McGillivray keeps birthday runs alive

Dave McGillivray, seen here on a cross-country run in 1978, has continued his birthday-run climb. Courtesy of Dave McGillivray

On the morning of his 12th birthday, Dave McGillivray took off on a run from his home in Medford, Massachusetts.

The 6-mile route curled around a big pond, then back to his front door. Later that day, Aug. 22, 1966, McGillivray got the urge to do a second loop.

"So I ran 12 miles on my 12th birthday," he recalled.

The next year, he did 13 miles on his 13th birthday. Then 14 on his 14th.

"I kept doing it and never stopped," said McGillivray. "I've been doing it for the last 48 years."

Just as on that first birthday run, the miles don't have to be done all at once. They can be run any time over 24 hours (although some years he has done them continuously), but the rules have evolved.

For his 40th birthday, McGillivray scheduled a big party on Aug. 22, so he ran 40 miles the day before. After all, the birthday run takes a lot more time than it did when he was 12. He said moving it gave him the liberty to do the run any time near his actual birthday.

"My game, my rules. That's my motto," he said, laughing. "I pick the best day that's convenient."

And so this past Saturday was the run for his upcoming 60th birthday.

McGillivray sent out invitations for "Dave's 60th Birthday Party ... and Short Jog!" and, like the race director he is, had the day planned down to the minute.

He did 3.5-mile loops from his home in North Andover, Massachusetts, beginning at 2 a.m., with an allowance of 50 minutes per circuit (including break time). After 17 laps (plus another half-mile), he figured to finish about 4:30 p.m. -- 90 minutes after the start of a party at his home.

But McGillivray completed his 60-mile quest at 4:15 p.m., and he called it a "pretty easy" effort.

More than 200 guests came for a party to celebrate, including running icons Joan Benoit Samuelson and Rick and Dick Hoyt. Some arrived early and ran a loop (or more) with him. Most just came for the celebration party that began about 3 p.m.

It was a big change from the past two years, when McGillivray didn't feel strong. He ran under the radar, worried that he wouldn't be able to finish. He said he feels better now than he has in many years, so he knew beforehand that he was ready to run.

"This year, knowing I'm in pretty good shape, I feel like anybody joining me, I'll be able to keep up with them," he said. And he did just that.

Athletic feats

If McGillivray's name sounds familiar, it should -- especially to those in New England and those in the running world.

He's the longtime race director for the Boston Marathon and operates Dave McGillivray Sports Enterprises, which has put on thousands of race events. He's also a motivational speaker and author.

He's run 131 marathons (with a personal best of 2:29:58), including 42 consecutive Boston Marathons -- the last 27 of which he's run at night after completing his duties as race director.

He's finished the Ironman World Championship triathlon in Hawaii eight times and has completed 24-hour swims, bikes and runs. In 1978, he ran 3,452 miles across the country to raise money for the Jimmy Fund.

So, the man is used to extending himself.

Still, as McGillivray aged, some of his friends started to question his birthday tradition.

"As I got to 40, then people started scratching their heads, saying, 'You sure you want to continue doing this?'" he said. "And every year since then, people looked at me with a kind of 'are-you-all-there?' look. 'Do you really need to continue doing this?'

"I think a lot of them are honestly concerned about me hurting myself, but I wouldn't do it if I felt I was overtaxing myself."

To McGillivray's longtime friend Josh Nemzer, the birthday streak is an extension of McGillivray's personality.

"Dave's got a very committed attitude and work ethic," said Nemzer, 57, who's often accompanied McGillivray for the entire distance of his birthday runs.

"If he says he's going to do something, he's going to get it done. If he's committed to accomplish something, it's going to get accomplished. That's how his DNA is set up. It's how he's wired."

Health scare

McGillivray never has missed a birthday run, but in recent years, he knew he wasn't at peak condition.

He was having trouble breathing during the first 10-15 minutes of his training runs. The trouble would subside, but McGillivray knew something was wrong.

"I felt like I was running at altitude," he said.

Ten months ago, a second series of tests done at his urging -- including a CT scan and an angiogram -- revealed a narrowing of his arteries and blockage. For a lifelong athlete, it was a shock.

"I thought I was invincible," he said. "All the running and the exercising I've done all my life, I thought, 'How did this happen?'"

But there's a history of what McGillivray called "cardiac challenges" in his family, and he admits he never paid much attention to what he drank and ate. Because he worked out so hard, he believed his fitness would overpower any ills.

His philosophy: "If the furnace is hot enough, it'll burn."

"I would participate in some of the nice stuff of life after a hard workout," he said. "I felt I deserved it. It was my reward."

But the medical tests taught him that being fit doesn't necessarily mean being healthy. So, with his typical focus, McGillivray attacked the problem.

After being told by his doctor that much of his condition could be reversed, McGillivray stopped eating bad foods and drinking beer. He eats only fruits, vegetables, whole grains and healthy food. Plus, he's tried to rest more and cut down on stress.

The man who used to say "sleep's overrated" is listening to his body.

"I broke a lot of rules in the past, and I'm following them all now," he said.

In 10 months, his cholesterol count has dropped more than 100 points, his breathing problem has disappeared and he's lost about 25 pounds (down to 131 on his 5-foot-4 frame). He believes his fitness is the best it's been in 20 years.

"The reality is [the condition] is very serious and I was very lucky to catch it and get a second chance," he said.

Which was another reason for the big bash Saturday. After a couple of low-key years in which he ran mostly alone, he wanted to celebrate.

When talking about his health scare, McGillivray said he wanted to "throw the heavy artillery" at it. He not only wanted to improve his diet and lifestyle, but step up his training at the same time.

To do that, he took on an old challenge once again: the Ironman in Hawaii.

He completed eight of them at Kailua-Kona in the 1980s -- his Ironman best is 10:36:42 -- but hasn't done one since 1989. In October, he's aimed the artillery at his ninth.

"I needed something to go after," he said. "I needed a magnet to sort of get me to train in not just running, but cross-train. I wanted to become fit ... not just running-wise, but upper body and core, and it's all worked."

Streaking ahead

Nemzer believed McGillivray's birthday streak is important for what it means.

"It's a nice kind of example to set for other people in the sense that this specific event, this specific activity, is less relevant than just doing something that makes you feel good," he said. "That's what I think is special about the birthday run.

"Year in and year out, there's something being done that Dave is feeling good about and that other people can feel good about."

But McGillivray knows the birthday streak will stop at some point. Running 80 miles at 80 might be too much.

He could change the rules -- it's his game, after all -- and run kilometers instead of miles. Or he could pedal his birthday miles.

In fact, after he turned 50, he thought about going in reverse. For every birthday starting at 51, he'd take off a mile. At 51, he'd do 49, then 48 at 52 and so on.

"So when I turn 70, all I'd have to do is 30, and that seemed like a more reasonable goal," he said.

On his 51st birthday run, he did stop at 49.

"I didn't know what to do," he said. "I didn't know whether to continue or stop."

But after a brief pause, he did two more miles.

"I just decided, 'I've been adding since age 12. Why stop now?' "