Dave McGillivray doesn’t spend much time in his comfort zone.
McGillivray, the Race Director of the Boston Marathon and Founder/CEO of DMSE Sports, has a long and impressive résumé in the sport of running. His accomplishments include 45 consecutive Boston Marathons (including a 3:14 finish while blindfolded in 1982), nine Hawaii IRONMAN triathlons and a cross-country run of 3,452 miles to raise money for cancer care and research.
This month saw the 63-year-old add to his auspicious résumé, becoming one of 48 athletes to conquer the grueling World Marathon Challenge by completing 7 marathons on 7 continents in 7 days while finishing 14th overall with an average finish time of 4:37:59. We had the opportunity to catch up with a tired yet triumphant McGillivray at the Running USA Industry Conference in Austin, six days after crossing finish line #7 in Miami.
RR: Dave, thanks for talking with us today. What made you decide to take on the World Marathon Challenge?
DM: I obviously knew about the event, and I got a phone call from a friend, David Samson, who was the former President of the Miami Marlins baseball team. He asked me if I ever heard of the World Marathon Challenge. I said yes. He said, “I’m putting a group of runners together to do it, would you like to be part of that?” I said you gotta be kidding; he said no. I said well, I’m not sure I can pay the hefty entry fee along with the other costs, and he said, “We’ll take care of that.” Well then sign me up, because this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
RR: You mentioned running as part of a group or team. Can you tell us more about that?
We called ourselves “Team Hold the Plane.” Funny, eh? Again, David Samson assembled a group of wonderful family members, friends and colleagues to train together and to experience this all together. What an amazing, inspiring and incredibly FUN group this was. They included Brad Miller, Bret Parker, Cara Nelson, David Samson, Deb Carneol, Jeff Conine, John Silverman, Josh Cohen, Josh Samson, Mikayla Wingle, Mike Hill, Mitch Moser, PJ Loyello, Sarah Lacina and Sarah Reinertsen. And Judy Sanchez came along as our PR and social media person. We will have stories to share for a lifetime. I owe this entire experience to David Samson, to whom I am so grateful.
RR: You also ran to support Team MR8. Why is Team MR8 so special to you?
DM: I’ve been running for the Martin Richard Foundation ever since the Boston Marathon bombings in 2013 where young Martin Richard was killed. My son, who was the same age as Martin, was sitting in the bleachers and Martin was across the street. And I just always remember that anything can happen, and it could’ve been reversed. Just the thought of someone losing their son in that tragic way resonated with me, and I said, we can’t bring him back, but we can honor him and his memory. So I decided to dedicate my philanthropy for the last five years to the MR8 Foundation, and any time I’ve run any race I’ve worn Martin’s name on my singlet. And I’ll never forget.
RR: Were you nervous or anxious in preparing for this challenge?
Yes, more than ever. I think it was a combination of my age and the overall wear and tear on my body over the years, seeing that I have run over 150,000 miles. Can I really do this anymore? It’s funny, so many people said hey, this is a piece of cake for you. Well, while that is flattering, it is also so far from the truth. None of us can do today what we easily could do 40 years ago! And I had so many little nagging injuries and aches that I was dealing with leading up to the event — right ankle soreness, left hip pain, minor knee issue, and then my back went on me… ugh.
All that, and I still have coronary artery disease with labored breathing I’m dealing with, so this was far from being a piece of cake. I know, cry me a river but all this was weighing heavily on me. I was a nervous wreck right up until the gun fired in Antarctica! In the end, none of these issues ever really bothered me — the endorphins must have just kicked in. Go figure! [Editor’s note: Since receiving a diagnosis of coronary artery disease in the fall of 2013, McGillivray has mediated and partially reversed the effects of his disease through diet and lifestyle changes.]
RR: What three adjectives would you use to describe your adventure?
DM: Intense, if that’s an adjective…. I think the three things that hit me more than anything were sleep deprivation, recovery and how to go about that, and then the fear of the unknown. Those were the things I was really uncertain about.
RR: When you say “unknown,” what aspect? You’ve run a lot of races, a lot of miles…
DM: Yeah, but what to expect in terms of, we had no idea what time the race was going to start, no idea where the courses were, no idea what the weather was going to be like, no idea what time of day. There were just too many unknowns. I’m a control freak — I like to control my own destiny, and the only time in this entire event that I felt in control was when I was running. Because I knew I had to run 26.2 miles and I knew what pace I was capable of doing. But that’s it.
Outside of that I was just following directions, and really didn’t know where I was going to even get my next meal. We crossed the finish line in Perth, Australia at three in the morning, and our hotel was across the street. Not that we stayed there; we just showered there, packed and left…
RR: A way station.
