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Remembering the Medford cross-country run of '78

One thing is clear: Dave McGillivray does not fear commitment.

On his 12th birthday, he began running his age in miles. At 65, he hasn’t missed a year.

He’s run 157 marathons. Only once did he not reach the finish line, and that was by design because he broke the rules.

Of those marathons, seven came in seven days on seven continents in the World Marathon Challenge two years ago.

And the apogee of this commitment to, well, commitment? Running across the country in 1978, from this Medford to his hometown of Medford, Massachusetts. He didn’t miss a day, averaging more than 40 miles over 80 days to cover the 3,452 miles.

“To this day,” says McGillivray, who was 23 at the time, “that’s the highlight of my athletic career, that I had committed to doing this very daunting goal and was able to get myself in good enough shape to actually do it.”

It’s not like he hasn’t had highlights since.

McGillivray has been the Boston Marathon race director for 33 years, has helped put on Olympics, Olympic trials, world championships, the Goodwill Games, you name it. He and his company, DMSE Sports, have directed roughly 1,200 events, most of them charitable, all over the world.

Still, the run across America holds a special place in his heart, and the story has gained legs again, if you will, the past couple years.

McGillivray will be back in town this week for the first time since he met Mayor Al Densmore and members of the Southern Oregon Sizzlers running club, headed by Pear Blossom Run founder Jerry Swartsley, nearly 42 years ago on a sunny June day in front of Medford City Hall.

McGillivray will be the featured speaker at the Southern Oregon Sports Commission awards banquet Thursday at the Santo Community Center, 701 N. Columbus Ave. Doors open at 5 p.m., and the program begins at 5:30.

Tickets are $30 each or four for $100 and can be purchased at southernoregonsports.com. The cost is $35 at the door. They can also be purchased by calling 541-608-8517.

The Mail Tribune’s top 10 stories of 2019 will be recognized, and the SOSC will announce its male and female athletes of the year. Other honors will go to sports advocate Greg Jones, youth official Dave Tostenson and spirit of competition winner Stephen Eisenhauer.

Thursday will begin with McGillivray joining locals for an informal 5K road run that’s open to the public. It begins at 7:15 a.m. at City Hall (check-in at 7). A ceremony will follow unveiling a plaque to commemorate McGillivray’s 1978 run.

“It’s been fun,” says Densmore. “One of the nice things about getting older is being able to reconnect with people you’ve encountered in your life. He’s had such a fascinating life.”

Medford, Massachusetts, had recognized McGillivray on the 40th anniversary of the run, and when McGillivray shared that celebration experience with Densmore, with whom he’d kept in contact, it was decided to do the same thing here.

“It’s almost like going to a class reunion and seeing classmates you haven’t seen in 30 years,” says McGillivray. “Then your mind just goes back to that era, that time in your life, and that’s all I’ve been doing the last couple weeks is thinking about the start of that run.”

His actual start in running came much earlier.

As a child, McGillivray was on the small side and routinely failed to make teams or was chosen last in pick-up games with friends. But he was bent on being an athlete.

“I started running,” he says, “because you don’t have to be picked and no one can cut you from running.”

He made his birthday pact at 12.

Five years later, as a senior in high school, he was determined to run the Boston Marathon. Still a year too young to enter, he jumped into the race without registering or paying, but pulled out on the hills of Wellesley about halfway through the 26.2-mile race.

His parents picked him up and, concerned about his exhausted condition, took him to a hospital to get checked.

“I broke the rules and now I’m the race director,” says McGillivray. “I sadly admit that.

“The reason I didn’t make it is, I have this motto: You have to earn the right to do things, and I didn’t earn the right to do it. So I learned my lesson and said, now I’m going to really train and work hard for the next one.”

He vowed to run every Boston Marathon “for the rest of my life,” and is at 47 and counting.

For the last 32 years, McGillivray has been the last to finish in Boston. He sees to his extensive duties as race director, then hits the course after most of the other runners have finished. Four hours later, he comes in.

“It’s a long day,” he says.

The idea for the cross-country run came after McGillivray learned in 1975 of a college friend who made the Medford-to-Medford trek on a bike, starting in New England. McGillivray read up on a couple others who had traversed the country on foot, then decided to do it.

He got the support of the Boston Red Sox to raise money for the Jimmy Fund to benefit the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, and he trained the year before by donning a backpack and running from his home to his sister’s in Rochester, New York, covering about 400 miles.

“Not that it was a guarantee,” says McGillivray, “but if I could do that, I’m close to being able to give the cross-country run a try. I knew I had the ability level to at least start off. But you don’t know what you’re truly up against until you’re out there.”

His trip began with a flight to Seattle — where the Red Sox played the Mariners — for a ceremonial send-off. He then flew to Medford to meet with dignitaries, hook up with his support crew of four friends who traveled in a motorhome and begin the journey.

It was a low-key affair, much to McGillivray’s liking.

“I didn’t want a big to-do,” he says, “because I wanted that more at the end, when I accomplished it, rather than at the beginning, when I had nothing to show for it other than a commitment to attempt it.”

On his adventure, McGillivray chronicled each day, making cassette recordings and sending postcards home to himself.

Here’s what he wrote on the Day 1 postcard:

“Started about 1:10pm from Medford, Oregon. The Mayor and a few guys from the area track club ran with me for a while. Was interviewed by area TV and newspapers. Only expected to do 20 miles today – very, very hilly and mountainous! Over 5,000 ft. in elevation. Stayed at a campsite for the night. 80 degrees and sunny. Dave”

He covered 30 miles the first day, heading toward Klamath Falls. Medford runners accompanied him, helping to take his mind off the impending task. Densmore says he ran to the city limits; Swartsley went much farther.

“We finished and they left and the next day I was all alone,” says McGillivray. “Then it was like, I wish I had them back, but they’re not going to run all the way across the country with me. So get used to this, this is going to be more the norm.”

Day 2 ended in Klamath Falls, Day 3 in Newell, California. He didn’t leave California until Day 8, when he arrived in Reno, Nevada.

Running the equivalent of 11/2 to two marathons a day was one thing. Dealing with the elements — desert heat, wind, rain, traffic — was quite another.

“Whatever you might come up against,” says McGillivray, “you know you’re dealing with it in the moment because you can’t necessarily recreate those conditions at home and train for them. So you have to be prepared to deal with them physically, mentally and emotionally.”

He had his share of close calls with vehicles. In Iowa, a truck tried to run him down three times, he says, before leaving him alone.

He came across livestock and wildlife, insects and rodents.

There were no cellphones to keep in touch with his family. He ran from phone booth to phone booth, making collect calls home when he could.

He and his crew had the routine down and treated it like a job: wake up at 5:30 a.m., start running at 6:30; run 10-mile splits, stop for food, get back out there and do it again. And again. And again.

Then they’d pull over, cook dinner, rest, sleep, wake up and start all over.

“I did that for three months,” says McGillivray. “No days off.”

The fanfare wasn’t nearly what it would be in today’s age of social media. On rare occasions, someone might run with him. Others cheered him from front porches or caught up to the crew and made donations.

The monotony was sometimes broken by press conferences.

The run ended on Aug. 28, when McGillivray entered Boston’s Fenway Park before 32,000 cheering fans.

Now, he gets a chance to revisit the experience with his other-Medford friends.

“I’m really just beside myself that they would go to these lengths to recognize what happened 41 years ago,” says McGillivray. “I’m thrilled, really excited about it all.”

Reach sports editor Tim Trower at 541-776-4479 or ttrower@rosebudmedia.com.

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