Healing happens at Heartbreak Hill

NEWTON, Mass. -- Justin Burdon let out a sigh, and cracked a smile, from inside his shop on the historic corner of Commonwealth Avenue and Centre Street. The crowd outside had just roared to life for its hometown hero, Marblehead-bred Olympian Shalane Flanagan, as she began her ascent of the Boston Marathon’s most unforgiving climb.

“You run from such a high on the day to such a low -- nice to see the high again, right?” he said with a laugh.

For more than a century, the incline covering parts of miles 20 and 21, nicknamed “Heartbreak Hill”, was where the lions separated themselves from the cubs. This final rise in the 26.2-mile course is where countless runners hit a wall, their pace slowing to a crawl.

For Burdon, a Niagara Falls, Ontario native and former distance runner at Boston College, this is his favorite day of the year. He has seen every marathon since 1997 from either the summit of Heartbreak Hill at the entryway of the Boston College campus; or at the base of the hill on the corner of Comm and Centre, where the shop he took co-ownership of two years ago, Heartbreak Hill Running Company, greets hundreds of customers each Marathon Monday.

One of Burdon’s employees, BC assistant track coach Tim Ritchie, made his Boston debut last year, acknowledging a gang of friends yelling “Run Ritchie Run” as he began the climb up Heartbreak Hill (Ritchie finished 25th).

Two hours later, two bombs went off near the finish line, killing three, injuring more than 260, bringing the race to a screeching halt and shattering the city’s sense of security. Burdon’s store in the South End became a spot for folks looking to connect with missing friends and family to congregate.

Still hours later, the runners long gone, a suspicious item was found in the vicinity of Burdon’s shop, and the area had to be cleared. Burdon was left in disbelief.

“To try and ruin such a great day in the city of Boston, for me, I just couldn’t believe it,” he said.

What started as such a high on that day turned so low. But on Monday, just more than a year after the tragedy, it was all highs from the moment the first spectators lined up at 8 a.m.

In terms of fan support, Heartbreak Hill is routinely among the rowdiest crowds along the marathon route, the neighborhood’s blend of young professionals and college students putting their creative flow to work. Monday saw more of the same.

Signs of encouragement along the challenging stretch ranged from pseudo-mocking (“Think this is tough? Try growing out bangs”) to playing on words (“I thought they said ‘rum’”) to just plain goofy (“Go random stranger!”).

Often spectators will hand out water, Gatorade or fruit to runners. But at the Boston Hash House Harriers tent, a girl in a makeshift Easter Bunny costume was seen holding a sign that simply said “Beer,” as a handful of people behind her held out small cups of beer to any runner willing to take one.

Near the bottom of the hill, a group of high school students belted out “The Final Countdown” on brass instruments. Near the top, a man in a kilt and running shoes bellowed away on bagpipes.

The roars rained down for Flanagan, then again for Meb Keflezighi as he blew by the men’s field, then arguably loudest for Dick Hoyt as he pushed his son Rick along in a wheelchair in Team Hoyt’s 32nd and final Boston Marathon run.

“Everyone has shown sort of a steely resolve and resilience to make this,” said Sam Figler, watching from the porch of his house on the corner of Commonwealth Ave. and Sumner Street, where he’s lived for the last nine years. “I think people are actually more excited about this race than the centennial [race]. It’s very exciting here today. It’s electric.”

In a way, last year’s tragedy reignited the sense of community and pride in the marathon, leading to larger turnouts throughout.

“We want to show the nation, you can have acts of terror, but we’re going to come back even stronger,” said Jamie Simon, lead guitarist and vocalist of Boston-based alt-rock band Skinny Cleveland, which played on the corner of Commonwealth and Nobscot Road.

“No matter what you do, you’ve got to have resilience -- in your spirit, in your soul. I think today shows that. The amount of turnout, the amount of energy, the amount of buzz leading up to it has really been awesome. It’s been a very exciting thing to be a part of.”

At the summit of the hill stood a woman with a large pink sign reading, “Say goodbye to heartbreak.” A few hundred feet further up, an inflatable arch at the edge of BC’s campus sat nestled at mile 21 with similar words: “The heartbreak is over.”

The symbolism was not lost on the thousands watching along that stretch.