Sunday, May 19, 2013

A good day to win a marathon

It was early Monday morning, April 17th, 1972. Olavi Suomalainen, a 25-year-old Finnish runner, wakes up in Boston and looks at the grey sky. "This is a good day to win a marathon", he announces cheerfully. Olavi's longest run so far has been 25 km.

Olavi Suomalainen wins Boston Marathon in April 1972.
A few hours later Mr. Suomalainen crossed the finish line of the 76th Boston Marathon with widespread arms in 2:15:39. He had just won the world's most prestigious marathon. Boston Globe reported: Finn takes lead at Lake St., breezes home. How was this possible?

Finland had won Boston seven times before already, the last four of them in a row from 1959-1962. After that there was a more quiet period without major victories. Interval training, the cornerstone of training in the 1960ies, seemed like the magic bullet at first, but then failed to produce further improvements.

Arthur Lydiard's new controversial training method helped Finnish distance runners get to the top of the world in the 1970ies. Lydiard replaced interval training with a huge aerobic base. At first most people were reluctant to believe in big mileage training followed by a short intense period to peak for a key race.

The real significance of Olavi Suomalainen's 1972 Boston Marathon victory was that it proved without a doubt to all Finnish runners and coaches that Lydiard's method was working for real. With this newfound confidence, Pekka Vasala won 1,500 meters Olympic gold in Munich. Lasse Viren won both 5,000 and 10,000 meters at 1972 and 1976 Olympics.

Mr. Suomalainen kisses the 1st official female Boston Marathon winner Nina Kuscsik.
Olavi Suomalainen returned to Boston in 1973 to take the third place, but was never quite able to repeat his magical 1972 performance. That winning time remains his marathon PB to this day. Unfortunate injuries prevented further victories. Suomalainen never became a big star or celebrity. He surely wasn't interested in fame. Any limelight would almost seem like a punishment for the shy, reserved and modest Finns.

In April 2012, Olavi Suomalainen visited Boston once more. He was recognized by the Boston Athletic Association at its Champion's Breakfast. The fastest Finnish participant finished with a net time of 3:26 - 2,608th position out of 21,616 runners. The previous year Geoffrey Mutai of Kenya had run the fastest marathon ever in Boston, 2:03:02. Many things had changed in four decades.

Olavi was invited to visit Boston once more in April 2012.
That was a good day to win a marathon, Olavi must have thought.


wcooperjr said...

I love this post! So much Fin/American history. I also like the way you discussed the opposing training approaches of 70s intervals and Lydiard. I'm a big believer in Lydiard and Maffetone. Good luck at UTMB and I hope the weather holds!

Trail Plodder said...

Thanks Will! It just snowed in Chamonix last weekend, so let's hope the weather changes before Mont Blanc 50-miler on June 28! By the way the Lydiard link on your website doesn't work anymore. But the actual method still works well of course - you are the living proof of that :)