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Running for his life

With 116 races and 130,000 miles since age 12, Dave McGillivray is Boston's marathon man

God knows, you don't want to turn down Dave McGillivray when he asks you to go for a 5-mile run, even though your better instincts, and your calves, tell you not to. But to him, 5 miles is a walk downstairs for coffee. So, as he sprints the familiar hilly loop from his North Andover home, he keeps up a steady conversation, or rather a monologue, because it's all you can do to breathe, let alone talk. McGillivray is to the Boston running scene what Herb Chambers is to the Boston auto scene: He rules. His athletic accomplishments alone take up two single-spaced pages -- and those are just the highlights. He has run 116 marathons, including the past 32 in Boston. He has completed eight Iron Man Triathlons, swimming 2.4 miles in rough ocean water, jumping on his bike for 112 miles, and ending with a 26.2 mile-run.

This is a guy who, starting on his 12th birthday, began running a mile for each year of his life. On his 40th, he did the first 36 miles by himself, and was joined for the final four by 150 friends. In August he'll run 50 miles to celebrate his 50th birthday.

He'd better hope he doesn't live to be 100.

McGillivray has completed a 24-hour swim, a 24-hour run, and a 24-hour bike ride, all for charity. Once, he ran the Boston Marathon while blindfolded (with a guide at each elbow). That stunt netted $10,000 for the Carrol Center for the Blind.

Another time he ran, cycled, and swam 1,522 miles throughout the six New England states, including a run up and down Mount Washington. In 1980, he ran from Florida to Boston, joined by a wheelchair athlete. "I beat him going up the hills, and he beat me coming down," McGillivray chuckles. He once swam the 7 miles from Martha's Vineyard to Falmouth in 50-degree water.

But his defining event was one of his first: In 1978, he ran 3,452 miles across America, averaging 43 miles a day for 80 days. He ended in Fenway Park to a thunderous standing ovation, having raised tens of thousands of dollars for the Jimmy Fund.

McGillivray is preparing to repeat the feat, but this time with nine buddies; he is, after all, pushing 50. On May 1, the men will set out from San Francisco, each running 15 miles a day via relay, ending at Fenway Park on May 25. They will dash across the desert, up the Rockies, through the Great Plains and the rolling hills of Pennsylvania. They will likely encounter heat, cold, rain, wind, snow, and sandstorms. The oldest is Dr. Hap Farber, 57, a pulmonary specialist; the youngest is Fernando Braz, who is 43. Among the 10 of them, they've run 361 marathons. Their goal, besides bragging rights, is to raise $250,000 for five local children's causes.

But first, there's the Boston Marathon, being run today. McGillivray runs it and runs it. As race director for the past few years, he can't do the course until the others come in. So, at about 4 p.m., he'll lace up his Adidases and take off, finishing around 8 p.m. What makes McGillivray run?

Failure, actually. Growing up in Medford, he gravitated toward sports. But he was the smallest kid in the class. ("Five-five on a good day" is his adult height). He was always the last one picked for school yard games, the first one cut for varsity teams. At age 12, he put a sign over his bed: "Please, God, let me grow."

Born to run One sport that didn't require height was running. At 16, he did his first Boston Marathon, without training. He and his grandfather planned to meet at mile 24. But at mile 20, in the Newton hills, McGillivray collapsed and went to the hospital.

"I told my grandfather I failed. . . . He told me to train for the next year, and he'd be there." Two months later, his grandfather died. McGillivray dedicated the marathon to his memory. Two days before the race, he came down with a stomach virus. He ran anyway, stopping to vomit. At 22 miles, he sat on a curb and cried. "I said, `Grandpa, I failed you.' Then I looked up and saw Evergreen Cemetery. Grandpa was buried there. He said he would be there, and he was. So I picked myself up and finished. And when I finished, I said I was going to run this race every year for the rest of my life."

Stories about Dave McGillivray abound. There was the time he and a buddy decided to watch the New York Marathon rather than run it. But once they got there, they got caught up in the excitement and took off, ill-clad. "They both had their sneakers on but not much else; it was colder than expected and Dave was not prepared," says his friend Linda Fechter. Along the route, as overdressed marathoners began shedding their clothes, McGillivray and his friend picked up some items and donned them. "A few women's items fit Dave, so that is what he wore," Fechter recalls.

Josh Nemzer remembers meeting McGillivray in 1982 during a relay race from Providence to the Pru. Nemzer, who was running with five other teammates, asked McGillivray who he was running with. He gave a vague answer; Nemzer later learned he was running the relay solo.

