Why Dave McGillivray thinks the Boston Marathon was harder than the one he ran in Antarctica

The athletes faced worse conditions Monday than those on the ice sheet in Novo, Antarctica.

Dave McGillivray
Dave McGillivray, Boston Marathon race director, crosses the finish line in 2018. –Courtesy of Dave McGillivray

The athletes venturing from Hopkinton to Boylston Street on Monday faced conditions worse than those on the ice sheet in Novo, Antartica. That’s according to Dave McGillivray, the Boston Marathon race director, who braved both climates for 26.2 miles in the past four months and said that in the Antarctic Circle, at least it wasn’t raining.

“Novo was actually more comfortable than it was yesterday. For sure. It wasn’t raining. Novo was 20 degrees, here was 37.” he said. “But 37 and raining is just not pleasant. That’s the big difference.”

There was no escaping the rain for the 63-year-old on Monday. He took on the elements first in his role as race director, then for his annual after-work marathon. The 122nd running of the Boston Marathon was up there as one of the most challenging days he’d ever experienced, McGillivray said, because the deluge refused to break. It was “epic.”

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McGillivray set out for his 42nd trot through the Newton Hills around 5 p.m. with six friends. At the starting line, he wasn’t in a great place mentally after dealing with the weather and all of the decisions it forced upon the organizers. For the first time in a long time, he wasn’t sure he’d finish the race. It was a sentiment shared by many, including the eventual champion. But the seven runners pressed on, battling the rain for most of the route before the downpour finally eased near the 18 mile mark.

When the group crossed the finish line at 10 p.m., about 150 people were on hand to cheer them on, including Bill and Denise Richard, Meb Keflezighi, and Joan Benoit Samuelson. McGillivray’s marathons on Monday and in Novo were in support of the Martin Richard Foundation.

Dave McGillivray
From left: Bill Richard, Dave McGillivray, Meb Keflezighi, Denise Richard and Joan Benoit Samuelson. —Courtesy of Dave McGillivray

It was a moment that might have had to wait a year to occur. On Sunday, as the Boston Athletic Association organizers prepared for the big day, there was some talk that the marathon be cancelled. But McGillivray, the B.A.A., and the city officials elected to proceed with the race, and he believes the event validated that decision. The only option that was never in play was postponing the race.

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“You could never do that. You could never mobilize — you’re talking about tens of thousands of people. Totally impossible. It’s either a go or it’s a no go. That’s it. It’s black or white.”

On Monday, despite the Antarctic chill, it was a go.

The conditions

When McGillivray runs the marathon course late in the evenings, the sidewalks are usually empty and the crowds have gone home. So he’s developed a trick. When he’s riding in the lead vehicle in front of the elite men, the race director absorbs the sights and sounds of the spectators, even though he knows “they’re not yelling and screaming for [him].” Then, when he’s out on the deserted roads, he replays the noise in his head and pretends the crowd is still there.

On Monday, the rest of the 30,087 athletes could have borrowed the same trick. The crowds, usually shoulder to shoulder the length of the course, were the lowest McGillivray has ever seen. During the long stretches where there was no one in sight, even during the elite race, he said didn’t feel like they were running in the Boston Marathon.

“When the runners probably needed the encouragement the most, the turnout was less than what its been,” McGillivray said. “It was an interesting dynamic in that the runner had to dig in even deeper on their own to get through this challenge.””

But he was glad that was the case, because spectators standing in the freezing rain without 26.2 miles of exertion to keep them warm could have easily added to the hospitalization statistics. And the runners did dig deeper. More than 95 percent of those who toed the line in Hopkinton crossed the line in Boston. As the lead vehicle passed some of the athletes with disabilities and the slower elite women, McGillivray watched them struggle, yet continue.

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“To witness that kind of effort was truly inspiring,” he said. “You know that these poor folks are really hurting. But they’re carrying on.”

Dave McGillivray
Dave McGillivray setting out in Hopkinton with Eric Gilsenan, Nick Wishart, Brent Richardson, Matt Auger, Jason Todd and Josh Cohen. —Courtesy of Dave McGillivray

Desiree Linden faced the same choice early on in her race, telling Shalane Flanagan that she might drop out. Linden decided to keep moving forward and soon found herself wearing a laurel wreath, the first American woman to do so in Boston since 1985. McGillivray said that her victory, and the fact that U.S. athletes took 13 of the top 20 places, signals that the nation’s long-distance running is back in full swing.

“We welcome and encourage and cherish our international world-class runners, but it’s hard not to have hometown favorites too,” he said. “And to see them perform at a high level and ultimately win the race is refreshing.”

McGillivray noted that the conditions might have played a role in the results as 23 elite runners dropped out. A runner thrust into cold rain and headwinds who trains in a warm weather climate may be impacted by the weather more than the runner next to them who’s used to the 37 degree temperatures. Vice versa, he said, on a sweltering day the warm weather runner will be adjusted to those conditions.

No matter the conditions, there will always be injuries in a marathon. McGillivray was happy to report that only 10 athletes remained in the hospital the day after the race and all were expected to be released soon.

“People got hurt. But people are going to get hurt in the most ideal conditions, too. That’s just the nature of the beast,” he said.

Next year’s race

Linden broke the tape in 2 hours 39 minutes and 54 seconds, the slowest winning time in 40 years. McGillivray expects that when the organizers sit down to sift through the data in the next couple weeks, they’ll find that pattern repeated across the 30,000 entrants.

He predicted that the 2018 will have the lowest percentage of qualified runners who re-qualified for next year with their performance on Monday. But the race director doesn’t envision lowering the qualifying standards to allow for the biblical floods. Other marathons have had their share of bad weather, and the B.A.A. didn’t lower the bar for them. Besides, the qualification window already opened in September.

McGillivray also started preparing for next Patriots Day well before Monday’s race was run. He began writing his observations of this year’s race about a month ago and filled two pages with improvements the organizers can make in 2019. He said he’ll take the lessons from this year into the future, as well as the confidence that he can make difficult decisions on the fly.

“I would give this a higher grade of success than a race that maybe had a few less things that went wrong but was held on a really good day,” McGillivray said. “I don’t think anyone could be more pleased with how things turned out.”

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