Track & Field Heroes – Remembering Finland’s Paavo Nurmi, the Greatest Distance Runner of His Era

Finland’s first great distance runner was Paavo Nurmi, who would burst onto the world scene in the 1920 Antwerp Olympics held in Belgium’s northern port city on the Scheldt River.

Nurmi, then 23, took home 3 Gold Medals after winning the 10,000-meter run, the 8,000-meter cross-country event, and as a member of Finland’s 8,000-meter cross-country team. Yes, there were actually cross-country events in the Olympics back then. He also picked up a Silver Medal as runner-up in the 5,000-meter race.

By 1924, in the Paris Olympic Games, he was unstoppable, winning no less than 5 Gold Medals against the world’s best distance runners. Nurmi won the 1,500, 5,000, the 5,000 cross-country event, and was a team member for 2 more Golds as Finland swept both the 3,000 and 5,000 cross-country team events. Olympic competition in the cross-country team events ended with the Paris Olympics.

Extreme heat caused more than half of the runners to quit the cross-country team events, and Finnish officials, fearing for Nurmi’s health, would not allow him to defend his 1920 Olympic title in the 10,000-meter run. Nurmi was furious and took out his frustration by immediately returning to Finland and setting a new world record in the event that would stand for another 12 years.

Many of today’s runners and moviegoers remember the 1924 Olympic Games because the Oscar-winning best film “Chariots of Fire” was based on the same Paris Olympics, when Britain’s Harold Abrahams won the 100-meter dash and Eric Liddell won the 400-meter dash.

A year after his triumphant 5 Golds in the ’24 Paris Olympics, Nurmi toured the United States and ran 55 events in 5 months, winning 53 of the events while breaking 39 world records, many of them unofficial because there were no stringent requirements at every meet in those days.

That said, Paavo Nurmi did set 22 official world records in events from 1,500 to 20,000 meters (12.4 miles). He was a force to be reckoned with.

Nurmi would cap his career at the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics by winning another Gold Medal in the 10,000 and two more Silver Medals in the 5,000 and 3,000-meter steeplechase. His 9 Gold Medal victories in track and field are only matched by the 9 Golds won by the great Carl Lewis, an American sprinter and long jumper who dominated the events during the 1980’s and early 90’s.

Nurmi, a vegetarian since age 12, was also an innovator of the first order. It was Nurmi who introduced progression runs as a training technique. Progression runs involve steady acceleration, starting at a comfortable speed and gradually getting faster and faster, finishing at a threshold or even interval pace.

Imagine a 30-minute run that gets progressively faster every 5 minutes. Progression runs increase the volume of your fast-paced miles without the added fatigue of a full-length quality workout.

By training with progression runs, Paavo Nurmi gained the strength to go out quickly and then, to the dismay of his competitors, keep increasing the pace throughout the race until he had run his opponents into the ground.

Nurmi also ran with a stopwatch, not trusting his competition to keep the proper pace. He did not care what his competitors did; he wanted to make sure he was running at his planned pace, which also happened to be much faster than normal. When he was satisfied that no one could catch him, he would toss the stopwatch away and continue to punish his competition.

While his world record time in the mile (4:10.4) in 1923 would not turn any heads today, you can bet that if he ran today, he would benefit from the same fast, composition tracks, scientific knowledge in training, and weight training. It would take another 31 years before Roger Bannister would break 4 minutes for the mile run in 1954.

With about the same build and temperament as the great Steve “Pre” Prefontaine, he would have been tough to beat. While Nurmi’s records-like all records-were made to be broken, he arguably had as much heart and determination as the best runners ever.

Nurmi was one of the “Flying Finns” that included Hannes Kolehmainen and Ville Ritola.

Was Paavo Nurmi a great runner? In his day, there was no one better. Some think that Paavo Nurmi was the greatest distance runner ever.

Copyright © 2009 Ed Bagley