The Runner’s World Heartbreak Hill Half & Festival from June 5-8, 2014 in Newton and Boston, Massachusetts felt a lot like running camp. But the titular half-marathon lived up to its name: it was a bit heartbreaky and a bit hilly. And I loved almost every minute of it.
I attended the race courtesy of Runner’s World as part of their official blogger crew. (They covered my race entries, dorm room and some meals. I covered my transportation to and from Boston and other meals.)
The race was a chance to run along the most famous section of Boston Marathon course. For Boston Marathon qualifiers and hopefuls, it was a chance to test their legs on the storied climb. For runners like me—for whom qualifying for Boston is a distant “someday” dream—it was a chance to know exactly what all those faster runners are talking about when they dismiss Heartbreak Hill as “not that bad” or confirm its notoriety as “brutal.” I’ve heard the hill described both ways and was excited to find out for myself.
Roughly 6,700 finishers from 47 U.S. states ran in the 5K, 10K, half-marathon, kids’ run and dog run at the weekend. Exactly 3,074 runners finished the half-marathon; 1,838 completed the 10K; 1,565 crossed the line in the 5K, and 69 doggies finished the Eukanuba Dog Run.
There’s too much for me to cover in one post, so I’ll share all my doings at the race over the next few weeks. I already covered the Runner’s World 5K, Expo, Festival programming, on-campus accommodations and blogger crew in Race Report: Runner’s World 5K at Heartbreak Hill Half.
Up now is the half-marathon!
Heartbreak Hill Half Course
The Heartbreak Hill Half course started on Boston College’s campus. Runners exited the school’s main gate and ran into Boston on Commonwealth Avenue, away from the infamous Heartbreak Hill. The course looped around campus to Beacon Street before returning to “Comm Ave” to run down the famed Newton Hills of the Boston Marathon course. I say “down,” but that’s a bit of a misnomer. As you can see from the elevation chart, the hills really undulated the whole way.
After five miles, runners turned to make a loop around Brae Burn Country Club on quiet residential streets and the busier Beacon Street. By Mile 10, it was back onto Commonwealth Avenue to run back up the four Newton Hills with the final climb at Heartbreak Hill coming just after the 12 mile marker.
Water and Gatorade were spaced roughly every 1.5 miles. Clif shots were available at Mile 9. I thought that some of the water stations late in the race were a little undermanned, however. There was plenty of water to go around, but the day was so hot that volunteers seemed swamped, handing out water faster than they could pour it. The volunteers and workers at the race were awesome, though.
Crowd support waxed and waned depending on where we were on the course. Boston College was busiest with many spectators lining campus. There were a few entertainment zones with music and I appreciated them greatly. For the most part, though, this was a quiet, but pretty course along residential and bustling streets. The scenery to take in consisted largely of Boston Marathon landmarks like the statue of Johnny Kelley, who ran the Boston Marathon 61 times.
One caveat: the course was partially open to traffic. Late in the race, I got stopped by a police officer in order to let cars cross the course at a major intersection. Since I was no longer pushing for a PR at that point, I didn’t care. But if I had still been trying for a personal best, I would have liked to know that this might be a possibility in advance so I could bank time for it.
Heartbreak Hill Half Start and Finish
The start and finish were in the same place: in front of the Bapst Art Library at Boston College. Surrounded by Gothic architecture, leafy lanes and green lawns, I can’t think of a lovelier start among the 75 races I’ve run. Finishes are usually iconic. But this is one race where the start is just as inspiring.
Gear check was easy and a short jaunt from the corrals. But the college road that housed the corrals was narrow, so they became congested quickly. Signs marked where runners of each pace should line up.
However, the corrals were barricaded on each side; the only way to properly enter was from the rear. I’m not sure that people really lined up according to speed, but instead just joined the mass of runners already in front of them. I ended up jumping the barricade to line up with the 2 hour pace group rather than elbow my way up there from behind.
This is the one area I think this race could be improved for next year: allow entry into the corrals from the side so that it’s easier to line up according to pace.
Runners were sent off in waves or “pulses,” as race announcers Bart Yasso and Rudy Novotny called them.
The first few miles were a bit, but not too badly, crowded, especially since many of the people in front of me were running both slower and faster than a 2 hour pace. Things finally spread and evened out before two miles into the race when runners reached Commonwealth Avenue.
Runners finished under the same banner that started the race. In the finish chute, runners got a medal and a post-race spread that included Cape Cod potato chips, belVita biscuits, bagels, bananas, Poland Spring water and Gatorade. Best of all, the food was under a tent; a nice reprieve from the heat of the sun.
