Skip to main content

From Heartbreak Hill to Heartbreak



Monday, April 15th, was Patriots’ Day—a state holiday in Massachusetts, named to commemorate the Battles of Lexington and Concord, the beginnings of the American Revolutionary War. It is also Boston Marathon day. This year was the 117th running, and my first.   The Boston Marathon is a magical experience. Taking part is probably what it’s like to play in the Stanley Cup Finals or in a Super Bowl, or star opening night on Broadway. The difference is average people like me can run the Boston Marathon—with hard work and a qualifying time, or through fundraising (like I did this year). I have dreamed of running Boston for years, but had resigned myself to never qualifying.   The Massage Therapy Foundation gave me an opportunity to participate. An opportunity for which I will owe a debt of gratitude to several people at the Massage Therapy Foundation for a very long time. In particular, Mary White, Cliff Korn, Paul Slomski, and Leslie Young. A thousand thanks to these wonderful people.   I have run lots of races in the past 30 years, including three other marathons. Nothing compares to Boston.   If you have read this blog during the past six months, you have followed my chronicle of preparation for Boston, or more accurately my lack of preparation. I began training in earnest in October, a full 26 weeks in advance. By December, I felt pretty good and was making progress. Then I got pneumonia and was sidelined for five weeks, then managed alternating bouts with Achilles and calf strains in both legs. My training calendar had indicated I would complete 16 training runs of 10 or more miles; instead I was able to complete three. My longest run was supposed to be 22 miles a month before the marathon; instead my long run was a half-marathon (13.1 miles) nine weeks before the marathon. The quality of my training was nearly non-existent, and my confidence heading into Boston was definitely non-existent. I began to resent the idea of running it, and had told myself repeatedly this would be my last marathon. This was going to be a long day.     Race Day My Patriot’s Day started before 6:00 am, when I awoke in my hotel room and began preparing for the day. It’s an odd feeling getting ready to run four hours before you are going to run. Putting Vaseline and Blue Goo in the proper places (to make sure your run is as smooth as possible), inventorying everything you’ll need before you start the race, tiptoeing around the room to avoid waking up my wife Sarah and youngest son Peter.

Junior Bananas

At 6:35, I took the elevator to a bustling hotel lobby, full of fit runners all preparing to take the bus to Hopkinton, the start of the marathon. I was immediately greeted by ABMP Vice President of Communication Leslie Young and members of our ABMP Education Team Katie Mills and Kathy Laskye. The latter two proudly sported banana costumes; the chief Banana—Sarah—stayed upstairs getting a few more winks. I was overwhelmed when I saw they were holding a banner signed by all my colleagues at ABMP. It was the first time of many I would get choked up during the day.

Kathy, Les, and Katie.

Leslie kindly provisioned me with a bagel and two bananas, to start my fueling. With the bagel consumed and bananas in my gear bag, I was ready. I also then realized all the runners in the lobby were taking a charter bus, and I had a ways to go to catch my bus to the far-away starting line.   A few minutes after 7:00, I briskly walked out of my hotel seeking others carrying the ubiquitous yellow Adidas runner bags. I wound through the Prudential Center mall and out onto Boylston Street, all the while noticing the efforts underway at the finish line—trucks, golf carts, and service vehicles. Lots of workers were dedicated to producing the finish of the world’s most prestigious marathon. And I was part of it all! Inspiring and bit humbling as well. I started wondering about the time, so I stopped and asked two Boston police officers where Boston Common was. They looked at me funny at first, but then realized I was hustling to get to the busses, and indicated they were a few blocks down. I thought how “Boston” they were—no nonsense, a bit gruff, but with chuckles in their voices. You could tell they were good guys.   Finally on the bus and headed toward Hopkinton, I was reminded that my knees don’t fit on a school bus any more (kind of like flying United economy). Exciting to be passed by motorists and get the thumbs up and honks of the horns.   Starting Line In Hopkinton, the Athletes’ Village is a melting pot of runners—stretching, drinking coffee, and waiting in line to poop. It’s invigorating with loud music and regular announcements about who needs to be at the starting line.

The sea of port-a-potties in Hopkinton.

One disappointment: I didn’t have a rendezvous plan with Kathy Borsuk and Tom Heidenberger, my Massage Therapy Foundation Running for Research teammates. I couldn’t find them among the 20,000+ in Hopkinton.

