More than 6,200 runners kicked off the inaugural Runner's World Heartbreak Hill Half & Festival June 6-8, 2014. Photo by Henry Hung.
There are lots of reasons the half-marathon is the fastest-growing distance in racing (up 307 percent since 2000, with almost 2 million finishers in the United States last year). Going 13.1 is a gratifying challenge for any runner, one that requires training and commitment. But it doesn't take over your life the way marathon training can, and it certainly doesn't force you to navigate stairs backward for three days, as going 26.2 often does.
Still, it had been eight months since I'd done one, so when I arrived in Boston for our inaugural Heartbreak Hill Half & Festival, June 6-8, I wasn't sure what to expect. Fifty-one RW staffers were there, and more than 6,000 runners -- including Shalane Flanagan and world-beating amputee athlete Sarah Reinertsen -- joined us to run the 5k, the 10k, the half, or the Hat Trick, which combined all three. In between, there were seminars, running films, an expo, and a pasta dinner that could've fueled an Olympic delegation. I'd signed up to run the Hat Trick but decided to put competition aside and make my weekend about something else: camaraderie.
Remy's World super-fan Shalane Flanagan gets a chance to pose with editor Mark Remy at the pasta dinner with the editors.
The tone was set on Friday, when 263 kids ran quarter-mile, half-mile, or one-mile races on the Boston College campus at dusk. As Derek Call, one of our video producers, told me later:
"The moment that I feel summed up why we all were there occurred during the New Balance Kids Races. Sarah Reinertsen and Shalane Flanagan were the starters for all three races -- probably the first timed events many of the kids had ever done. There was a 10-year-old girl named Dorlie Registre who was struggling to complete the one-mile course. As she finished her third lap, Shalane gave her a high-five and Sarah jumped off the podium to run with her. I'm not a good enough writer to describe the smile that came across Dorlie's face. Sarah coached her for the remaining lap, giving her water and incorporating a run-walk strategy. They finished together, long after the other participants, to cheers from the remaining crowd, with Bart Yasso calling both their names as they crossed the line. Afterward, the two new friends hugged and laughed. When I asked Sarah about it, she said, 'I didn't want her first race to be a bad experience.' Whether Dorlie realizes it or not, her life will be forever changed because she didn't give up."
Sarah Reinertsen steps in to celebrate 10-year-old Dorlie Registre's first race finish during the June 6 Kids Run. Photo by Brita Meng Outzen.
As for me, on Sunday morning, after the final wave of runners went off, I hopped onto the course and started in dead last. I made my way forward at about nine-minute pace, to meet and encourage as many runners as I could. It was sunny and in the 70s, and like many thousands of Boston Marathoners before us, we were running on the infamous Newton hills -- only we went down them first, before going back up. I quickly remembered that "just a half" is plenty, especially on this course and in these conditions.
Bart Yasso shoots a selfie with David Willey and Shalane Flanagan before the start of the Half Marathon on Sunday, June 8. Photo by Brita Meng Outzen.
But I wanted camaraderie, and that's what I got. It's what we all got. Several runners were stopped in their tracks by heat illness, and others quickly stopped to help them, never mind their own races. Gatorade stations backed up, and RW's Keith Plunkett bailed on his race to help fill cups for 10 minutes. Panting runners looked at him, then at his bib, then at him again with confused and then grateful expressions. I tried to pull some of my fellow midpackers up Heartbreak Hill in the last mile, only to fade and then get pulled to the finish myself (chip time of 1:58) by Holly Putter, a runner from New York City.
Thanks, Holly. You were great company -- all of you were -- and the entire weekend reminded me, once again, what a genuine community our sport is.
David Willey is the editor-in-chief of Runner's World. Follow him on Twitter @dwilleyRW.