When race director Dave McGillivray, 67, ran his first Boston Marathon in 1972, his grandfather was waiting at Mile 24 in Brookline. And waiting and waiting.
The 17-year-old teenager had no idea what he was doing. He didn’t even wear socks that day. McGillivray dropped out at Mile 20, at the base of Heartbreak Hill, and was taken in an ambulance to Newton-Wellesley Hospital. He finally reached his grandfather at 9 p.m. by phone.
“I quit,” he said, dejectedly.
Not quite, said his grandfather. “You didn’t quit, you learned not to set reckless goals.”
Then they made a deal.
“Train for it, and I’ll be waiting next year,” said his grandfather.
When his grandfather died two months later, McGillivray decided to run the following year in his memory. But he got sick the day before the race. After 5 miles, he was gassed, and at Mile 21, he went down again. When he looked up, he saw he was opposite Evergreen Cemetery, Grandpa Eaton’s final resting place.
“He kept his end of the deal and I’ve got to keep my end of the deal,” McGillivray remembers thinking.
Somehow McGillivray got up and did the “survivor’s shuffle” to the finish line, crossing in 4 hours 30 minutes. He vowed to run the race every year for the rest of his life.
The 2022 race was his 50th Boston Marathon. Johnny Kelley, another Medford native, finished the race 58 times. Kelley once said, “He’s the one to beat my record.”
McGillivray knows every inch of the route. He ran it blindfolded in 1982 to raise money for the Carroll Center for the Blind.
He’s the Maestro of the Marathon.
Details and memories
McGillivray’s Marathon Monday starts at Copley Square at 4:20 a.m., after not much REM sleep. He always worries about oversleeping.
“Last night my head was spinning,” he says on the road to Hopkinton.
He is there before dawn, early enough to have his size 8′s slide on an icy starter’s platform. He patrols the immediate area, making sure the two dozen trucks assigned to block streets are in place and the mini-village of porta-potties is operational.
Forget following him around; his normal gait is like a trot. He does a half-dozen interviews before 7:15.
Touring Hopkinton brings back memories. There was the time in the 1980s when four-time Boston champion Bill Rodgers was missing 15 minutes before race time.
“He was locked in a bathroom that had a bad door handle,” says McGillivray, who helped liberate his friend.
After all of the 35,000 racers leave on time — with McGillivray’s penchant for military accuracy — he gets on a motor scooter and rides to Boston, checking the route as he goes. Later in the day, he will return to Hopkinton to run the race after all the official runners.
McGillivray ran the race 15 times before he was named technical director in 1988. Back then, he was at the finish line high-fiving runners. He learned he was a bad spectator.
“I felt empty,” he says.
So he tapped a state trooper on the shoulder and asked if he could get a ride to Hopkinton. The trooper thought he forgot something at the start.
From then on, McGillivray started running after his day job ended.
He has finished dead last every year since.
Some years are tougher than others. In October 2018, he had triple bypass surgery. Six months later, he finished his 47th Boston Marathon. It was his most memorable and meaningful marathon accomplishment.
His worst nightmare — everyone’s worst nightmare — came in 2013. He was out at Hopkinton getting ready to run when bombs exploded near the finish line.
He rushed back to Boston in a state trooper’s cruiser.
Now he marvels at the good that has grown from such evil.
“The comeback is better than the setback,” he told reporters at the finish line.
“It happened when I finished in 2019 after I had open-heart triple bypass surgery. And it happened once again coming out of this pandemic.”
Feeling the love
By early afternoon at the finish line, the race director can’t walk 10 yards without being stopped by well-wishers. One EMT reminisces about when the finish line was near the Prudential Center and the medical area was in the Prudential garage.
“Oh yeah,” says McGillivray. " I used to throw up there many times.”
Back at the start in Hopkinton by 3 p.m., the speakers blare the Rolling Stones’s “The Last Time,” before McGillivray addresses those marathoners invited to join him for his 50th Boston run.
“There’s a good chance that this could be the last one at night,” he says. “It’s getting hard to do it this way. It’s fun, but it’s a long day. So ideally, I’d like to try to run during the day, but we’ll see how all that works out.
“But either way, we’re here and we’re going to have fun and we’re going to go slow and we’re going to get to the finish line, right? Thank you. I love you all.”
There is one unscheduled stop. At the Evergreen Cemetery, friends stop and surprise McGillivray with a poster and some words of wisdom from Grandpa Eaton: “You’ve earned this Dave … now finish the race.”
McGillivray looks toward the graveyard, then reaches out and touches his grandfather’s heart on the poster before trotting off.
Nobody cried, and it energized McGillivray.
McGillivray wouldn’t admit it, but he was limping slightly and had some hip discomfort.
His brother Bob leapfrogs the course in a car loaded with supplies, and a support van driven by Ron Kramer takes care of the other marathoners and makes sure no one is left behind.
Like clockwork, the group arrives at the finish line at 8 p.m, and they cheer as a fist-pumping McGillivray breaks the tape.
He called the day picture-perfect and was thrilled to raise money for the Dave McGillivray Finish Strong Foundation.
“It was almost flawless,” he says.
The finish line is jammed with more well-wishers.
Two of his children, Elle, 17, and Luke, 16, ran part of the course with him, and his wife, Katie, hugged him after he crossed the finish.
Of the 30 runners who accompanied him, there were several who did the 2018 World Marathon Challenge with him, running seven marathons in seven days on seven continents.
“It was just a great camaraderie out there,” says McGillivray.
Meb Keflezighi, the 2014 Boston Marathon winner, gives him a big hug.
“Dave is a real champion, a real game changer for the people,” says Keflezighi. “He’s well-respected, not nationally, but internationally. And guess what? To be able to go back and [run] after all that work is just unbelievable.”
There is a party in his honor at the Copley Fairmont, but McGillivray is busy greeting his fans.
“Look at this crowd,” he says, grinning broadly. “The first time I crossed, there was six pigeons and three squirrels. Look at that and look at this.”
Did you feel the love?
“I still feel the love.”
Stan Grossfeld can be reached at email@example.com.