Self-portrait. Dread? Fear? Constipation?

I called my 81-year-old dad at his nursing home and told him I loved him; he told me not to overdo it. After that, it was time to go. I handed off my Adidas bag (with my gear and my phone) to marathon volunteers and headed toward the start.   The walk from the Athlete’s Village to the start on Ash Street is about one-third of a mile; along the way, you hear lots of chatter and cheers, and a voice on the PA (former New England Patriot Tedy Bruschi was getting the crowd pumped). That’s where it dawned on me: this is about to happen. Since I woke up that morning, I had told myself to relax and start out slow. My friend Cynthia Ribiero had told me to walk the downhill start to save my quads. The only problem with that strategy? It’s downhill for about 16 miles—and the day is only so long.   The streets in Hopkinton were lined with staging fences, and behind them were hundreds if not thousands of people, seemingly as excited as the runners. The enthusiasm surrounding this race is palpable. As I moved toward my corral, the announcer counted down and sent us off—10:40 a.m. The first five minutes or so was a gentle walk toward the start line, and once we crossed the start line people broke into a jog. I was in the third wave—the marathon starts in three waves, and you are placed according to your qualifying time. Nearly everyone in Wave Three is a “charity runner,” meaning they, like me, didn’t qualify for the run, but instead raised money for a favorite charity.   Getting into the Groove The race began and I immediately started forcing myself to slow down. Running down a two-lane road with thousands of others, cheered on by thousands more, does something to your adrenaline. It’s so uplifting, but the voice in my head kept saying, “this is the beginning of a really long run, settle down.”   I was a bit chilly when I walked to the starting line, so I helped myself to another runner’s abandoned long-sleeve shirt. Now, as I knew would happen, about three miles in I began to heat up. I detoured off to a port-a-potty to empty the tank and lose the shirt. When I resumed my run, teammate Kathy Borsuk cruised up beside me, looking fabulous and showing no signs of even the slightest effort. She briefly chatted, and I thought, “I hope she waits for me at the finish.” For a recent running convert and first-time marathoner, Kathy looked like a natural. She also inspired me to pick my feet up and get moving.   I kept a leisurely pace for the first five miles, clocking in at a 10:30 mile pace. I was grateful I didn’t need/have to run any faster—I was soaking in the environment, and was oh-so-aware of how much race there was left. I followed a tip from Race Director Dave McGillivray, who counsels, “for the first half of the marathon, count up; and for the second half, count down.” That seemed a bit simplistic to me when I read it, but on race day, that’s what worked.   What really got me into the groove was the Boston playlist on my iPod. I have had an on/off relationship with playing music during my runs; for most of my training I had chosen not to run with music. For the marathon, however, my intuition told me to run with it—I wanted to make my long day as pleasant as possible.   Listening to the Black Crowes, Van Morrison, Death Cab for Cutie, Deadmau5, and appropriately, The Dropkick Murphys (“I’m Shipping Up to Boston”), gave me the energy I didn’t think I had, and made the miles tick off. I couldn’t always hear the music, however; many times, there was music playing on the side of the road—live bands playing bluegrass, or some heavy metal (I fist-bumped with the lead guitarist), or a car stereo blasting “Eye of the Tiger” or a DJ playing some dubstep. Add to that a steady cacophony of cheering, and my music was relegated to being a part-time treat.   Going Bananas Meanwhile, my support crew was en route to their first cheering spot. Their initial plan was to see me at the 6-mile mark, in Framingham, but that didn’t work out. One good way to pass the time in the marathon is to look for your support crew—miles from 6 through 10 went by relatively quickly because I was looking for Sarah, Peter, my niece Megan, and the rest of the Bananas. Oddly enough there was a guy running about 100 feet ahead of me wearing the same banana costume, and he was getting lots of comments. I kept thinking he was one of MY bananas.

