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4:09:43: The Newton Hills

 Excerpted from 4:09:43


4:09:43 Boston 2013 Through the Eyes of the Runners, follows 75 runners during that fateful race, the one that ended when the first bomb exploded with the numbers 4:09:43 on the finish line clock. This was a moment both horrible and memorable in the history of the Boston Athletic Association Marathon. The following chapter, excerpted from 4:09:43, describes a happier moment in the race as runners face the challenge of the Newton Hills, climaxing with Heartbreak Hill. Only later would runners realize what true heartbreak might be. 4:09:43 is available in major bookstores, online in both print and electronic editions, and I will be happy to personally autograph a copy for you or friends here on halhigdon.com. In the meantime, enjoy this excerpt from 4:09:43: Boston 2013 Through the Eyes of the Runners.                                                      --Hal Higdon


NOTHING COULD HAVE PREPARED Kara Thelen for the crowd support she encountered in Newton, particularly after rounding the corner at the fire station and heading up the first of the four formidable Newton hills. She could almost sense the increase in the crescendo of their cheers.

            Rows of spectators five-deep cheered so loudly that it took Kara’s breath away. How long have they been cheering like this? she wondered. How long could they keep this up? “Go, Michigan!” they shouted at a runner just ahead of her wearing a University of Michigan hat. Since she also lived in Michigan, Thelen gratefully embraced the cheers as belonging to her ,too. “Go girl with the green shirt and brown ponytail!” That was her. Then after she passed, “Go Kara!” She had written her name with a black Sharpie on the back of a bright yellow pair of Mizuno racing flats, along with the names of her husband, Jim, and children. Also on the shoes was her mantra prayer: Fast! Strong! Grateful! Blessed!

            “What an emotional wallop,” Thelen would blog later. “The cheers were so enthusiastic and emphatic, they took my breath away. And the tears soon followed. I prayed for all the people standing there along the course. And I offered thanks. I was overcome with gratitude for them and their jubilant support. This positive-energy exchange we had struck up was so intimate. For the few moments of my passing, we no longer were total strangers.”

            Long after her participation in the 117th running of the Boston Athletic Association Marathon, Kara Thelen would still be able to picture many of their faces. “Spectators are a special breed,” she remembers. “These spectators were even more special that day.”

            Shalane Flanagan had experienced the same level of crowd support when she had passed through Newton earlier. Having competed in the World Championships and Olympic Games, Flanagan was used to running on tracks in 80,000-capacity stadiums, but nothing, simply nothing, had prepared her for the sensual experience of running the Boston Marathon, where the crowds, despite the best efforts of the police to control them, formed a narrowing corridor threatening to pinch the runners to the point where they would be forced to slow their running, even stop. Or so it seemed sometimes.

            Yet the experiences of Flanagan and the other elites was far from being unique among those running Boston this day. In so many ways, Shalane was “just one of the girls,” one of the many noise-pampered female runners—and males, too—strung out for miles and miles behind her. The crowds would not discriminate between a 2:26 marathon runner and one on the other side of three hours or four hours or more.

            Flanagan discussed crowd noise with David Willey of Runner’s World. “My ears were ringing,” said Flanagan. “I almost wanted to say, ‘Okay, this is a bit much. We can tone it down.’ The hairs on my arms were standing up. It was almost too loud for me to concentrate, particularly through the Newton hills leading to Boston College. The crowds were on top of you on both sides.”


Here was the section of the Boston Marathon course that builds character. Here was where Men were made—and Women, too! A few miles past Wellesley College, the course of the Boston Marathon descends from 164 feet above sea level at Mile 15 to 53 feet above sea level at Mile 16: a 111-foot drop, a muscle-pounding descent. One big ouch for those who failed to prepare for Boston by adding a few downhill repeats to their training. Newton Lower Falls serves as the lowest part of the course thus far run. After that, the climb back to higher numbers begins. All Boston marathoners know about the four Newton hills. They eye the profile maps handed them at the Expo with fear and loathing. They understand that once they turn at the Newton Fire Station after 17.5 miles of relatively comfort-free running, the climb begins, their agonies not ceasing until they crest iconic Heartbreak Hill, it of legends. But before that with runners still within the municipal borders of Wellesley, there is what the late Boston coach Bob Campbell called a “secret hill,” a tricky hill, a fifth hill, one that seems not to be part of the landscape or legend. Between Mile 16 and Mile 17, the course does climb 49 feet, not a major bump, but enough of one so that runners encountering it for the first time wonder: What is this hill doing here? Why didn’t they warn me?

            Bob Campbell’s hill serves the function of weakening marathoners before their true test. One might compare it to the horsemen sent into the ring to stick banderillas into the neck of the bull to both weaken the animal and make him angry before the arrival of the matador who, red cloak swirling, will claim all the glory: two ears and a tail for behavior most bravado.


After passing Wellesley’s town center, Mark Findaro noticed that his father, Joe, subtly but noticeably, had begun to pick up the pace, forcing him and his girlfriend, Ana, out of their comfort zone. Mark politely suggested, “Ummm, Dad, why don’t you go ahead?” Joe Findaro nodded in agreement, wished the pair good luck, and began to focus on his own race, not theirs. Over the next several miles as they crossed over the border between Wellesley and Newton, the gap between Joe and the two others gradually grew. “I felt confident,” Joe Findaro says, “that without my socializing, I could run the second half faster than the first.”

