Heartbreak Hill Running Company
At the Heart and Soul of Running
Walk any neighborhood of Beantown these days and you’re sure to spot three things—college co-eds, multiple people wearing championship garb given the proclivity of the city’s pro teams for winning it all this century, and someone on a run. So, in many ways, it’s hardly surprising that many athletic brands are planting corporate roots in The Hub to join longtime city resident New Balance Athletic. Saucony is now operating in nearby Waltham, MA as part of Wolverine Worldwide; Reebok’s corporate HQ is in the Seaport District; Asics N.A. has an office in the Financial District near South Station and Puma is planning out a new corporate home in Somerville, MA in 2021 just north of city limits.
A lifelong Boston area resident and runner, Dan Fitzgerald has seen it all from a unique perspective. The one-time, scholarship track & field athlete at Boston College, in nearby Chestnut Hill where he ran the 800-meters, is the co-founder and owner of Heartbreak Hill Running Co., which has three doors in Boston and a brand new store in Chicago. The run specialty chain is named for the 91-foot rise in nearby Newton, MA, at the mile-20 marker of the Boston Marathon course, that thousands of runners over the past 123 years have had to conquer to reach the course finish line in downtown’s Copley Square.
A student of both running and the city’s rich history, Fitzgerald confirms the activity has “exploded” in recent years, in some ways returning to its heyday in the late 1960s and 1970s during the dawn of Phil Knight’s Blue Ribbon Sports (the precursor to Nike) and Jim Davis’ 1972 acquisition of Brighton-based New Balance (where both the Celtics and Bruins now have new practice facilities at a NB complex).
“I think we are definitely in our second running boom, and I think you can see it really spreading wide and crossing socioeconomic and cultural barriers. I find that to be the most exciting thing about our business…I think that’s awesome, and it’s what inspires me about running.”
Fitzgerald also credits some of Boston’s rising running movement to more women, of all ages and fitness levels, joining in. He offers a quick story about a woman in her 60s and Heartbreak team member whose biggest training breakthrough was making it to the end of a road race with the team while there was still beer left, adding, “it’s those little connections that I love.”
Approximately 70 percent of the Heartbreak team is women, 65 percent of whom are in the 24 to 44 age bracket.
“People often ask how we get so many women to be part of the group,” says Fitzgerald, who abandoned a college track & field coaching dream years ago to spend seven years in the corporate world at Quiksilver before diving into specialty retail. “I think it’s just a matter of providing high-level services and treating women the same way as everyone else. It’s not an aspiration, it’s a recognition that we’re resonating with them.”
It was during the recession of 2008 that Fitzgerald began talking with his former Boston College track & field co-captain, Justin Burdon, about what they both could create with their respective pedigrees and histories in running. The result was a 900-sq.-ft. store in South End of Boston, the precursor to the current banner, that they aptly named, the South End Athletic Co. when it debuted in Oct. 2009. Less than three years later, a second store and the inspiration for a banner rebranding opened in 1,600 sq. ft. at the marathon’s Mile-20 marker in Newton, MA. Fitzgerald designed the chain’s Heartbreak logo himself. In July 2016, the largest Heartbreak Hill Running Co. location opened in Cambridge’s Central Square neighborhood. The 2,200-sq.-ft. footprint includes a store and an adjacent, mirrored studio with 20 treadmills.
“We offer, just like a SoulCycle or FlyWheel, a studio class for runners by runners,” comments Fitzgerald. “I write all the programming and essentially, it’s a track workout or hill workout in disguise. It has lights, it has music. It has a coach providing you with coaching cues, and fun and conversation. And then you grind some intervals and that sort of environment.
“I think we are definitely in our second running boom, and I think you can see it really spreading wide and crossing socioeconomic and cultural barriers.”
“My goal is to meet every runner where they are with what they need,” proclaims Fitzgerald who calls himself the “heart & mind” of the retail business and his one-time BC co-captain and former Ernst & Young executive Burdon the “nuts and bolts” focused on Heartbreak Hill’s financial plans, business models and schedules. The duo communicates regularly on the business’s daily functions and long-term strategies. He says the close proximity of the athletic brands has never been an added pressure on the business, adding he and his partner expect to be the sole drivers of their business. He adds, “a good rep is a good rep. It doesn’t matter where their company is based.”
Beyond the daily 2-6x studio workouts all crafted by Fitzgerald and a favorite of runners during cold, snowy Boston winters, Heartbreak Hill hosts a weekly workout at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology track, hill and speed sessions on different evenings and long runs every Saturday. In addition, there is the affordable “Heartbreaker Team” for interested local runners that offers an array of services, including a digital portal that has advanced training plans for 5K, 10K, half marathons and full marathons and a variety of training videos, some with coaches, some with professional athletes and some with Fitzgerald himself.
“Our mission is to just over deliver. Once you catch the running bug or you’re curious about the running bug, we want to empower you with the tools to get better at it. Part of it is getting the right shoes on your feet, but that’s not the only part.”
Fitzgerald makes it abundantly clear that Heartbreak Hill Running Co., which took its concept outside of Boston for the first time this month with the opening of a 2,000-sq.-ft. store in the Lincoln Park neighborhood of Chicago, is more about the whole running experience and less about individual transactions, which frankly can be done about anywhere these days, he points out. The merchandise breakdown in Heartbreak’s current locations is approximately 55 percent footwear, 35 percent apparel and 10 percent accessories with a small selection of Heartbreak Hill-branded merchandise in the assortment.
“The objective is to be the strongest running brand in the country,” he says. “I think that’s our aspiration. We want to meet every runner wherever they are with whatever they need.”