Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Searching for Greatness but Finding Something Better

When I viewed the itinerary for our trip to Finland and saw a visit to the city of Turku, I immediately knew what I had to do. If I couldn't visit the site of the first sub 4 minute mile run in history (England), the second such run would be a good replacement. Why the obsession? I've been a distance runner for 35 years and have always been fascinated by the history of the sport. It was in Turku that John Landy ran a 3:58 mile which bettered the time of Roger Bannister who broke the 4 minute barrier one month earlier in 1954.

With a Google Map image on my wi-fi-less phone, I set out on a 14 minute walk from my drop-off point to find Paavo Nurmi Stadion, the place of Landy's run. The stadium is tucked inside a park of tall trees so you have to follow a winding path to find it. I managed to find the outskirts of the park but needed to assistance to go further. A blonde-haired man wearing a blue baseball cap was holding a basketball and talking to his son in Finnish. I asked him where I could find the park. He smiled and said it was to the left down the paved path. I thanked him and traveled on. At the bottom of the path, I looked around and saw an apartment building to my right and bushes to my left. I wasn't sure where to go next. A young lady was stretching to get ready for a run and wearing headphones. I moved into her line of sight and yelled "Hei" which is like "Hello" in English. Unsurprisingly, she jumped back about a foot after having a pale six foot-four man yell at her. Catching her breath, she politely smiled and said it was up the steps. What she didn't say was "How did you miss the sign that was right there?" I thanked her and moved up the steps while chastising myself in my head about how I once again failed to see something right in front of me.

At the top of the steps, I spied the object of my hunt for track history. Eight lanes of rubber track surrounded on all sides by seating that was combination of concrete, and wooden bleachers. This is where it all happened. The great Paavo Nurmi, holder of 9 gold medals, had practiced his craft many times here as well as other running greats who were seeking a fast track with which they could race to record times. Walking around in the stands, I saw hurdlers practicing for a future competition. An elderly man was lining the field for the soccer match to be held later in the evening. There was no apparent entrance to the track itself, so I was beginning to think that I would have to be satisfied with just viewing the field. 

As I ambled through the bleachers in the main grandstand, a man was running the steps to improve his endurance. Desperate to step out onto the field, I imposed myself into his workout and asked if the general public could go walk on the track. He, like others before him, interrupted his workout kindly and told me about the gate that was located on the corner. I thanked him and moved to the track. Standing on the field, I could see to my right a silhouette of Nurmi on the right side of the scoreboard.

It occurred to me that I had come here looking for track history, but had found much a greater thing. Three different Finns, approached by a middle-aged foreigner babbling about a stadium, had taken time out of their day to thoughtfully guide me to my location. I came away from this visit appreciating history, but more so the kindness of a people.

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