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The end is fear

Fortunes are changed at Haunted Mile

By John Powers, Globe Staff, 4/12/2002

    The stretch of road leading to Cleveland circle takes its toll on competitors who thought they'd conquered the challenge at Heartbreak Hill. (Globe File Photo / George Rizer) Haunted Mile graphic profile (Globe Graphic / Joan McLaughlin)

It starts when most folks think the race is over. Heartbreak is just past, the Hancock up ahead. "A lot of people come off the hills thinking the most difficult part of the course is behind them," says Joan Benoit Samuelson.

Then comes the Haunted Mile, which has spooked generations of marathoners for more than a century. It's the stretch between Lake Street in Brighton and Cleveland Circle, where the suburbs end and the city begins, with trolley tracks on one side and a burial ground on the other. The place where the supernatural takes over.

"The runners believe it to be a jinxed part of the course," says John "The Younger" Kelley, who won the Boston Athletic Association crown in 1957, was runner-up in five races, and ran it nearly three dozen times. "You would hear old-timers talk about how many people were leading at that point and folded up."

The Haunted Mile is the spooky place where contenders go to die. It's where Jimmy Henigan's legs gave out in 1922, where Olympic champion Albin Stenroos cracked in 1926, where Mamo Wolde began walking in 1963, where John "The Elder" Kelley saw half a dozen races turn against him.

Jerry Nason, the longtime Globe sports editor and race chronicler who gave Heartbreak Hill its name, called the adjacent Evergreen Cemetery the "graveyard of champions." "I call it the Cemetery of Lost Hope," says Bill Squires, who coached four-time victor Bill Rodgers. "Because so many bloody guys got there and were done."

The Haunted Mile is where runners come face-to-face with their mortality, where they realize that the Newton hills have been merely a prelude, that 5 more miles remain before Copley Square and the finish of what seemed a downhill romp back in Hopkinton.

"If there's a wall to hit, you're going to hit it pretty soon," says the younger Kelley, who's now 71. "It's the psychological thing of feeling OK but wondering when the hammer is coming down. You get that needle-in-the-red-zone feeling. You can go from being a leader to a sorely beset straggler."

Sammy Mellor, who led the 1903 race by nearly a mile ahead of John Lorden at the top of Heartbreak, was the Haunted Mile's first victim. He began walking at Lake Street -- and never recovered.

"His friends ... frantically implored the little New Yorker to begin again, but Mellor plaintively remarked that he could hardly move," the Globe observed the next morning. "The great crowd at Lake Street urged him on, and he gamely responded, but his collapse was but a question of time."

By the end of the Haunted Mile, Lorden had cut the gap in half. A few blocks later, Mellor had become a virtual pedestrian.

In the following decades, he had plenty of company. The elder Kelley, who dropped out at Cleveland Circle in his debut, often saw his fortunes fade along that treacherous swatch of macadam.

Yet if the Haunted Mile is where some contenders go to die, it's also where others are resurrected. It's where Tarzan Brown launched the killer counter that finished off Kelley in 1936 after Kelley thought he'd had the race won at the top of Heartbreak and tapped Brown cavalierly on the shoulder as he passed.

"I made a big mistake when I did that," says Kelley, now 94 and the race's grand marshal after running it 61 times between 1928 and 1992. "It was as much to say, hey, boy, move over. It was a terrible thing to do, and I still regret it."

Brown reacted as if he'd been touched by a ghost, passing Kelley before Cleveland Circle and going on to win by nearly two minutes, as Kelley sagged to fifth.

The Haunted Mile is where Uta Pippig, apparently undone by intestinal and menstrual woes in 1996, began her rise from the grave and ended up catching Tegla Loroupe for her third straight crown. It's where Gerard Cote came out of third place to win in 1940. And it's where Kelley the Younger, in 1963, made his dash from sixth place to pick off defending and future Olympic champions Abebe Bikila and Wolde of Ethiopia and finish second.

