NEWTON — Jim Roche arrived at Heartbreak Hill in immaculate time, the drive from his home in Newmarket, N.H., eluding the masses that flood Boston on Patriots Day. He found prime real estate on the corner of Commonwealth Ave. and Read Ct., the point at which the hill becomes a heartbreaker, and got to work.
Here, Roche would stand well into the afternoon offering pieces of fruit to anyone who would take up his offer. Even as the rain became torrential, Roche never flinched. His right arm remained fully extended, orange slices and watermelon wedges in hand.
“Oranges don’t weigh a whole lot,” Roche said. “These guys are suffering a whole lot more.”
The adrenaline spike that comes from cheers, high-fives, and prank pregnancy announcements only carry the body so far when it’s depleted of glycogen, the glucose that stores energy in muscles.
It’s a point runners often refer to as “the wall,” where crisp, purposeful steps devolve into a labored shuffle. Typically, the body has enough glycogen to churn legs for about 20 miles, the point along the Boston Marathon at which Heartbreak Hill begins.
Which is why Roche has requested the day off from his job at the Naval shipyard in Portsmouth, N.H. for the past three years — to hand out about 20 pounds of fuel to runners who are inching towards ‘E.’
“You run out of energy. You deplete all your stored energy, so you’re living off of sugar right now,” Roche said. “Some people get it through energy drinks, gels, but fruit, a lot of people like it, and it’s just a way to keep going.”
Roche is familiar with the toll distance running takes on the body. The 46-year old has participated in 71 marathons since running his first competitive road race at age 30.
He estimates that he runs upward of 20 races a year — from marathons to 100-milers — and spends another dozen or so doling out fruit in the average runner’s most visible time of need.
“They’re just pushing ahead on everything they’ve got,” Roche said. “A lot of these folks have trained all year round to do this, and they want to do Boston. If they could do any marathon, they’d do Boston.”
Roche made his first visit to Commonwealth Ave. when he was 7. His mother brought him to his first Boston Marathon with a tub of oranges in tow, affording Roche an opportunity to interact with the runners.
“It was a huge thing when a runner would take an orange — huge — and you just felt like you were on top of the world,” Roche recalled. “A lot of races, they don’t work without volunteers.”
Hundreds of times since that spring day, Roche has handed out snacks, though not always fruit. Roche previously lived in Washington, D.C., where the National Marathon regularly occurred during his birthday weekend in March. One year, he handed out 20 pounds of birthday cake.
The elite runners and many entrants in the first wave failed to break stride, though Roche offered them nourishment anyway, his arm remaining extended just in case. Come mid-afternoon, he was regularly visited by depleted runners, some doubling-down or doubling back for any kind of fuel that would help the coming ascent.
As a member of the nationwide club Marathon Maniacs, Roche has befriended runners from across the country. On this particular race day, Roche estimated that he knew about 100 people making their way from Hopkinton to Boston.
And people have come to expect his presence. One friend spotted him from the other side of the road and zigzagged through traffic for a warm embrace. Another stopped for a photo, Roche sending him on his way with a few added sips of water and some electrolyte pills.
But his warm invite was not limited simply to those he knew.
“Toshi! Suika desu,” Roche shouted to a shuffling middle-aged man. The man looked up, deviated from his path, and grabbed a piece of watermelon. “I was stationed in Japan for two years, too,” Roche said. “You learn the word for ‘watermelon’ in about 20 languages.”
In the near future, it is Roche who will feed off the generosity of others. He is scheduled to run marathons in North Dakota, Minnesota, Kansas, Oregon, Nebraska, and Hawaii this year. Should he cross the finish line at each, he will have completed a marathon in all 50 states.
But for Roche, there is no feeling quite like helping someone achieve a goal, even if the only help you can offer is a piece of fruit and a smile.
“There’s nothing that I like better than this,” Roche said. “Anybody can go to a Sox game, anyone can go to a Pats game, but there’s only one Marathon, and you better be out there cheering it. It’s a free ticket.”