The festival area with music was a short walk away on a sprawling lawn.
The Heartbreak Hill Half was to be my triumphant success at finally running a sub-2 hour half marathon. I had just 31 seconds to shave off my personal best time.
But as race day approached and the forecast sharpened into focus, I worried that it might not be the day for me, as I wrote in Heartbreak Hill Half Is Here! Will I or Won’t I PR?
You might not know this about me: I generally expect the worst from just about every situation in life. My husband—a self-described “enthusiasm enthusiast”—calls this pessimism. I call it realism, which just goes to show our differing perspectives.
Now, you might think that living as a pessimist/realist would make you an unhappy person. Quite the contrary. Because I constantly expect the worst, I’m prepared when it happens and delighted when it doesn’t. As a result, I walk around constantly delighted by life because, let’s face it, the worst rarely happens. Sometimes the best happens, but more often something between “best” and “worst” is the norm.
WaitButWhy.com nailed this outlook in a post, Why Generation Y Yuppies Are Unhappy: “It’s pretty straightforward—when the reality of someone’s life is better than they had expected, they’re happy. When reality turns out to be worse than the expectations, they’re unhappy.”
What does this mean for running? Most races? I love them! Because I always go in with low expectations, I have a blast at the vast majority of races I run. My personal bests? Shocked every time they happen. Because I’m always doubtful that I’ll be able to pull it off.
And the Heartbreak Hill Half was no exception. Though I hoped to run a personal best, I expected to be done in by the challenging course and blistering, late spring day.
In this instance, the rarely delivered “worst” was true. Yep, it was hilly as I expected. And yep, it was incredibly hot: 72 degrees at the start and 80 by the time I finished, with nary a cloud in sight.
But after the training and mental preparations, I didn’t want to just throw in the towel because it would be a hot day. I hoped that maybe I was so well trained what would have been a 1:55 half-marathon might turn into a 1:59:59. I wanted to at least give it a shot even though my expectations were low.
Bloggers to the rescue!
Amanada from RunToTheFinish.com kindly offered to pace me, and I gladly took her up on the offer. When I discovered that I’d forgotten my beloved Headsweats visor, Katy from KatyWidrick.com offered hers; she wasn’t wearing it. So with a sweat-wicking visor on my forehead and pacer by my side, I was ready to give this hot race a run.
My plan was to run the first few miles at PR pace and reassess from there. Amanda and I set out to take advantage of the downhills and hang on during the uphills. She was a great pacer and broke ground for me through the crowded first miles.
We hit 8:51, 9:03, 8:33 and 9:01 as our first four miles, reflecting the undulating terrain for an overall pace of 8:52. I was right on the money.
But my breath was already too labored and I was sweating buckets. How sweaty? This sweaty.
As I slowed to get water, I realized I had chills and goosebumps, a sign of heat exhaustion. It was too darn hot.
So I pulled the plug on the attempt shortly before the Mile 5 marker. At Mile 5, my overall pace was 9:07. Still on target to PR. My legs felt great, but the rest of my body just wasn’t having it. There was absolutely no way I was going to run a personal best that day. I felt at Mile 5 what I should have felt like at Mile 10 or 12.
Amanda and I slowed to a walk and called a moratorium on the PR attempt. Amanda offered to stay with me, but I set her free to keep pushing forward in the race. I knew that I’d need to dial it way back in order to enjoy this one, which is what I wanted to do at that point. So I jogged at a 10 minute per mile pace, one minute per mile slower than goal pace, and walked the uphills.
Yep, I ended up walking a lot.
I dumped water on my head at all the fluid stations and kept chugging along.
I bumped into some of the other bloggers on the course and chatted a bit before letting them push on ahead. I was actually enjoying my altered race plan.
Then I reached it, right around the 12 mile marker, the hill of honor, the titular climb that gave the race its name: Heartbreak Hill.
For some inexplicable reason, I burst into tears. I wasn’t upset about the PR attempt; I knew the day would likely be too hot. My pessimism had prepared me well for this outcome. I knew I’d get my sub-2 half later in the season, on a cool fall day like the one when I ran my current 2:00:30 half-marathon PR.
So why was I crying? Exhaustion? Dehydration?
My mind started scanning through all the experiences in my life that I associate with the word “heartbreak.” I relived them one by one. Wasn’t expecting that.