"It was a windy, misty day and the Ethiopians were so far ahead at Wellesley that I couldn't see them," recalls Kelley, who ended up behind Aurele Vandendriessche. "But the field ahead of me kept decimating. I came off the hills and up ahead of me I saw this figure walking with his hands on his hips. It was Wolde. Later, I caught up to Bikila. He was barely trotting."

The Haunted Mile is where you pay the debts you've unwittingly been accruing for 21 miles. "It's the easiest course in the world," says the elder Kelley, who won the race in 1935, then finished second five times before he won it again in 1945 at 37. "The first 5 and last 5 miles are downhill."

From the moment the gun sounds at noon in Hopkinton, the race seems a romp. A giddy descent into Ashland. A sprightly gambol through Natick. The exuberant climb past Wellesley College, with the sirens of Severance Hall singing their seductive songs. Midway through, it's all balloons and baby carriages.

"Through Wellesley Hills you're all wound up," says Squires, who learned the course inch by inch when he directed the Greater Boston Track Club and gives the prerace tour for the elite runners. "You're thinking, this course is beautiful."

Now comes the headlong downhill to Newton Lower Falls, where Rodgers loved to throw in a surge. Then what Squires calls "Hell's Alley," the short flat at the town line before the windy, desolate overpass across Route 128. "I think it's worse than Heartbreak," says Mark Coogan, who'll be the top US men's hope on Monday.

Then, past Woodland Golf Club, it's the 90-degree turn at the firehouse and the long roller-coaster ascent to Boston College, a stretch on which, Squires says, "you're getting a large hill every mile for the next 3 miles."

The Newton hills, Rodgers once said, are "the most significant stretch of road racing in the world." It's where the elite runners sort themselves out, where contenders and pretenders part company.

When the Gothic towers of BC appear at Heartbreak's crest, it's like reaching Oz. "People look at Heartbreak as this big mountain," says Coogan, who'll be bidding to win a race no American has mastered since 1983. "They think, once I'm there, I'm home free. They don't remember there are 5 miles to go."

The elder Kelley, who was defending champion, forgot that in 1936. "I've always been an impatient person, and it cost me dearly," he admits. "I was running a 15-mile race. Frankly speaking, I should have won two more Marathons. But I was so impatient, I wasn't pacing myself properly. Ten years went by and I said, `I'm going to run with my head.' That's when I won again."

Irrational exuberance is what brings most Boston contenders to their knees by the time they get to the Haunted Mile. "They over-run the hills," says Squires, who drilled his Greater Boston aces on them daily. "It's gone on for years and it'll always go on."

The emotional boost at reaching Oz lasts barely a dozen strides until the Wild Mouse descent past St. Ignatius Church and the awful toll it takes on leg muscles wrung out from slogging uphill. "You have a terrible braking there," says Squires. "You can't freewheel."

At the bottom, where Lake Street cuts across and the trolley tracks begin, the race morphs dramatically. "There's a sea change," says the younger Kelley. "It turns into an urban race there. It's no longer a suburban frolic."

The mind may think the worst is past. The body knows better. "You're dehydrated," says Rodgers, who tried to have his races wrapped up -- one way or the other -- by the time he was out of the hills. "You're getting major glycogen depletion. You're talking to yourself big-time. It's amazing how easy it is to capitulate -- or want to capitulate."

Lake Street is the place of transition -- and decision. Where the Haunted Mile begins is where physique and psyche wrestle each other to the pavement. "You're either in a good spot at that time -- or you're in the graveyard," says Samuelson, who won the women's race twice and shattered the world mark by more than two minutes in 1983. "People either lose the race there or they start to regroup and rally and chase to the finish."

After the undulant pounding of the hills, the start of the Haunted Mile is the natural place to assess the state of body and soul. "It's a little bit quiet again," says Coogan, who felt so lousy there last year that he was tempted to turn into the cemetery and lie down. "You can check and see if you're going to make it."

