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From the archives | April 18, 1978

Surviving Heartbreak Hill

Editor’s note: This article first appeared in The Boston Globe on April 18, 1978.

The Boston College track team, which has been known to train on it, will tell you that the hill is 620 yards long - from where the grade begins to where it crests at Hammond st.

There is a stop light there, which some people find diabolically amusing,

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because that is the precise point where the body says no and the mind is tempted to follow. Twenty-one miles.

Beacon may be more vertical, and Bunker more famous, but when you talk of Boston, this is the hill they think about around running clubs from Japan to Boulder, Colo.

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“Killer,” Arnold Sohn said yesterday afternoon after he’d come from Milwaukee to run the Marathon, “Back home, people said, “Train for Heartbreak.’ But you know ...

“It wasn’t that bad.” That’s what most of the 4000 or so people who climbed it yesterday will tell you. “They made it sound like Everest, but I was passing people all the way up. And then ...

“Then the hamstring began to tighten in the most curious way around Lake Street. Something happened just as Beacon Street was joining Commonwealth.”

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Johnny Kelley, who was running this race - and That Hill - half a century ago, can tell you about that. He won himself a laurel wreath twice (1935 and 1945) - yet finished second an incredible seven times. And most of the time, he had - or gained - the lead by Heartbreak Hill.

”I never had that much trouble with the hills,” Kelley said yesterday after completing another Marathon at age 70. “It was later, after you go through those little upgrades and down into Cleveland Circle. From Coolidge Corner to Kenmore Square - the Haunted Mile, I called it.”

Yesterday, a Newton policeman in a brown soundcar was parked at the corner of Hammond and Commonwealth, giving out The Word. “You’ve just climbed Heartbreak Hill,” he’d boom out through the loudspeaker. “You have five miles to the finish. This is the last of the hills. It’s flat from here. Good luck.”

All of which was true ... but like Macbeth’s witches, it wasn’t the whole truth. Heartbreak Hill really begins on the other side, after you’ve pumped hard with one set of leg muscles for four-fifths of the race, and suddenly have to start braking with another set. Halfway up The Hill, Bill Rodgers was leading comfortably, by 18 seconds and more than 100 yards. When he looked back over his shoulder, he could see only heads and torsos, Kevin Ryan and Esa Tikkanen, working hard. He couldn’t see the man who would almost catch him at the finish. Jeff Wells, ruined on the hills last year, was sitting back in sixth, saving something.

”They’re tough,” Wells said later. “I was wrecked in the hills last time. They really took me out. I don’t want to second-guess myself, but I think I saved too much. I should have moved earlier.”

They say that you never really win a marathon on Heartbreak Hill ... but you can lose one there. Not immediately, maybe. You won’t see world-class runners coming apart at St. Ignatius Church like overheated tires. Even when Rodgers dropped out there last year, it was mostly a logistical convenience. It was easier to get a ride to the Eliot Lounge from there.

Rather, The Hill hits you with several croakers all at once. The raw steepness, which brings you up to 230 feet above sea level at the summit. The quick plunge past Boston College, sometimes accompanied by a temperature drop that tightens the muscles. Ask Richard Mabuza, a ruined leader a couple of years ago, about that.

And The Wall, the physical barrier you crash into around the 20-mile mark, when the body has exhausted its reserves and the mind goes fuzzy.

“You know, the runners claim, as marathons go, this is an easy one,” Johnny Kelley said. “The first five miles and the last five are downhill. But you’ve got the hills ... and Heartbreak Hill, where it’s placed. If you go into them tired ... “

Yesterday only two men among the top 10-Esa Tikkanen and Don Kardong-held the same places at the end that they had at the foot of the Hill. Jack Fultz, who won his race two years ago, was fifth going up. He wound up picking off both Kevin Ryan and Randy Thomas over the final five miles, and got picked off

himself by Wells.

“You don’t really attack the hills,” Fultz said. “You survive them.”

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