When it comes to the 26.2 miles that the Boston Marathon encompasses, there is no doubt in my mind that the most well-known, and dare I say notorious, part of the course occurs between the miles 20 and 21 – Heartbreak Hill. It’s the last of four “Newton Hills” which span approximately 3+ miles starting right around mile 17; so not only is Heartbreak a challenge in its own right, but by the time you reach it you have been running hills for quite a while. Therefore, when prepping for the Boston Marathon it’s certainly not uncommon to plan a strategy for how you will tackle “Heartbreak” along with the other surrounding hills.
While the Newton Hills and Heartbreak are certainly not to be underestimated, conquering them does not mean that the toughest part of the course is now behind you. In fact, if you were to ask me, the course’s biggest challenge is now right in front of you, the between miles 21.5 and 22.5, which is otherwise known as the "Haunted Mile”.
On the surface, the Haunted Mile does not look all the intimidating, as it’s rather flat with some minor grade changes. Additionally, when viewed in the context of what you have just overcome in the prior miles, it’s a part of the course that is very easy to overlook. Many assume that you can just power through it, because after all you will have just crossed over and conquered Heartbreak.
However, nothing could be further from the truth. In fact when asked about the Haunted Mile, it has been described as follows:
“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.”
John Powers, Boston Globe
"Runners believe it to be a jinxed part of the course…You would hear old-timers talk about how many people were leading at that point and folded up."
John "The Younger" Kelley, 1957 Marathon Winner and five-time runner-up
"I call it the Cemetery of Lost Hope….because so many bloody guys got there and were done."
Bill Squires, Coach of four-time victor Bill Rodgers
What makes the Haunted Mile such a tough part of the course? It’s my belief that it simply comes down to when and where it occurs. Leading up to it, very often you are experiencing the exuberance that comes with just having conquered the hills. Yet your are now met with the realization that you still have approximately five miles until you cross the finish line. This can be a daunting experience, because once the rush from conquering Heartbreak fades, the reality of what you have just put your body through to get to this point, can really start to sink in. Therefore, for many the Haunted Mile can also be the defining moment when it comes to determining how the rest of your Boston Marathon experience will ultimately unfold.
So how can you avoid the pitfalls of the Haunted Mile? It’s my belief that by proactively anticipating the challenges you may face at this point on the course and having a plan to meet them head on, you can readily avoid the fate that so many others have met.
In order to give-up, I like to say that you must first “give-in”. As you will likely be very tired at this juncture, it’s very easy to give in to the temptation to walk and or stop and rest. While you need to know your limits, giving into this kind of temptation can lead to your undoing at the moment and certainly hinder your ultimate push to the finish.
Therefore, being mentally prepared to address the associated challenges of the Haunted Mile will serve you well and enable you to proactively prepare for the obstacles (both physical and mental) that will likely greet you at this point on the course.
Down Does Not Mean Out
If there is one lesson that can be gleamed via the history associated with Haunted Mile it’s that things will not always go according to plan. Running a marathon is tough and your body and mind do not always react that way you expect or would like them to. In the case of the Boston Marathon, it’s clear that the Haunted Mile is where these challenges can readily boil to the surface.
This can no doubt be a very frustrating experience, but while you may be down, it certainly does not mean you are out. In short, it’s important to recognize that you may need to change your game plan and associated expectations. Therefore, instead of being caught-up in the moment and challenges associated with the Haunted Mile, use this portion of the course to assess your situation and formulate your strategy about how you will to approach the final miles to the finish.
Maintain Your Momentum
If there is one thing that the Haunted Mile can kill, it’s your momentum. While you may have been full of energy after crossing over Heartbreak and running past BC, once you encounter the Haunted Mile, it’s very easy to lose that energy. The crowd support is a bit thinner and suddenly the finish line can start to feel very far away.
Therefore, I’ve found that one great way to maintain your momentum at this point of the race is to focus on “little victories”. Instead of focusing on the seemingly distant goal of the finish, look to establish 4 – 5 shorter term goals that you can more readily and quickly accomplish. These can be based around reaching certain landmarks, seeing friends along the course or even just passing each remaining mile marker. I have found that this strategy helps to ensure that you maintain your momentum throughout the Haunted Mile, because you are now viewing the rest of the race within the context of shorter term objectives that you will ideally be able more quickly accomplish versus focusing on one seemingly distant goal.
In the end, what I feel makes the Haunted Mile so important is that it truly does set the tone for your ultimate push to the finish line. It’s the beginning of the end. Ignore it, and there is a good chance you will suffer the consequences. Acknowledge it, and you will be provided with a formula for what you need to do in order to finish strong.