120 Years of Heartbreak


Photography by: James Kirkikis

Read how Heartbreak Hill became an iconic segment of the Boston Marathon.

Heartbreak Hill. The mere mention of it conjures up a myriad of emotions – fear, dread, excitement, even joy. Located 20.5 miles into the Boston Marathon in Newton, it is one of the most iconic portions of the course.

Heartbreak Hill appealed to me as it represented that in the Boston Marathon, race strategy was key. [And I had the] knowledge of Heartbreak Hill”, says four-time Boston winner Bill Rodgers, who often used the Newton hills to destroy his competition. “And the wonderful long, gradual downhill afterward made it feel like you were flying. It is really the zenith of the race – the point to aim for from the gun. The rest of the race is celebration.”

As a member of the Greater Boston Track Club, Rodgers often trained on the Newton hills. And his coach, the legendary Bill Squires, would advise with caution, “Don’t race a hill. You can’t beat a hill – you’ll lose every time. You can run a hill. There’s a difference. You can run the hills and then race the flats in between in short bursts to stretch your legs out. If you do the right things, you’ll be okay.”

But Heartbreak Hill giveth and it does taketh away. In 1990, for instance, Gelindo Bordin of Italy became the first Olympic men’s marathon gold medalist to also win Boston. But it wasn’t a done deal till late in the race: on the early portion of Commonwealth Avenue, the Italian was so far behind Juma Ikangaa of Tanzania that television viewers, as well as the on-air commentator Tim Kilduff, couldn’t even see him on screen.

Fred Treseler – who with Kilduff co-founded the Spotters Network, the course-long system that instantaneously provides the time splits – was manning the Network in the studios when he recalled how well Bordin ran the hilly 1988 Olympic course. He radioed through to Kilduff to alert him of the possibility that Bordin could once again use hills to his advantage.

“Bordin at one point was two-and-a-half minutes behind, [but] we predicted that if everything held the same, that within the next two minutes the lead would change,” recalled Treseler, who looked to Heartbreak Hill as the turning point.

Leading up to the famed hill, Kilduff could only see one runner. “I can’t see this,” he said of the ongoing battle that from his perspective was being blocked by the crest of each hill. “I cannot see Bordin! All I see is Ikangaa. That’s it!”

And then it happened – Bordin caught and passed Ikangaa for the win, and he did it on the hills.

It was a similar scenario that had unfolded 54 years prior that earned the final Newton hill its melancholy moniker.

At mile 20, defending champion Johnny “The Elder” Kelley found himself trailing Ellison “Tarzan” Brown of Rhode Island. While Kelley was climbing the last Newton incline before reaching Boston College – and finally matching strides with the Narragansett Native American – he reportedly tapped Brown on the back to suggest he was full of run and ready to race, and went past Brown. But the gesture backfired as Brown came back on Kelley to win the 1936 race. Kelley finished fifth. The Boston Globe’s sports editor Jerry Nason reported that the ill-advised gesture broke Johnny’s heart.

On its own, Heartbreak Hill wouldn’t be too bad of a hill.

Say’s Brian Harvey of Boston, 32nd at the US Olympic Men’s Marathon Trials and a 2:20:31 at the 2014 Boston, “but put it 20 miles into a marathon, after three other hills, and it feels big on race day. I think it is best to not build it up too much in your head, though, and focus on the fact that it is mostly downhill after you get to the top.”

Despite proper training, respect for Heartbreak Hill, and a 2:21:41 at the 2014 Boston, Eric Ashe of Boston also felt the rise’s impartial wrath.

“Heartbreak Hill is always a highlight of a run – fast, slow, intervals, or race”, he enthuses. “In college at Boston University, I was introduced to Heartbreak Hill as a staple intro-to-track hill repeats. The team would run 3.5 miles there, do 8×90-second hard hill reps with a jog-down recovery and then run back to school. For my one Boston Marathon race that included the Hill, I was in survival mode. The early downhills took their toll on my quads and by Heartbreak I was just trying my best to put one leg in front of the other. It made the half-mile feel like five!”

To log their training and share the joy – and the suffering – of Boston and Heartbreak, both Harvey and Ashe use Strava.

“Training-wise, I find it useful to see how my times on specific segments progress from one training cycle to the next, particularly in places I run often such as the Boston Marathon Newton hills,” Harvey says.

I mainly use Strava for the social aspect in order to see what kind of runs and workouts my friends are doing.

Harvey currently sits atop the leaderboard for the Heartbreak Hill segment with a time of 3:01, an average pace of 5:35/mile (3:28/km). Eric Ashe is in second with 3:04, while the women’s leaderboard is topped by Elizabeth Ryan with a 3:31.

Infographic designed by Brian Hicks.

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