Globe Insiders

From the Archives | April 17, 1979

The pain at Heartbreak Hill

Editor’s note: This article first appeared in The Boston Globe on April 17, 1979.

To the assorted sadists, flog artists, and bunionmongers gathered yesterday on the ascension and at the summit of Heartbreak Hill, cloaked in a fine gloomy mist, the 83d Boston Marathon was dependably perverse.

Only Bill Rodgers, who cleared the peak first, seemed immune to the gravitational imperative that tortures the muscles and erodes the spirit.

Running loosely, in textbook form and looking down instead of at the crowd, Rodgers came out of the Newton Hills and headed toward Boston College with a 15-20 yard lead over Toshihiko Seko.

Advertisement

“He (Rodgers) looked like he had just started the race,” noted Bruce Havumuki of Dorchester. “I think he had the psychological edge because he trains on the hill. I’m sure Seko has run bigger hills, but he’s never run this one.”

Get Today's Headlines in your inbox:
The day's top stories delivered every morning.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

“Rodgers wins on his strategy,” said Ricky Fox of Jamaica Plain.

But any disappointment felt over Rodgers’ apparent comfort was quickly dispelled by the struggling masses that follow him. Seko’s face was rigid from the effort, his form less perfect. Behind him by 30 yards, Garry Bjorklund was laboring. The first real crowd favorite, a study in agony, was Tom Fleming, the early leader, who puffed and chugged and appeared to be running backward with Bob Hodge closing behind him.

At the sight of Fleming, spectators such as Tom Prezcop and Marty Carlson of Rocky Hill, Conn., both at their first Marathon, knew they had made the right decision. “We figured this was the place to see the most suffering,” said Prezcop.

Because the last of the Newton Hills is at about a 20-mile mark, noted as a psychological barrier for the mind and the body, the runners are seen in various stages of horror and desperation. Many stop, stretch their hamstrings, and urged to go on, continue. Some signal triumph, arms upraised, hats tossed to the crowd, after realizing the worst is past and they haven’t been broken.

Advertisement

Among the leaders, Kevin Ryan and Randy Thomas generated the most excitement with a spirited dual up the hill, Ryan battling to keep the 2-3 yard lead. Nobuaki Takao, who finished 16th, swerved up Commonwealth, cutting an “S” pattern on the median line as if he were being fueled by saki.

There was great applause for Ken Archer, the wheelchair leader who made the merciful transition to his downhill brake about 10 minutes after Rodgers had passed. Likewise, for Joan Benoit, the leading woman, who trotted by practically obscured by a ring of taller men.

At the crest, Lt. Chuck Feeley and safety officer Paul Golden of the Newton police, assisted by Elliot Mover, greeted runners with the cruiser’s loudspeaker: “Congratulations. That’s the last of the big hills. You’ve beaten Heartbreak Hill. You’ve beaten the BAA. Less than five miles to go. Come back to Newton and visit us again.”

Lt. Feeley said he had been cheerleading from that spot for 12 years. “It picks them up,” said Feeley. “A lot of them are ready to quit. I get people coming up to me months later thanking me.”

There were no crowd-related problems reported at Heartbreak Hill or further on at BC. This was partially due to the smaller crowd (because of the weather), and partially due to the first time use of mounted police.