It’s a question I got when I first proposed my Watson year, and one that I now preemptively pause to answer every time I explain my itinerary. And fair enough– even though it’s the former capital and oldest city in Finland, this small city on the southwest coast doesn’t have too many chances to creep into an ordinary conversation.
Unless that conversation centers on track and field; then it’s another story.
Not quite a century ago, Finland was the nest of middle- and long-distance running. The East Africa of the early twentiety century, you could say. Between the resurgence of the modern Olympic Games and the start of World War II, the nation of less than 4 million people took home every Olympic 10,000 meter title except one and won a slew of other middle- and long-distance medals on the world’s biggest stage as well. By the 1936 Berlin Olympics, when three Finnish runners swept the 10k, the distance contingent from that country had appropriately been dubbed “The Flying Finns.”
No one was more pivotal in establishing Finland’s global running dominance than Paavo Nurmi, perhaps the most famous Flyer. Born right here in Turku, Nurmi’s resume boasts 9 Olympic gold medals, 3 silvers, and 22 official world records at distances ranging from the 1,500 meters to 20 kilometers. He’s the only person to win the Olympic 1500 meters (1924), 5,000 meters (1924) and 10,000 meters (1920 and 1928), and two of those were won with only 55 minutes between them (the 1500m and 5k in 1924). In his prime, Nurmi accumulated a 121-race winning streak at distances from the 800 meters and up, and he died in 1973 with an undefeated record in cross-country races and the 10,000 meters. It’s unlikely that any of those feats will be reproduced by a single person, much less the whole lot of them.
While amassing those accolades, Nurmi also played a major role in the advancement of long-distance training. Recognized as one of the first runners to take a systematic and analytic approach to the sport, he demonstrated the value of even-paced racing as well as interval and speed work. He also popularized the use of a stopwatch in training and advocated for a cross-training regimen of walking, running, and calisthenics. Those elements, which seem obvious and natural today, have not always been so.
So here I am in Turku, familiarizing myself with the breeding grounds of the legendary Flying Finns while getting to know the Hellstens, my sweet host family. In between some stunning running around their home, the Paavo Nurmi Stadium, and a nearby national park, Juha and Helena have been showing me a Finnish summer done right:
My two-week stay in Turku will culminate with Paavo Nurmi’s birthday, celebrated annually with an open-house and track meet in his honor, before I move onto Helsinki for the second half of my Finland stint and the essential conclusion of my Watson year.
I’ll leave y’all with one of my favorite running quotes, spoken by Nurmi and introduced to me on one of Maureen’s legendary Ursuline banana runs:
Mind is everything. Muscle– pieces of rubber. All that I am, I am because of my mind.
Sources: “Finding Sisu” by Adam Chase, “Paavo Johannes Nurmi” by TimTim Sharma, “An Illustrated History of Distance Running” by Mike Rosenbaum, http://biography.yourdictionary.com/paavo-nurmi, and dimdima.com.