It seems that when you expect the worst, and the worst happens, sometimes it still hurts. Like when my father—a lifelong alcoholic—finally succumbed to the disease in 2003. Warning: I’m going to get gruesome for a moment. My dad bled to death on his living room floor when his esophageal veins ruptured, a common complication of liver disease. That’s just one of the things I thought about as I walked up Heartbreak Hill. Heavy.
I’ve been thinking about my dad a lot lately. He is the major reason why I developed my pessimistic outlook on life. Being his daughter trained me to expect the worst. Because when it came to him, the worst often happened. And I just started applying the viewpoint to the rest of my life, which constantly delighted and surprised me with all the “bests” that came along.
But in that moment on Heartbreak Hill, the “worsts” got the best of me for a moment. I contemplated sitting on the side of the road and just letting myself have a good cry. That’s how overwhelming the feeling was. But I kept walking up the hill, my head hung low as I tried to pull myself together.
Near the top, less than a half-mile to the finish, another runner waved to me.
“Come on,” she said. “We’re almost there.”
Her voice was gentle and her tone was casual. But she snapped me out of my funk. I started running to catch up with her.
“Mind if I finish with you?” I asked her.
“Let’s do this,” she said.
We ran stride for stride, picking up speed as we heard Journey’s “Any Way You Want It” welcoming runners into the finish.
I thanked her after we crossed and made sure to get a picture, so I’d know who she was. Sarah, you were my hero in that last half mile!
With the Heartbreak Hill Half behind me, I gathered my medal, grabbed some food, and found the other bloggers at the post-race festival. A band played as I sat under the sun contemplating the race I’d just run-walked.
I crossed in 2:32:06, which is officially my second slowest half-marathon ever. Only the Jerusalem Half Marathon was slower, and I actually stopped at that one to film runners all along the course and even ran some of the course twice when I realized my camera battery had died. (I swear, that Race Report is still coming. I’m really slow to edit video.)
Even my Disney races where I stopped for tons of photos with Disney characters have been faster: 2012 Tinker Bell Half Marathon—2:15:55; 2013 Wine & Dine Half Marathon—2:21:26 ; 2014 Walt Disney World Half Marathon—2:28:28. Waaaaiiit a second, am getting slower? Hmmmmm.
Overall, I pushed hard for almost five miles, nailing my PR paces. I enjoyed seven and a half miles at a leisurely run-walk. And walked an emotional half mile. But even that “worst” moment had a bright side that delighted and surprised me: the kindness of a stranger. So all in all, I’ll chalk this race up to a win. No, it didn’t go the way I hoped, but it did go the way I expected with some surprises thrown in. And that’s OK with me. Like the hills in Newton, I’m rolling with it.
However, I think I may swear off spring half-marathons as PR attempts and focus instead on finding on a nice, flat, cool-weather race in the fall. I still know I have this in me. I’ve just got to put myself in a position where I’m not fending off hills, heat and humidity in the process.
And the verdict on that infamous Heartbreak Hill? I get why some runners shrug it off as “not that bad.” The hill itself isn’t isn’t a monster. If it came at the beginning of a race, I’d barely be fazed. But I’m more inclined to agree with the folks who describe it as “brutal.” As the last of a series of four hills late in a marathon, I think the climb is worthy of its “Heartbreak” moniker. It certainly was for me, and I was “only” running a half-marathon.
What I wore
I get lots of question about what I run and race in, what products I like and would recommend.
Well, I save my favorite gear for race day.
Here’s what I wore at the Runner’s World 5K at Heartbreak Hill Half, from the bottom up:
Oakley Polarized Half Jacket Sungalsses with Red Iridium Polarized Lenses
The Runner’s World Heartbreak Hill Half & Festival certainly didn’t disappoint. Were there things that could be improved? Sure—a few more hands at water stations, a better corral system, and a course that didn’t necessitate being stopped for crossing traffic. But really, that’s me nitpicking.
Overall, I thought the race had a beautiful, challenging and iconic course that really captures the spirit of the Boston Marathon for those of us who may never be fast enough to qualify. Best of all, the camaraderie among runners was very present throughout the weekend and along the course.
Throw in the excellent programming all weekend long, and I feel comfortable adding this race weekend to my list of “favorites.” It was running camp for grown-ups, and I loved almost every minute of it. Yeah, those few minutes up Heartbreak Hill were rough!
As mentioned above, Runner’s World covered my race entries, dorm room and some meals. I covered my transportation to and from Boston and other meals. As always, all opinions are purely my own and are, frankly, honest. That’s not just some legalese.