DM: That’s all it was. I went across the street and looked for a restaurant or some place to eat, and nothing was open. So I didn’t eat. I had my little snacks, my granola bars or CLIF SHOTs or whatever I might have brought with me, but that’s all I had. So not only was I sleep-deprived, I was nutrition-deprived. And so you start getting worried that, is this all going to come crashing down? The anxiety just continually fed on itself, so it was a vicious cycle. The Race Director, Richard Donovan, always said to us “Be flexible,” and he was right. We had to be patient and flexible. This was something I had to learn to accept as an overall part of this experience. He certainly knew what he was talking about.
And I wanted to get sleep; I was lying down on the plane, but it just wasn’t happening. I got an average of two to three hours a day when you should be getting seven or eight if you’re going to be running a marathon back-to-back. But knock on wood, I still survived it and never really felt like I was going to crash and burn.
RR: You’re sort of renowned for not needing a lot of sleep. So you probably fared better than a lot of your compatriots in that sense.
DM: This is probably why it came back to haunt me, but I have facetiously said over the years that I think sleep is overrated. And what I truly mean by that is, I wish the rules were a little different where you didn’t have to sleep — you know, maybe take a pill, lower your metabolism…
RR: I feel the same way about eating.
DM: Yeah, it gets in the way, right? There’s only so many hours in the day, and if you sleep eight of them you’ve slept a third of your life. That’s upsetting [laughs]. That doesn’t mean you don’t need it, but I don’t have to like the fact that we have to do it.
So over the course of my life, I’ve sort of tried to cheat it as much as possible where I get the minimum amount of sleep that I could get by with. But I also realize that’s risky too, and maybe down the road it’s going to catch up with me. But I think, to your point, that’s why I was probably able to get away with it.
RR: Each day you had to run 26.2 miles and then you had to hop on a plane and fly — not to the next city, not to the next state, but the next continent — just in time to run another marathon. How do you recover, mentally and physically, in that kind of situation? Were there medical personnel on the trip, masseuses, did you have a crew to support you?
DM: No crew to support you, you’re all on your own — carry your own bags, no massage therapists, no hot tubs. There was one medical doctor, Dr. David Kelly, to take care of all 50 of us. He was terrific, but as you can imagine he was kept very busy the entire time!
You had to take care of yourself. Whether it’s self-massage, massage with a stick, compression boots, whatever it took, you had to figure out a way get yourself back into a situation where you could toe the line again and run another one. But that’s all preparation.
My training was 100% based on the fact that I knew I had to do these back to back to back to back. About three weeks before the Boston Marathon I went out and ran four marathons and three halfs in a week. And I didn’t do that for training physically as much as to convince myself that maybe I do have a shot at getting this done. I had a good foundation, and then I had the rest of the summer and the fall to really shore it all up.
So I did a lot of back-to-back-to-back long runs, like, I’d do 13, 18, 20 miles. It gave me a sense of pace, gave me a sense of recovery, gave me a sense of what type of shape I was in. So I felt pretty confident going in that I could do the 26.2. But what I was not sure of was everything in between, and how that might impact my ability to toe the line day after day.
Any time I was running — believe it or not, which is unconventional wisdom — I was always running for tomorrow. I wasn’t running for today. Today’s done. I’ve got to make sure that I leave enough in the tank for tomorrow, whereas most of the time when we’re running in a race you pace yourself accordingly and then, if you’ve still got something left and six miles to go, the idea is to burn it all up — get rid of it all. Because you’ve got the next day to recover, and the next day, and the next week, and the next month or whatever.
Here you couldn’t do that. If you expended everything you had on that day, then most likely the next one around you’d be a hurting unit. And I didn’t want that to happen.
That’s why I did the Dopey [Challenge] at Disney — the 5K and 10K were superfluous, but I said I’m going to run the half at a pace where I wake up the next day for the marathon and feel like I hadn’t run at all. And it worked. And then I ran the marathon, got on a plane and flew home, and the test was [to] wake up Monday and feel nothing after the marathon. And I woke up Monday and I felt nothing, and I went out and ran for an hour and a half. And I said, I think I’ve got it. I think I’m in the kind of shape to get me through this.
RR: So you go to all the logistical trouble to travel to all seven continents, but how much of an appreciation were you able to gain for any individual venue other than, Antarctica’s really cold and South Africa’s really warm?
DM: None. None. None, because we were there for such a short period of time. Some of it we landed at night, ran the race and left before daylight, and never even saw the city. And we were doing loops, so we probably only ran three to five miles of total real estate multiple times. So it’s not like I got to see Downtown Perth or really the buildings of Dubai. I might’ve just seen them as we were taking the bus back to the airport, but it wasn’t like this was a vacation where we were on tour and visiting all these different cities and communities and continents. It was just a place to touch down, run and take off.
RR: Hopefully I’m not asking you to paint with too broad a brush here, but how would you describe the other 50 or so people who lined up on the start line with you every day?
