by Amby Burfoot
We runners classify hills much as the Inuit distinguish snow conditions—very precisely. There are bumps, inclines, and slopes so torturous they rip at the human spirit. The Boston Marathon’s infamous Heartbreak Hill falls into the last category—long, steep, and late in the race, at the 21-mile mark.
Since I first topped Heartbreak Hill 52 years ago, I have returned to face it another 22 times, including the April just past. The hill hasn’t changed, but I have. Once, I challenged Heartbreak Hill with all the youth and dreams I could summon. Now, at 70, I trudge upward to celebrate life, wellness, and optimism.
In 1968, I mustered a furious attack on Heartbreak Hill. I had to. While I was leading the marathon, the second runner was only inches behind, and he was a problem. I knew the guy, Marine Corps Lieutenant Bill Clark, and I knew that he could outkick me at the end. He had a sprint. I didn’t. If I couldn’t drop him on Heartbreak Hill, I wouldn’t win.
So I leaned forward, pumped my arms, and tried to ignore the hot sun and streaming sweat on my back. I couldn’t see Clark, but I knew he was hard on my heels. Clark’s shadow tracked me menacingly, a spectral presence.
Worse, he was also as quiet as a ghost. I ran with the loud, heaving gasps of a steam locomotive. I had long dreamed of glorious victory at Boston, training up to 150 miles per week. Now, there was only agony, an envelope of percussive breathing, and the fear of defeat.
At one point, I swerved to the roadside and grabbed a sliced orange from a young boy’s hand. In the 1960s, the marathon provided no water, sports drinks, gels, or bars. The farther we ran, the more we dehydrated. I sucked juice from the orange—so sweet, so refreshing. Renewed, I fought even harder to edge away from Clark’s shadow, but my effort failed.
We reached the top of Heartbreak Hill together and began dropping down toward Boston proper. With still five miles to go, I felt utterly defeated. I almost collapsed on the spot and gave up the fight. Then Clark was gone. A miracle! I learned later that his thigh muscles cramped on the downhills, which some consider tougher than Boston’s uphills. I broke away on a stretch aptly named Cemetery Mile for those who have faltered there.
I ran the last five miles alone, feeling utterly vulnerable. It’s a rare and fantastic experience to lead the Boston Marathon, but also terrifying. What if another runner had conserved strength on the hills and saved himself for a come-from-behind chase? Luckily for me, no one had. I broke the finish tape and sagged onto a race official like an overcooked noodle.
Before I knew it, someone had placed a diamond-studded medal around my neck and a laurel wreath on my head. I didn’t care. I only wanted a reunion with John J. Kelley—my coach, my mentor, my inspiration, and the last American before me to win the Boston Marathon (1957). He was still running, and arrived 10 minutes later, wrapping me in a big hug. “I couldn’t have done it without you,” I said.
The photo of us together at that moment remains my favorite Boston Marathon memento. I felt I had become part of the Boston Marathon tradition. The torch had been passed to me. A few years later I handed off to my former college roommate, Bill Rodgers, who would win Boston four times. We both take our role as torchbearers seriously. We hope to inspire future runners as much as we were inspired by the pioneers who preceded us.
Since 1988, the 20th anniversary of my Boston victory, I have run every five years with my friend John, an oncologist from Vermont. John was my very first running partner back in 1964. At the time, I was both several years older than him and quite a bit stronger and faster. Now, more than 50 years later, he beats me more often than I beat him—a sort of poetic justice I warmly accept.
We run as hard as we can against each other, but we’re not really competing. We’ve slowed and gained perspective. We know enough to recognize our good fortune: we can still enjoy our running friendship 50 years after it began. So much else has come and gone in our lives—parents, first spouses, and children who have moved out on their own—but we still have running. We try to appreciate every chance to run side by side. As I often tell John and others, “Every mile is a gift.”
In 2013, John and I had just reached the 25-mile mark, where one finally grows confident of finishing, when we were stopped midstride. In thousands of races, I had never encountered anything like this roadblock. Whaaaat? And 2013 was a special year for me. I was celebrating the 45th anniversary of my win in 1968, eager to mark the occasion. Many runners grew frustrated, then angry, especially when we were dispersed and told the race was over.
We had no clue what had happened a mile down the road. I remember my guilt upon learning about the bombs, the deaths, the injured and maimed. The Boston Marathon has taught me a lot through the years, but never did I expect a lesson on the very meaning of life and our precious, perilous attachment to it.
For the next several days, we all wondered about the Boston Marathon’s future. Would the city continue to welcome the runners? Would the runners themselves be too frightened to enter again? Then President Obama came to Boston to speak of courage and fortitude.
