Setting Goals, Not Limits with Dave McGillivray

Episode #3

Dave McGillivray is the current race director of the Boston Athletic Association Boston Marathon and Founder of DMSE Sports, Inc. an event company that has organized more than 1,000 mass-participatory endurance events since he started the organization in 1981. He is known for some of his spectacular athletic feats including running across the country (3,452 miles in 80 days) in 1978 and then 40 years later completing the World Marathon Challenge (7 marathons on 7 continents in 7 days). Dave has run his age in miles every year since he was 12, completed 49 consecutive Boston Marathons, and was only the 30th person ever to complete a full Ironman. He was a pioneer in running for a cause and has run over 150,000 miles, nearly all for fundraising efforts for charities, research funds, and non-profits. An incredible athlete and passionate philanthropist, in this episode, Dave talks about setting big goals, following through on what you say you’ll do, and some of the defining moments in his life so far. 

Transcript

Dave McGillivray [00:00:02] A lot of times when I was speaking to kids, they always ask me, So what’s your best accomplishment? And I always answer my best accomplishment is my next one. You know, as I set a goal and as I what I call earn the right to do it and then accomplish it, I just check it off the list and set the next one.

 

Justin (Host) [00:00:26] This is (Un)Common Threads, a TinnCann podcast featuring extraordinary people in open discussions about their defining moments. From failure and heartbreak, to triumph and fulfillment (Un)Common Threads is a weekly examination of the experiences that distinguish individuals of remarkable achievement. I’m Justin Paul Villanueva, and on today’s episode, I talked to Dave McGillivray, a philanthropist, athlete, author and dad. He’s run his age in miles every year since he was 12, completed 49 consecutive Boston marathons, and was only the 30th person ever to complete a full ironman. He was a pioneer in running for a cause and has run over 150,000 miles, which the overwhelming majority have been for fundraising efforts for charities, research funds and nonprofits. He ran across the country 3,452 miles in 80 days in 1978 and 40 years later completed the World Marathon Challenge. That means, seven marathons on seven continents in seven days. And yeah, that includes Antarctica. Dave is the current race director of the Boston Athletic Association, Boston Marathon and founder of DMC Sports Inc, an event company that has organized more than 1000 mass participatory endurance events since he started the organization in 1981. So I know that’s a mouthful, but that’s how we’ll introduce you, Dave. But I want to ask, how would you introduce yourself?

 

Dave McGillivray [00:02:03] Well, first of all, you just gave my whole speech Justin. Does anybody have any questions? You know? Just kidding. Listen, I’m sixty seven years old, so I’ve had a long time to set goals and not limits and go out there and accomplish things. And it’s interesting, a number of years ago, I was asked by a young student at a school I was speaking to. What do you want to be when you grow up? I said, that’s a good question. I’m not really sure. And as I was driving home, I saw a billboard on the side of the road and had one word on it, and the billboard said, Accomplish. And I said, Wow, that’s what I want to be an accomplisher. All I want to do is set a goal, work hard, earne the right to accomplish it. Check it off the list and move on to the next one. So to sum up who I am and what I want to be known for in general is an accomplisher.

 

Justin (Host) [00:03:03] And you had kind of mentioned limits in that statement. Even for myself, like, I hate setting some kind of limit, if anything, out of life, I want to feel limitless, and I’m sure a lot of people do too. So with that mindset, I mean, were you always a runner like that that felt limitless? Or were there other sports that interested you when you were younger? How did this all begin?

 

Dave McGillivray [00:03:28] It began growing up in Boston. That’s a very sports minded orientated town, right? With all the professional sports, the Red Sox, the Patriots, the Celtics, the Bruins and so forth. And you know, as a young boy growing up, I only wanted to be one thing and one thing only, and that was a professional athlete. So I worked really hard at sports, baseball, and basketball in particular. But unfortunately for me, I had a challenge and that challenge was and still is, I guess you could say that I was vertically challenged, you know, short in stature. So I was always seemingly the last one picked when my friends would pick sides in the Park League, or I was always the last one cut when I went out for school sports. That was really devastating as a young boy because I learned the concept of rejection. And over the years, I’ve learned that there is for me anyways, three types of pain. There’s physical pain, which you can train hard and overcome, the mental pain, which I think similarly, you can train your mind and overcome. But then there’s that third and more debilitating one. That’s emotional pain. And that’s what I was dealing with as a young boy is the feeling of rejection and how am I going to overcome this? And that’s when I started running, because no one can cut you from running, right? You just go run. And then I just started setting personal goals of physical challenges. And it just took off from there. And, you know, as I set a goal and as I what I call earned the right to do it and then accomplish it, I just checked it off the list and set the next one.

