Heartbreak Hill Half Marathon Recap

Headed up to Boston for the inaugural Runner’s World Heartbreak Hill Half & Festival, and I’m oh, so glad I did. The race started and ended at Boston College (my alma mater), and the entire race took place in Newton (my hometown). Plus, much of the course took place on a portion of the Boston Marathon route, which was cool (and hard). Once I heard about this race from Diva Cindi, there was no way I was not running it. Diva Cindi was able to run it with me (yay!), though, alas, Colby was not. Waah.

The festival was a 3-day celebration, with everything from a 5K to a 10K to a half (with a “hat trick’ option for the ambitious folks who wanted to run all 3) to a kids’ fun run and even a 2-mile doggie run hosted by Eukanuba. Diva Cindi and I signed up for the half marathon only, and honestly, it was plenty enough to tucker us out! I would have liked to visit the Expo on Saturday and participated in some of the non-racing events, but scheduling was not on our side, and by the time we got to Boston, the expo was closed.

You would never know that this was the first year of this race by how well it was run. I think the Runner’s World crew must have been trained by the Marines. Well run, well-marked, organized. Well-planned course with roads as “closed” as possible given that Commonwealth Ave is a major road, and plenty of water stations and porta-potties on the route. Love that the race had an early start time of 7:30 AM. Logistics were a piece of cake. Setting up on Boston College Campus was genius (and not just because it is gave me a chance to walk around my alma mater) – there was plenty of room for tents, porta-potties, food stations, people, bands, kids, dogs, you name it – and there was a huge parking garage right on campus. We got to the campus at around 6:15-6:30, had to park, pick up our bibs and visit the porta potties, and yet never felt rushed to make the 7:30 start. Smooth sailing the whole way.

The course was beautiful and, well, hilly. Shocking that the “Heartbreak Hill Half” was hilly, I know. Weather was hot & sunny. Certainly not as hot as it could be in June, and definitely not as humid as I had feared, but let’s face it – hot is hot and the sun was relentless. I saw a news report that said it was 72 at the start. I’m glad I didn’t know that at the time, since I thought it was cooler.

Shalane Flanagan led us out at the start and we were off (though, rest assured, I was nowhere near Shalane)! I love it when the starting corrals are not crazy-crowded and you can actually kinda-sorta run – or at least jog –  through the starting gate. The first mile was pretty fast for me despite running in a pack of people– around 7:19. Didn’t expect that, but then again, the first mile was flat or downhill, so I enjoyed it as much as I could. By mile 2 we were heading uphill. I slowed a little and the crowd thinned a lot, which made it easier to sneak into pockets of shade. A lifesaver.

By mile 3, we were back out on Comm Ave and started running Heartbreak Hill and the rest of the Newton Hills of the Boston Marathon course backwards, so there was plenty of downhill action. Of course, with an out-and-back route, what goes down must come up, and I don’t think there was a runner in the race who wasn’t thinking about how not-fun it would be to run back up those hills from miles 9-13.

Probably the most surprising aspect of the course to everyone (including me, and I have been running these hills for years), is that the entire course is hilly. It’s not just Heartbreak Hill or even the stretch of all of the Newton Hills. The entire freaking course is rolling – on the way out, you are mostly heading downhill, but there are definite rollers. On the way back, there are rollers but you most certainly are heading mostly uphill, and your hamstrings will not let you forget it.

Here’s an elevation chart for the course. Plan to do a little hamstring stretch after you review it. You’ll want to.

It looks like an EKG readout. And not in a good way.

It looks like an EKG readout. And not in a good way.

Miles 3-5, as always, stunk for me. Why do I always feel miserable during miles 3-5 (or 4-6) in every half I run? That is the point where I feel like I will never be able to finish. My mind goes nuts. What if I get sick? Or pass out? Or just can’t make it! It’s like Debbie Downer takes over my head. Crazy talk. I might as well worry about getting mugged during  the race. I always finish and barring an injury on the course, I will always finish, even if I have to walk. I have also never gotten sick or passed out in a race. And if I did, I’d deal with it.  Yet I can’t stop myself from fretting for almost 2 miles on a gorgeous Sunday morning. Ridiculous.

