Get up to speed

So you think it’s too hard to turn in a blazing time on this course? Not so fast . . .

By Shira Springer
Globe Staff / April 15, 2011

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Nobody has coined a clever nickname for the climb over Interstate 95, the wide stretch of road that rises almost 100 feet in half a mile. The area doesn’t lend itself to poetry. No New England charm here — just concrete, guardrails, and highway signs. Steeped in the lore of Heartbreak Hill, Hell’s Alley, and the Haunted Mile, runners rarely give this section of the Boston Marathon course at Mile 16 a second thought.

“There are people running Boston for the first time who will say, ‘No one told me about this extra hill,’ ’’ said John Frederick, who will run his 26th consecutive Boston Marathon on Monday.

Unless they are privy to some of the race’s secrets.

The rise over I-95 and other quirks of the course can sneak up on runners and slow them down. Most qualifiers arrive in Hopkinton with anything but a personal best on their mind. Swept up in the excitement of marathon weekend and aware of how the route punishes the body, they often set a “good experience’’ as their goal. They aim for a triumphant run down Boylston Street, not doing what race director Dave McGillivray calls the “survivor’s shuffle.’’ They assume fast times are out of reach.

Not true. With the right approach, some insider knowledge from experienced Boston Marathon competitors, and smart choices on race day, a fast race is possible. If you want it. Peel back the hype and the history surrounding the Boston Marathon and the race reveals itself in new ways.

“Anyone can run a fast time in Boston,’’ said Tom Derderian, a former marathoner who has written a history of the Boston race and coaches for the Greater Boston Track Club. “The Boston Marathon course was not designed to be as fast as possible, but certainly it sometimes can be fast. There’s also the possibility of it being really, really slow.

“It’s a little bit more difficult to run fast when you start behind the line and it takes a little while to run normally and not be caught in a big crowd. But the racecourse is fair and the race is fair with the way the BAA organizes it. The wave starts. It’s possible for any well-trained runner to run a personal best.’’

With the emphasis on well-trained. Runners who prepare for covering the unique contours of the Boston Marathon course, not just 26.2 miles, often perform best. That means readying legs for downhills, as well as uphills. There is good reason why the descent that follows Heartbreak Hill earned the name “The Haunted Mile’’. Even the much less steep and much shorter downhills sprinkled over the final few miles can take a toll.

Between now and Monday, however, rest and proper mental preparation are most important. Trust your training, whatever it has been. And take that mind-set to the start in Hopkinton.

“My tip for runners is to avoid a desperate change in anything before or during the race to make up for any lack of preparation,’’ said Derderian. “The upper limit to your performance is already set in stone, so calm down and take what the day gives you. There is nothing you can do to improve your performance now, but you can screw it up by not understanding the limits to your performance imposed or granted by your training.’’

When it comes to taking what the day gives you, weather plays a larger role than many runners might suspect in determining speed. On a course known for its uphills and downhills, wind direction matters. A lot. Just ask runners who’ve faced a headwind and found themselves pushing against an invisible barrier as they crested Heartbreak Hill. Or, runners who’ve enjoyed a tailwind and found themselves cruising through the early portions of the course far faster than expected, only to suffer later.

As with many aspects of marathon racing, if you know what to expect, you can prepare better. The latest forecasts predict clear skies and temperatures in the mid-50s with a tailwind coming from the west. Don’t let that tailwind coupled with race-day adrenaline carry you too quickly through the first half of the course.

Every marathon involves exercising patience, anticipating how your mind and body will handle the miles and miles and miles ahead. Yet, no other 26.2-mile trek may require more patience, may test the limits of runners’ restraint, than the Boston Marathon route. And that test begins as soon as runners rush down Main Street in Hopkinton. After they cross the starting line, you can almost feel the release of months, sometimes years, of anticipation for the event.

With fanfare and thick crowds unfamiliar to runners who typically qualify at smaller, local races, it’s easy for amateurs to get carried away at the start. Add to the mix an almost 150-foot drop in the first 1,000 yards and several more significant downhills leading up to Mile 4. Enjoy the ride, but don’t leave your shot at a personal best somewhere in Ashland by starting too fast.

“Don’t get sucked in to the people’s pace around you,’’ said Mike Sheldon of Westfield, who’s raced Boston 14 times, trained on the course more than 30 times, and organizes a crude marathon simulation run roughly a month before the big day. “It’s almost human nature to put a few minutes in the bank while you’re feeling good in the beginning, but you make huge withdrawals on the last 10 miles of the course.’’

Added Frederick: “There’s no way you can underestimate the adrenaline of being in front of those crowds. You almost have to run it once or twice not to get caught up in the usual problems . . . The first 6 or 7 miles are mostly downhill. There’s a lightness in the air, bands playing and you’re feeling good. Then, it flattens out in Natick and you think, ‘Wow, this could be my best day.’ But you’re not even halfway yet. The biggest thing is taking a conservative approach.’’

Ask runners such as Sheldon and Frederick, who have lengthy consecutive Boston Marathon streaks, when they ran the fastest, what they did differently that day. And it’s always the same answer: They “negative split’’ the race, or came very close to doing so. To negative split a race is just what it sounds like: running the later miles faster than the earlier miles.

“In a lot of other marathons, if they’re flat without a lot of turns, then there are no surprises,’’ said McGillivray. “All you’re doing is clicking off the miles and running an even pace. In Boston, it’s virtually impossible to run an even pace. History shows that some of the best times on this course have been run by running negative splits or by at least running the second half at the same pace as the first half. Most people who get in trouble do the opposite. They run the first half significantly faster, then they crash and burn and wonder why.’’

A patient, well-paced approach through the halfway mark even makes Heartbreak Hill easier. Honestly. Especially if you know what to expect upon approach. If not, you’re in for a climb as emotionally challenging as it is physically challenging. Many Boston first-timers get the nickname stuck in their head and don’t know the uphill section that troubles so many runners is really a combination of three hills. If you think you’re done after the first, climbing the second can be trying. If you think you’re done after the second, the third can be devastating. Plan for three tough climbs.

At the very top of Heartbreak Hill hangs a TNM Real Estate sign. While it holds no iconic status like the Citgo sign visible a few miles later, it’s a nice landmark to know. The sight of familiar Brookline and Boston landmarks make the finish feel closer than it is, despite what mile markers read. Runners who get deceived often struggle to finish strong.

“After Heartbreak Hill, runners think, ‘Oh, I’ve done it. Now, it’s on to Boston,’ ’’ said Frederick. “It’s a long way from Heartbreak Hill into Boston. You see a lot of people who gave it their last [surge of energy] on the hill and they start to walk and stiffen up. That last bit, even if you slow down, you keep moving. Once you start to walk, then you’re in trouble.’’

The best Boston Marathon experiences come when runners know what lies ahead and embrace the challenge of the course. Race day always brings a mixture of pleasure and pain, whether on pace for a personal best or not.

“Even though you peak for that very moment of when that gun fires and you just want to let it all out, you have to respect the fact that it’s going to be a three- or four-hour plus journey,’’ said McGillivray. “That’s the secret.’’

Shira Springer can be reached at

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