Whether you’re racing your first Boston Marathon this April or you’re a seasoned vet, you’ve probably heard the horror stories about Heartbreak Hill, the steep, half-mile incline at mile 20 in the race.
Perhaps the most notorious of all elevation changes in major marathons, the hill gets its name from the 1936 Boston, in which Johnny Kelly famously patted Ellison Brown on the back as he passed him just before Heartbreak. As the story goes, Brown—the eventual race winner—used the gesture to fuel his competitive fire, ultimately surging ahead of Kelly on the hill and breaking his competitor’s heart.
But, just how bad is it? And how does it stack up to the hills in other 26.2-mile races?
Using the elevation data stored by runners on Strava, we compared Heartbreak to the hardest hills of four of the largest marathons in the country: Chicago, New York City, Marine Corps, and the Los Angeles Marathon. While we would have loved to add an incline from the ridiculously hilly 2020 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials course in Atlanta to the mix, unfortunately, that was a one-time-only race.
Picking out where exactly the hardest hill of a marathon starts and stops is a bit of a subjective matter, but we tried to keep it as consistent as possible, choosing the lowest point before the climb started and the highest point before the elevation began significantly dropping again.
Here are how the course elevations vary among the marathons, graphed by mile, beginning with Boston:
While the incline at mile 20 is undeniably sharp on this graph, Heartbreak Hill hardly lives up to its nasty reputation when you consider the elevation differences in other marathons. Heartbreak climbs a mere 91 feet, which makes it the second smallest hill on the list.
Take one glance at Chicago’s elevation graph, and you can see why some of the fastest marathon times in the world come out of the Windy City. The hills in Chicago—which is known for its pancake-flat course—register as the smallest.
Not only is the largest hill here very small (just 17 feet), but the course has hardly any downhills, which means runners’ quads aren’t completely cooked by the time they crest any bumps in the road—however slight they are. In general, the course stays between 575 feet above sea level to about 600 feet.
The same can’t be said about Boston, however: runners hit Heartbreak Hill after they have traveled more than 20 miles of mostly grueling downhills. [Editor’s note: The sharp declines in the Chicago chart are likely because of GPS errors, not because of big downhills.]
But elevation change isn’t the only thing that makes a hill tough. The grade of the hill also makes a big difference in how hard it feels. In fact, when you compare the grade of the largest hills of the marathons discussed here, Heartbreak is the steepest at 3.3 percent grade. The climb late in New York City as runners enter Central Park (near mile 24) may have a touch more in the way of elevation gain, but it’s spread out over twice the distance as Heartbreak, so it doesn’t seem nearly as bad.
New York City Marathon
While still fairly flat compared to other marathons, the NYC Marathon tends to be slower than Chicago, due to its rolling hills—many of which are over bridges as well as in the final three miles in Central Park—throughout the race.
On the other end of the spectrum, the hill that starts off Marine Corps is more than double the climb of Heartbreak at more than 200 feet.
Marine Corps Marathon
Marine Corps varies from Boston in that its major uphills are in the early miles, then the course flattens out considerably in the latter half of the race. And while hills are just as steep no matter where they are in a race, they certainly seem harder when you’re hitting the wall at mile 20, versus running on fresh-ish legs in the first five miles.
Similar to Marine Corps, the L.A. Marathon has several challenging hills—the largest of which is 129 feet—in the first half of the race.
Los Angeles Marathon
Other than their differences in elevation change, L.A. differs from Boston is that between miles 5 and 10, the California course roughly flattens out, while Boston’s descends. This means that runners hit Heartbreak Hill, the change in incline is much more abrupt—which makes it seem even more challenging.
The Bottom Line
No matter what elevation graphs say, as we get more and more tired during a race, every incline can feel like a mountain.
On top of its unfortunate placement in mile 20, Heartbreak Hill is positioned as the last—and steepest—in a series of four short hills in Newton, starting with the “Firehouse Hill” that begins just after runners turn past the Newton Fire Department around mile 17. So even if Boston runners’ legs are feeling okay once they hit the first hill, they might not be so springy by the last, especially if their legs are fried from running too fast earlier in the race.
Ultimately, even if the hills near the start of Marine Corps and L.A. are bigger than Heartbreak Hill, they don’t seem as bad because of where they are placed. Still, that doesn’t mean you should fret about that notorious hurdle in Newton—just be sure to practice smart pacing on the first 20 miles of Boston, and remind yourself that really, the hill’s not as long or as steep as your mind is making it out as.
This article was originally published in 2013 and has been updated.