Photos of the Guy Who Put the ‘Heartbreak’ in Heartbreak Hill

The Boston Public Library's archive is pretty fun.

The Boston Public Library has posted some timely archival images of Boston marathoners from photographer Leslie Jones. Here’s one of Ellison Myers “Tarzan” Brown.


Credit: Boston Public Library via Flickr and Creative Commons


Brown, pictured here winning the 1939 marathon, has several claims to Boston marathon fame. A member of the Narragansett tribe, he’s only the second Native American to win the race and the first to win it more than once. Amusingly, he became known for (what we might call) his “swagger.” Tarzan was spotted eating hot dogs 40 minutes before the start of one race. Not exactly what we’d call power foods. (You won’t find it on this list of what to eat.) He also ran and won another 26 mile contest within a day of winning this one.

And perhaps most enduringly, he’s the man behind the name “Heartbreak Hill.” That’s because he led the way through most of the 1936 marathon until about mile 20 when, on that famous rise near Boston College,Johnny Kelley overtook him and patted him on the back. That seems to have motivated Brown, who battled with Kelley through the rest of the race before finally taking the lead to win it. As Michael Ward writes in his biography of Brown:

The final Newton hill upon which Johnny Kelley caught up to, reached out and patted, and then temporarily passed Tarzan Brown in the race of 1936 will forever be known as Heartbreak Hill, so christened, according to legend, by none other than [Boston Globe reporter] Jerry Nason. In describing Kelley’s emotional loss following that seminal moment on that elevated incline, the geographical cause of Kelley’s personal anguish and crushing disappointment was reputedly named by Nason, and the name stuck. The ‘heartbreak’ in Nason’s epithet was not generic, not a description of universal discouragement that the difficult hill suffused in all hopeful runners. The heartbreak was personal  It was of a time and of a place. It belonged to one man. It was Johnny Kelley’s.

Of course, in the year’s since, the name has grown to signify more than just a personal heartbreak. But its great fun to see photos of the guys who gave it the name. [BPL’s Flickr]