The Conductor: Dave McGillivray

He’s run over 150,000 miles, completed eight IRONMAN triathlons and once finished the Boston Marathon blindfolded for charity. Dave McGillivray may be one of the most passionate athletes in any sport.

“People used to ask me what I do and I would say ‘I’m a race director,’” tells Dave McGillivray, race director for the Boston Marathon. ‘You’re a race director?’ ‘I’m a race director.’ ‘You mean you mark chalk on the road and say, ‘Ready, set, go!’’’

He grins, leaning forward in his chair which is positioned next to the One City Marathon meter board, the race he was in town to help direct, on March 15, 2015 

“Now I tell people that I help raise the level of self-confidence and self-esteem in tens of thousands of people in America,” he says, elevating his voice. And there’s no confusion about that.


From Last to First

Prior to becoming an inspirational endurance athlete, McGillivray was a small kid from Boston. Growing up in Red Sox, Celtics, Bruins and Patriots country, he loved to compete in sports, but was often chosen last by his peers. It hurt. In his book, “The Last Pick: The Boston Marathon Race Director’s Road to Success,” McGillivray recounts being 11 years old and watching his peers grow taller and while the increased height put physical distance between them, it also created emotional distance. Bitterness. The years passed and he hungered to become an athlete, but was met with the chilling sting of disappointment when he was cut after trying out for baseball and basketball. He finally found a sport where height didn’t matter—soccer. And he made the team.

Joe Orpin, the high school cross-country coach, noticed one day that McGillivray was outrunning his teammates during soccer practice. Though apprehensive at first when Orpin suggested that he run cross-country, he eventually conceded and unbeknownst to him, found his sport.

McGillivray started to run and hasn’t stopped since. He’s logged 137 marathons, run across the United States, finished eight IRONMAN triathlons, and has run up and down the entire East Coast. And that’s just scratching the surface of his achievements.


The Making of Marathons

Last month, McGillivray was in Newport News, Virginia, to run in the One City Marathon, a race he helped to direct. At the request of Newport News city manager Jim Bourey, the two met in Williamsburg, Virginia, to kick around a race idea of Bourey’s that would become the One City Marathon, the first race of its magnitude in Newport News. 

“The town manager wanted to create a race in Newport News. I met him in Williamsburg and we decided to do this race,” says McGillivray whose company, Dave McGillivray Sports Enterprises, has produced over 1,000 races. The One City Marathon is one of 32 events the company is helping with in 2015. “I’ve been doing this for 35 years. This was the career path I wanted.”

This wasn’t the first time he was summoned to Williamsburg to talk about a race, though. The late Walter Segaloff, who founded An Achievable Dream Academy, worked with McGillivray to start the Run for the Dream, now in its fourth year.

“It’s like giving birth. What’s cool about creating a new event is you can let your creative juices run wild. You have to think about objectives and goals. Today there are such a proliferation of events,” he says.

“But it has to be unique. What makes it different from everyone else’s [event]? The cause; is there a unique cause? Community goodwill; getting the community involved so they can take ownership. Health benefits; the essence of what we do is help people set goals and not limits and raising their level of self esteem and confidence. There are tremendous benefits to events like this.”

Unlike planning smaller events that may disrupt a smaller radius of a city, like the Run for the Dream, a marathon is highly disruptive. This is why advanced planning in needed. McGillivray says that to plan the Boston Marathon, he spends 15 months figuring out how things will come together.

“First it’s conceptualization. What is it? Where is it? Once you have a concept, then course design is a challenge. A marathon, 26.2 miles, has a significant impact [on a city]. Once you design it, you have to get permission to hold it. One of the beauties of [the One City Marathon] is that it’s the brainchild of the town manager. So if you have the town manager, that aspect of permission gets resolved quickly. Then it’s on to sponsorship and financial support. Marathons can cost money. Then it’s all the marketing and promotion, recruiting participants and then the volunteers. It’s labor intensive,” he emphasizes, but smiles. “But I help make a lot of dreams come true.”

He credits his ability to organize, mobilize and motivate people to the success of the events he’s helped to direct. 

“My strength is surrounding myself with experienced, quality people. You have to know what you need, slot the right people, let them take ownership of their jobs, and you have to keep people motivated, getting along and inspired. And then it all comes together harmoniously. Even if I didn’t show up on event day, if I did my job right, no one would miss me,” McGillivray adds.


The Infectious Nature of Running

McGillivray believes that anyone can run a marathon. His philosophy about running runs counterculture to what most people think about running. We typically see it as a process of signing up, training, running the event and winning the medal, with the latter being the reward. Not McGillivray.

“The toughest part about the concept of running a marathon is signing the commitment. I look at these races as goals. It’s not as much about getting to the finish line. It’s about getting to the starting line,” he says, leaning forward in his chair pressing his palms together. “To get there, you have to do the work. It’s almost like the race is the reward. The training is the work. The real reward is the residual benefits of doing it. Nothing is more important than your health—mentally, emotionally, physically, spiritually.

“Once you do one [marathon], it’s infectious. It becomes a lifestyle. Once you taste it, it’s life-changing.”


Walking Tall

Comedian Steve Martin said, “Be so good they can’t ignore you.” McGillivray grew up short statured was consistently the last pick on the playground, was cut from his favorite sports over and again, and didn’t consider runners athletes. Now he has become one of the most celebrated runners in the country. He’s an IRONMAN. He directs the most coveted race in the world, has directed U.S. Olympic trials and was inducted in the Running USA Hall of Fame in 2005 and the USA Triathlons Hall of Fame in 2011. McGillivray proved that becoming an athlete is about heart and not height. 

“People tell me, ‘Oh, I can’t run a marathon’ and I tell them, ‘If you want to then you can.’ I started running because no one could cut you, you just run…and I’m always challenging myself. My best accomplishment is my next one. There is always something to go after. You’re always motivated, always psyched.

“The benefits [to running] are so great. Why doesn’t everyone want to do this?”