NEWTON — The Newton Hills. It sounds like a nice name for a golf course. Maybe even a high-end retirement community.
But for marathoners, there is nothing nice about those three words. Many even add a word, giving it a middle name that cannot be printed in this newspaper. For those four hills — which sit between miles 17 and 21 of the Boston Marathon course, culminating in the infamous “Heartbreak Hill” — are where marathon dreams go to die.
Which is why a curious tradition has taken hold in Newton over the past decade, one that has turned a quiet carriage road along the course into a carnival of runners on weekends, especially this time of year, when Marathon day is a little more than a month away.
“We’re doing 18 miles today, and how else can you do 18 if you’re not chatting and having fun,” Jessica Brodie, 42, of South Boston, said last week as she set off with a group of runners.
Thanks to a happy accident in Newton’s street plan, those 4 infamous miles on Commonwealth Avenue — stretching from a firehouse on the corner of Washington Street to the campus of Boston College — are paralleled by a small carriage road. It provides drivers with access to the stately homes on the north side of Comm. Ave., and runners with a protective corridor where they can run the hills over and over again, many in large groups.
“It’s a perfect storm where all these things have come together over the years to turn the carriage road into a hallowed ground for marathon training,” said Jack Fultz, the 1976 Boston Marathon champion and longtime coach of the 300-plus runners who tackle the course each year to raise money for the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. Fultz pushes his runners to pound the hills many times during the course of their training.
“Contrary to the notion that familiarity breeds contempt, this is the antithesis,” said Fultz, who is beloved by his runners for his many cute little encouragements, such as referring to the stretch as the “Newton flats” and assuring them that all those painful miles on the hills are “putting hay in the barn” for when they’ll need it on Marathon Monday.
John Furey, who coaches a collective of 18 charity teams — including Boston Medical Center and MR8, the charity named in honor of 2013 Marathon bombing victim Martin Richard — is another huge fan of the carriage road.
“I have runners tell me all the time that the energy of being around all those runners is unreal, and just makes you run better, and you don’t have that feeling of isolation and being on your own,” Furey said. “That’s why on a Saturday, you’ll see thousands of runners out there.”
The carriage road, of course, was not designed with the Marathon in mind. But it has effectively become an ideal mini training ground along one of the toughest stretches of the race. There’s even a running store along the route, the Heartbreak Hill Running Company, should you need gear or decide you hate your sneakers.
Vitally important is the fact that it is well plowed. Training for the Marathon means running in winter, when snow renders sidewalks unusable and runners are forced to choose between the monotony of a track or treadmill, or the tight confines of street traffic. Newton gets rave reviews from runners for its attention to the carriage road. (A city official said they try to plow every road well, but are aware of the increased foot traffic on the carriage road.)
But the thing most often cited by regular runners is they can run safely in groups on the carriage road, a particular bonus for the weekly “long run” prescribed in most marathon training programs. Mileage in those long runs typically hits the teens around Valentine’s Day, building to a 20-mile run a few weeks before Marathon day. Having someone to talk to not only makes the miles go by easier, psychologically, but also helps keep runners from pushing too hard.
For long-run days, runners typically do the carriage road in a series of out-and-back loops, or build it into a longer circuit.
The scarcity of car traffic also makes it easy to set up water stops, and on busy weekends you can’t go half a mile without passing a table set up by volunteers for the charity teams, local running clubs, and Newton firefighters, who abide by an unwritten rule to supply any runners who stop by.
Bryan Albano is one of those firefighters, and he has run the Marathon several times himself, giving him two perspectives on the evolution of the carriage road. “Now it almost feels like there’s a mini road race going on every weekend,” Albano said as he helped a runner to Gatorade and snacks at the water stop the firefighters erect each weekend in front of the station.
“You’ve got the easy part coming up,” he jokingly yelled to the runner as he took off. “Heartbreak Hill for breakfast!”
Just then, another runner thanked the firefighters for hosting what is perhaps the unsung hero of the carriage road.
“That bathroom is like the best thing ever,” a woman yelled after emerging from the station, where a tiny public bathroom — as well as another in a Dunkin’ Donuts at the Boston College end of the carriage road — plays a vital role for the heavily hydrated.
Waiting in line for the firehouse bathroom has become such a part of Marathon training that firefighters provide reading material — a small placard posted on the wall listing facts about the Marathon course. Most are pretty basic — such as the fact that the station is at mile 17.3.
Then, toward the end of the placard, the information turns ominous.
“The Newton portion of the race has seen the largest dropout of runners over the years,” the sign reads.
And so they head back out to the carriage road, to the hellish inclines ahead, so that come the third Monday in April, they’ll have the strength and confidence to put heartbreak behind them.Billy Baker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @billy_baker.