By Samantha Pickette
BU News Service
It’s April 20, 1936. 1935 Boston Marathon champion Johnny Kelley trails Ellison “Tarzan” Brown on the stretch of four foothills on Commonwealth Avenue in Newton. On the third hill, Kelley catches up with Brown, patting him on the shoulder as he passes by, and moves into first place. Kelley’s brazenness fuels Brown’s determination, and on the fourth and final hill, Brown surpasses Kelley and goes on to win the 1936 Boston Marathon.
Boston Globe reporter Jerry Nason immortalized Kelley’s disappointing defeat by nicknaming the fourth hill where Brown definitively pulled ahead of Kelley “Heartbreak Hill,” an epithet that has stuck for the past 78 years.
Heartbreak Hill, the stretch of Commonwealth Avenue between Centre Street and Hammond Street in Newton, is less than a mile long. Located in a largely residential area, the road is wide, with an island full of trees in the middle of the street and stately Colonial and Victorian houses lining both sides. In a car, Heartbreak Hill is innocuous at best — blink once and you’ll miss it. Yet, as the final hill in a series of four challenging hills that begins at mile 17 and ends at mile 21, Heartbreak Hill is arguably the most difficult and most iconic point in the Boston Marathon course. It is also the location of Heartbreak Hill Running Company (HHRC), founded in April 2012 by two former Boston College track stars, Dan Fitzgerald and Justin Burdon.
Located at the base of the hill, HHRC is truly a store for runners, by runners. A water cooler sits outside the store’s front door for any runners who need a drink while they are training. On Saturdays, when many marathoners pass the store on training runs, HHRC’s mascot, Heartbreak Bill the Gorilla, stands outside the store, cheering people on as they go and taking pictures with passers-by.
The store embraces the spirit of the hill, and rightly so — on Marathon day, HHRC is one of the first things that runners see as they begin their final ascent. As former members of the track team at B.C., Fitzgerald and Burdon are more than familiar with what it is like to run up Heartbreak Hill, which ends in Boston College territory.
“Running for Boston College, Heartbreak Hill was a very significant piece of our training,” Fitzgerald said. “We ran hundreds of miles up that hill in our college careers and when we saw the opportunity for us to open a space there and name it after the hill and after our years of experience there, it was pretty exciting for us.”
For Fitzgerald and the rest of the staff at HHRC, Heartbreak Hill is not a source of fear or an impossible roadblock that stands in the way of marathon glory. As HHRC Manager and former Boston College runner Louis Serafini explains, what makes Heartbreak Hill particularly challenging is not its length or elevation grade, it’s the fact that the hill comes at the 20-mile mark, when runners are already exhausted and may not have saved enough energy to conquer the hill. But, Serafini says that Heartbreak Hill is doable if approached with a positive mindset.
“It’s a tough hill and I can imagine it’s a lot harder at mile 20 of a marathon,” he said. “But, once you get over that hill, you’ve got a downhill for a little bit and then it’s all flat all the way home. So, it’s a matter of getting up the hill, recovering, and then just looking forward to the finish line.”
And, Serafini said that it also helps that on Marathon Monday, runners are greeted at the crest of Heartbreak Hill by the Boston College Marching Band and by hundreds of rowdy students whose cheers carry the athletes to the top and motivate them to push through the final 10K of the race.
Still, even with all the excitement, the climb may be easier said than done. Runner’s World reports that of the major city marathon hills, Heartbreak is actually one of the tamer hills, rising less than 100 feet from base to summit. But, it makes that nearly 100-foot climb in 0.75 miles, resulting in one of the highest elevation grades (3.3 percent) of any hill on a major marathon course. This means that Heartbreak is a relentless, albeit relatively short, challenge for runners who, by the time they reach it, will have 20 miles and several hours weighing on their legs.
In order to make the hill seem less daunting, HHRC hosts a Wednesday night Hill Club, where Serafini and other staff members lead runners of all levels of ability in workouts up and down Heartbreak Hill. HHRC also created the “Firehouse Run,” a 10-mile marathon training route based on Boston College track workouts that culminates in the series of hills on Commonwealth Avenue and ends with Heartbreak Hill.
“If you can do that route at a decent pace, you’re in pretty good shape,” Serafini said.
In addition to starting the various running clubs at HHRC, Fitzgerald is also coaching Team Red Cross, the Mass General Hospital Marathon Team, and the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center Marathon Team — a total of 330 athletes — for this year’s Boston Marathon.
Shannon Sawyer, a 32-year-old attorney from Natick, is running for the MGH Marathon Team this year. It is her 10th marathon and fifth Boston Marathon. While the Heartbreak Hill-centric workouts and long runs ranging anywhere from 10 miles to 22 miles have helped Sawyer to feel physically prepared, she said that it is Fitzgerald’s realistic training pointers that have primed her mentally for Marathon Monday.
“It’s reassuring when he acknowledges that our legs will be tired, we will be sore, and we will have some bad runs,” she said. “These reminders are nicely balanced with encouragement and reassurance that we’ve come a really long way and will be ready to run on April 21.”
Fitzgerald, 35, and Serafini, 22, have both been running since middle school. They agree that whether a person is an experienced runner or a beginner, the most important part of training successfully for a marathon is mental toughness.
“The number one thing is focus and remembering what you’re training for,” Serafini said. “It’s really hard to get up on a Saturday morning and run 20 miles. Having that focus gets you there.”
On Marathon Monday, HHRC will have a cheering section outside the store made up of employees, friends, and the hundreds of people who line Commonwealth Avenue in order to encourage the runners as they embark on one of the most difficult portions of the race, a 0.75 mile stretch that has managed to defeat even the best runners, including 61-time Boston Marathon finisher and two-time champion Johnny Kelley.
“Heartbreak Hill is the key point in the race for sure,” Fitzgerald said. “But it’s important to understand that the marathon is just a run. If you train for it, you can do it. That’s the bottom line.”