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HBO’s ‘Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel’ features Boston, Barkley marathons

The HBO program jumped into the world of running and interviewed Dave McGillivray and Laz Lake, the race directors of both storied events

Photo by: Victah Sailer@PhotoRun

The latest episode of Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel, HBO’s hit investigative sports series, featured a pair of running stories, diving into the vastly different worlds of the Boston and Barkley marathons. Real Sports correspondents interviewed Dave McGillivray and Laz Lake, the longtime race directors of the two events, to find out more about their roles and how they operate. This episode offers an inside look at the lives of the two men behind these famous races, and it is available to stream now on HBO Max. 

The Marathon Man

Real Sports correspondent Andrea Kremer sat down with McGillivray in Boston to discuss his history with the marathon. He first ran it in 1972, when he vowed never to miss the race. He has stuck to that promise, even after he became the race director of the event in 1988, when he started running the race hours after everyone else had finished. “I’ve been the last finisher of the Boston Marathon for the last 34 years.” He was also the only person to run the course on the originally scheduled race date in 2020 after the marathon was cancelled due to COVID-19.

The pandemic forced the Boston Marathon team to cancel their race for the first time in event history, and McGillivray is now actively involved in the fight against COVID-19 as he works on vaccine rollout in Boston. He got a call earlier this year asking if he would help with the organization of injection sites, and he didn’t hesitate to sign on. 

RELATED: Boston Marathon race director recruited to help with COVID-19 vaccine rollout

Kremer spoke with Rodrigo Martinez, an executive at the organization that hired McGillivray. Martinez said McGillivray would time people as they went from table to table at the vaccination sites, looking to “shave unwanted seconds off the clock.” This might seem silly, but as Martinez noted, saving 30 seconds for one person might not seem like a big deal, but doing that for the thousands of people coming to get vaccinated every day is huge. “Fine-tuning means more people will get vaccinated, which means less people will die,” he said.

The vaccination sites are at Fenway Park, the home of the Boston Red Sox, and the Hynes Convention Center, which is where runners get their race kits before the Boston Marathon. “It’s somewhat surreal that, instead of handing out bib numbers to 30,000 runners, we’re going to be helping to put shots in arms with the intent that we’ll be back here to reconvene and hand out bib numbers again,” McGillivray said. His hope is to get back to handing those bibs out again very soon, and the 2021 Boston Marathon is slated to run later this year, on October 11. 

2019 Boston Marathon finish area. Photo: Anne Francis

The Impossible Race

While the Boston Marathon sees tens of thousands of finishers every year, the next race covered by Real Sports has only seen 15 finishers in its 35-year history. “It’s designed with a rather unusual goal: to ensure that all of its participants fail,” said Real Sports correspondent Mary Carillo

RELATED: How to get into the Barkley Marathons

The segment explains how the race came to be, diving into how a prison break in Tennessee inspired Lake to start the event. In 1977, James Earl Ray, the man who killed Martin Luther King Jr., escaped Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary. After 60 hours on the run, he was caught in the surrounding mountains. “You might get over the wall of the prison, but you’re not going to get over those mountains,” Lake said. Nine years later, he held the first edition of the Barkley Marathons, running in it himself.

“It was miserable,” he said. “It was so intensely cold.” No one finished the 100-mile race that year, and since then, there have only been 18 official finishes from 15 runners, all of whom are men. Carillo asked Lake about this, pointing to the registration form for the Barkley Marathons, which says women are not permitted to race, as “they are too soft.” Lake does let women run the event, but when Carillo asked him about that, he doubled down on this claim.

“It’s too difficult for women,” he said. “I’d like a woman to finish to put this to bed … [but] as long as no woman has done it, the only answer to that question is ‘it is still too hard for women.'” This surprisingly blunt statement (which Carillo questioned) is characteristic of Lake, and Carillo noted that he is a beloved figure in the running community, at least by those who participate in his race.

Check out HBO Max to see the full episode of Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel and the interviews featuring McGillivray and Lake.

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