As he stood at the starting line of the Boston Marathon in Hopkinton April 15, race director Dave McGillivray received news of the bombings on Boylston Street. He was moments away from setting out on the historic 26.2-mile course, which he runs every year, hours after the final wave of runners has departed.
At first, there was disbelief. McGillivray asked, “Is this credible information?”
Then, there was shock. He wondered, “Can this really be happening?”
McGillivray thought about his wife and two children, cheering runners from the grandstands next to the finish line. He had left them there less than an hour earlier.
McGillivray jumped into a car and raced back to Boston, trying to contact his family along the way. He did, and learned his wife and children were safe. Then he shifted from nervous husband and father back to race director.
“I thought, ‘How can I help?’” said McGillivray, who has directed the past 26 Boston Marathons. “It was getting back to knowing you need to have your game face on.”
Speaking publicly Wednesday for the first time since the terrorist attack, McGillivray and Boston Athletic Association executive director Tom Grilk discussed their initial reactions, what they did in the immediate aftermath, and what happened in the days that followed.
In a conversation at BAA headquarters, not far from the finish line, both men said they were impressed by the preparedness of race staff, volunteers, and public safety officials. They recalled the constant communication and focus needed to take care of 27,000 runners. But they also said they were limited in what they could discuss because of the ongoing criminal investigation and unfinished post-event evaluations.
Both McGillivray and Grilk believe a stronger Boston and Boston Marathon will emerge from the attack. With everyone from President Obama on down suggesting that next year’s race will be the biggest ever, McGillivray and Grilk are considering a field larger than the record 38,708 that entered the 100th Boston Marathon in 1996. But they said it’s too soon to tackle the logistics of next year’s race when they haven’t fully processed what happened this year.
“I can’t sit here and speculate what the future is going to bring,” said McGillivray. “But initially, my first reaction was that this is a game changer. Now, I feel it’s a game changer in a positive way.
“What I’ve seen in the last two weeks in terms of the support — the running industry at large totally supporting Boston and supporting running — has been overwhelmingly comforting and inspirational.
“Sometimes, out of bad comes good. That’s what I’m seeing now. I think we’ll be stronger for it.”
The scope of what happened struck McGillivray when he returned to the finish area.
“When I approached the secured area on Boylston Street, I saw that it was almost totally evacuated,” said McGillivray. “Looking at the street, seeing our equipment throughout the roadway, that’s when the magnitude of it hit me.”
On a personal level, he wondered how witnessing the bombing would affect his young children.
“Initially, the reaction by the younger one [7-year-old Luke] was concern about his father and whether his father should continue to do this,” said McGillivray. “Now, just in two weeks, he’s been so supportive.
“Initially, he didn’t want me to do this. Now, he wants to help me do this. He’s had a complete 180. That’s what I mean about the bad turning to good. Even in my 7-year-old, I see it.”
Addressing runners’ needs
McGillivray immediately went to the medical tent, trying to figure out where resources needed to be deployed and how race staff could assist the effort. There were still bombing victims inside when he arrived.
“It was overwhelming,” said McGillivray. “But at the same time, I felt I had a job to do and I went to do it.
“What struck me more than anything was the preparedness of our medical team, that they were handling the situation given their level of expertise. My reaction was, ‘All right, I’m better outside the medical tent,’ working with my team, making sure that the runners were being able to retrieve their bags, trying to hook them up with their families.”
McGillivray and Grilk worked through the evening on logistics, reuniting runners with their belongings and their families. Whenever and wherever a runner-related need arose, they tried to address it. Locked down in the Copley Plaza hotel, Grilk huddled with several senior managers from John Hancock, helping coordinate action from a suite.
“One of the things that struck me was the focus everyone had on taking care of runners,” said Grilk. “We kept asking, ‘Is everything being done?’
“It was very task-focused, which sounds cold-blooded. But at the time, that was what was needed to help runners, to make sure there were people there to do it.”
McGillivray and Grilk know that the Boston Marathon will forever be associated with the bombings. But they don’t see this as an attack on the race or the running community.
“I look at the attack as an attack on Boston, an attack on all of us,” said Grilk. “The most important legacy impact of that is the strength, the unity of the reaction of everybody in Boston.
“Someone in the Globe wrote of this as erasing the scars of the 1970s, the racial strife of the time. This attack on the city, as horrible as it was, shows the strength of the people who live here. They have resilience.”
Race organizers remain buoyed by the strength and resilience they’ve seen. And they know that strength and resilience will be on full display next year and beyond. But there is no timetable for determining the size of the 2014 race or how to deal with the who didn’t finish this year.
To expand the marathon field from 27,000 to nearly 40,000 would be a massive logistic undertaking, complicated by what surely will be heightened security.
For the 100th Marathon, the finish area extended down Boylston Street to Boston Common. And back then, there was more open, undeveloped ground in Hopkinton for the prerace staging area.
“The two places most affected by change on some level will be the places where most people congregate for the longest periods of time: Hopkinton and Boston,” said Grilk. “It will be in concert with those communities that all those issues will be addressed. But front of mind for us has been the runners and volunteers from 2013.”
The thousands of runners who were stopped (5,752 in all) could get automatic entry into next year’s race, have their times extrapolated for 26.2 miles to determine whether they meet qualifying standards, or be included in some other arrangement. The BAA has received many suggestions and will weigh practical options.
That said, McGillivray and Grilk expect the registration schedule to remain the same, with the race opening to qualifiers in mid-September. Above all, they want to preserve the race’s quality and special character, with enjoying a route that passes through suburban neighborhoods and large crowds near the Boylston Street finish, with roughly 500,000 spectators lining the course.
“It’s a goal to maintain the integrity of the character of the race and not to be denied our running freedom,” said McGillivray. “We’re taking it all in.
“We understand that for a lot of people there’s an outside sense of urgency to some of [the logistics]. For us, the way we organize the race, we have to do things in a priority fashion, step by step, be patient, make the right decisions and chip away at this.
“I think that’s what we’ve been doing. We’re going to get to this, probably next and sooner than later. But we have no timeline because that forces us to make decisions quicker than maybe it makes sense to.”
Race organizers are just starting to consider the long road ahead.