Hitting the Top of Heartbreak Hill

Photo by preed
Heartbreak Hill is the last of four hills in Newton and is a recognized landmark in the Boston Marathon. If you ask any runner why it is called that, they will be sure to tell you it is because it breaks the hearts of thousands of marathoners every year as they are faced with an arduous climb at one of the most difficult points of a marathon, the 21st mile. They would, of course, be wrong.

Heartbreak Hill really is not very impressive. It climbs a mere 80 feet over the span of about a half mile. It does come at a tough point in the race, and after thousands of marathoners have battered their muscles into jelly over a predominantly downhill course it can be a little difficult. However, for somebody used to hill training and who has run smart, it really is not a very remarkable climb. There is a lot of history there, though, and the crowd is always excellent along this stretch of the course.

The true story of Heartbreak Hill comes from 1936, when Johnny Kelly was defending his first Boston Marathon victory (his second came a decade later in 1945). Johnny Kelley thought that “Tarzan” Brown (Ellison Brown) had used up all that he had on the first three hills in Newton, and he showboated a little bit as he passed him. He patted Tarzan on the back, and Tarzan took offense. Being an absolute animal on a race course, Tarzan took off and broke Johnny Kelly on his way to the victory. It was on that fourth hill that Tarzan “broke his heart,” leaving a memorable name and a well-recognized landmark on the course.

There is a statue that was erected in 1992 of Johnny Kelley that depicts him from 1935 clasping his hand from 1991. It appears at the base of the third hill.