Published on July 16, 2019

Just because you’re fit doesn't mean you’re healthy

Fit doesn't mean healthy

Dave McGillivray is a man of many hats and accomplishments; a businessman, an athlete, an author, a motivational speaker and a philanthropist. His event management company, Dave McGillivray Sports Enterprises, annually organizes more than 30 road races and charitable walks around the country, and he is the longtime director of the Boston Marathon and the New Balance Falmouth Road Race.

McGillivray is also well-known in sporting circles for inspiring feats of endurance, such as running across the country from Oregon to Massachusetts (3,452 miles) to support the Jimmy Fund and children’s cancer research. Most recently, McGillivray completed the 2018 World Marathon Challenge by running seven marathons on seven continents in seven days.

Ironman Finish

However, for all those blue-ribbon successes, his lasting legacy may well be his message of personal health and well-being: “Just because you are fit doesn't mean you are healthy. If you feel something, do something. Take action because it could save your life.”

McGillivray, 64, ran the Boston Marathon this past April for the 47th consecutive year - the last 32 at night after fulfilling his director duties during the day - and it was the most memorable. Only six months earlier he underwent triple bypass open heart surgery after being diagnosed with severe coronary artery disease.

He hopes doing the marathon so soon after his surgery is a signal to others that it is possible to “get back on the road.”

“I feel my mission in life now is to help create an awareness for everyone that fitness and health are not the same thing,” said McGillivray. “I once thought it did. Higher fitness almost always means better health, but you can also have a long exercise history and still develop heart disease, like me.”

Hyannis cardiologist Peter Chiotellis, MD, said McGillivray’s message is important.

“I’ve seen avid runners and cyclists who appear to be the picture of fitness, but still have cardiovascular disease,” he said. “In some cases, their fitness masks their issues. I agree, you shouldn’t assume excellent cardiac health just because you have a vigorous exercise program.”

Dr. Chiotellis said family history is always a key factor to consider.

“It’s important to talk with the patient to really get a complete picture,” he said. “If there is a history of heart disease, we would typically want to do testing to create a baseline, do an electrocardiogram, cholesterol screening and perhaps a stress test.”

McGillivray has a long family history of cardiac disease, including grandparents who died of heart failure, a father with aortic valve disease, a brother who suffered a stroke and a sister who has had heart bypass surgery.

Early Signs of Trouble

McGillivray’s first signs of discomfort occurred in 2013 when he felt unusually lethargic during his runs. He often was able to push through the fatigue after a couple of miles, but he knew something wasn’t right. After several tests and a review of his family history he was diagnosed with chronic ischemic heart disease.

“I immediately changed everything in my life,” he said. “I tried to treat it and reverse it with medication, diet, reducing stress, getting more sleep, you name it. I always rationalized anything and everything, but in moderation, and that whatever I ate I would burn off. But it’s like putting bad gas in your car. The engine was gunked up.

“I didn’t put one bad thing in my mouth for the next five years,” said McGillivray. “I lost 27 pounds and lowered my cholesterol level by over 100 points. I became the fittest I’ve been in 20 years. My doctor said I had reversed the illness by almost 40 percent. I was beating this on my own, or so I thought.”

However, last spring the warning signs returned: more labored breathing and chest discomfort during workouts. Another round of tests confirmed his worst fears. His lifestyle changes helped, but not enough. Bypass surgery was necessary.

“I never thought in my craziest dreams I would need this,” he said. “But it’s hard not to conclude that my family’s genetic makeup is stacked against me. It wasn’t something that I could simply run away from,” said McGillivray.

Changing your lifestyle can help, but you can’t change your family history, said Dr. Chiotellis.

“It’s important to understand that how you look on the outside isn’t necessarily an indication of what’s happening on the inside. Cardiovascular health is different,” he said.

Not all cardiac events begin with classic warning signs, such as shortness of breath, chest tightness or pain, or light-headedness, said Dr. Chiotellis. However, a clear symptom to recognize is a significant change in how you feel during exercising.

“It’ll likely be something you haven’t experienced before, like a noticeable drop in how much you can tolerate. It’s a different feeling than just one of those days when you’re sluggish,” he said. “Listen to your body and what it’s telling you. Don’t be stubborn.”

In October 2018 McGillivray underwent triple bypass surgery. But first, knowing the Boston Marathon was on the horizon, he posed a question to his doctor.

“I asked if I would be able to jog through this little race in April I have done a couple of times. He didn’t say yes, but he didn’t say no. His response was just what I needed to hear. He said, ‘I would be disappointed if you didn’t.’ That gave me hope.”

Running in Balance

The surgery was successful and McGillivray was home four days later. His recovery went better than expected, likely in part to his high level of fitness before the operation. By early December he was cleared to resume easy physical activity and a combination of walking/jogging.

Marathon Finish

McGillivray admits he was determined to make it to the marathon starting line in Hopkinton, but insists he was not reckless in his goal.

“I know more than anyone that my health and family are what matters most, but I do believe my health and my running can co-exist very nicely. It’s about balance, being cautious and smart,” he said.

He gradually increased his training in January and February and then ran a 13.1-mile half-marathon in March. He believed he was ready for marathon Monday and 26 miles on Patriots Day in April.

“Was I nervous? Well, maybe anxious,” he said. “I was confident that I would start, but after that it was all very uncertain as to how it would go.”

With the support of more than a dozen friends and family who ran with him, McGillivray went the distance, making it to the finish line on Boylston Street where he was embraced and celebrated.

“Slow and steady, he said. “I felt pretty good, just tired. I wanted to finish this one more than ever before. It definitely was my hardest, but perhaps my most meaningful one.”

With all of the accomplishments in his life, McGillivray said he believed he could overcome any obstacle.

“There were times in my life when I thought I was invincible,” he said. “I thought no challenge was insurmountable. But even Superman had kryptonite. Now I realize there are warning pains, and you have to recognize the difference and act on them. That’s what I did and, as a result, I gave myself a second chance. Awareness is the key. We all need to take better care of ourselves. None of us gets a free pass.”

McGillivray has one last piece of advice for people facing a challenging health condition.

“You can’t do this alone,” he said. “ It’s a team effort. You need the support of the people urging you on and helping you medically and emotionally. If you surround yourself with good people, you can accomplish extraordinary things.”

Cape Cod Healthcare is proud to support the Falmouth Road Race as their official medical care provider. To learn more about the Falmouth Road Race, taking place on August 18, visit the event site.

Photos: Dave McGillivray in running form