115th Boston Marathon | Heartbreak Hill

Mind-set here: Just get over it

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By Seth Lakso
Globe Correspondent / April 19, 2011

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As Kenya’s Geoffrey Mutai raced strides ahead of countryman Moses Mosop and crowd favorite Ryan Hall in yesterday’s Boston Marathon, the front-runners began the climb up one of the most famous gut checks in all of sports.

Heartbreak Hill, as it has been known since the Globe’s Jerry Nason coined the term in 1936, is the fourth — and largest — of the hills rising from the Newton portion of the 26.2-mile course. Spanning Miles 20 and 21, it is without a doubt the most feared portion of the marathon. Even the most seasoned runners have run into trouble climbing it.

Yesterday, Massachusetts General Hospital emergency physician Paul Biddinger was on hand to help the fatigued as they entered the last of the grueling hills.

“This far into the race, obviously their bodies have been under a lot of stress,’’ said Biddinger. “They’re just going to be tired, their muscles are going to be sore.

“I’m not sure there is a specific medical definition for what runners refer to as ‘hitting the wall.’ But I think it’s probably two things.

“One is physical. This far into the race, the body’s under an enormous amount of stress, and if you haven’t trained well enough, or you’re just unlucky, sometimes your body just can’t make it.

“The other factor is mental. This is probably at least as big of a factor. This is a long time to keep pushing, and to look up the hill and keep going, it’s just a hard thing to push your body through.’’

But it’s not all pain and despair on Heartbreak Hill. There is also an outpouring of support from fans. A bit of a tailwind yesterday didn’t hurt, either.

For the 10th year in a row, Arlington native Lauren Hefferon could be found atop Heartbreak Hill, chalk in hand, drawing her now-perfected giant Technicolor heart. Hefferon supplies colored chalk to anyone interested in drawing or writing an encouraging message atop the hill.

“Where I got the idea was in Europe, where they have big bike races,’’ said Hefferon, whose bad knees keep her from running the marathon route but not biking it. “They’ll usually cover the tops of the hills with chalk and inspirational writing, and I always thought it was beautiful and helped to keep everyone motivated.’’

Come race time, Hefferon and her group of almost 50 supporters — many of them youngsters — had painted the road in support of their favorite runners.

By itself, Heartbreak Hill isn’t overly intimidating, rising just 88 feet over a half-mile stretch. The problem is where it lies within the course. After 20-plus miles, the fuel generated by the four tons of pasta and 500 gallons of tomato sauce served to runners has been used up, and they are going on pure determination.

Cal Hamson, 71, who remembers when Greg Meyer became the last American male to win Boston in 1983, was vocal in his support for Hall as the Stanford graduate ran past, just back of the two Kenyans as they willed their way up the hill.

Hamson chose Heartbreak Hill, he said, because “it’s the best spot, it’s the toughest part of the race, and it’s great to see the runners attack it the way they do.

“They’re out there killing themselves to get up this hill. It’s really an amazing thing to see. I really admire these people.’’

For those who conquer Heartbreak, it’s more or less downhill from there, with a beautiful view of the Prudential tower and the Boston College super-fans urging you on.

Red Cross station supervisor Kandi Finch, at the very top of the Heartbreak Hill, described the looks on the faces of those who reach the summit.

“I see sheer joy,’’ Finch said. “Once they hear that they’re at the top of Heartbreak Hill and they know that they’re almost there, you can just see them light up and almost feel their determination to finish.’’

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