 

Justin (Host) [00:05:21] Was there any particular game or neighborhood get together where you realized that you were truly had enough?

 

Dave McGillivray [00:05:29] It was when I went out the last time for the high school basketball team. And I was the last one cut and the coach came up to me, and he put his arm around me and he looked down at me. Everyone looked down on me because I was short. And he said, David, if you were five inches taller, you’d be my starting guard. And I was stunned because I turned to the coach and I said, excuse me, I thought it had to do with ability level, not how tall you were. So I challenged the center of the team to a one on one in front of the other guys who made the team. And he was about 6’5″. And I was about 5’4″ and I beat him. And that was a defining moment in my life, because it just said something to me internally and I walked off the court that day and I said to myself, You know, I will never, ever, ever allow anyone to tell me, I’m not good enough that I don’t, that I don’t belong. So I went home that night and I put a sign over my bed and the sign said, Please God, make me grow. He obviously didn’t answer that prayer. At least I didn’t think he did. But then I look back on my life in retrospect and I said, son of a gun, he did make me grow. He made me grow in so many other ways, right? He made me grow morally and ethically and spiritually and intellectually and internally, because that’s where it’s all happening is who you are inside, not who you are physically. And again, that’s why I started to run

 

Justin (Host) [00:07:09] That’s such a profound realization. And it’s it’s wild to me because as I listen to this story, I’m curious what even made you write that sign to begin with? Because I feel like that’s not necessarily everyone’s initial reaction or to something like that happening. 

 

Dave McGillivray [00:07:28] Well, I think it was the whole concept of realizing, too, that if you’re passionate enough and you want something bad enough, you know there’s always a path. It may not be the shortest path, right? The path of least resistance. But there’s a path and you have to make a choice. Are you willing to accept what’s happening and pick up the pieces and move on? Or do you want to succumb to rejection or defeat and hang it up? And I was just too determined to become an athlete in one way, shape or form. You know, I always wanted to play second base for the Boston Red Sox. I just had that passion and that’s why I played second base in Little League and things like that. And I just felt like I was, you know, good enough at the time that if given a chance, I could have possibly achieved that goal. But that was stripped away from me. And ironically, a number of years later, I decided I was going to run across the United States. And I set that goal. I trained real hard and I did run across the United States and I finished in Fenway Park in front of five thousand people. And I realized at that moment, too, that I finally became the athlete I always wanted to be, and even though I couldn’t play second base in Fenway Park. I’m going to run around Fenway Park, and I got as much of a standing ovation as a person who just ran across the continent to raise money for cancer research for sick children, as I would have if I hit a home run at Fenway, as well as the Red Sox second baseman.

 

Justin (Host) [00:09:28] I mean, that has to be such a cathartic experience, an emotional one, too. Even having had to run a marathon myself at the at the finish line, I just hugged my mom and I’m just bawling uncontrollably and that that feeling it just overwhelms you. And it’s this true feeling of kind of fulfillment. But even that being said, you had mentioned that this particular run across the country, it had aligned with another goal that was even bigger than yourself. And over the years, obviously, you’re well known for raising money for a charity or a cause as part of your athletic pursuits. How did you really get into that?

 

Dave McGillivray [00:10:07] A friend of mine biked across the country from my home town of Medford, Mass. To Medford, Oregon, and I don’t know something just an epiphany where I said to myself, If you can bike across the country, I can run across the country. Well, that’s that’s a silly comparison. But you know, I just wanted to believe that and I said, I’m going to work really hard, train really hard, plan and do this. And I was working in the John Hancock Tower in Boston at the time, and I was just thinking about the planning of this. And I said, you know, if I’m going to make it across the country, even though that’s a personal goal, I have to do it for a greater purpose. It’s kind of crazy to go all the way across this country and not have it benefit someone else, too. So as I looked out the window course, I saw Fenway Park the place I wanted to play second base at, and I saw a sign out in right field and a sign said I’ll make a dream come true support the Jimmy Fund and the Jimmy Fund was their fundraising arm of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. So I picked up the phone and called the Jimmy Fund and I said, Hey, I’m going to run across the country. I want to do it for the Jimmy Fund. And we cut the deal. And I remember going into the Jimmy Fund clinic and seeing those kids, and I knew at the time that the battle that I was about to fight by running over five and a half million footsteps across America was in no way as difficult as the battle that these kids were fighting for their own life. And then I saw another sign and the sign in the Jimmy Fund clinic, and it said God made only so many perfect heads, the rest of them have hair on it. My thought about what that meant in the fact that these kids are turning a negative into a positive and they have the guts and the courage to fight this illness of theirs and believe and have hope that they’re going to get better. And it just made me realize that, you know, maybe I can help them along the way, not medically, but maybe by doing this run, I can fundraise and maybe help provide a child with a more normal and healthy life. And that’s when I committed to doing that and have done that. Ever since then, most, if not all, of my athletic pursuits have have tied into a greater purpose than just myself.

