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HEARTBREAK HILL

Helping the tired get over the hump

By Amara Grautski
Globe Correspondent / April 20, 2010

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As Robert Kiprono Cheruiyot raced a stride ahead of Deriba Merga at the 21-mile mark of yesterday’s Boston Marathon, the two front-runners passed a sign placed by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health with an incongruous message for veterans of the race.

Nestled among a throng of supportive onlookers, the sign assured passersby that the slice of Chestnut Hill that’s home to Boston College is a “heart safe community.’’

But the stretch from Miles 20 to 21 has been dubbed Heartbreak Hill for a reason.

“The hardest part is seeing people crying that had to stop running,’’ said Erin Alcott, 43, of Upton, who was walking the summit to stretch out a cramp in her calf. Alcott’s running partner, Deanna Sheridan, 35, of Watertown, also fell victim to the Hill with a cramp in her foot.

Amid the barbecues and lawn chairs making for block-party hoopla was a motley crew of spectators who knew where they needed to be to lend the runners unbridled support. Leading the charge was Jeff Lease, 52, of Newburgh, N.Y.

Lease sported a bright red Continental Army uniform, while holding an American flag, with a cowbell, horn, whistle, and megaphone in tow. The real patriot on Patriots Day didn’t stop his cheers of encouragement for 4 1/2 hours.

“Kate, you’re lookin’ good,’’ Lease shouted to a struggling runner, who managed a smile.

For competitors who decided to mount the summit more gingerly, Lease had a mantra for walkers: “Any way you can!’’

The Hudson Valley resident and five-time Boston Marathon runner knows a thing or two about the Hill, which is notorious for squashing marathoners’ dreams of making their way down Boylston Street.

“This is right at the point where you run out of glycogen, and you run out of sugar, and you just double over,’’ Lease said. “You can see runners here with numbers as low as 3,000 and 4,000. There’s no accounting for this race. Sometimes a seasoned runner can really take a nosedive.’’

Naftali Steinmetz, 34, of Newton was making noise of his own just a few yards away. He had set up shop with a large drum and was creating a beat to energize the crowd.

“I like being at the top of Heartbreak Hill,’’ he said. “It kind of helps them pace along.’’

Sarad Tomlinson, 26, of Beverly, was another familiar face on the Hill, but he didn’t stick to the sidelines. Tomlinson, in his fourth year of coaching Team In Training, which raises funds for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, sprinted back and forth within the mile to greet more than 150 of his runners.

“What we’re doing is kind of working our way up and down Heartbreak and kind of making sure that everyone gets up here,’’ he explained. “When you first see them, they look like they’re in sheer misery. But then I pop out of nowhere, and they get a big smile on their face.’’

Sue Wiore, 48, beamed with pride as she watched the last of her 27 qualifiers from Yankee Runners, based out of Oak Forest, Ill., pass by. A nine-time marathon veteran, she knew what advice to give the squad.

“I say, ‘Keep smiling,’ ’’ she said. “It doesn’t really do any good to say, ‘You’re almost there,’ because they’re well aware they’re not almost there. But in my opinion, keeping a smile on your face gets you to that finish a lot quicker.’’