DM: I think some were pretty strong athletes, and some weren’t as experienced. Some came without a lot of marathon experience, and they made a very courageous and gutsy effort to finish.
RR: Everybody suffered, it sounds like.
DM: You can’t fake this. You can’t cheat it. Either you did the work or you didn’t do the work. And if you didn’t do the work, that doesn’t mean you can’t complete it, but it’s gonna get ugly. And I didn’t want it to get ugly, I wanted to complete it strong — look good, feel good.
A sign of being in really good shape is not necessarily race day; it’s the day after race day. You wake up the day after race day and you feel pretty good after a really hard effort, you’re fit. You might be able to pluck out a decent race off long-term training and memory, but you’re going to wake up the next day and be walking down the stairs backwards, right? So that’s why I knew, on the recovery side of things, I was feeling pretty good that I’d earned the right to be there.
RR: So if you could hop in a time machine and give your more naïve self one piece of advice during your training, what would it have been?
DM: You know, you never feel that you did enough, you always feel like you could’ve done more.
RR: It almost sounds like you couldn’t have done more.
DM: Well, right, because there’s a point of diminishing returns. When I ran across the United States 40 years ago, people said to me, what did you do to train to run across the United States? And I said I just did my normal training. And then when I took off to run across the United States, I was actually training while I was doing it, because I’m not going to run 40 or 50 miles a day in training to prepare to run 40 or 50 miles a day.
It’s the same with this. If I did way more than what I did, I could’ve hurt myself and then not even have been able to do the first race. So I think I did enough to get by, but you always question whether you should’ve done a little more.
The other thing is, I’m sort of old-school so I haven’t subscribed to a lot of the toys — everyone has so many different compression boots and GPS watches and fuel belts and all kinds of nutritional things that they take. And for me, for my whole life I just laced on a pair of shoes and went out the door. I was one of the oldest and probably one of the most experienced runners on the trip, but I also was probably the most inexperienced when it came to all the new technology and nutritional products that are out there today.
RR: That may have been to your advantage.
DM: It might have been. Because people now become dependent upon those things. We were running in Cartagena, Columbia, and unfortunately the course was a tad confusing and people weren’t exactly sure which way to go. And then as we were looping around an official says, “Just go by your GPS watch — when you get to 26.2, pull in across the finish line” [laughs].
Well, I didn’t have a GPS watch; I wasn’t wearing one. I just had my watch on. However, I know these events are really hard to plan and I give the race organizers a lot of credit for even making this all happen. I know I would be equally as challenged to pull all this off. I marvel at the effort it must take! It was hard for us but it was hard for them, too.
RR: Moving distance, moving start line, moving finish line — there is no anchor for you in this whole event, is what it sounds like.
DM: No. And these weren’t 5Ks, they’re marathons. Typically you get really really particular about everything — what you’re going to eat the night before, when you’re going to wake up, all your gear is right there. It was so mind-boggling — I had four pieces of luggage and I had to think every single day, “What do I need for the next day?” and pack that here [gestures to his left], not here [gestures to his right], because this luggage [gestures right] was in the plane and this one [gestures left] was coming with me.
If I forgot my headlamp because it was a night run or if I forgot my chip or if I forgot my bib number for that particular race, that would throw everything out of whack. And I don’t know what the weather’s going to be necessarily, so do I take my rain gear? It was just, trying to figure it all out. So you add that whole extra layer on top of 26.2, 26.2, 26.2 and — it was hard. It was hard.
RR: This may be a good segue then to ask: mentally or physically, either one, what were your lowest and highest points of the journey?
DM: A high was definitely running in Antarctica, just because you’re there, you’re in the moment. A low was definitely in Colombia [Day 6] where my shin started bothering me a little bit, and I started worrying if this was going to be the end for me!
We were running on a lot of uneven surfaces in a lot of these courses — cobblestones and boardwalks and cement and asphalt and snow and ice. You add it all up and the body’s like, what are you doing to me? Because normally I’m an asphalt guy; I’ve been running on asphalt my whole life. And now I’m running on all different surfaces that I’m not used to, and so this thing became a little bit inflamed. So now I’m wondering, am I going to be able to recover from this and run another marathon in less than 24 hours?
But I was able to do it. I kind of pushed out the pain and just kept going. I could handle the pain; it’s just, am I doing more damage to the point where it’s not about pain anymore, it’s about strength. Pain was not a deterrent; strength to be able to move was. So I got really nervous.
But by the time I got to Miami, I did certain things and iced it and everything else. It allowed me to be able to run on it. And then the last five miles in Miami were the best five miles of the entire run. I was running sub-nines.
RR: Pure adrenaline?
DM: It was adrenaline, but it wasn’t even that. I hadn’t intended to run that fast at the end of the last marathon, but I just felt strong and I didn’t need to save anything anymore. So I could put it all out there, and I did. And it was a good way to end, mentally and emotionally because I felt like I was actually getting somewhat stronger.