 

Justin (Host) [00:12:31] In your description just now, you had mentioned this idea of planning, but also that these kids had managed to turn a negative into a positive. It’s interesting because one of the things that we came across was this idea that, I believe was that your grandpa had taught you about life lessons, especially in relation to when you started running or when you ran your first marathon. Could you elaborate on that?

 

Dave McGillivray [00:12:57] When I was 17 years old, a senior in high school and a runner, I heard about the Boston Marathon on the radio, and I just thought that that would be kind of a neat thing, that attempt. So I called my grandfather, who was a supporter of my athleticism, and I said, “Hey, I’m going to go run that race in Boston”. And he goes, “Oh, they call it the Boston Marathon”. I said, “Oh, that’s a good name for it. I’m going to go run it.” He says, “OK, I’ll meet you at Coolidge Corner”. And I said, “Where’s that?” He goes, “the 24 mile mark” because he lived right near the course. And I didn’t realize that. But you know, he told me he he only lived a walk away from the twenty four mile point. And I said, “OK, I’ll see you there”. And my brother drove me out to the start and, you know, I hadn’t qualified or really trained for it. But I said, well, I’ll give it a shot. And I started running and I got to about 20 miles in the hills, Heartbreak Hill, it’s called in Newton and down I went and I got taken to the Newton Wellesley Hospital in an ambulance, and I called my parents and they came, pick me up and I got home and I called my grandfather, and there’s no answer, and I called him again, and there’s no answer. Finally, nine o’clock at night, he answers the phone. I say, “Grandpa, where have you been?” He goes, “Where’ve you been? I’ve been waiting for you all night. The old man Kelly goes by, the street sweepers go by. No, Dave.” I said, “Yeah, you’re right. I, I failed”. He said. “What?” I said, “I quit.” He goes, “Nah, you didn’t quit”. I said, “I didn’t? What’d I do?”. He said, “You learned”. I said, “Oh, good. What I learn?”. He said, “You learned that you cannot go along in life and set reckless goals. You had no business being in that race and you know that”. I said, “You’re right”. He says, “I’ve cut another deal with you”. I said, “what?” He says, “you train for it next year and I’ll be here waiting for you again”. I said, “deal”. Two months later, my grandfather died. And I said, I gotta do this in memory of my grandfather and the lesson that he taught me. So I train, train, train for the next year’s Boston Marathon. That was in 1973. I was 18 years old. I was officially registered and ready to go. And the day before the race I got sick. My parents said, “you can’t run”. I said, “Why?” They said, “You’re too sick”.? I said, “Can you give me something that very few other people have ever given me before?” And they said, “What’s that?” I said “a chance, because isn’t that all we ever want in life is a chance to accomplish something?” And they said, “OK”, so they drove me to the start and I took off and I’m running and I get to about five miles and I’m like, nah, this isn’t working. I don’t have the juice here. I’m too sick. And I kept going and I get to the halfway point and I saw my parents on the side of the road and there’s my mother. And what’s she doing? She’s crying. Why is she crying? Because that’s what mothers do. They cry. Why? Because they’re going through more pain than I’m going through. You know, and I understand that she’s so worried about me. But then there’s my father. And what’s he doing? He’s taking pictures, you know, of my mother crying. And I said, all right, I got to keep going. I got to keep going. I kept going. I get to the point where I dropped out the year before in the hills in Newton, I’m doing a survivor’s shuffle over the hills and I keep going. I keep going. And then at 21.5, boom down I go again, dropped out second year in a row and I put my head between my legs and I just started doubting myself and all of a sudden, another defining moment in my life where I just looked around and I said, This place looks a little familiar, but I don’t remember ever being here before. And then I turned around and I was right in front of the Evergreen Cemetery, and that’s where they buried my grandfather. And it was right on the Boston Marathon course. I didn’t know that at the time. And I said, son of a gun, there’s this grave. And he said he’d be here, now, maybe he wasn’t there physically, but he was there spiritually. And he kept his end of the deal. And so I had to finish this and I get up and I finish, in four and a half hours. [00:17:19]And I said to myself on that day in April 1973, I’m going to run this race every year for the rest of my life, in honor attributed my blessing. My grandfather taught me about earning the right to do these things. You can’t just recklessly commit. You’ve got to do the work. And I’ve run this race now every year since then. Forty nine years in a row. [24.1s]

 

Justin (Host) [00:17:45] And I think that I’ve heard that you love it so much that what, you’re the first one there since you’re directing it, but also you’re the last one to finish somehow.

