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Boston Marathon Course section

Smooth running

McGillivray sets a grueling pace to keep race on course

By Shira Springer, Globe Staff, 4/14/2000

ucked into the back offices at the Boston Athletic Association's marathon headquarters on Clarendon Street, the windowless room where technical director Dave McGillivray works remains suprisingly uncluttered as race day approaches.

Large maps of the start and finish areas lean against a wall, six cellular phones sit on a table beneath a sketch of the starting line, short stacks of manuals sit on a desk, a bookcase holds an impressive collection of thick binders. Nothing appears out of place or out of reach, leaving a visitor to wonder how McGillivray pulls off one of the toughest logistical feats in marathon racing each year with such apparent ease.

McGillivray walks into the office, does not waste any time getting settled, and jumps into an explanation. He works at a pace fed by enthusiasm. He does not miss a step or seemingly take a breath as he pulls out one map after another, one manual after another. There is no magic behind organizing the technical aspects of the Boston Marathon, just months of planning and one energetic man who has overseen it for the past 13 years.

By the time runners begin arriving in Hopkinton on Patriots Day morning, the logistical efforts made on their behalf are staggering. Staging the 104th edition of the Boston Marathon on narrow streets through eight cities and towns requires tremendous foresight and experience. From a meticulously organized start designed to accommodate the 17,741 entrants to the placement of water bottles, to the pattern of air traffic circling above, to the number of tongue depressors needed, no detail has been overlooked. While the elite runners and casual competitors are focused on finishing, McGillivray and his staff hope their planning enables all of the racers to run their best.

''There's literally hunderds and hundreds of meetings leading up to this one day,'' said McGillivray. ''It's here, then it's gone. But it doesn't just miraculously happen. It's planning. It's planning. It's planning ... Sometimes it's trying to fit a square peg in a round hole and not being defeated by that. Inevitably, we do it. It happens and that's because of all the planning.''

In 1988, the BAA asked McGillivray if he would accept the position of technical coordinator of the marathon. The offer came a year after some runners tripped on a rope barrier at the starting line and some wheelchair racers crashed after speeding too quickly down the first hill. The two incidents prompted the call for someone who would help ensure the runners' safety and improve the quality of the race. After McGillivray took over the responsibilities of technical coordinator, dramatic changes were made. For example, a controlled start was implemented for wheelchair competitors. And gradually, an organizational infrastructure has been built.

The number of people and the amount of equipment that must be tracked is mind-boggling. Planning and experience have generated countless time schedules and grocery lists of supplies. Race day has essentially been planned right down to the last minute, tourniquet, and pound of pasta.

Before the race, 82,500 safety pins will be available to fasten bib numbers, while 63,360 feet of rope, 30,000 feet of fencing, and 2,000 barricades will be in place. During the race, with 1 million spectators expected, 600 portable toilets will be used, 21,200 packets of PowerGel will be handed out, and 500 bags of ice will be needed to treat injuries. At the finish, some 35,300 Powerbars, a portion of the 700,000 sponsor brochures, and likely all of the nearly 18,000 finishers' medals will be distributed.

The biggest challenge in organizing the 2000 Boston Marathon has been the increase in field size. This year, race officials expanded the field limit from 13,000 runners. It may not be the largest event of its kind in the country, but the course was not designed to accommodate so many runners. The challenge for McGillivray and his staff has been comfortably fitting the expected number of competitors on the course.

Although the race's 100th anniversary featured a field of 38,708, any time the size of the field changes, new challenges are presented. McGillivray estimates with each increase or decrease in the number of athletes approximately 30 percent of his race plans need adjustment.

''The celebration of the millennium certainly has created a unique interest in goal-setting, so people can say they did something in the year 2000,'' said McGillivray. ''Here at the BAA, we have not done anything to encourage more people to participate in the sense of lowering the standards or doing more advertising. It has just happened on its own, but we anticipated it.''

In an effort to avoid gridlock in Hopkinton and maintain a steady flow of runners across the starting line, organizers plan to make the most efficient use of space possible. With the benefit of qualifying times, race coordinators have assigned runners to a specific location in a starting grid that contains 19 different corrals (1,000 participants per corral).

The elite runners are at the front of the field, followed by sub-elite runners. Then the fastest qualifers are placed in corral No. 1 and the slowest in corral No. 19. This year, a side street, Hayden Rowe, will be filled by some corrals, necessitating buffers manned by state police at critical intersections. The runners' numbers designate their corral. With participants of equal ability grouped together, officials hope the race will begin smoothly.

And that's just the start.

As the runners head toward Boston, every section of the course has been carefully outfitted with water stations, clocks, chip mats, medical aid stations, and mile and kilometer markers. There will be 7,000 volunteers (60 at each of the 24 water stations) helping participants along the course, 1,000 medical personnel, 1,500 security personnel, 1,200 uniform police officers, 36 course clocks, 19 lead vehicles, 350 digital wireless phones, more than 1,400 members of the media, and 40 baggage buses carrying competitors' gear from Hopkinton to Copley Square.

''It's absolutely unbelievable,'' said lead vehicle coordinator Ron Kramer. ''I've run 50 marathons and over 400 races and I have yet to experience a race where so many details are met. For runners, the difference between a good race and a great race is the attention paid [to them]. We want runners to have the best experience. It's a pleasure for me to be a part of a race in this aspect because I have a runner's mind and heart.''

Still, race organizers and committee members cannot prepare for everything. But they try to anticipate every possible scenario, trouble-shoot before the race, and devise backup plans. At organizational meetings, McGillivray asks his staff to consider what would happen if there was a major fire on the course after the gun went off. ''What will you do with 20,000 people running at you then?'' he asks.

Five years ago, a water main broke on Beacon Street in Brookline at 5 a.m. The highway department and department of public works fixed the pipe, then called McGillivray to find out how much room the runners needed to pass safely. McGillivray said the racers could make do with just half the road and the event went off on schedule.

Every year, the weather is a concern. While organizers can work around hot and cold temperatures, wind can wreak havoc with race preparations. Strong gusts can tear down banners, knock down clocks on the course, turn around directional signs, and impede runners' progress.

''I've always said that race management really turns into crisis management,'' said McGillivray. ''Anyone can put the paperwork together. But come race day, I've thought a technical director or a race director should be the least busy person because that person has to make himself available to anybody and everybody to assist with critical situations that inevitably arise in any event of this magnitude.''

If there is no crisis, race day might be the least busy day of the year for McGillivray. The planning and critique of the Boston Marathon overlaps, creating one continuous year-long process. McGillivray is already thinking ahead to what can be done better next year.

When his duties finish Monday, McGillivray will head back to Hopkinton, put on his running clothes, and toe the starting line. He gave up running the event officially when he took over as technical director. Now, McGillivray tours the 26.2-mile route in the evening after the crowds have gone. As he runs, McGillivray works to improve the race.

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