Paavo Johannes Nurmi - The best of the 'Flying Finns'

All that I am, I am because of my mind. ~ Paavo Nurmi

With the TCS World 10k around the corner and the entire running community abuzz with training plans and preparations for this run, I started thinking about those runners that motivate me time and again, especially on the days I don’t feel like training. Of course, I am surrounded by heroes within the running community and have tremendous respect for each and every one of them. But I thought I should take this as an opportunity to share the stories of some of the greatest, fastest, meanest runners who inspire me, not just with their running but with their attitude and entire being. In the 4 weeks building up to the TCS 10k, I will bring to your attention my four favourite 10k runners.

Let’s rewind our clocks back to the Summer Olympics of 1920; I would like to introduce you to the man who is often referred to as the best of the ‘Flying Finns’, Paavo Johannes Nurmi. Born on 13th June 1897, this man dominated the running circuit in the early 20th century and earned himself 9 Olympic gold and 3 silver medals between 1920-28. He was banned from the 1932 Olympics for having been paid too high a remuneration due to an exhaustive tour which apparently put him in the leagues of a professional. How he was discovered also makes for an interesting story. The year was 1919; Nurmi was serving in the Finnish army and took part in a 20 km march in complete army gear with full equipment. The participants in this march were allowed to run, so of course our man took off. He completed the march in record time, sparking rumours of foul play to cover the distance.

The next year saw him participating in 4 events in the 1920 Olympics, winning 3 gold and 1 silver medals at the event. This amazing man blew everyone away at the 1924 Olympics where he won 5 gold medals in 6 days. He created history and a golden Olympic moment at these games when he won the gold medal in two consecutive events with an interval of 55 minutes between the two. Both these events were such stunning races that they deserve a detailed description.

The 1500m dash started with one of his opponents taking off like a bullet and then slowing down his pace thinking that he would be able to beat Nurmi in a spurt at the final stretch. Nurmi being Nurmi, stuck to his stopwatch and his race strategy, settling into his own comfortable pace and finishing first with a time of 3 mins 53 secs. The 5000m race was also a treat to watch. For the first 4 laps out of the total 10 laps, Nurmi let his rivals take the lead in the race. By the end of the 4th lap, his rivals were ahead by 45 odd meters, but Nurmi was clocking his laps precisely like the machine that he was. The point when his rivals were starting to tire, was when Nurmi actually started letting go, catching up to his rivals in lap 5 and then unleashing his fury in the next 4 laps, easily winning the race. Nurmi was nothing short of a monster on the track; he went on to win the cross country a day later by a long margin. Honestly, the way he ran, all other competitors looked (and most probably felt) like a joke.

There was another strong Finnish runner on the Olympic team – Ville Ritola. Ritola was probably the only runner who came close to Nurmi in talent but was still a long way away when it came to putting all that talent into practice. Finnish authorities were looking to encourage Ritola and so barred Nurmi from competing in the 10,000 m race. Obviously, this rubbed Nurmi the wrong way. As the race started on the Olympic track, Nurmi started running alone on the warm up track. Ritola did end up winning the gold medal that day but Nurmi had finished the race a few seconds before Vitola.

Flying FinnNurmi could easily be called the father of modern running. He was the first runner to adopt a systematic and analytical approach to running. And his approach was learnt through trial and error. Nurmi realised the importance of a constant pace instead of burning oneself out right at the beginning. His main contribution to running is the even-paced strategy which brought a complete turn in training techniques, giving emphasis to speedwork and interval training in one’s schedule. He was the runner who introduced a stop watch as a running companion. Before him, the race strategy would always be to blaze the track in the beginning, recover at a slow pace and then blitz it at the end; but his introduction of a stronger, even paced race changed the face of running and training into the races as we know them today.

Nurmi had his own hero, another Finnish runner, the original Flying Finn, Hannes Kolehmainen, who bought acclaim to his country at the 1912 Stockholm Olympics by winning three gold medals in long-distance events. Nurmi was a notorious character! He was a loner with no apparent interest in anything except running – much like our very own Arjuna who could not see beyond the bird’s eye when he placed his arrow on the bow. But Nurmi was not a mythological character; he was real, made of flesh and blood and brought up himself with sweat and toil. He didn’t run for his country, he didn’t run for his team, he ran for himself and, to clarify, it was only himself that he ran for. No one was competition for him. He never paid any attention to his competitors – not before the race, not during the race and definitely not at the end of the race. After every race, when the entire stadium would be standing in honour of the Finnish National anthem, Nurmi would run past the finish line and straight to the changing rooms to freshen up, then straight back to his room to rest and then train again. He would resurface again only on the track, and do the same thing all over again.

Nurmi made himself a ferocious runner and pushed himself beyond expectations and limitations with sheer will power and mental resolve. As a person, he was essentially a loner, an ambitious one driven with the sole and stubborn desire to create unbeatable records. He was known for his brutal training regimes and strict diet. He constantly improvised on his training methods and made them tougher and more gruelling on a regular basis. All this man ever wanted to do was run. Nurmi didn’t care for anything or anyone except running. He did not socialise with other athletes, never gave interviews, disliked publicity and never really opened up to anyone. Fiercely driven by his competitive streak, as an active runner, Nurmi was extremely secretive about his training techniques. If a fellow runner was cheeky enough to join him on a run, Nurmi did what he knew best; he broke the man’s spirit by upping his pace so that he would quickly be exhausted. It is not a surprise that his marriage didn’t work out and was over less than 2 years after the wedding. It obviously isn’t easy living with a perfectionist and hard taskmaster. Another factor which precipitated the breakdown of his marriage was that his son did not have satisfactory feet to run (what can I say?).

After retiring from running, Nurmi went on to coach the Finnish team and thereafter became a successful businessman. A statue has been raised in his honour at the Olympic museum in Lausanne. He was the final runner, who bought the Olympic flame to the stadium and lit the torch at the 1952 Olympics. For those that have not made the connection yet, this runner inspires in any human a respect for one man’s passion. He is a living and breathing example of dedication, devotion, sheer will-power, grit and mental resolve. He is a shining example of a doer – a man who took life in his hands and made himself great. He was never blinded by the glitter and glamour; he always remembered his purpose and his motto – to run for the love of running. And there is nothing more noble than that.