 

Dave McGillivray [00:17:54] Yeah. Because when prior to taking the job of race director, I ran it 15 years in a row and then I took the job and I was sort of full of self pity because I was standing at the finish line, high fiving all the runners congratulating them, but I hadn’t run it myself. And I said I made a commitment to do this. So I tapped a police officer on the shoulder and I said, “Officer, will you do me a favor?” He said, “what’s that?” I said, “Would you drive me back to the start?” He goes, “Why? Did you forget something?” I said, “Yeah, forgot to run”. He drove me back to the start at eight o’clock at night, I took off and finished at like nine o’clock at night, dead last. And I’ve run it that way every year for the last 34 years. [00:18:47]And so this year will be my 35th at night and my 50th overall. So again, for me, I have another motto in my life and it goes like this. It’s my game. So it’s my rules. And that’s how I have lived my life, you know, for the last 50 plus years is, it’s my life to live, I’ll live it the way I want to live it, you know, and sometimes I’ll set these goals and people will doubt it or whatnot and you know I always say “those who say it cannot be done should not interrupt those who are doing it”. I’m just sort of lived my life that way. My game, my rules. Same thing with the Boston Marathon I direct it during the day and I run it once everyone’s done and I’m the last finisher and I’m OK with that. [53.5s]

 

Justin (Host) [00:19:41] That’s a phenomenal personal motto. I was actually going to bring that up before you even said it. Just because I don’t know, I guess as you get older going from, you know, a baby to a teenager to an adult, you start to realize that you are now maybe even the parent that you used to have, and you don’t have to listen to all the rules that your parents had. Now you get to shape your own, and it seems like for yourself, you’re anything but a hypocrite where you’ve really created these rules that you abide by. But over time, have those rules changed a little bit in your life?

 

Dave McGillivray [00:20:20] I don’t think so. Generally speaking, I think that they have been, you know, sort of a magnet that keeps me continuing to set goals and again, not limits. And a lot of times when I’m speaking to kids, they always ask me, “So what’s your best accomplishment?” And I always answer, “my best accomplishment is my next one”. I just feel like the past is history. You know, I I feel like taking the rear view mirror my car and ripping it out, throwing it out the window because I don’t want to look behind me, I want to look ahead, right? And what’s done is done. But there’s a lot more to accomplish. And we were talking earlier and I always sort of said sleep is overrated. And why? Because I want to get as much out of every day as I can possibly squeeze. We’re only here once, I think. And so there’s a lot, a lot to be done. And there’s a lot of people you can help along the way. And so I will continue to set these goals for myself, but I am also a realist where I try to set realistic goals, you know, goals that I feel that are within my reach, challenging, but are within my reach. If I do the work and, you know, knock on wood and lucky me, pretty much every single athletic goal I set for myself, you know, I’ve been able to I’ve been able to accomplish. And I think that’s both from the perspective of being realistic as well as earning the right.

 

Justin (Host) [00:22:10] That’s such a tough balance to kind of have throughout your life. I guess it’s kind of an ongoing thing, this word, I’m surprised to hear you say the word realist just because from your list of accomplishments, it almost seems as though it’s not even part of your vocabulary. Even just like knowing certain people’s mentalities, sometimes they see the mountain top, but not the mountain. And going back to the story of your grandpa, you’ve been able to kind of break down each of these accomplishments that you want to go after into these, these certain steps that you need to follow. So as you’ve been training for each of these marathons, IronMans, over time, is there anything about your routine and your tactics that hasn’t changed in preparation for this?

 

Dave McGillivray [00:23:00] Not much. My attitude. As always, whatever the conditions are, they are, and that’s part of the journey, for example, like a lot of people may wake up, look out the window and it’s snowing out or lousy weather, a really cold or really hot. And my attitude is that’s part of the experience, you know, and I never, ever look at the weather or the conditions as being a deterrent. I actually look at it as being an additional layer of challenge, and I look forward to that if I’m training for a race day. I don’t know what race day is going to bring, so I might as well be prepared for anything and everything. And so I don’t want to ignore or avoid the challenges along the way. I want to hit them head on. So that has always been sort of part of my DNA putting challenges in the way and then figuring out a way to overcome them.

