Dave McGillivray's dilemma

In the weeks leading up to the 2014 Boston Marathon, Dave McGillivray was steeled with certitude and torn with indecision. As race director of the venerable, star-crossed marathon, McGillivray knew what he wanted. As the father of young children, he didn't.

Elle McGillivray, 9, and her brother, Luke, 8, attended the marathon last year with their mother, Katie. They were near the finish line on Boylston Street, saw the bombs explode and ran for their lives.

Dave and Katie McGillivray have been debating whether to bring their children to the marathon this year. It is a debate that echoes through thousands of New England households. Safety is a universal concern. The McGillivrays have an added concern: They worry that Elle and Luke's eyewitness horror could awaken.

Race director since 2001, technical director for 13 years prior and a participant runner since 1972, McGillivray, 59, knows Boston. But on an afternoon in late February, after meeting with public safety officials at the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency, he was torn between the race he loves and the well-being of his children.

"I'm not sure what we're going to do about it," McGillivray said. "If they don't go, it would be sad, because I know they enjoy themselves, and it means a lot to me. To have that taken away. ...

"It's all a matter of how you sense the child feels at the time. You want to do the right thing -- so we're struggling with that now. If you talk to my wife, it's decided. If you talk to me, I'm hoping that things can change in the next month."

A close eye would be kept on Luke, he says. The bombs have affected him more than his older sister.

"He's been at the finish line when I finish, holding the tape for me to break," McGillivray said. "That means a lot to me, so not to have him there would be a void."

When the two bombs went off on April 15, 2013, Katie knew it was serious. Others in the grandstand -- the exclusive seats at the finish line -- thought the explosions were benign, but Katie did not.

"I instinctively knew I had to get the kids out of there," she recalled.

Soon enough, her instincts were confirmed.

"We saw the smoke and screaming and hysteria. People were running, and there was the smell -- an awful smell."

Katie gathered Elle and Luke and a third child, her niece, and began to run.

"Just your basic instinct takes over -- flight or fight. You kick into survival mode. It was crazy, something you would see in Iraq, not downtown Boston.

"We ran as fast and as far as we could. Then, we hid for a while and tried to make sense of it."

Three were killed and more than 260 injured. Twenty minutes after the explosions, in a Back Bay alley, Katie was frantic to reach her husband. He had been at the start line at Hopkinton, Mass., when the bombs went off, set to run the course for the 42nd time. A close friend, who had taken a call from a family member, told him of the explosions. The friend sped McGillivray eastward on the Massachusetts Turnpike, with a state police escort, toward Boston's Back Bay, when Katie's call got through.

The tone of the conversation, she recalled, was "shocked."

"Are you OK?"


"Where are you?"

"In an alley, just hanging out."

"OK, I'm on my way to Boston. Keep in touch."

McGillivray reached Boston and waded into the chaos. Katie's car was in an area on lockdown. She found a ride to South Boston and was later driven by a friend to her home in suburban North Andover. A couple of days later, after McGillivray had helped sort out the mess, he returned home.

"Up to that point, I had had my game face on -- to stay the course and help take care of people," McGillivray recalled. "Then, the devastation of it all -- the victims, the deaths, the limbs -- hit me. This was supposed to be fun, a road race. It was not supposed to be Afghanistan."

The tragedy plumbed new depth, he recalled, when his son Luke hugged him and said, "Dad, I never want you to direct that race again."

"Everyone will be OK," McGillivray heard his own voice respond. "Let's talk about it again. Just know that everyone's OK."

McGillivray took Luke to a baseball game at Fenway Park a couple of weeks later. The boy became nervous, and he wanted to leave after two or three innings. He was nervous at home, too.

"My son was terrified that somebody was in the house trying to get us," Katie recalled.

Katie arranged for a psychologist to see Luke, and she talked to her kids, a lot.

"I tried to explain to them that, as awful as it was, they will never have to witness anything like that again," she said. "You try to make them understand that, yes, there are bad people, but not all of them are trying to get you.

"I tried to show them the good. I said to them, 'We have the best hospitals in Boston, and all of those people, instead of running away, stayed and helped.'"

McGillivray had a heart-to-heart with both kids.

