A Hill Doesn’t Have to Mean Heartbreak

I am running the 2011 Boston Marathon to raise money for the American Liver Foundation's Run for Research, and will post frequently about my training here, in these final weeks leading up to the race.

It turns out, “Heartbreak Hill” isn't as mean as its reputation (and name) suggests, when you look at it by the numbers. The fourth and final of the Newton hills on the Boston Marathon course rises only 88 vertical feet, and does so over about 4/10 of a mile. Its placement on the course adds tremendously to its difficulty, not only the fourth hill in a row, but also a bit of a shock to runners as these hills – beginning at mile 16 and ending with Heartbreak between mile 20 and 21 - mark a noticeable change in course structure, ascending after an otherwise gradual descent out of Hopkinton, and come at a point in the race where sugar is low in the runner's body. The name “Heartbreak Hill” was coined many years ago, when the now-famous Johnny Kelley, running the race in 1936 (the same year he would represent the US in the Olympics), passed Tarzan Brown on the hill, patting him on the back as he pulled into the lead position. After that gesture, Brown surged and passed Kelley, “breaking Kelley's heart,” as described by Boston Globe reporter Jerry Nason.

A hill, however, doesn't have to mean heartbreak. Coming off of a long, snowy winter of ice-covered roadways that forced my training indoors and onto the treadmill, re-adjusting to road running hasn't been as bad as some had warned me it would be. Frankly, I don't notice much difference with one huge exception – the hills. There simply is no way to simulate a real hill on a treadmill...both the climb up, and the descent. In my first few runs outside since the weather broke, my struggles have come facing hills. There is only one way to beat this.

In the off-season, on the rowing team at Phillips Academy Andover, we couldn't row on the Merrimack, too solid with ice in the winter, then raging with early spring snowmelt flooding. Therefore, our winter and early spring training was conducted on the rowing machine, and in other creative methods, including running hills. So, I had previous experience tackling these bumps, but it was many years ago, with a much younger body, and I questioned my physical competence to “take the hill” again. Nonetheless, there was no doubt – to beat the hills, I would have to face them without reservation.


So, this Sunday I ran to a hill about a mile and a half from my house, matching Heartbreak's statistics closely – a climb of .44 miles and a similar vertical rise. My goal was simple – run up and down as many times as possible, without stopping or resting, until I simply couldn't take it anymore. I hoped that would be about 10 repetitions.

The first time was grueling – all of my recent pain and struggle running hills was on exhibit, both on the way up, and coming back down. The second ascent was better. The third, surprisingly, even stronger. A lesson I've learned time and again was clear once more – “it's all in your head.” I'll expand upon that in a future post, but suffice to say that in my training I've found the body is willing and able to do what the heart desires, but the head is the strongest opponent and obstacle. By my seventh rise, however, the pain had increased exponentially, and was excruciating. My right shin was burning, and had already been tender on some runs. Aware of the potential for shin splints, I immediately thought, “you've done seven...that's great...you cannot risk injury...you cannot risk getting hurt...you need to stop.” So, as I came back down the hill, I determined I would stop for the sake of my well-being – this was simply too painful.

When I reached the bottom, however, something remarkable stirred: deep inside, I still felt a drive. I wasn't where I envisioned I'd be. I couldn't stop. A brief inner debate lasted only about 10 seconds, before I realized there was a compromise solution. My spirit needed to drive forward, determined to master the hills and further my progress toward my goal of finishing the marathon and raising money for kids afflicted with liver disease. My head warned of injury, pain and hurt that could knock me out of the whole thing. Then, my mind kicked in. I don't know if there's any formal psychological study that can distinguish “head” from “mind,” but I believe there is a difference. Your head acts with reflex, often based in fear rooted in previous experiences, and many of us know that fear can trap you, play tricks on you, and in my case, convince you that you have to turn back or face certain injury. Your mind, on the other hand, is smart – years of experience and education that are available to you, and with practice and fine-tuning, can be used to further your inner drive. “Why not keep going, but slow the pace?”, my mind inquired. How had I not thought of that on my entire descent down the hill? How had I not considered this basic solution when my shin was stinging and I worried of injury? Why was I prepared to stop after so much work, but short of my goal, rather than simply slow to a more comfortable pace? So, I turned, and headed up the hill for an eighth time. On this lap, folks who live on the street asked as I ran by “How many laps are you doing? Are you training for the marathon or something?” Yes, I am...and I'm doing ten. By the tenth climb, the natural burning through my legs and lungs that accompanies physical duress was nearly unbearable, but my shin was much better. Slowing the pace – though still running steadily toward my goal – had done the trick. Unbeknownst to me, the neighbors started keeping track on that nearly-non-existent eighth lap, and by my tenth, exclaimed, “Good luck in the marathon!”, aware that I was on my final pass.

In life, like in my training, there are times the run becomes excruciating. There are times we see the warnings of injury, pain or hurt and stop dead at the bottom of the proverbial hill, afraid to tackle it, worried of injury, unsure of what lay on the path to the top. Other times we start to run those proverbial hills but never finish. In those instances, my head told me, “it's too dangerous...too much pain...you must stop.”  Sometimes we convince ourselves those seven hills were good enough and quite an accomplishment, though deep inside, that inner drive knew we must go farther. Somehow, after 32 years of life and logging hundreds of miles, this Sunday on that Heartbreak Hill replica, I learned how to meld the driving heart and the reasoning mind...silence the fearful head...and ensure that even 10 consecutive hills with no rest don't have to mean Heartbreak.

Oh, and one more thing. Though it hurt for the rest of the day...by the next morning, my shin felt just fine, and I couldn't be more excited to take the hill again soon. And I will, at least 11 times.  Maybe I'll see you there.

I'm running the Boston Marathon because - unlike hills you and I can overcome with the right outlook - the hills for liver patients, particularly children, require more than concert of heart, mind and body.  Consider your donation to the Run For Research as one single stride to make it up the hills that lay ahead for these patients.  To help take another stride, please click here.

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