Like any self-respecting obsessive-compulsive, McGillivray never missed a class in high school or college. He was valedictorian at Medford High, and made the Guinness Book of World Records for doing 5,000 consecutive sit-ups ("I stopped when my mother called me to dinner."). At Merrimack College, he was valedictorian and president of his class -- while working on an assembly line to pay his way through. "I wasn't the smartest kid by any means, and I'm not the most athletic guy in the world," he says. "But I understand the value of the work ethic."

Nemzer, who is McGillivray's chief competitor and best friend, says that, in his prime, McGillivray was a solid distance runner but never elite material. The two men go head-to-head in everything from bowling to free throws. "Dave is a fierce competitor, and we go right at it in a very friendly way," says Nemzer, 46, who is on the cross-country relay team.

Over the years, McGillivray figures he's run 130,000 miles. Amazingly, he's had few injuries. Twenty years ago, he had minor knee surgery to remove scar tissue, and he occasionally has calf cramps. "I'm certainly not pain-free, but for all the things I've done, a case could be made that I should be in a wheelchair now," he says.

In 1980, capitalizing on his cross-country feat, he founded Dave McGillivray Sports Enterprises, which has produced or consulted on more than 700 athletic events throughout the world. In 1988, he was hired as technical coordinator of the Boston Marathon; four years ago, he became director, responsible for all the logistical, operational, and technical aspects of the race, which today will include 20,000 runners, 7,000 volunteers, 1,200 police officers, and more than 1,000 medical personnel -- not to mention 85,500 safety pins, 35,000 gallons of water, and 5,000 Band-Aids.

McGillivray is a compact man with a head of dark, thinning, hair. He speaks quickly, his hands in constant motion. He weighs 142, and his goal is to lose 10 pounds during the cross-country trek. His wife, Katie, is bigger than he is, but she's eight-and-a-half months pregnant.

The couple met in Atlanta, where both were working on the 1996 Olympics. The father of two young boys, he was going through a painful divorce. When she moved back home to Salem, N.H., she went to work for his company.

"Even thinking about what he does makes me tired," she says. "I'm 17 years younger and I can't keep up with him." She has run three marathons, inspired, she says, by her husband who stays with her until the finish line. "New York was my fastest and his slowest," she says. "4:20."

They married last August, and the baby is due May 5, about the time McGillivray will be crossing the Nevada desert. The trek has been in the planning stages for two years, longer than the baby. But McGillivray is used to logistical nightmares; it's what he does for a living. He has already pinpointed airports throughout the course, and when the call comes, one of the support team members will drive him there. He'll come home for a few days -- while a substitute runner takes his place -- and then return to the route.

Pushes through the pain Sometimes it's hard for Katie McGillivray to watch her husband's next exploit. "I've seen him fall asleep at the table after an event. But Dave gets something in his mind and he'll do everything in his ability to accomplish it. He just pushes through the pain." She giggles. "I'm thinking now that he should have this baby instead of me."

McGillivray is not content to just do his own thing; he wants the world to join in. Recently, his nonprofit foundation became involved in the fight against childhood obesity. And then there are the inmates. Several years ago, he went into MCI-Walpole to race against 30 prisoners who had built a half-mile dirt track in the prison yard. It wasn't long before he started the only running club in a maximum security prison in the country, sanctioned by the US Track and Field Association. He directed several races in the yard, including a marathon -- "It was 52 or 54 laps around the track," he recalls. He had T-shirts made up: "Walpole State Prison Yard Runners' Club." He attended the jailhouse wedding of one runner. Eventually the club got so large that the nervous prison administration disbanded it.

McGillivray, who tends to live in T-shirts, running pants and shoes, readily admits that he's an obsessive workaholic. He rarely sleeps more than four or five hours a night: "My motto is that eating and sleeping are overrated."

A typical day goes like this: Rise at 3:45 a.m., put on coffee, go into home office, work on e-mails (he gets more than 300 a day), run, shower, eat breakfast, back in office by 9. "When everyone else is starting work, I've been at it for five hours."

So, is he a classic overachieving egomaniac, constantly performing on "The Dave McGillivray Show"? There's no question he enjoys all the notoriety. One chapter in his memoir-in-progress is titled "Ego is not a four-letter word."

"I don't look at ego as being boastful," he says. "I don't think I'm better than anyone. I'm just motivated, and I try to get other people to be motivated. I try to be both humble and confident at the same time."

Even on the cross-country trek, he'll have his laptop and cellphone. "My hope is I can carry on my business from the road," he says. He'll also be checking in with his sons' school, which will be following the trip via the website (www.trekusa.org). Three days after his return, McGillivray will hold his seventh annual mini-Olympics at the school, complete with several events, a public-address system, medals, and T-shirts.

But first, he has to get through today, Marathon Monday. Around dusk, if you see a lone figure huffing up Heartbreak Hill, it's probably Dave McGillivray, running late.

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