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Pivoting Perceptions: An Interview with Dave McGillivray – Part One

Updated: Dec 21, 2021

Over the last several years, a bright light has been shown on the topic of mental illness and its commonality across the world. Slowly, the age-old stigma has begun to dim. That stigma can often be more damaging than the illness itself. Those who suffer from mental illness may neglect their mental health by not caring for their overall health, failing to find a healthy outlet for managing their illness, or not seeking help when needed. While some illnesses are more complex than others, each individual’s experience is different and must be cared for as such.

Still I Run (SIR) aims to defeat the stigma, provide a community of solidarity for those with mental illness, and inspire others to care for their mental illness through running or other physical activities. SIR is dedicated to providing education and programs to increase awareness of the importance of good mental health. As part of SIR’s mission, I had the honor of interviewing Boston Marathon Race Director, Dave McGillivray, a well-known name in the running community. In this two-part series, we dive into why running is so important to Dave. We will hear his thoughts on overcoming life’s many obstacles, including the “stigma,” in order to live one’s best life.

Overcoming Rejection

In his early years, Dave McGillivray ran mainly to stay in shape for other sports such as baseball and basketball. His long-term goal and dream was to play 2nd base for the Boston Red Sox. He didn’t see running as a competitive opportunity until later in life. “I was under the impression that I was ‘good enough’ to make the team. But those picking the team either didn’t think so, or felt my short stature wouldn’t be of any significant benefit. As the story goes, I was always the last one picked for high school sports, and last one chosen when my friends would pick sides in the park leagues,” said McGillivray. He learned the concept of rejection at an early age. At that time, his solution was to either succumb to it and run away, or deal with it head on.

Three types of pain

McGillivray explains there are three types of pain: physical, mental and emotional. He believes both physical and mental pain are types one can work hard at and train to overcome.

“The most debilitating pain we are challenged with is emotional pain. Rejection is emotional pain. It’s the feeling of not being good enough, wanted or needed, and that was simply brutal. I would never compare myself to someone suffering from an illness like cancer, but for me, at the time, the pain was real.”

Dave returned to running. This time, it wasn’t to stay in shape for another sport. He realized running was a physical activity where you didn’t have to be picked to participate. Having felt the sting of rejection at such an early age, McGillivray promised himself he would never allow anyone to tell him he is not good enough.

“In running, you allow the results to speak for themselves. Even though I felt I was just as good if not better than some of the folks who got picked for the baseball team, you don’t have to be picked to run. That is why I continued to pursue running as my final choice for athleticism.”—Dave McGillivray

McGillivray never dreamed of being a Race Director. He dreamed of being a professional athlete. For his 12th birthday and every one since, McGillivray has run his age in miles. He has since run over 150,000 miles in his lifetime thus far. “Why? Because it’s my game, my rules.”

Even though he would never achieve his original dream of playing for the Boston Red Sox, he developed a new plan. “If I can’t play at Fenway, I am going to run around Fenway.” At the age of 17, he ran his first Boston Marathon. He has participated in the race each and every year since.

Another route to Fenway

He never lost his determination to stand on the field at Fenway. “While watching a game, I saw a sign in right field that read ‘Help make a dream come true. Support The Jimmy Fund.’ So, I picked up the phone.”

The Jimmy Fund, an official charity of the Boston Red Sox, was established in 1948 to raise awareness and money to fight pediatric cancer. McGillivray offered to run across the country to raise awareness and funds for the non-profit. In return, he asked if they would let him stand on the field of his favorite team of all time.

In 1978, at the age of 24, over the course of 80 days McGillivray ran the 3,452 miles from Medford, OR, to Medford, MA—averaging 45 miles a day—to benefit the organization. Run Across America would be the first time in history that any person or organization paired running with fundraising for cancer research.

Dave McGillivray

Pivoting perceptions for a greater purpose

“This was a defining moment of my life as I was doing this for a greater purpose. It was no longer just a physical goal for myself. I was giving back.” The run ended in Fenway Park to a standing ovation of 32,000 fans.

