Heartbreak and the Boston Marathon 1979

Boston Marathon 1979 magazine vintage illustration girl sneakers

A Runners World (L) Illustration by Ignacio Gomez for Cosmopolitan Magazine 1977 (R) Runner’s World Magazine June 1979 Boston Marathon

The tragedy at the recent Boston Marathon jogged my memory back to another Marathon nearly 36 years ago, where the only heartbreak spoken about concerned the challenge of running Boston’s Heartbreak Hill.

It was a cold drizzly day in Boston that April of 1979 and the crowds jammed into the Hopkinton High School gym waiting for the 83rd edition of the Boston Marathon to begin. Everyone seemed to arrive early to avoid traffic jams and once there, no one wanted to be outside in the cold.

My former college roommate Barbara Baxter bent down to tie her Marathon 80 Adidas running shoes. Looking admiringly at the new running shoes she was glad she had bought them despite the steep price of $27. On an administrative assistant’s salary and the soaring inflation, it was a real splurge. But she reckoned, the shoes were the same ones worn by the runner in the 1978 NYC Marathon who set the sensational new world record for women.

She saw that as a good omen for the race that awaited her.

Ah, sneakers, she thought bemusedly to herself. Now sneakers had become jogging shoes with politically correct names like the “Ms Hornet.” Not so long ago you wore white for tennis and gym and red or blue for casual chic on a Saturday afternoon. That was the choice; there were no more. Suddenly Pf Flyers and Keds had been replaced by odd-looking shoes with odd-sounding names like Pony, Osaga, Saucony and Kaepas.

Glancing at her Casio unisex chronograph, she noted it was nearly time for the Marathon to begin. Caught up in the jogging crazes he had been training for months. Thanks to her boogey nights at the disco, she was in fine shape.

To be one of 517 women who qualified for Americas premier marathon in Boston was an honor indeed.

Off to The Races

complete book of running

During the late 1970s jogging was transformed from an activity for a small group of enthusiasts to an almost inescapable phenomenon.

Jim Fixx author of “The Complete Book of Running (1977) emerged as the first fitness superstar and his 60 miles a week regimen became the aspirations of weekend runners, including my friend Barbara. One of Fixx’s most compelling arguments was that prolonged intense exercise would release chemicals within the body that would produce what he called “runners high”.

Before long, the long distance runner gave way to running en mass in Marathons and Americans were off to the races.

Running on Empty

Crossing the finish line triumphant was always a  part of the American Dream.

But by 1979 the American Dream had begun to sour.

American dreams had been severely shaken. After the angst of the early 70s-Vietnam, Watergate, the Arab oil embargo, economic stagflation, a rise in crime and civil unrest, there was a crisis in confidence.

Many more Americans were feeling like losers as the economy entered unfamiliar territory.

Ever since WWII Americans had come to expect ever higher standards and of greater economic opportunities.  The post-war vision for a better life for all citizens crumbled into dust. Inflation was making owning a family house impossible for most Americans and the recent energy crisis had dashed our hopes for limitless amounts of fuel and electricity to run our big cars, array of appliances and heated swimming pools.

A 1975 survey commissioned by the NY Times revealed a significant decline in optimism about the future among Americans. They said their standard of living had fallen, the assumed national birthright of rising expectations-the American Dream had been replaced by a sense of falling expectations.

The loss of faith in the American Dream spread like a virus and people turned inward to raise their consciousness,

If you couldn’t control the outside world that seemed to be spinning out of control we could take charge of our bodies. Just as  sneakers were replaced by running shoes climbing up the ladder was replaced by self fulfillment

With the crisis of confidence nipping at our heels,  completing a marathon was tangible proof of accomplishment.

Ready Set Go For It……

Thirty minutes before high noon, I watched as the Marathon  runners were called to the Hopkinton starting area which was arranged by qualifying times. The lineup was orderly and at  the crack of the gun, the mass exodus towards Boston had begun.But Barbara, along with most of the 10,000 entrants wasn’t  going anywhere- at least not for a while. 7 minutes had elapsed by the time everybody made it across the starting line.

Barbara wished she had worn gloves, like master runner Bill Rodgers always did. She needed it. The temperature at the start hovered in the mid 40s and an intermittent mist added to the chill. In front of the starting line the road glistened with an icy sheen.

Fortunately there was almost no wind, although the flag at the Prudential Center fluttered in a westerly direction which meant there was a slight breeze off the harbor and in the runners face.

Barbara didn’t care. She kept her focus on the finish. Running a marathon was a test of strength, determination and endurance. There were 4 hills to surmount and the most difficult was the fabled Heartbreak hill, but then shed be home free.

Beginning at the 20th mile of the Boston Marathon, Barbara knew Heartbreak Hill was where your legs might finally run out and there would be you and the wall and the pain. Cresting Heartbreak Hill, she poured it on and surged the sound of Gloria Gaynor’s “I will Survive” roaring in her head.

Reaching the top, she was greeted by a crowd of spectators. In the distance she could see the Prudential tower and with it the hard-won knowledge she was  almost at the end.Struggling a bit on the downhill her hamstrings were starting to get tight, but she knew she had to power on.

It didn’t matter that Bill Rodgers had already won the race hours earlier or that 14 minutes after he  won, the first woman- Joan Benoil, completed the race, finishing  477th out of a field of 10,000 and first among the 517 women who qualified for Boston. In only her second marathon, the 21-year-old history major from Bowdoin College made history establishing a new American record.

In the last legs of the race, race Barbara was sporting a Boston Red Sox baseball hat that I had handed her. As she ran through Cleland Circle and along Beacon Street the applause was deafening. Barbara Baxter would always remember how she felt like she was hitting a home run for the Red Sox in Fenway Park as she proudly crossed the finish line.

36 years later Heartbreak Hill still remains a tough part of the Boston Marathon but after the tragedy in this years Marathon  it gives it new poignancy. Many didn’t finish the marathon this year. They were stopped by law officials a mile from the finish line when a pair of bombs went off.

This year thousands who survived Heartbreak Hill didn’t reach the finish line.




  1. Hershel Katz

    Very nice touch

    Sent from my iPad


  2. Pingback: Boston Marathon Remembered | Envisioning The American Dream

  3. Joe Quirion

    Brought back good memories, especially your description of the weather. Thanks.


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