            Ah, Joe, such arrogance! Achieving what runners call “negative splits” is no easy task, because Boston’s first half is downhill; the second half, more uphill than downhill. After the turn at the fire station, runners climb, climb, climb, climb to 228 feet above sea level by the 21-mile mark. True: Kenya’s Cosmas Ndeti ran negative splits in 1993, the first of his three consecutive victories. That year, the Kenyan strolled the first half of the course in 1:05:23, his boyhood friend and training partner, Benson Masya, by his side holding him back. Tom Derderian in his book Boston Marathon describes Ndeti wanting to run with the leaders.

            “No, no.” Masya cautioned him. “Stay back. Stay back.”

            Ndeti obeyed, but eventually left Masya and covered the second half in 1:04:10 (the final 10-K in 29 minutes), closing faster than anyone before at Boston. With a mile to go, he caught the leader, Lucketz Swartbooi of Namibia and passed almost effortlessly. “He coasted the last half-mile in case anyone wanted to sprint,” writes Derderian. Nobody did. Cosmas Ndeti finished in 2:09:33.

            But Joe Findaro had not been born at mile-high altitude in Kenya’s Great Rift Valley. He had not, as a boy, run barefoot on dirt roads five miles to school in the morning and five miles back home in the afternoon. With the Newton hills ahead, the challenge for matching Ndeti’s negative-splits achievement seemed formidable indeed.


When Heather Lee-Callaghan passed the Newton Fire Station, she spotted her husband, Matt, standing beside the road. “I managed to barrel through several runners to hop up and kiss him, say ‘love you,’ and run off.”

            Several ladies standing next to Matt started cheering. One shouted: “Kiss and run!”

            In retrospect, Lee-Callaghan would decide that the first Newton hill was the hardest of the four. It was partly mental. She feared the hills and worried that she might not get through them without being forced to walk. Many runners using Jeff Galloway as their coach train to walk in set increments: Run 10, Walk 1. Planned walking breaks makes running a marathon easy—so Galloway claims. Unplanned walks, those caused by fatigue, are more a problem. If forced to walk, it may be difficult to resume running. To do so takes discipline, something in short supply in the closing miles of marathons. Nevertheless, Lee-Callaghan resisted the urge to walk, not even a step or two. “I kept chipping away at the hills, relaxing at the top of each hill as the grade started to plateau.” One hill, two hills, three hills, four hills until finally she saw the arch stretching overhead: “The Heartbreak Is Over.”

            Lee-Callaghan remembered wiping tears off her cheeks when she saw that sign: “The course had chewed up my quads during the first half of the race, then destroyed my hamstrings during the climbs, and I still had that bloody toe.”

            On the other hand, Jen Marr actually found running uphill easier than running downhill, or on the flat stretches. Reason: Less pressure on her IT band. Once over Heartbreak Hill, the course passes Boston College. Both sides of the road were jammed with Boston College students cheering runners, high-fiving runners, offering beer to runners. “Fun at 21,” Marr would remember.

            Lee-Callaghan would claim later that she probably hit 50 hands on the downside of Heartbreak Hill. She heard someone shout, “You’re beautiful!” but was not sure if the compliment was directed at her. She heard someone else shout, “Nice tits!” She knew that was not directed at her.

            On the hills leading up to Heartbreak, Amy Zebala began to struggle despite the best efforts of spectators to inspire her to achieving athletic immortality. “The crowds were amazing,” she recalls. “They were at their most supportive when the course was most challenging.” Unfortunately, her stomach still churning, Zebala had been forced to take a second bathroom break. She felt her goal time of 3:35 slipping away, but still believed another BQ of 3:40 to be in the bag.

            Nearing 21 miles, Zebala spotted her husband standing beside the road. He did not see her, so she passed him, then came back and tapped him on the shoulder so she could “give him some sass for not paying attention more closely.”

            Kate Johnson took Boston one timing mat at a time, knowing that friends and family were tracking her progress. The first Newton hill, being a half-mile long, she found the hardest. A sign at the top saying “9.2 Miles To Beer” cheered her up. She remembered her mantra: The faster you run, the sooner you are done. She continued to look forward to the timing mats, feeling the cheering continuing at home among those tracking her by computer.

            Carissa von Koch also played mind games that involved “miles-to-go.” She began to think of her 8-year-old son Lukas waiting at the finish line: Eight more miles until I see Lukas. He had been traveling for a week with her mother-in-law, thus von Koch definitely was feeling Lukas-deprived. Seven more miles until I see my boy. The anticipation drove her forward.

            At 16 miles, Aubrey Blanda felt a muscle cramp in her abdomen, actually a chronic hernia that had nagged at her during the training leading up to the marathon. Blanda waited for the muscles around the hernia to relax, then pushed it back in. “I felt a blister on my left foot. My right big toenail was coming off. Every step at that point felt like a hammer pounding my upper hamstrings.”

            Still, she thought, “all things considered, it could be worse.”

            She pushed a mind button to shift from Thoughts Negative to Thoughts Positive. This was her 26th marathon. In 80 percent of them, she had finished between 4:00 and 4:10. She reset 4:10 as her goal.

            “I can be happy with a 4:10,” Blanda decided. 


The above excerpt, "Newton" is from 4:09:43: Boston 2013 Through the Eyes of the Runners. To order a copy, click here!