Some, like Mellor, knew they were done for by Lake Street. Others, like seven-time champion Clarence DeMar and four-time champion Cote, saw the Haunted Mile as an ideal stretch to make a move. "You can go by the people who are spent," says Squires. "The better athletes will do a baby surge there for 30 seconds or so."

That's where Lee Bong Ju, the first Korean victor in more than half a century, made his push last year to end Kenya's decade-long domination. That's where DeMar, "Old Man Marathon," busted Henigan 80 years ago. "Up this grade DeMar, with the zest that comes from the thought of prospective victory, races," the Globe reported the next day. "Back, farther and farther with each step, Henigan dropped."

DeMar broke Albert Michelson along the Haunted Mile the next year, and three-time champ Leslie Pawson shook off Kelley there in 1941. When Joe Smith, the "laughing milkman" from Medford, pulled away from Lou Gregory in 1942, he did it there, too. When Vandendriessche came flying out of third place to win in 1963, he took wing where the trolley tracks begin.

The Haunted Mile is a perfect place to spook rivals because it's a netherworld. "You've come off Heartbreak Hill, then you have this nondescript area," says Jill Gaitenby, a Boston College grad who was the top US women's finisher last year (in 14th) and the best homegrown bet this time.

The crowds at the Gothic spires are gone. So is the broad expanse of Commonwealth Avenue, bisected now by the trolley tracks. The cemetery pushes up against the narrow sidewalk on the right, discouraging spectators. "It's an eerie part of the course," says Coogan. "There are so few people there."

And, unlike what runners were told atop Heartbreak, it's not "all downhill from heah." The course rises as it passes the graveyard, setting up a quick drop that leads to the sharp right-left dogleg into Cleveland Circle.

"Coming down that hill, it's the last time you're going to get a little help," says Gaitenby. "You're thinking, if you do it now, you can break the person next to you or catch the person ahead of you."

When Toshihiko Seko won his first race here in 1981, he picked off leader Craig Virgin at Rodgers's old running store at the end of the Haunted Mile. "All of a sudden I don't see Seko anymore," Virgin said, "and I don't know why."

The race, said three-time champ Cosmas Ndeti, begins at 35 kilometers, which is where he lost his bid for a fourth straight crown in 1996 and where Joseph Chebet reeled in Silvio Guerra three years ago. Chebet, who had been stalking Guerra since they went into the hills, caught him at Cleveland Circle, and went on to win his first BAA crown.

Cleveland Circle is a pivotal landmark, at once comforting and discomfiting. "Getting there is a relief," says Gaitenby, who lived a few blocks away during her college days. "Once I make it to Cleveland Circle, I'm home free. I think it's because that part of the race is so familiar to me. When I lived in the Back Bay, I ran there and back hundreds of times. I know every street corner, every shop along the way. You see the Citgo sign, it gives you a little hope."

With hope, though, comes obligation. The spectators at Evergreen Cemetery, some of whom have been there since 1848, don't care if you finish the final few miles. From Cleveland Circle onward, they do.

"Boston is the only marathon in the world where you can't walk off the course," says Coogan, an Attleboro native who'll be running the race for the third time. "They're going to push you back out there."

The Haunted Mile is the last time a runner can give up the ghost without being seen. Once the turn is made onto Beacon Street for the long straightaway home, there are thousands of witnesses to every step.

"All of a sudden the crowds are thick and confining," says the younger Kelley. "You're running through a cheering chasm of humanity. So you have this curious feeling of responsibility to not fall apart. You're past the point of commitment."

For some, the end of the Haunted Mile is the beginning of the road to glory. For others, it's the start of the long march to defeat. The faces you see in Copley Square around 2:10 p.m. are those who whistled past the graveyard. The rest of them, strung out all the way back to the Cemetery of Lost Hope, are dead men walking.

This story ran on page F2 of the Boston Globe on 4/12/2002. Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.

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