Crowd elevates game to support runners

By Seth Lakso
Globe Correspondent / April 17, 2012
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NEWTON - Unseasonably hot temperatures brought out fans in droves to Heartbreak Hill, cheering on runners of the 116th Boston Marathon as they battled their way through the most infamous portion of the 26.2-mile course.

Heartbreak Hill, as it’s been called since the Globe’s Jerry Nason coined the term in 1936, is the largest of the Newton hills on the course. It comes approximately 20.5 miles into the course, beginning at the Center Street shops and ending at Hammond Street.

As temperatures climbed into the mid-80s, Heartbreak Hill had many competitors wishing they had joined the more than 4,000 runners who deferred their entries to next year.

For those who braved the hottest Boston Marathon in the past 13 years, support was all around.

Red Cross stations, lemonade stands, water guns, and even an inflatable kid’s pool lined the sidewalks, as the exhausted runners made their way up the fourth - and final - of the Newton hills.

“We’ve added supplements out on the course that would not be here on a normal year,’’ said Red Cross medical coordinator Kandi Finch, from her post halfway up the hill. “This year we’ve opened some fire hydrants along the route and set up misting tents.

“It’s hot and sunny and there isn’t much for clouds, so we’re seeing a lot of people over-heating and becoming dehydrated.’’

Doing their best to keep runners cool were Boston College students Keith Dougherty, Molly Phelps, and Phoebe Matthews, who set up shop on Commonwealth Avenue in an inflatable pool.

Although the water only came up to their ankles, it made an ideal holding tank for water guns, which they happily let rip on any runner who raised a hand.

“We knew it was going to be a hot day and we wanted to enjoy the weather,’’ said Dougherty, who lives in an apartment bordering the race route. “We picked up these water guns because we heard there was a heat index warning and we just want to keep everyone safe.

“This is the toughest part of the race. If you’re going to need to be cooled down anywhere, it’s here.’’

Passing out refreshments in a more conventional manner farther down the course was Courtney Hill. The cocaptain of the 21st mile watering station poured cups of water and explained that she could see the runners going by in tough shape.

“This year they’re hurting,’’ said Hill, who was passing out water for the seventh consecutive year. “They’re hot and they’re exhausted and as a result we’re real busy today.’’

Among those whom Heartbreak Hill simply got the best of was Oshkosh, Wis., native Chris Strong.

“It’s just an unbelievably hot day,’’ said Strong from a cot in a Red Cross medical tent. “I did most of my training in cooler weather and there was just no way to prepare for this [kind of heat]. Heartbreak Hill lived up to its reputation for me today.’’

Strong, like so many of Monday’s runners was impressed with the turnout and level of encouragement offered up by the crowd.

“They were fantastic,’’ he said. “They were doing everything they could to get me up this hill, but it was just a brutal day. It’s a hard course and anyone who finishes it today deserves a lot of congratulations.’’

Allison Gray and her friends from the Cambridge Running Club were fortunate to avoid any heartbreak on the hill, slowing to a walk as they reached the top.

“We’re usually better at running than us walking right now might imply,’’ said Gray, 27. “We’re qualified runners. We just [couldn’t] run it all today, it’s just too hot.

“The crowds have been incredible. They’ve been the best part. I want to hug every volunteer and everyone who lives around the course because I don’t think any of us would be making it this far without the extra water stops, the hoses, and the popsicles.’’

By itself, Heartbreak Hill isn’t overly intimidating, but after 20-plus miles of pushing your body, many runners are going on nothing except adrenaline and will.

Jim Nolan, who has lived along the race route for the past 21 years, has seen the looks on the faces of the runners over the years as they’ve willed themselves past his house.

“The real problem is that it’s not just this particular hill that’s tiring out the runners,’’ said Nolan. “The hills start way back beyond Newton City Hall and just keep coming and coming and that’s after you’ve already run 17 to 18 miles of the Marathon. It all kind of culminates here, but it’s not just this particular hill. It’s everything you had to do to get there before that.’’

One of those fortunate enough to conquer Heartbreak Hill, was 57-year-old Joe Robinson of Georgia.

“This has been the most difficult Boston Marathon I’ve run,’’ said the nine-time veteran. “It’s just this heat that’s making things difficult. I wish this was over. I’m hurting, but the fans have been great. This is the most supportive marathon I’ve ever run.’’

As he reached the end of the hill, Robinson said, “I’m feeling a bit better now that I’ve reached the top. At least I know that I’m actually going to make it now.’’

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