Because what happened was, that first day you get through it. The second day you get a little bit more fatigued. The third day you’re starting to get really iron-clad like quads, so you get really fatigued. And then the body has an interesting way of adapting, and all of a sudden I started getting a little stronger. So the further I went, the stronger I was getting. I almost felt like, geez, if there were seven more continents I could probably be doing pretty good in this thing. It’s just like it ended too — I’m being a little facetious — but it ended too quickly. I was just starting to peak, and then it’s done.
RR: Any particularly intriguing or scary moment you experienced during the Challenge?
Yes! While in the airport in Boston before leaving, I accidentally swallowed a huge piece of lint and thought I was going to choke to death. In Cape Town, South Africa I lost my phone for a few hours, lost contact with the world and started going ballistic. Thank goodness I found it. Then there was the incident when I plugged in my heating pad for my back and it started to catch on fire — I almost burnt down the darn hotel! And when running in Antarctica, I heard the ice crack beneath my feet and almost had a heart attack. So running the seven marathons was the easy part!
RR: A quest of this magnitude had to require support and sacrifice on many fronts — can you talk about that?
The only way I could have done this is with the support and caring of my family and friends. My wife Katie and my children Ryan, Max, Elle, Luke and Chloe were my backbone. Getting calls and text from them all along the way just made the effort so much more enjoyable and worth it. Would I ever do this again? Ah, ah, ah… I can’t hear you, what you say???
RR: I guess a good note to end on — maybe not the best timing for this question, but what’s next for the Battleship USS McGillivray?
DM: I don’t necessarily have anything currently planned. I didn’t want to do that to myself. Sometimes before I set my next goal, I want to complete the current one, recover from that and then start speculating what might be in the cards. It’s not like I’m looking for something. If it’s there and it intrigues me, then I might consider it.
RR: Like this, for example, found you.
DM: Yeah, this found me. I get invited to all kinds of crazy things, and this is going to sound like a really weird statement, but I don’t really consider myself an ultramarathoner. I don’t consider myself an obsessive kind of runner. I have a life, you know? I have five kids, and I have a business and I have a lot going on in my life — I write books and I do this and I do that. I’m not all about just running guy, even though you look at the résumé and it’s all about running. But I really don’t think I’m that obsessive about it.
So I don’t necessarily have to have a next goal right away. But I have my annual runs — running the Boston Marathon every year at night and running my age on my birthday.
The goal is, I want to get more competitive as a 60+ runner. I don’t want to just do these 10-minute mile pace, long endurance things. I want to get out there and bang heads with some of the best in the business in my age group and be competitive again. So right now, for the rest of this year my goal is to start doing more speed work, anaerobic stuff, less long-distance stuff and see what that might give me. It’d be great to run a really good marathon again fast. If I could get down close to 3:30 again…
RR: You could qualify for Boston with that time [laughs].
DM: I’ve qualified for the last 3 or 4 years. I ran 3:45 in October and that wasn’t all-out either, so I think I have a sub-3:30 in me, but I’ve got to do the work to get it. That’s an hour slower than my PR, but my PR was set 35 years ago. So that’s sort of where I think my head’s going right now. Maybe one more IRONMAN. I’ve done [the IRONMAN World Championship in Kailua-Kona] Hawaii nine times and always thought it would be good to cap it off with one more. But that might not be for another couple of years.
At the same time, whenever I am asked what is my best accomplishment I always say, “My best accomplishment is my NEXT one.” So, I guess we’ll see!
Update (Feb 2019): On Oct 12, 2018, eight months after completing the World Marathon Challenge, McGillivray — who has both a family and personal history of heart disease — underwent successful triple bypass open-heart surgery after an angiogram revealed one major artery with 80% blockage and two other arteries at 40% to 50%. He continues to recover well, with the goal of running his 47th consecutive Boston Marathon on April 15. Read his inspiring story (and learn the important difference between “fitness” and “health”) HERE.
McGillivray’s World Marathon Challenge finish times:
Day 1: Novo, Antarctica (4:50:15)
Day 2: Cape Town, South Africa (4:34:09)
Day 3: Perth, Australia (4:28:08)
Day 4: Dubai, United Arab Emirates (4:29:40)
Day 5: Lisbon, Portugal (4:42:52)
Day 6: Cartagena, Colombia (4:46:09)
Day 7: Miami, Florida (4:34:42)
(Edited for length and clarity; except where noted, all photos © World Marathon Challenge)
To support McGillivray’s charitable work for the Martin Richard Foundation (Team MR8), visit his CrowdRise fundraising page.
And check out McGillivray’s autobiographical picture book Dream Big: A True Story of Courage and Determination, now available!
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