How Heartbreak Hill got its name

The moniker for the “fame-wrenching” Boston Marathon landmark was coined decades ago.

Ellison "Tarzan" Brown breaks the tape at the 1936 Boston Marathon. –AP Photo

There’s a stretch of the Boston Marathon course where races have been won and lost.

It comes about 20 miles into the trek from Hopkinton to Boston when runners are faced with driving their already tired legs and bodies up the half-mile incline known as Heartbreak Hill.

Jack Fleming, chief operating officer of the Boston Athletic Association, told Boston.com he doesn’t think there’s a “more known term in the sport of marathoning” than the iconic landmark in the storied Boston race.

The hill falls at the point on a marathoner’s journey to the finish line when he or she will “inevitably ‘hit the wall,’” he said. And while Heartbreak is the one with an official name, it is really the last in a series of four hills in Newton, referred to collectively as the Newton hills, that begin around mile 17 near the fire station.

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“We’re really known for this piece of real estate, that really is given so much reverence by long distance runners,” he said. “There’s nothing like it in New York or London or Berlin. And I think part of that is because it is just naturally but significantly placed. You can’t create that.”

For more than 80 years, the hill has been known by a name that reflects what runners may face on its pitch. It stems from a particular moment of heartbreak for a marathoner pushing for the lead in 1936.

On that Monday, runner Ellison “Tarzan” Brown from Rhode Island set a “blistering pace,” The Boston Globe reported.

The newspaper’s sports reporter Jerry Nason wrote that Brown set “every course record for the 23 of the 26-plus miles crashing to oblivion.”

Brown’s pace “literally caused him to race himself as well as the remainder of the field dizzy,” Nason wrote. ” He was more than three minutes above the record pace — until the “mocking hills” in Newton.

It was there, on the last of the hills, that Johnny Kelley of Arlington, who won the marathon the previous year, “wiped out a half-mile deficit” to catch Brown.

Kelley patted Brown on the shoulder as he went to pass the race leader. And in response, Brown surged ahead, going on to win the marathon in 2:33:40, becoming the second Native American to win the Boston race.

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“Nason referred to the incident as breaking Johnny’s heart,” Fleming said. “So that really was thought to be the way that the term Heartbreak Hill became coined.”

Kelley came in fifth and had to be “carted away” from the finish line. He was “worn, battered to bits,” by the chase over the hills, according to the Globe.

“Never has the race witnessed such a courageous, nearly hopeless pursuit as that which Johnny Kelley made to reach Brown,” Nason wrote the day after the 1936 marathon.

Nason referenced “Heartbreak Hill” in his reporting on the marathon the next year, describing it as the “fame-wrenching twister that runs up and up from Center St. almost to Boston College itself.”

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Fleming said he did come across an earlier reference in the Globe’s reporting, from 1907, that referenced the “heart-breaking hills” in the race course heading up to the reservoir.

“I wouldn’t have put it past Jerry Nason, who sort of had an eye for history or appreciation for history, to go back into the earlier days of the Globe archives and pull something and popularize it in the way that he did,” he said.

But Fleming said it was because of Nason and his reporting on the marathon that the name for the slope stuck.

“He would use that term year in and year out,” the BAA official said. “So that really helped from that point to give the landmark a capital H for heartbreak and a capital H for hill. He really had the power to do that. And others began to follow suit in the decades after that.”

Johnny Kelley races Stylianos Kyriakides on Heartbreak Hil in 1946. —Boston Globe Archives
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Decades after his 1936 defeat, Kelley admitted to the Globe that he was “a little cocky” when he touched Brown’s back at that pivotal point.

“[Nason] named it after me,” Kelley said of Heartbreak Hill in 1993. “I didn’t mean to be fresh or anything when I tapped Tarzan Brown, and it was just a tap, but Nason said I should have never done that, because it wasn’t right. For 15 years, he kept reminding me about it until I told him, ‘Enough’s enough.’”

Kelley, who died in 2004, won the marathon again in 1945 and became a Boston sports hero. Known eventually as Kelley the Elder, he started the Boston Marathon 61 times and finished 58, running his final full race at the age of 84 in 1992. He became the race’s grand marshall in 1995.

The day after Kelley’s bruising loss in 1936, Nason hinted that it was not the end for the runner.

“Badly beaten this Johnny Kelley, but his great heart is not broken,” he wrote.

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