"What happened was not directed at us," he said he told them. "The bad guys were caught. This won't happen again. Sometimes in life, these things happen. You just have to pay attention to what you're doing."

McGillivray adopted the voice of a faith healer, in public and with his family. Scar tissue is stronger than original skin, he would say. Runners will not be denied their running freedom. Turn negatives into positives.

A few more weeks passed, and Luke seemed to brighten. He asked his father if he remembered his request not to direct the marathon again.

"Yes, Luke. I remember."

"You know why?"


"'Cause I want to direct it."

McGillivray took that as a good sign.

"It gave me a sense that we're all coming back," he recalled. "'We'll never forget, and we've got work to do, but we'll get through this."

Long before the bombings, McGillivray found spirituality in the marathon.

He grew up six miles north of Boston, in the blue-collar town of Medford, Mass., the fifth of five children. His father was a master electrician, his mother a housewife and hospital volunteer. As a child, he was deemed too short (5-foot-4) for team sports -- the proverbial last pick. McGillivray found running and became a star in cross-country and track at Medford High.

On a whim, he decided to run his first Boston Marathon as an unofficial "bandit" at 17, in 1972. McGillivray alerted his grandfather, Fred Eaton, a World War I veteran who lived in public housing in Brighton, Mass., near the marathon course. Eaton promised to greet him as he ran through the Coolidge Corner intersection in Brookline, Mass.

But McGillivray had not trained for the distance. He collapsed at the 18-mile mark, before he ran past Eaton, and was taken to a hospital by ambulance. When McGillivray got home that evening, he telephoned his grandfather, repeatedly, to no avail. Finally, at 9 p.m., Eaton answered.

"Hey, Grandpa. Where you been?"

"Where you been? I been waiting for you all this time. You never showed up."

"I dropped out. I failed."

McGillivray expected a rebuke.

"You didn't fail. You gotta train and do things right. You train, and I will be there for you next year."

"Deal," said McGillivray.

Two months later, McGillivray's grandfather died of a heart attack at the age of 75. To honor his memory, McGillivray trained for the 1973 marathon and was an official entrant. A stomach virus nearly forced him to scratch, but he ran the race and was sick enough that he had to sit down on Commonwealth Avenue, between the 21st and 22nd mile.

"I sat on this curb, and I looked behind me," McGillivray recalled. "And there was Evergreen Cemetery, where my grandfather was buried. There was his tombstone.

"I thought, 'The son of a gun said he'd be here for me, and here he is, spiritually if not physically. I've got to finish.'"

McGillivray got back onto the course and finished in 4½ hours. He vowed to run it every year in tribute to his grandfather, a promise he has kept.

He went on to build his life around running. In 1978, he ran from Medford, Ore., to Medford, Mass., covering 3,452 miles in 80 days, and finished with two laps inside Fenway Park before a cheering Red Sox crowd. His cross-country run, to raise money for the Jimmy Fund, drew national attention for his efforts to connect endurance sports with philanthropy.

McGillivray has run 130 marathons and completed eight Ironman triathlons in Hawaii. He has run the length of the East Coast, run 120 miles in 24 hours, biked for 24 hours and swam for 24 hours -- all for charitable causes. Along the way, he built a race management company and organized or consulted on more than 900 races worldwide.

Tom Grilk, executive director of the Boston Athletic Association, which sponsors the marathon, met McGillivray in the late '70s when both were members of the Greater Boston Track Club. Grilk organized a race along Boston's Freedom Trail and hired McGillivray to help manage it. He assigned McGillivray to a dangerous intersection near the Bunker Hill Monument.

"For a sensitive place on the course you wanted someone driven who wouldn't allow things to let go," Grilk said. "That was Dave."

If the bombings were not enough to make McGillivray consider his own mortality, six months later came another reminder.

On his runs, McGillivray noticed a "breathing challenge," as though he were at altitude. He ran, walked, ran and walked. This went on for a while; something wasn't right. A CAT scan revealed narrowing and blockage of his major arteries.

McGillivray was not wholly surprised, because his father had died of aortic stenosis, and both grandfathers of heart attacks. But he had hoped running would decrease his chances of heart disease.