At mile 10 in Natick, I finally caught a glimpse of my Banana crew. The marathon is fun, but also solitary. By now, I had been running for around an hour and 40 minutes, and had been solo since leaving the hotel around 7. So I was happy to see friendly faces.   Seeing loved ones 10 miles in is like getting a shot of B-12; I was feeling pretty good beforehand, but I suddenly had a massive dose of momentum. Heartened by hugs and high fives, I sped off (or at least it felt like I sped). But that segued into another funny thing about the marathon—it’s really long, and feelings of elation can subside in short order.   Physically, my legs were showing signs of wear. Cynthia was right; well, I couldn’t have walked, but my quads were screaming. Just 15 minutes after feeling the high, my quads, right knee, and feet asked me if I was planning on doing this all day.   As a result, I slowed down. By the time I hit mile 14, I started to wonder if my legs would hold up for another 12 miles. At a water station, I stopped and stretched my knees and quads, hoping to add a little life to my limbs.

The bananas track Les' and Tom's progress.

As I mentioned, the first 16 miles of the Boston Marathon are downhill, which becomes debilitating if you are not used to downhill running. Thankfully, those miles are lined with entertaining, friendly, warm, supportive people. I kept up my energy level by consuming a PowerBar applesauce (supplied by Sarah), along with a handful of gummy fish, and some Swedish fish, all supplied by strangers along the race route.   My Florence Nightingale appeared somewhere around mile 16, in the form of a lady holding a tray of orange slices, ibuprofen, and acetaminophen. I detoured across the street, nearly making a U-turn; I surprised myself with ability to turn my body that quickly. “What do you need, honey?” she asked me. “Three ibuprofen would be great, thanks,” I said, not thinking about the fact that I had no water to wash them down with. “Sharon!,” she screamed in her Boston best. “(That’s my sistah.) Bring him some wahter, he’s taking ibuprofen!” Sharon promptly delivered the water, and I took my medicine gladly.   That scene alone shows you what the Boston Marathon is like—a woman standing on the curb in front of her house with a tray of pain relievers and orange slices to soothe total strangers.   Conquering the Hill Mile 16 is the first of three uphills on the course, the last of which is the infamous “Heartbreak Hill.” The scouting report on the marathon is to not go out too fast, because the downhills will tear up your quads, and then the uphills will do you in. Fast or not, my quads were in seriously bad shape. When I got to the uphills I expected the worst. Then something I had hoped for happened—in spite of my underwhelming training schedule, I DID train at elevation. The ABMP office is at about 7,500 feet above sea level, with nary a flat running surface to be found, so my legs knew exactly what to do. I actually felt good on the hills, and a little momentum was exactly what I needed.   At mile 20, just before Heartbreak Hill, I got my last push of adrenaline thanks to another visit from the Banana Crew. Sarah and Katie led the pack, and joined in the run with me for a few hundred yards. Between the ibuprofen, the small snacks along the way, and the Bananas, I felt great. As I left the Bananas and looked up and saw Heartbreak Hill, I said to myself, “I got this.”

I didn’t exactly bound up the hill, but I made steady progress, and noticed something else was happening—I was passing people. All of a sudden, I saw familiar runners who had previously left me behind. I was getting faster! This wasn’t supposed to happen—in my previous three marathons, I had basically tried to hang on for as long as I could, but definitely wilted by the mid- to late-teens. Today, I had a lull (which I chalk up to inability to train, combined with the painful pounding of downhill running), but I was now just a 10k away from the finish and felt pretty good.   At the top of Heartbreak Hill, you reach the town of Chestnut Hill and Boston College, which is a lifeline to thousands of marathon runners. There is no better feeling than hearing thousands of college kids screaming for you, with signs saying, “you just conquered Heartbreak Hill!” and the inflatable arch that declares, “The Heartbreak is Over.” How I wish that had been true.   I have run for more than 30 years, and I can count on one hand the times I felt the equivalent of the “runner’s high” I had at mile 21 of the Boston Marathon. I felt so supported, and I knew I was going to finish. There were plenty of times in the past six months I doubted that. After Heartbreak Hill, the course descends yet again, but by that time my quads said, “don’t worry, we won’t let you down.”   Runner’s High Not only did I feel like I was running faster, I was running faster. My running watch told the truth—10 minute miles became 9:30 miles, then a 9:12 mile, then onto an 8:47 pace. I now felt like I could run 30 miles. I was so happy, so surprised, and at the same time so ready to be done—after all, I had been running for nearly four hours.

