So what’s the big deal about Heartbreak Hill?

The following is an excerpt from the final chapters of the moving new book from Mark Sutcliffe, Long Road to Boston: the Pursuit of the World's Most Coveted Marathonavailable in hard cover and all eBook formats

PLUS: Meet authors Mark Sutcliffe and Rachel Cullen in Boston on April 14, 3-5 pm at Flour Bakery, 12 Farnsworth Street. Come relax with an afternoon coffee at this free event, and enjoy the stories and insights of these two inspiring and entertaining authors. Mark and Rachel will share their running journeys that brought them to Boston. RSVP at Eventbrite or on Facebook.


So what’s the big deal about Heartbreak Hill? It’s the most famous peak on a marathon course in the world – in fact, it’s probably the only hill on any marathon course that you’ve ever heard of. But it’s actually not that steep, nor is it particularly distinct on the Boston Marathon course. Many runners ascend it and then a few minutes later ask a runner next to them, “How long until we get to Heartbreak Hill?”

This part of the course is certainly not easy, but the hill itself doesn’t stand out on its own unless you are looking for it. Heartbreak Hill is the last of the four Newton Hills, which begin about sixteen miles into the race. Because the race has been mostly downhill until that point, and because it’s the second half of the marathon and runners are starting to get tired, Newton is considered one of the toughest sections of the Boston Marathon.

Before you even get to Heartbreak Hill, you must pass through another ominously named portion of the course: Hell’s Alley. As you leave Wellesley, you cross over Route 128, also known as the Yankee Division Highway. Route 128 is a partial beltway around Boston that includes Interstate 95. You could make a wrong turn here and, assuming you had enough energy gels, run all the way to Florida.

Just before the overpass, the course climbs about fifty-five feet in about one mile. A volunteer described to the Boston Globe what she has witnessed from her vantage point at a first-aid station at the top of the hill. “I’ve seen hyperthermia, hypothermia, hyponatremia, heart attack, diabetic emergencies, falls, sprains, blisters, diarrhea, vomiting,” she said. “I’ve seen it all on this hill.”

“Everybody talks about the hills, but this is where the real race starts,” Bill Rodgers, the four-time Boston champion, told the Globe.

At the bottom of the hill, you pass the Newton-Wellesley Hospital, where a few race dropouts have been taken after succumbing to Hell’s Alley. And then you make the famous right turn at the Newton Fire Station and begin to climb the Newton Hills.

Heartbreak Hill comes at precisely the point when many runners are hitting the wall. The marathon has often been described as twenty miles of hope and six miles of truth. Heartbreak Hill arrives just after the twenty-mile marker. Over the space of less than half a mile, the course rises by just under ninety feet. That’s a bit of a climb but it shouldn’t be enough to break your heart or crush your legs. One estimate put the grade at just over three per cent. There are lots of races that have much steeper ascents and they don’t have depressing names attached to them.

That’s because the name arises not from the hill but the despair that happened on it. In 1936, Johnny Kelley was the popular defending Boston Marathon champion. On the second-last of the Newton Hills, he caught up to the lead runner, a Native American named Ellison Brown, who was known as both Tarzan and Deerfoot. The year before, Brown had finished in thirteenth place, even though his shoes fell apart on the course and he had to run the final five miles barefoot.

In 1936, Brown ran a blistering pace, so much so that apparently the driver of the press vehicle didn’t even realize he was in the lead and was following Kelley instead. But Kelley managed to catch up to Brown, and as he passed the frontrunner, he gave him a reassuring pat on the shoulder, by way of apology or consolation for overtaking him. As the story goes, the gesture sparked something in Brown, who rallied and regained the lead from Kelley. According to some reports from the time, the two swapped places several times in the next few hundred yards, with Kelley overtaking Brown on the uphills and Brown surging ahead on the downhills. Brown finally prevailed and Kelley fell to fifth place.

Sports columnist Jerry Nason covered the race for the Boston Globe and wrote about how Brown broke Kelley’s heart on the final hill in Newton. For eighty years, the name has persisted.

Sixty-six years later, at the age of ninety-four, Kelley told the Boston Globe he lamented tapping Brown on the shoulder. “I made a big mistake when I did that,” he said. “It was as much to say, hey, boy, move over. It was a terrible thing to do, and I still regret it.”

Both Brown and Kelley represented the United States at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. Brown, who was from the Narragansett tribe in Rhode Island, won a second Boston Marathon in 1939. He and Tom Longboat, the legendary Canadian runner, are the only two Native Americans to have won the race.

This residential section of the course is quite picturesque. Commonwealth Avenue is divided by a grassy island populated by trees. There are quaint homes and shops on both sides of the road. If you were to travel it by car or in Google Street View, you wouldn’t notice much of an incline. But if you have to climb it twenty miles into a footrace, it’s a little more evident.

Even so, Heartbreak Hill sounds more daunting than it really is. It’s an important milestone on the course, and it’s a place that draws strong and supportive crowds. If you need extra energy to conquer the Newton Hills, you can count on supporters to push you through. And the best thing about Heartbreak Hill is that once you’ve conquered it, it’s mostly downhill and flat the rest of the way to the finish line.


Meet authors Mark Sutcliffe and Rachel Cullen in Boston on April 14, 3-5 pm at Flour Bakery, 12 Farnsworth Street. Come relax with an afternoon coffee at this free event, and enjoy the stories and insights of these two inspiring and entertaining authors. Mark and Rachel will share their running journeys that brought them to Boston. RSVP at Eventbrite or on Facebook.

Blog-Boston.jpg