"I realized that I had spent my whole life trying to be fit, but I didn't focus on trying to be healthy," McGillivray said. "I thought one meant the other, but it doesn't."

He was embarrassed by the diagnosis and swore Katie to secrecy.

"I didn't want to show anyone my vulnerability," he recalls.

Surgery was considered, but McGillivray and his doctors opted for medicine and a change of diet and lifestyle. Motivation was easy. He has five children -- two from a first marriage and three with Katie -- with the youngest, Chloe, just 4.

"I don't want to be in a nursing home when she graduates high school," McGillivray said.

In four months, McGillivray dropped 27 pounds, down to 128, and lowered his cholesterol level by 70 points. His breathing returned to normal, and he increased his weekly mileage from 60 to 70. He took up swimming.

Said Katie: "He turned his life on a dime."

Along the way, he reconsidered his silence. He thought about several competition runners who had died with their running shoes on, about how their fate might have been his, and decided to speak about his scare in public.

"I quit being selfish and embarrassed," he said. "I tell the story now -- it might save some lives."

The details, however, are spared the three youngest children.

"As much as possible, we've tried not to let the kids know about his health," Katie said.

Katie Breen McGillivray needs no reminders about mortality. She grew up one of seven children of funeral home operators in Lawrence and North Andover, north of Boston.

"I take the Irish-Catholic view -- something is going to get all of us one of these days," Katie said. "Not to say we don't do what we can to stave it off, but the fact of the matter is that tragedy does happen.

"The more friends and people you have in life, the more hurt you're going to feel. It's all about dealing with it and keeping perspective."

When Katie met McGillivray, at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996, she was working on the marathon, race walk and road cycling events. He was going through a divorce.

"He was trying to figure out his life, get back on track," she said. "He was incredibly determined. I had just met him, and one of the first things he did was change and go for a run to get the lay of the land."

Though he was 17 years older, their friendship grew into a relationship. To a degree, they were opposites. He obsessed over details; she took life as it came. She fell for him, she said, "because of his integrity and determination, just the fact that he made me feel like there were no limits, anything was possible."

With his encouragement, she took up running. When she asked for a training tip, he said, "run as far as you can, turn around, come home." She completed three marathons.

They were married in 2003. In their 10 years of marriage, she has found him to be relentlessly upbeat. He turned his heart disease into a positive, she said, and he was determined to do the same with the Boston Marathon attacks.

For Boston's 36,000 participants, 10,000 volunteers and worldwide audience of millions, McGillivray harbors no indecision, no ambivalence.

"He wants it to be bigger and better than ever," Katie said. "He doesn't want what happened to ruin the spirit of the race. He wants it to be about the race."

Still, a decision hovered over the McGillivray household. News coverage of Boston 2014 gathered steam in March.

"The kids began to ask questions again," Katie said.

Luke asked how to make a bomb. Then, he expressed fear for his father's safety.

"Is Dad going to be OK?" he asked. "What if the bad guys come back?"

The time had come. Elle and Luke's feelings were paramount. Parental caution, common sense and love factored in.

"I think they were torn because they know how important it is to me," McGillivray said. "But I would never force them to do anything not in their best interest.

"I just wanted them to be happy. I didn't want to drag it out."

The decision was for Katie to take the kids on an outing, possibly to visit a cousin on Cape Cod, away from Boston.

McGillivray is OK with that. As a pragmatic matter, he understands. Deep down, he hurts.

"There's a little sadness they won't be there for me," he said.

Katie sees the disappointment in her husband.

"He wants what is in our best interests, but he does feel a bit defeated," she said. "He used that silly quote, 'They won.' What was a wonderful day for the kids has turned into a total opposite. He gets it -- he wants us to do what we are comfortable with, but he feels badly that we're not part of it."

McGillivray will manage the race, and after the official entrants finish, at the end of the day, he will run Boston for the 42nd time -- 43rd counting his abortive first.

He will run with a melancholy heart, past the cemetery where his grandfather is buried, toward the finish line where Katie, Elle and Luke will not greet him. He will be grateful for the gift of strong legs, and of life.

Steve Marantz is an E:60 researcher and author of "Next Up at Fenway: A Story of High School, Hope and Lindos Suenos."