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Reception was warming on Heartbreak Hill

By Michael Vega, Globe Staff, 04/18/00

NEWTON - Holding a cardboard sign that read "12228 GO MAUREEN! 12228,'' Jay Pluger stood near the driveway of Dick and Margaret O'Brien's home at 336 Commonwealth Avenue, which is about 100 yards from the crest of Heartbreak Hill, and anxiously waited for his 37-year-old wife Maureen (No. 12228) to pass the 20-mile checkpoint.

Pluger, 33, came from Grand Rapids, Mich., along with friends Shannon and Tom Tyler, to cheer for his wife in her maiden Hopkinton-to-Boston trek. Invited to the O'Brien's annual marathon bash, Pluger and the Tylers stationed themselves at the most grueling part of the famed Marathon course: Heartbreak Hill.

"She told me she'd be looking for me at the top of Heartbreak Hill,'' Pluger said. "So I'll be looking for her around the three-hour mark.''

But on this bone-chilling April afternoon, there was hardly any heartbreak on the hills of Newton, just a lot of good cheer. Much of it from an enthusiastic group of Tufts students, who startled runners by chanting their last names as they approached - the cheering section informed of approaching numbers by a scout perched in a tree and equipped with binoculars.

"We just got in [Sunday], so we didn't get a chance to see the course,'' said Pluger, whose wife became one of the 17,741 official entries after she qualified with a 3:36 at last fall's Chicago Marathon. "We went to the Runner's Expo and sat in on a couple of the meetings, and that was about it.''

So, did the 40-degree temperatures agree with her?

"Well, she likes the warm weather better,'' Pluger said. "A lot better.''

Maureen Pluger would have enjoyed last year's race, when it was sunny and warm, although that was not the case for other runners. Four-time winner Bill Rodgers dropped out of last year's race shortly after reaching the crest of Heartbreak Hill.

"Last year was a difficult year for the elite runners,'' said Meg Maloy, a Red Cross volunteer from Newton who yesterday worked the medical tent at Heartbreak Hill for the 24th year. "They were dropping out early, and I don't know if it was the weather or if their training was different.''

However, in Rodgers's case, it was surprising that he lasted as long as he did in that he had been suffering from a head cold.

"That'll do it,'' said Maloy. "The fact he made it to the 20-mile checkpoint, that's amazing if he wasn't feeling well. But it was fun, he was very nice to everybody.''

So, too, were the O'Briens. Friends and strangers alike were greeted to their party with open arms.

Dick O'Brien assumed his customary spot behind the gas grill, cooking hot dogs and spicy Italian sausages.

"This is the warmest place on the hill; I'm no fool,'' he said with a laugh, as the mouth-watering aroma of his labor wafted over the driveway.

Margaret and her sister Joan, meanwhile, befriended two women from Texas - Peggy Dudley of Austin and Tina Blythe of Dallas.

Dudley, a technical writer, said she talked her best friend of 20 years, Blythe, into making a last-minute trip to Boston to cheer for one of her co-workers, Alan Cooke of Ireland.

"I've been working with him for about two years and he started running with a friend,'' Dudley explained. "He started working out with a training group and said he was going to run Boston. He said he was going to do it and I thought he'd never carry it out, and so I said, `I'll tell you what, if you go to Boston and run the Boston Marathon, I'll go watch.'

"So he did it, and so I had to carry out my promise.''

By now, most of the elite runners had passed. Jackson Kabiga of Kenya led a tightly bunched pack of eight up the hill around the 1:43 mark. Three-time women's winner Fatuma Roba of Ethiopia came chugging up Heartbreak with eventual winner Catherine Ndereba of Kenya in hot pursuit at 1:54:51.

"Roba didn't have anyone on her heels when she came through here last year,'' noted Dick O'Brien.

After a while, the two ladies from Texas got to see their man, Cooke, and, true to her word, Maureen Pluger, No. 12228, appeared at the three-hour mark, greeted with the homemade sign and cheers from her husband and friends.

Swept along by the adulation, Pluger churned up the hill. Then, about 50 yards from the top, she looked back to her cheering section, raising her arms in the air, pumping them triumphantly until she reached the crest.

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