My running partner for miles 3-5. Not fun. Photo: courtesy of NBC

My running partner for miles 3-5. Not fun.
Photo: courtesy of NBC

By the time I passed mile 5 and headed into mile 6, I got into my happy place. The miles started to click by and I was reminding of how much I love half marathons and distance running. It’s like another person (a much happier, more confident person) took over my body. I love when she shows up and kicks Debbie out.

Just after mile 8, we turned onto Route 16, which officially brought us onto the Boston Marathon course, heading in the right direction this time. So freaking exciting. I couldn’t stop thinking about how I will get to run it again in April. Yahoo!!!!

Just before mile 9, we took a right onto Comm Ave, and all that separated me from the finish was 4.1 miles of hills. Yup. That’s all {insert sarcasm}.It was at this point, just after I decided that I was feeling pretty good and wasn’t going to risk stomach upset by eating some sports beans, that I swallowed a bug. So disgusting. And I wish I could say that it was the first time it happened to me, but I can’t. Yuck.

I run hills all the time, and my M.O. is not to look too far ahead. I focus on a tree, pole, car, whatever I can see a short distance ahead and not on the entire hill itself. Anything to take the focus off of whatever Mount Everest lies before me. Little by little, I conquered each hill. When I saw the man in the Gorilla suit slapping hands at mile 12, I knew we were in the homestretch.

Despite the hills, and despite the fact that my time was nowhere near a PR, I don’t ever remember feeling so good at a half marathon finish. Especially in the heat. I ran the last half mile at an average pace of 7:36, so there was definitely still fuel in the tank. I was able to sprint to the finish line and felt fine right after I stopped. All of this suggests that I did not push myself hard enough during the race, but I never felt like I was holding back at any point. It’s just as if I started to gain energy during the last few miles instead of lose it. Even though my pace times were undoubtedly slower on the hills, my body and energy levels felt  great. Huh. Whatever the reason, it was nice to finish and not feel wrecked.

I finished with a time of 1:51:23. Almost 8 minutes slower than my “Best Time Evah” at Boston’s Run to Remember last year, but given the heat and the hills, I’ll take it. Happily. It was a challenging race and I’m a happy, happy runner. Plus, I got a very cool medal.

Medal Photo courtesy of Diva Cindi

Medal Photo courtesy of Diva Cindi

It’s always funny to me how even though my playlist doesn’t change that often (i.e., I pretty much listen to the same damn 200 songs throughout the course of a running year), in each race there are different songs that really motivate me. Here are my top 3 from yesterday:

1. “Longview” by Green Day. My son just performed this in a School of Rock show, so I’ve been hearing it a lot lately. A lot may even be an understatement. So, I’ve heard it a lot and still love it – sign of a great song. Happened to come on at the start and got me moving right out of the gate.

2. “Mrs. Potter’s Lullaby” by Counting Crows. Not an obvious choice for a running playlist, but then again, I have some Grateful Dead on my playlist, so there you go. It has a steady beat, a pretty quick pace and it is my favorite Counting Crows song. Plus, it is great on a distance run – at nearly 8 minutes long, I just zone out to it and realize when it is over that I have covered some decent distance.

3. “Don’t Stop Me Now” by Queen. Queued up when I started up Heartbreak Hill. Perfect. There is no stopping on Heartbreak Hill. There. Is. No. Stopping. On. Heartbreak. Hill. Freddie Mercury agrees.

No question I’ll be back for more next year. And next time, Diva Cindi and I are bringing Colby with us (yes, Diva Cindi, I have all but signed you up again for next year). Can’t wait!

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39 thoughts on “Heartbreak Hill Half Marathon Recap

    • Thanks. The best part was that though the course as tough, the atmosphere and route were so great that the race felt fun – not grueling. Definitely one I’ll do again.

  1. Next year IT’S GAME ON LIKE DONKEY KONG! I’m totally in!!! Very bummed that I my running buddies ran without me, but alas, that’s how the proverbial cookie crumbles. Or. Melts. So proud of you, Little Miss Half in the Heat! 🙂

  2. Ugly as this was for me…. I FINISHED! Yes, not my best time but this is a great race. This course was “wicked” hard for me and my only thought was that the Marathoners are hitting it at around mile 20. WOW! No really… WOW!!!!! Yes, I will do this again next year – there is no place to go but UP {pun definitely intended}.

