This May, multisport will return to Temecula’s Vail Lake Resort—a privately-owned ranch about 50 miles east of San Diego—which used to host an XTERRA race a few years back. Ethos, one of the newest events companies on the scene, has two weekend-long endurance festivals planned for late May and late September, each accompanied by live music and a unique blend of endurance challenges.
But Ethos’ new Wildflower-esque race plans aren’t all it has going for it. The man behind the events operations, headed by his company DMSE Sports, is none other than Dave McGillivray, race director of today’s Boston Marathon. We caught up with the man who’s not only a legend in running but in triathlon as well (he’s an eight-time finisher of the Ironman World Championships in Hawaii and a member of the USAT Hall of Fame), to find out what keeps him motivated as one of the busiest race directors on the circuit. From running across the U.S. jo benefit the Jimmy Fund and Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in 1978 to directing the Boston Marathon for 25 years, McGillivray has helped organize more than 900 mass participatory events since founding DMSE, Inc. in 1981—all while raising millions for causes he cares about.
LAVA: How long have you been the Boston Marathon race director?
DAVE MCGILLIVRAY: I first started off as what they call the technical director, and then morphed into the title of race director, but the job responsibility has never really changed. This is my 25th year. I’m just old really, I guess, is really what that all adds up to! I’ve been around for awhile doing these things. I started off way back when, in the 70s. I started running, and then running marathons, then doing all these crazy events—like running across the country coast to coast—and and then I started doing the Ironman in Hawaii. I eventually decided to start my own event managament company, which I’ve been doing for about 30 years now. We now have about 900 events all over the country, so here we are, still kicking.
What piqued your interest in triathlon—namely, the Hawaii Ironman—in the first place?
After I’d run across the U.S. in 1978, I read an article in Sports Illustrated about the Hawaii Ironman. As I read it thought “that’s my next goal.” But I really didn’t know how to swim, and I didn’t own a bike, but I made the commitment and went over there in 1980 when the race was on the isalnd of Oahu. I came back and decided that was a lot of fun and maybe I could bring triathlon to the East Coast of America. Back when I was doing it in the ’80s there was only Hawaii and maybe one or two others in the world. I started putting on an iron-distance race on on Cape Cod, so people started coming to my race if they didn’t get into Hawaii.
So your participation in triathlon led you into the events business.
Yes, one thing led to another and now I’ve directed about 150 races, from the Goodwill Games to World Cups. The last time I directed triathlon was probably about three years ago or so. The business started turning to more of a focus on running and charity walks and the like. I had to look at it from not just a passion but a business perspective. When you can attract five, ten, 20 thousand people to run a 5K road race, versus long-course triathlon with 500 people, well, you don’t have to be a brain surgeon to do the math.
That’s when I got this phone call from Mike O’Neil (owner and producer of the Ethos events). He told me he was starting this new project and wondered if we’d be interested. I asked him what it was and he said triathlon, and at first I was like “Well, I’m not too sure I want to jump back in.” Last year I was voted into the Triathlon Hall of Fame and, well, I know I’ve done a few things in this sport but I also felt a sense of guilt because I hadn’t done anything in the last few years. I thought, “Why am I standing here with Dave Scott and people like that?” I thought if the right opportunity presented itself I might get involved again in a small way. I haven’t done a lot of events in California, and I thought it wasn’t a bad place to be. Plus, I thought that having it all on private property might take the edge off a little in that you don’t have to get a lot of permits. Also knowing that Jarrod Shoemaker would be involved, who’s a friend, I just thought it was a good opportunity. All the stars seemed to align: the right time of year, location, venue, and with the right people involved.
How are things progressing for the inaugural year of Ethos?
I’ve always said there’s anumber of things that determine the success of an event. One is the management, two is the marketing, three is getting permission to conduct it, and four is lead time. We had two of the four (Mike on the marketing side and myself in the management) so we needed to focus on whether we had enough time, and whether we could get permission. Initially we thought the permission was a slam-dunk, but then in looking at the venue, we knew it would be tough to put on a 25-mile cycle event just on this property. As we went through the process, Mike made the deicison to hold off on the triathlon idea until September, and go with something we can do totally on this property, which is when he came up with the swim-run-swim-run plan—what we’re calling a Grand Prix.
How is this concept unique to what you’ve been doing thus far in the race scene?
Definitely the combination on the same weekend of a Grand Prix event with a race obstacle course (in our case, designed by former Navy Seals). There are some options here for enduracne athletes to compete against one another, and I think this is what we’re seeing in the industry today. The events that seem to be taking off right out of the box are the real unique, creative, never-seen-before kind of events. You put on another road race or triathlon—there are a gazillion of them—and yours has to be really special to draw people to a first-time event. But when you come up with something different, people are curious. That’s sort of what’s happening with all these challenge races and mud runs and all of that. A lot of times these things are social activities as much as sporting events, and our idea is to make this a bit of a music festival. There’s something more for people to focus on and commit to.
What are people are looking for in a race experience and what is most important to deliver?
Deliver what you promise is number one. Whatever the distance you advertised, that’s what it should be. People don’t want long lines, and they don’t want short or long courses. They want all the amenities, they want it to be safe, and they want it to be exciting. And I think generally speaking they want it to be challenging. You can only make the first impression once, so you want to be pretty confident that participants are going to have a good experience. I try to be conservative in what I say and what I promise early on in the process, because it’s a learning experience for everyone involved.
There are so many challenge races out there now on the border of being a little bit risky, climbing around obstacles or jumping through fires. I don’t know that that’s what Ethos is all about. I think the idea is to make it very competitive for endurance athletes, but the focus is safety. There will be some of that obstacle challenge to it, but not to the point where they’ll be carting people away with broken ankles or burnt toes or whatever. But a lot of people like that. These things are selling out at record pace so God bless all of them for wanting to do these things! It’s probably not the direction I personally would take with it but there’s a market for it though, so you might as well go in that direction.
Onto Boston! Since becoming the director, you’ve continued to run the course yourself after the race. Will you do so again this year?
I’d run the marathon for 15 years before I was offered the job, and I just decided it’s a thrill to run in it, it must be at least equally thrilling to direct it. The first year on the job I was watching everyone cross the finish line and there was a sense of excitement and euphoria of having helped manage this thing, but there was also this hollow feeling that I hadn’t run it. So I tapped a state trooper on the shoulder and asked if he could do me a favor and drive me out to the start. He asked me if I’d forgotten something, and I said yes, I forgot to run. He drove me out there at eight o’clock at night and I just ran the whole thing by myself, finishing at 11. It became a tradition, and this will be my 40th consecutive running—theoretically—of the race. The race starts at 10, and I’ll be in the lead vehicle, then I’ll get to the finish and make sure everything is OK. After a certain point in time I’ll just get driven back to the start and start running. Everyone’s in the barrooms and restaurants and I’m there, running through town.
Who are your picks for the men’s and women’s winners?
It’s so difficult, because on paper somebody might have a personal best, but how do you know what kind of shape they’re in on that particular day? I suppose defending champs are usually favorites, by virtue of the fact that they must’ve figured it out. They know the course, so they know how to win. The defending champ on the men’s side had a world best here last year (2:03:02), so one has to think if nobody on Planet Earth has ever run faster than him, how can you not pick him again? So I’d think that those two, Caroline Kilel and Geoffrey Mutai from Kenya would be the odds to win again.