Dave McGillivray Returns To Kona 25 Years Later

Boston Marathon race director Dave McGillivray shares his motivation for returning to the Hawaii Ironman 25 years later.

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Boston Marathon race director Dave McGillivray will return to his roots this Saturday at the Ironman World Championship. Despite facing several health challenges over the past year, McGillivray will make the start and hopes to inspire and educate others about their own health along the way. McGillivray is also competing to raise money for the foundation created in honor of Martin Richard, the young boy who was killed in the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings. Here, McGillivray shares with Triathlete.com his motivation for returning to the Hawaii Ironman start line 25 years after he first competed.

I first heard about the Ironman while reading the May 1979 issue of Sports Illustrated. I had just run across the United States the year before, so I felt anything was possible. Even though I didn’t know how to swim well or even own a bike at the time, I decided right then that this event was right up my alley. So I went ahead and registered for the 1980 race. I think the entry fee was around $10.

I finished 14th that year out of 108 competitors, making me somewhere around the 35th person ever to have completed an Ironman. For me, it was a slugfest. No finesse, just bump and grind. I had no idea what I was doing—I still don’t actually. I couldn’t get enough, so I went back seven more times in the ’80s. My last one was in 1989, exactly 25 years ago. In the back of my head I always knew I wanted to do it “just one more time,” but with five children and my focus building a business initially focused on producing triathlons, the time was never just right … until now.

On Oct. 9, 2013, I was diagnosed with severe coronary artery disease. I was having difficulty breathing during exercise and decided to have it checked out. At first, they found nothing. I knew something was wrong, so I persisted and asked to have the “big boy tests.” A CAT scan was done followed by an angiogram. The results were ugly. This was due partly to genetics and partly due to my own doing—I’m embarrassed to say. I vividly recall lying on the operating table looking at the monitor and seeing my heart and arteries and asking myself, ‘how did I get myself into this mess?’ I’m sure lack of sleep (I always said sleep was overrated) and “stress” played a role in all of this too, especially this past year following the bombings at the Boston Marathon.

It took 59 years, but I finally learned that being fit did not necessarily mean being healthy. I always thought it did, as I am sure many others do too. I asked my doctor if this was reversible and he said it depends on the person. I said, “Well, you are talking to him.” And he said, “Then, yes.” I didn’t need a second opinion. That very second I went into action, changing my diet, taking supplements, eliminating stress and cross-training. One of the very first things I did was to set a few goals—I needed something to go after, a big target, a magnet. The Ironman was it.

Unfortunately, time has been my enemy. As focused as I have been on this mission, trying to balance family, business and training has been the biggest challenge, as it is for most folks my age. I wanted to train much more, and I still do. If only someone would invent the 36-hour day. This summer I did five triathlons—three sprints, one Olympic and one half-Ironman. Getting re-acquainted with the sport I built my business on has been quite interesting. In fact, for the first time in my life I actually tried on a wetsuit and used it in some races. What an experience it is just getting the darn thing on and off. I’ve been amazed at how this sport has changed since I last competed and even since I last directed a race. I’ve directed more than 150 triathlons including the ITU Triathlon World Championships, ITU World Cup races, the Goodwill Games Triathlon and have managed some of the sport’s greatest athletes. I was even inducted into the USA Triathlon Hall of Fame—can you believe that?—but I feel like such a novice getting back into the sport right now.

So many are asking me what my goal is. That is simple and perhaps very different than most of the other 2,000 athletes who will race in Kona this year.  My goal has been just to get to the starting line. Of course, I want to reach the finish line, too, but reaching the start for me is what it has all been about. Starting is the goal, finishing is the reward. Race day will be a year and two days since I was diagnosed with this health issue and since I made the change. Amazingly, it was only a year ago I was lying on an operating table at Massachusetts General Hospital looking at my heart and arteries on a monitor and the thought of how much time I might have left entered my mind. Now, I’m going back to the Ironman. I was determined to live by what I preach and turn a negative into a positive.

