Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Is Heartbreak Hill really that big of a heartbreaker?

When it comes to marathon prestige, there's Boston and then there's every other race.

The 114th annual running of the storied Beantown road race took place on Monday, with Kenyan Robert Kiprono Cheruiyot taking first place and setting the course record with a time of 2:05:52 (averaging of a 4:49 mile, I think I just threw up a little). Ethiopian Teyba Erkesso took the women's title with a time of 2:26:11.

There are three things that set Boston apart from every other race. There's the tradition of being the world's oldest annual marathon, the exclusiveness of being the only American race with qualifying times that need to be met in order to compete in it (a time I'm currently trying for), and the distinction of its course having one of the more famous — and brutal — hills in all of running.

The hill I'm referring to is Heartbreak Hill, which features an 88-foot climb over the span of 0.4 miles in between miles 20 and 21 on the course. The hill is considered a figurative wasteland for runners, as many sound race strategies have gone up in smoke over the years as a result of it.

I'm not doubting the hill's difficulty. Any incline after 20 miles of running is going to feel like scaling a mountain of Everest proportions. The only things a runner wants to see after that many miles are water, cheering fans and the finish line.

However, is Heartbreak Hill any worse than some of the daunting climbs in the Mankato area? I'm sure anyone who's ever had to walk up Gage hill to get to class at MSU would retort with "Heartbreak schmartbreak, this hill sucks!"

Topographically, Heartbreak Hill is only a moderate climb compared to some of the area hills. It climbs 88 feet in 0.4 miles with an average slope that hovers somewhere in 3.5-4.0% range.

By comparison, the hill along County Road 90 that the Mankato Marathon runs on (and sloping downward for, thank goodness) has almost twice as much elevation change over roughly the same amount of distance. For slope comparison, both Lookout Drive and Lee Blvd. are noted for having steeper grades (Lookout at 5.0% and Lee at 9.0%, according to the street signs at the top of their respective hills). Lookout Drive also has the added difficulty of being a much longer hill (more than a mile pretty much anyway you slice it).

Mankato also has it's own claim-to-fame hill-wise for the Main Street ascent in the Nature Valley Grand Prix, where professional cyclist climb the brutal downtown hill FOUR TIMES at the tail end of a 130 km race. My car has trouble getting up that hill after a fresh tune-up. I don't even want to imagine attacking it with a bike after a day of cycling at top speeds.

Does this diminish the significance of Heartbreak Hill? Of course not. As stated before, the hill isn't difficult because of how steep it is; it's difficult because of where it is in the race. Most marathon runners hit the proverbial "wall" between miles 18 and 23. This is the point where their glycogen is depleted and they're basically running on fumes. Just trying to maintain a steady pace is hard enough to do at that point, let alone trying to climb a hill.

Try to imagine jogging up Main Street hill after putting in 20 miles of running. Would you make it up the hill without stopping? If you can, I can almost guarantee you're in the extreme minority.

No comments:

Post a Comment