“Even when our heart aches, we summon the strength that maybe we didn’t even know we had,” Obama said from the pulpit of the Cathedral of the Holy Cross. “And we carry on, we finish the race. We finish the race because of who we are, and because we know that somewhere around the bend a stranger has a cup of water. Because just when we think we’ve hit a wall, someone will be there to cheer us on and pick us up if we fall. We know that.”
Soon we all adopted the words “Boston Strong,” and marathon organizers were met by an unprecedented demand for entries in 2014. Every runner wanted to be on the starting line the next April.
We all wished to prove our resilience, to honor local residents, and to reclaim every step of our cherished Hopkinton-to-Boston route.
I have completed Boston every year since the bombs. These runs have been different than before—slower (an inevitable byproduct of aging) but also more spirited and more meaningful. I always tell new runners to “train the brain first.” When you do, everything else falls into place. Running is biomechanically simple. You need no special skills. But running can be psychologically difficult. It takes real effort.
I’ve kept going through the decades, not because I have exceptional motivation. Rather, I have the same aims as everyone else: health, family, friends, and community. However, I suspect I concentrate more than most on the connections between running and other ends. And that brain focus keeps me motivated.
I have run for the last four years in the blue-and-gold uniform of Team Martin Richard. Martin is the smiling, gap-toothed eight-year-old who died on the sidewalk in 2013. He was standing with his family just yards from the finish, cheering for us runners. Several months before the marathon, after the Sandy Hook school shooting on December 12, 2012, he had scrawled a now-famous poster—“No more hurting people. Peace.” Martin’s image and his message drew me in, and continue to stir me.
I’m not a very emotional sort of guy. You’d be more likely to call me a stoic. This is a quality that serves one well in the marathon, of course. There are so many times when you need to dismiss the pain. But to cover 26.2 miles, you often need help from a deeper source. That’s why so many modern-day marathoners run for a charity; it gives meaning to their suffering.
I had a moment this year at the 17-mile mark. I was turning a sharp corner, starting up the hills. This is where the negative thoughts often strike. “Have I got what it takes today?” I wondered.
Just then I heard a loud voice. I never saw the speaker, but his words were clearly meant for me, and they pierced the noisy crowd sounds with resounding clarity. “Martin’s looking down on you,” the voice said. “And he’s very proud.” It made a difference; I felt a jolt of energy.
During the last four years, I have also handed out small thank-you cards. I carry about 100 double-sided business cards that display the famed Boston Athletic Association unicorn and the message: “Thank you, Boston Marathon fans. Your cheers and constant support are what makes Boston the world’s greatest marathon.” I sign off with the year of my first Boston Marathon, 1965, and my winning year, 1968.
As I run, instead of thinking about my discomfort, I scan the spectator throngs to look for likely recipients. Naturally, I favor the kids. Many have outstretched hands, hoping to slap five with the runners. I swoop toward them and press one of my cards tightly in their fist. It’s never too soon to encourage the next generation of Boston marathoners.
I don’t want you to get the wrong impression. I don’t run Boston with a grim purposefulness. I look for all the fun I can find. This year, I spotted plenty of signs that brought a smile to my face. “Toenails are vastly overrated.” “Chafing is sexy.” “You thought it said ‘rum,’ didn’t you?” “Run like you farted.” “If Trump can run, so can you.”
In the old days, I raced past the coeds at Wellesley College and their Scream Tunnel without so much as a glance. This year, I tarried long enough to collect three kisses, a new personal record. I saw signs like “Kiss me, I’m gay,” “Kiss me, I’m straight,” and “Kiss me, I’m trans.” I figured, why discriminate?
Even more than Wellesley, Heartbreak Hill has become my favorite part of the course. It represents the hardest and highest point of the Boston Marathon. Nothing else is more symbolic. When you reach the top of Heartbreak, you have surmounted the biggest obstacle. The rest is all frosting on the cake.
Next April, with some luck and continued good health, I will run Boston on the 50th anniversary of my victory in 1968. Winning has a different definition now; to finish is truly to win. I’ll settle into a slow, steady pace, accompanied by my friend John and a few family members. I will wear a Martin Richard shirt, hand out thank-yous, and try for a record number of Wellesley kisses. Heartbreak Hill? Bring it on.
At Fenway Park, with a mile to go, I might hear a few lines from the Red Sox theme song, “Sweet Caroline.” They will give me a lift: “And when I hurt, hurting runs off my shoulders.”
Several blocks from the finish, where the explosions erupted in 2013, I will stop and slow to a walk, as I have every year since 2013. I will glance skyward to give thanks, then turn and bow toward Martin’s spot on the sidewalk.
The big clock over the finish line will still be running, but I will not be. There’s no rush now. Life is too good, too precious. This is a moment I want to cherish.