and killed thousands.”
“Day 60: I went out in my (underpants) and took a shower in the rain. People thought I was NUTS — I am!”
“Day 76: Tomorrow I hit 3,000 miles!!! And, I haven’t visited the mental institution yet!”
McGillivray, who wore little more than short shorts and a Tom Selleck moustache on his adventure, jokes he only survived because “I was 23 years old and very naive.”
“There were no computers, no cellphones, no emails, no texting, no GPS, no nothing,” he recalls.