For me, this has always been more about the journey than it has been about the destination. It’s a race to the start and the process in getting there. It’s not really a dream come true like it is for many others. I’ve been here plenty of times before—and well before perhaps anyone else in this year’s race. However, most importantly, the presence of the Ironman as a serious goal has actually helped save my life already. And, interestingly, it has not only helped save my life, but has indirectly saved many others as I constantly get emails and calls from fit athletes all over the country telling me that when they heard about my story they went and got a check-up themselves and discovered they had a similar condition. Their words, “you helped save my life,” will stay with me for the rest of mine. They, like me, got a second chance. I know at least a half dozen “fit” friends who went out for a run one day and never came home—they didn’t get the same second chance.

In Kona I’ll perform only to the level of time invested, which is less than most, but enough for me in maintaining my priorities and trying to balance everything else I have going on in my life. I will only be competitive with myself. The best I’ve done in Hawaii is 10 hours, 38 minutes. Now, I’ll gladly take 13 or more hours. This will be the first time ever I’ll be getting a glow stick! I’ve done more training for this Ironman than the previous eight of them, but I’ll finish hours later. Go figure.

The lure of doing Ironman again has helped me make a life-changing transformation. I have lost more than 25 pounds, lowered my cholesterol level by almost 100 points and have been running better than I have in the past 20 years.

I completed my 60-mile birthday run in August with relative ease and have been racing in almost every event my company, DMSE Sports, has managed this year. I tell people I am “mall fit,” meaning I know I am more fit than 99.9 percent of the people walking around shopping malls in America these days. But I’m not sure I am as Ironman fit, meaning as fit as the other 2,000 triathletes, in the race. They are all amazing. Everything is relative, eh?  I recently had a 10-month follow-up angiogram and was told I reversed my condition by almost 40 percent in less than a year, so the plan is working and I’m almost halfway through my own race!

But, it has not been all smiles. As I was leaving the hospital after my latest angiogram, I suddenly developed a huge “hematoma” on my right wrist where they went in with the scope. I was rushed back into the hospital, was admitted and kept overnight. It still hasn’t completely healed. And I very recently got in a bike crash and fractured my rib. Since then it has been painful just to take deep breaths. Of course, two days after the crash I had my follow-up stress test at Mass General Hospital in Dr. Baggish’s lab. This was to be the go (to Kona) or no-go from my doctor. He has been my mentor and savior the entire journey. It was all on the line. I had trouble just getting out of bed that morning … Ugh. I came clean and told Dr. Baggish what had happened and was told that there was not much I could do about it, but to allow time to heal it, but how much time? My physical therapist said it is now all about “pain management.” Wonderful. I still went through with the stress test and fortunately exceeded my last test by a long shot and got the green light to go to Kona, pending of course how my ribs heal between now and the race. To complicate matters, this just ate into the precious training time I thought I had left and desperately needed. I suppose on the bright side, it could have been worse, as they say. Now I’ve been training simply to experience the pain and try to learn to tolerate it. The bike is what causes it and was my weak event, and now it is what hurts the least of the three disciplines.

As I felt when deciding to run across America in 1978, I believe there should be a greater purpose than just a personal goal when doing these things. All year long, I have been running in memory of little Martin Richard who died in the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings. I will dedicate my return to Kona to Martin and his family and hope to again raise funds for the Martin Richard Charitable Foundation. To contribute, visit this link.

I’ve always felt, too, that there is no such thing as an individual achievement. Since I re-entered the sport, so many people have been so supportive and kind—from superstar athletes to corporate sponsors like Specialized Bicycles (and many others listed below) to the kindness of so many friends and, of course, my amazingly supportive family, especially my wife, Katie, and the kids. I want to do this for them as much as for myself.

NBC will be covering me a bit during the race—no pressure there! If this can help encourage people to listen to their bodies and get checked out, I can handle a few cameras documenting my somewhat pedestrian performance. But, as I’ve always said, “pressure is a privilege.” I’m just happy to be returning to the place and to the event that is helping to add years to my life.


Many thanks to all of my Ironman supporters!

World Triathlon Corporation
Boston Athletic Association
Specialized Bicycles
Greg Welch
Adidas Landry’s Bike Shop
Champion System Fit Werx Bike Shop
Rob Klingensmith of Huub
Dave Scott
Dr. Aaron Baggish
Coach Deanna Pomfret
Eric Begley
Summer Sanders
Diana Bertsch

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