 

Justin (Host) [00:24:05] Yeah, I mean, it seems like that’s been, yeah, definitely been a constant throughout your life. This idea almost parallels that of those kids rejecting you as you were trying to play with them in those, you know, organized sports or neighborhood baseball games, that kind of thing where even if they reject you, you’ll still find a way to do that thing and understand what’s in your control because those kids aren’t in your control, the weather is not in your control, and you’re just going to do what you want to do, regardless of what anyone says. In an article written in 2015, I think it was for Runner’s World, this one in particular was called “Where are all this 60 year olds?” Kind of questioning where your peers from the 80s and 90s are now? Because for yourself, you’re still doing this thing that you love and you’re going after, you’re still you. You said that even before this, you already got a run in. So what keeps you going?

 

Dave McGillivray [00:25:03] Well, that’s interesting. I forgot I wrote that, but I think I was writing it in response to the fact that when I turned 60, I was actually diagnosed with severe coronary artery disease. The point being is that I even challenged myself even more given my illness to get even in better shape. And I did, and I competed in a lot of races and triathlons, and I was placing on the podium in my age group. But then I went and looked at, I might have won or finished second to finished third. But then I looked at who was in my age group and they were like out of 500 people in the race, there were only six people in my age group. Where are they all? Where’d they go? You know, all these people that I competed with as a 20 year old and a 30 year old and a 40 year old? How come they’re not still around, you know, and it just kind of shocked me that I’m very fortunate to have been able to compete at a high level, at a competitive level, not Olympic or world class by any stretch of the imagination, but competitive and still be able to do it. Whereas others have either lost their passion for the sport or just wore out physiologically and had knee replacements or hip replacements, or whatever it might be. And, they’re not around anymore. And so it just surprised me more than anything, but it certainly didn’t discourage me. In fact, if anything, I got even more motivated to keep at it. You know, just to show, show others that this can continue for a lifetime if you do the right things.

 

Justin (Host) [00:27:00] So kind of expanding upon that, seeing as how our podcast is called (Un)Common Threads. What do you believe makes you different?

 

Dave McGillivray [00:27:10] I don’t know that I am different. I’ve chosen, like I say, a path and I’m just very driven. And other people choose different paths, whether that’s playing a musical instrument or becoming a teacher or being a carpenter. It’s just what drives me, and I’ve been very fortunate to be able to combine a “hobby”, running with a vocation, profession and that is putting on events for other people to participate in. And it’s interesting because, you know, when I used to be asked what I did for a living, I would almost mumble, you know, I’m a race director and people are like “what?” and I’m said “I’m a race director.” They’re all like, “what the heck is a race director? You know, it’s like chalk mark in the road you all go”. I said, “Well, I guess that’s part of it”. But now when people ask me, “What do I do for a living?” I say “I help raise the level of self-esteem and self-confidence of tens of thousands of people in America”, because that’s what this does, because it’s all about competence and self-esteem, because that’s the very foundation by which we accomplish everything in our lives. And so what drives me with this? Industry in this activity, this boy is just the fact that, you know, it’s it’s easy to do in the sense of little lace on a pair of shoes, put on a pair of shorts and a T-shirt. Now you go and when you get back in return is priceless, you know, and that is again, that whole level of self-esteem. And so whether it’s me running a marathon or running across the country and doing an IronMan triathlon or doing the world marathon majors or running my age on my birthday or the list goes on and on and on. Every time I accomplish one of those feats, what it does to me internally, it’s hard to even describe because it just gives me even more and more confidence to tackle other challenges. And I hope by being an event director, I give other people that opportunity to do that. [00:29:42]When people say to me, “what’s the toughest part about running a marathon?” Oh, the toughest part? That’s signing the application. What? No, seriously, it’s signing the application. it’s having the guts and the courage to make the commitment. But then you’ve got to earn the right, like my grandfather said, and you earn the right, you do the work, you toe the line. You answer the gun. You run the course, you cross the finish line, you get a medal. The magic happens. You go home feeling good about yourself. And again, that’s the foundation by which we accomplish everything in our lives. Doesn’t get any better than that. [40.1s]

 

Justin (Host) [00:30:24] Wow. I actually think that’s a remarkable sentiment to end on. For all of our listeners, thank you so much for listening. You can schedule a one on one video call with the expert you heard from today or browse other esteemed experts by visiting us at TinnCann.com. That’s TinnCann.com. If you have ideas of who you’d like to hear from or talk to on TinnCann, drop us a note at hello@TinnCann.com.

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