“As I came out, the crowd stood up and started screaming so loud. All the players came out of the dugout and stood on the stairs clapping and screaming. I kept running around because I just ran across the continent, I’m not getting off this field anytime soon. To this day, nothing has equaled that feeling.”

Since then, McGillivray has accomplished numerous charitable runs. Why? “Because I don’t want to live off my past. Set a goal. Work hard. Earn the right. Accomplish it. Check it off. Move on to the next one.” Though he was small in stature, he had big dreams. Regardless of the rejection he previous experienced, he proved unstoppable.

It’s All About Perception

On January 31, 2020, United States government officials declared a public health emergency as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. This announcement quickly put a halt to the country’s ‘business as usual.’ It introduced the new ‘normal’ that has continued for more than 19 months.

“The pandemic was an interesting phenomenon. I’ve always felt this industry was bullet proof due to its’ nature. Then, this pandemic came along and proved me wrong bringing us to our knees,” said Dave McGillivray. For the Founder and President of DMSE Sports, and 32-year Boston Marathon Race Director, this was the first time McGillivray has had to cancel the race. One by one, all of the events he was directing or participating in went over the cliff. He and his team were out of a job and business was in jeopardy. While McGillivray could have given up, he reminded himself to change his perspective.

“I look at life from a lot of different angles. It’s okay to feel sorry for yourself sometimes. Some of us have been dealt a hand that can be cruel. The way I pick myself up is by putting life and things into a certain perspective.”—Dave McGillivray

McGillivray often volunteers at or visits the children in The Jimmy Fund Clinic at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. As a longtime supporter of the clinic, such visits provide him immediate perspective no matter what challenge or obstacle he is facing. “I often say, ‘I don’t feel good today, but that could be me. That little boy is suffering a life-threatening illness.’ Perspective is important. Again, that’s not to diminish what we all go through. Every now and then we have struggles and hurdles to overcome.”

Using the stages of grief to cope with uncertainty

While being jobless during the pandemic, McGillivray quickly referred to the ‘5 Stages on Death and Dying’ to bring perspective and to navigate the unknown. “The first phase is Denial—the thought of ‘this can’t be happening, but it is.’ The second phase is Anger—we get angry, we get mad, at everyone and everything. It’s a normal human response. Bargaining/Negotiating is the third phase when you’re trying to navigate through it, figure out if it’s really happening, and figure out the next steps. When you’re really in trouble, sometimes, there is depression and you almost give up. But then, if you’re strong, and if you have some degree of positiveness and confidence to turn negatives into positives, then comes acceptance. That’s a good stage, accepting what it is and dealing with it.”

McGillivray lives by the cliché of “Put your big boy pants on and get over it.” His perspective came from the realization that people were dying of COVID. The health of those people was in jeopardy, while all he lost was a few road races and the ability to do what he loves to do, and that was temporary.

“I told myself to get over it, be strong, and to most importantly, pivot. I asked myself, ‘What’s your skill set? What are you good at doing? Is it transferable? Is there another way?’” Dave McGillivray

Much like in his childhood, when he “pivoted” after losing his dream of playing 2nd base for the Boston Red Sox, but still wound up on the field at Fenway park, McGillivray found a different path during the pandemic. “Sometimes you have to accept reality, step back, reassess, reimagine, and then move forward again. That is how I have been able to get through this.”

A different way of “moving” people

Rather than dwelling on something he had no control over, he shifted his skills to help the communities of the Greater Boston Area. “In the race world, we move people athletically. But we can move them in other ways too.” McGillivray and his team rapidly prepared for their new assignment in early 2021—to oversee logistics for mass vaccination sites at Gillette Stadium, Fenway Park, Reggie Lewis Center, Hynes Convention Center helping to vaccinate 1.2 million people.

While the 125th Boston Marathon was once again postponed in early 2021, a race that normally takes place the 3rd Monday of April, McGillivray and his team continued to focus their efforts and skills on helping their community, doing their part to beat the COVID-19 pandemic so that when safe to do so, they can get back to business and doing what they love.

At the end of the day, “It’s all about perspective.”

Stay tuned for Part 2


By Rose Willson

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