How Dave McGillivray Has Run 51 Boston Marathons In A Row

He’ll be aiming for #52 Monday, but from a different perspective.

Last Updated:

On Monday morning, Dave McGillivray will head to the Boston Marathon start line in Hopkinton for the 53rd year in a row. Much will look very familiar. After all, McGillvray has finished the last 51 Bostons.

But there have been changes through the years as well, and there will be a big one this year. For the first time in 36 years, McGillivray is not race director for the full 26.2 miles.

You can follow our live coverage of the Boston Marathon on race day here, starting at 9:00 a.m. ET Monday morning (30 minutes before the race start time).

Since 1988, he has started the Boston Marathon and then ridden with a police escort in front of the marathon all the way to its finish in downtown Boston. Hours later, he returned to Hopkinton to cover the same roads again, but this time, on foot.

Monday morning, he’ll start the professional races and the first two waves. But then he’ll jump into the back of wave two and join two of his children, Max, 30, and Elle, 19, to cover the fabled Boston course in the middle of the huge field.

How Dave McGillivray Has Run 51 Boston Marathons In A Row 1
Dave McGillivray’s Facebook

“The last time I ran Boston with everyone else, there were 6,000 runners total,” he notes. “Now there are 30,000. I’m curious to observe how that has changed the runner experience.”

McGillivray was a bandit starter in 1972.

“Okay, I admit it,” he says, “I was 17; what did I know?” He only lasted 17 miles before collapsing and being taken to Newton Wellesley Hospital. The next year, he registered and trained hard but got sick the day before the Marathon. Everyone told him not to run, but he wouldn’t consider it. 

We’ll be on-site at the 2024 Boston Marathon to bring you live updates beginning at 8:30 a.m. EDT on Monday, April 15. Find our live updates on our homepage on race morning.

“Everyone” was right. McGillivray made it to the 21-mile mark but then sagged to the sidewalk. At first, he was too dazed to realize that he was next to Evergreen Cemetery, where his grandfather had been buried ten months earlier. 

Before his passing, that grandfather had explained to Dave why he had dropped out the year before. “You didn’t respect the race and the distance enough,” he said. “You didn’t train for it. But if you train for Boston, if you respect it, you will finish.”

McGillivray lifted himself from the sidewalk and forced himself to the finish with a final time of about 4:30. He has run every Boston since.

McGillivray has a best time of 2:29 and a worst of 5:40 that came seven months after he had triple bypass, open heart surgery.

At first, he didn’t want others to know about his heart problem. He was embarrassed.

But then he started receiving emails from other runners who had discovered their own heart issues only after hearing of his and learning from his example. “Suddenly, a light went off in my head,” he explains. “I realized how selfish I was acting. 

“Embarrassed? What kind of excuse is that when I actually woke up and got out of bed this morning? I’m one of the lucky ones. And I need to spread awareness to other runners that we can finish marathons and still have heart disease.”

How Dave McGillivray Has Run 51 Boston Marathons In A Row 2
Dave McGillivray’s Facebook

McGillivray has spent most of his life pursuing endurance challenges. These include a coast-to-coast run, an East Coast run, nine Ironman Triathlons, a 24-hour pool swim, the seven-marathons, seven days, seven continents event, and many more.

Most of his efforts involved charity fundraising. This year in Boston, he and his children are running for the Dave McGillivray Finish Strong Foundation.

He also formed a race management company, DMSE Sports, that manages several large, well-known races around the country. These include the Boston Marathon, the Falmouth Road Race, Beach to Beacon, and the recent 6-day Further event sponsored by Lululemon.

Below, McGillivray answers several key questions about his life in running.

The story about your grandfather, how he was buried near the spot where you nearly dropped out in 1973. That’s a very emotional story. Do you still think about it a lot?

“Absolutely. It was the defining moment in my life. After I picked myself up and got to the finish line, I said to myself: ‘I’m going to run this race every day for the rest of my life.”  And the reason I’m going to do that, is to honor my grandfather and the lesson he taught me about respecting the marathon and your other challenges. 

“Whatever it is you want to do, you’ve got to respect it. That means you have to prepare for it. Once you’ve done that, you’ve earned the right, and you’ll achieve what you want. But first comes the respect.”

How did you begin working for the Boston Marathon?

“The marathon had a problem at the start of the race in 1987. There was a wheelchair accident, and then defending champion Rob de Castella fell when he got tangled in some ropes. After that, the Marathon organizers decided that they may need some technical help to take a closer look at all their procedures. They hired me as a contractor-consultant for the 1988 Marathon, and I’ve been doing it ever since, with different titles as my responsibilities changed.”

How Dave McGillivray Has Run 51 Boston Marathons In A Row 3
Photo Credit: Meg Treat PR

You made a special point of befriending “Old John” A Kelley rather early in your running career. Why did you do that?

“I met him long ago at a road race in Chatham, Mass. I knew who he was, but I didn’t expect him to know who I was. 

“He came up to me and introduced himself. He said, ‘Listen, sonny boy. I followed your run across the country. And when you were having tough days, I prayed for you.’

“I almost lost it. I thought, ‘Here’s the most iconic marathon runner in the world, and he’s praying for me.’ We had an unbelievable relationship from that moment forward. If there’s anyone in my life I have looked up to, it’s Johnny Kelley. I was a pallbearer at his funeral.