    • Ran it- 53- usually do HM’s in under 2 hours- this was a 2:13- heat and hills got me but it was a fun event- thanks for the nice recap 1:51 is a great time!

      • Thanks so much. Tough course and I live and train in a very hilly area. Didn’t the race have the best atmosphere? Maybe I was just woozy from the heat, but it was such a gorgeous day (once you stopped running) and such a gorgeous setting, and everyone seemed so happy and proud of themselves!

      • When I told the “ultra runner” I work with what happened – he just said…Ohhh thats not good. Try CEP compression sleeves and 2 strassburg socks. On amazon now. Looks like I might be crawling on the surface of the sun – not running! What some girls will do for a little bling!!!

      • You’re not fooling anyone, Diva Cindi. You just want to buy some of the Ed Hardy tattoo compression gear we saw yesterday. As if you didn’t already look bad-ass enough.
        What did ultra runner say it was?

  3. Good for you, Tina! And to feel ok after the heat and the hills is really something. Look forward to seeing you tackle those hills again in April!

  4. Congrats on a killer race!

    Don’t Stop Me Now by Queen is on my play list too, it pumps me up so much on a run. Or when I’m in a sour mood I play that and just bounce to it, turns the frown upside down without fail.

    • Isn’t it the best? I told Colby to put it on her list for the Vermont Marathon. It never fails to rev me up – or cheer me up! My son played that song in his last School of Rock show in the fall and the minute I was reminded of it, BOOM it was on my playlist.

  5. Some friends of mine ran all three races and their bling is on FaceBook.
    I never understood why no one mentions that Heartbreak hill is a series of hills. Heartbreak is not marked either. I ran the hill one time and kept asking the crowd “Is this Heartbreak Hill?” There are three or four hills in succession there.
    I have a marathon nxt weekend so I just did a Sunday Long Run, 9 miles. I’m in taper mode afterall! 😉

    • I think you did enough! It’s funny – everyone does think of it as a singular hill. Having run and watched the marathon from there for ages, I think of it as the Newton Hills (plural), of which the last one – Heartbreak – is probably the smallest. It just might be the hardest because you are spent at that point. Even though I knew that, you still can’t fully prepare for it in a race if you haven’t raced it before. and all of the “offshoot” stretches of the run – around the BC campus, through Waban, etc. – also contained hills. Definitely a workout. I am very impressed with the hat-trickers. Amazing! They earned the bling!
      You were right to skip – this is NOT a race to tackle during taper! Good luck next week!!

      • Maybe next year. All the little hills do blow out your legs after a while.
        My marathon is rolling hills from the intel I have gathered. Nothing big, just one after another.
        Glad you had a good time. Andy

      • You are doing bay of Fundy, right? So cool. Do you need to bring a passport? Can’t wait for your recap – it looks like a great race.
        Hills. Can only take them one at a time, no matter how many are on the course. Good luck!!

  6. Thanks so much for the breakdown. I just started running a few months ago and just today started my training for a (gulp) 10K in August. My goal is to run a half marathon next spring sometime. Fortunately Columbus, OH is flat – which is challenging enough at the moment. I can’t imagine all the hills at this stage. Heck – I can’t even run a full 5K. Finish, sure, but run it all, not yet, though I “ran” my 3rd one day before yesterday. Thanks again and good luck!

  7. Oof! Those hills! I am a weenie on hills and I can’t really avoid them out in Central Oregon, but WOW! My hammies are burning just looking at that chart. Your time is what I would LOVE on a pancake flat course – nice work!

  8. Wow, congrats! I wish I could run that race. Until I qualify for Boston, I’d love to replace it with that! And BTW, I gave up music on my runs a year or so ago, but Mrs. Potters Lullaby used to be a staple of mine! Cool medal, btw.

    • I’m impressed! That must have been so hard – hot both days! And hills galore! Great, great event and you must be very proud to have pulled off the hat trick! Sweeet!

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