There is no better feeling than seeing the “entering Boston” sign; first Brighton, then Brookline and Beacon Street. The crowds were getting thicker, my pace was as fluid as it had been all day, and if you saw me at this point you would have seen a big ol’ grin coming across my face. It was as if someone gave me new legs. I am sure it was a matter of perception, but I even felt fast. I passed dozens and dozens of runners who were wearing down. For some unknown reason, I was not.   On’s marathon course guide, here’s what they say about the 25-mile section:   When runners enter Boston for good at 24.5 miles they have ahead of them one of the great finishing spectacles in sports. Hundreds of thousands of cheering fans line Beacon Street to Kenmore Square, where the Citgo sign is well known as the one-mile-to-go mark.   I saw the Citgo sign ahead and it seemed like it was too far from the finish, but I kept motoring and dodged slower runners. The streets became more crowded as I entered Boston; I just figured, “wow, things are really getting crowded down there.” I kept looking and noticed that the crowd was really thick, and suddenly runners were coming to a stop. Finally, a runner turned around, put his hands up, and yelled, “STOP RUNNING! The race is stopped. There was a bomb at the finish line.”   And just like that my race was over, at 3:00 pm, about two-thirds of a mile from the finish.   The minutes after the race stopped were surreal—lots of runners milling around, those with phones on them trying to reach loved ones to find out what happened, and let them know they were safe. Others overcome with emotion; running for four hours puts all your emotions on display. I was stunned and bewildered—I went from just about as happy as I could be to standing around, unsure of what to do. My first thought was of Sarah, Peter, and the Banana crew, which was trying to hustle to the finish line to see me finish. I did not have my phone—it was in my gear bag somewhere closer to the finish line.   I asked a gentleman on the side of the road if I could borrow his phone; he very willingly said yes. Unfortunately, no phone signals were getting through. We later learned the system was overloaded and eventually authorities shut it down to prevent remote detonation of any additional explosives.   For about 10 minutes, I wondered where Sarah and the crew were, and I prayed they weren’t at the finish line. I had a feeling because of my increased pace, they weren’t going to be able to see me finish, and now I was banking on this as a security blanket.   After a few more minutes, I saw a young gal sitting on the steps of a row house, and asked her if I could borrow her phone. She indicated calls weren’t working, but she suggested I send a text. I was able to, and connected with Sarah and Peter. It turned out they were only a few blocks ahead of me; they had missed a “T” train and were fortunately behind schedule coming from Heartbreak Hill. The train was then evacuated at Fenway Park, so they were in a similar situation as me. Five minutes later we were reunited, and not long after that Tom Heidenberger finished his race, and our entire crew was safe and together. Kathy Borsuk finished as well, and connected with her family, and headed out of town safely.

Two other members of our support team were at the finish line saving seats for the Bananas.’s Ryan Hoyme and Paul Slomski from the Massage Therapy Foundation were all too close to the explosions. You may have seen Ryan’s video he graciously shared with many media outlets.   Heart & Humanity The bombing was an example of the worst of humanity; the marathon and the minutes I spent on Commonwealth Avenue a half-mile from the finish after the race stopped, are examples of humanity at its best.   People helped each other; spectators helped the runners. One woman came out of her row house with coats, blankets, and food, and announced loudly to all who could hear that she had two bathrooms available for use. There are stories of runners who completed the marathon, heard about the bombing, and literally ran to the hospital to immediately donate blood.   My marathon ended prematurely, and for that I will always hold some anger—at the sub-humans who ruined what was a perfect day for thousands of people, and destroyed the lives of innocent people who were only guilty of supporting their loved ones. As of yet there is no making sense of what occurred—no justification, no logic, nothing. Just an act of sheer hatred for our fellow humans.   But in this example of the darkest of what humans can comprehend, I saw light—all the things that make you proud to be an American, and inspire you to believe in the greater good of humanity. People opened their homes and hearts, whether it was at mile 10 in Natick, mile 20 at Boston College, or on Commonwealth Avenue or Boylston Street.   The average American lives around 28,000 days in their life; no matter how many I spend on this earth, for so many reasons April 15, 2013 will stand out as truly unforgettable. Boston Strong.   P.S. I will run another marathon. And I look forward to qualifying for Boston and coming back.   Through April, supporters can donate to the Massage Therapy Foundation’s Running for Research team that ran the 2013 Boston Marathon. Right now we’ve raised more than $51,000 that will go toward research on the efficacy of massage and bodywork, and fund community service grants to bring massage to underserved populations.