“I’m always getting asked if I’m trying to beat his record of 58 Boston finishes. Hell, no. That would be disrespectful to Old John. His 58 Boston finishes are maybe the greatest marathon achievement ever. I’m not trying to beat him. I’m just taking each Boston one year at a time, and we’ll see where that goes.”

What was your day like in 2013, the year of the bomb explosions?

“It was a really tough day for me. We all wanted a good day because the previous year, 2012, was extremely hot and humid. There was a lot of carnage on the course and at the finish.

“So 2013 was perfect, great weather. At the start, I asked for 26 seconds of silence for the 26 victims of the Sandy Hook shootings four months earlier. Then we got the marathon started, and again, it was great. Everything went fantastic. In downtown Boston, my boss, the CEO of the BAA, gave me the okay to go back to Hopkinton to begin my own run.

“I was actually in Hopkinton about to start running when we got the call from the finish line. I jumped in the car with a state cop, and we drove 100 miles per hour to downtown. At the finish, I checked the medical tent and then began looking for my family. All the cell service had been knocked out. 

“A policeman stopped me and told me to clear out. I showed him my ID and said, ‘It’s okay; I’m the race director.’ He said, ‘It’s not okay, and it’s not your race anymore.’ That’s when I realized how serious the situation was.

“I had to leave the finish area, but I wanted to do something to help the runners and the race organization. So I went out to the 25th mile and helped the 6,500 runners who had been stopped there.”

How Dave McGillivray Has Run 51 Boston Marathons In A Row 4
Dave McGillivray’s Facebook

You’ve done a lot of tough endurance events through the years. Which ones stand out?

One of the toughest marathons I’ve run was the New Orleans Marathon on the causeway across Lake Pontchartrain. I happened to pick a year where we faced a strong headwind the whole way. I ran with a pack, and we kept switching things around with different people up front, but it turned into a real survival of the fittest. 

“The 7-mile swim from Martha’s Vineyard to Falmouth was another tough one. I did it one year on the day before running Falmouth. That’s one of the roughest channels in the world to swim. Only a handful of people have done it, and I felt lucky to survive.

“A short event but crazy exhausting for 15 minutes was the Empire State Building Run Up. That one came with bigtime oxygen debt the whole way–probably the most I’ve ever encountered.”

What has been your training program that has allowed you to run healthy for so long?

“It’s changed a lot through the years. Back when I was training hard with the Greater Boston Track Club, I was running over 100 miles a week. Then, I began doing more triathlon training in the 1980s, and I think that has helped me avoid any major injuries my entire career. 

“My training now is a lot different from what it was decades ago. Now, I run how I feel, mostly between 9:30 and 10:00 per mile. If I feel a soreness or an injury coming on, I focus on the cause so I can get rid of it. 

“In the last three years, I haven’t missed a day of running at least 3.5 miles. Why? I’m not really sure. I guess I just like running. My mantra is, “I run to think.” I carry a voice recorder with me and record all my best thoughts. The only goal is to endure and to keep adding miles to my lifetime total, which is around 150,000 miles at this point.”

You’ll be hitting 70 this August, which means that your annual birthday run will be longer than ever before. Tell us about that.

“I started running my age in miles on every birthday when I was 12. When I was 50, I ran 50 miles. At 60, I ran 60 miles. I’ll do 70 miles on or around my birthday in August. I don’t run all the way anymore. I do a combination of running, cycling, and swimming. It’s my game, so I get to make up the rules.

“People ask me why I don’t relax on my birthday. I could go to the beach and read a book. But when I do that, I don’t actually get any rest. I start feeling antsy. I feel more restful when I start moving, when I start accomplishing something.”

How Dave McGillivray Has Run 51 Boston Marathons In A Row 5
Dave McGillivray’s Facebook

What do you see yourself doing in the coming years and decades?

“I just want to keep moving, to keep running. I want to stay healthy as long as I can so I can play and run with my grandchildren.

“And I want to continue my legacy of finding ways to give back. I’ve always believed and found that the more you give, the more you get back in return. 

“I feel that I’ve led a blessed life. Even though I needed open-heart surgery, I’m good now. They fixed me. I still have my health. And I want to have a positive impact on other people’s lives, especially on youth, which is the focus of my foundation. But on other people, too. 

“I do a lot of speaking engagements. Recently, after one, a guy came up to me and said, ‘When I came today, I wasn’t feeling good about myself or my life. But after listening to you, I started feeling better. Now, I think I can turn things around. I think maybe you saved my life.’ And then he turned and walked away.

“That’s what I want to do–to help people feel better about themselves and their possibilities.”

We wish Dave the best of luck this coming Monday on his 53rd Boston Marathon!

Check out Marathon Handbook’s live coverage:

Photo of author
Amby Burfoot stands as a titan in the running world. Crowned the Boston Marathon champion in 1968, he became the first collegian to win this prestigious event and the first American to claim the title since John Kelley in 1957. As well as a stellar racing career, Amby channeled his passion for running into journalism. He joined Runner’s World magazine in 1978, rising to the position of Editor-in-Chief and then serving as its Editor-at-Large. As well as being the author of several books on running, he regularly contributes articles to the major publications, and curates his weekly Run Long, Run Healthy Newsletter.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.