Westerly-born 'Tarzan' Brown's 1936 Boston Marathon win gave birth to 'Heartbreak Hill'
It’s the most notorious make-or-break incline in any marathon, a 91-foot climb that can seem like a mini-Everest as runners “hit the wall,” battling blisters, burning quads and exhaustion just past the 20-mile mark.
But fewer people know that the hill’s name stems from an exchange involving a man who was both one of the greatest Rhode Island runners of all time and one of the greatest Native American runners — the late Ellison “Tarzan” Brown Sr., the Narragansett Indian who won the Boston Marathon twice.
This year marks the 80th anniversary of the moment when Boston Marathon legend Johnny Kelley tracked down Brown on that hill in Newton and patted him on the backside. Brown responded by breaking Kelley’s heart and winning the 1936 race in a time of 2 hours, 33 minutes and 40 seconds.
Brown won again in 1939. The Westerly-born man died in 1975.
"Tarzan is someone that everyone in the tribe heard about, and if you ran or did any sports, you knew of Tarzan," said Mikki Wosencroft, a Narragansett Indian, former Rhode Islander and marathon runner herself. "I honestly think of him in every race that I run."
Wosencroft's grandfather, Julian "Buster" Freeman, trained with Brown — not like in the regimented way many current runners train, she explained Sunday, but they "would just go running together." The tribe families, she added, are all so close that everyone refers to each other as "cousin."