You have to put Heartbreak behind you to run Boston. It’s an old and grand requirement, one of the qualities that makes our Marathon so special.
On the surface, it’s an entirely unremarkable hill on a residential stretch of Commonwealth Avenue in Newton, but Heartbreak Hill has one outstanding feature — its location at mile 20 of the Boston Marathon. That’s the spot where many runners report running into the mental and physical “wall.” In Boston, it’s also geographical.
Each athlete who comes over the hill — it takes about six hours to go from the first wheelchairs to the last stragglers — suffers it, from the front-runners, who manage to take it like they’re on a dirt bike, to the walkers, those who aren’t even going to pretend to run that long hill. They make up much of the last two hours.
Those who watch the race from the hill, including many who return year after year, say that it’s a spot where they feel like they can help, or try to help, push someone along.
“It’s such a struggle for everyone, you really feel like the cheering gives them that little boost,” said Carol Connolly.
She lives nearby. Comes to Heartbreak early every year. And stays very late. On Monday afternoon, as the sun got lower in the sky and shadows crept across the course, she was one of the last people left cheering for the back of the pack. “I look for anything on their shirt,” she said.
“Boston Fire!” “Dana-Farber!” “Perkins!” “Molly!” “Congratulations,” she said.
Connolly, like many of those cheering atop Heartbreak Hill, was using it as an opportunity to congratulate everyone for achieving the milestone. There’s no marker, no sign telling runners they have just put Heartbreak behind them. When informed of their milestone, responses range from “Really?” and “That’s it?” to “Thank God.” A lot of people said, “Thank God.”
Heartbreak is so wrapped in lore, and so awfully located on the course, that it becomes something to think about on those long winter training runs, wondering if they can do it.
For a while, at the front of the pack, Heartbreak Hill goes through a period where it looks, from the outside, to be a breeze. Athlete after athlete will cross it with their legs still moving strong.
Then, as you get deeper into the pack, as you start to see the people wearing headphones, the facial expressions will change to the unmistakable look of someone who is digging, who is really pushing out each step. Soon the walkers will appear, alongside people who are clearly in real pain. The medical tent at the top of the hill will get its first visitors. Many stop to stretch. Some stagger like a drunk.
As Johanna Rogers approached the top of the hill, she was adjusting her ponytail, running slowly, when she saw a bunch of family from Medford yelling for her on the side of the course.
“You’ve got this.” “Top of the hill.” “It’s all downhill from here.”
Rogers came over to them and threw a heaving hug, but kept her feet moving, forward, toward Boylston. “If I stop I’ll probably crash,” she said, and with that she took off, yelled something about having a drink waiting for her, and put Heartbreak behind her, like everyone who runs Boston.
More from the 2014 Boston Marathon — Cullen: Just like the days we used to know | Gasper: Boston reclaims its Marathon | Photos: Marathon scenes | The ‘Scream Tunnel’ and Heartbreak Hill | The elite runners | Boylston Street | Videos from the Marathon | Full coverageBilly Baker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.