With less than three weeks until I touch down on Texas soil, I’m officially on the homestretch of my Watson journey. If this were a marathon, I’d be in the 40th and penultimate kilometer; a steeplechase, the final of 35 barriers. Like those races, I’m mustering up as much energy as I can to finish this year off with a powerful kick and walk away without any regrets or missed opportunities.
My second week in Turku was full of running-related activities that I was fortunate to share with my fabulous host family and now close friends, the Hellstens. If he were still alive, Paavo Nurmi would have turned 116 years old on June 13th and his hometown paid tribute to him all week long. Here Helena and I are at his statue in the middle of town, jazzed up for the occasion with some wreaths:
The house he grew up in, now a museum, is only open to the public once a year and my 14 days in Turku conveniently coincided with this year’s open house.
Along with Juha, my host and stand-in coach, I hung out in the tiny one-room home that Paavo shared with his mom, sister, and brothers, and the even smaller kitchen that they rented out to another family until Paavo earned enough money in the 1920 Olympics to buy the whole place. We heard a few interesting stories about him, my favorite being the time he showed up for a meet and was only paid part of his promised appearance fee. In response, he only ran part of the distance he was entered in. Sounds fair to me, but the Finnish athletic association didn’t think so and subsequently left him off of the next Olympic team. Hefty price to pay for a little joke, I’d say!
We sandwiched the Nurmi home visit with some standard Turku sight-seeing, first checking out Aboa Vetus, a fascinating museum and archaeological site built around real 14th century ruins from Finland’s oldest city and former capital.
We also strolled through the clean, quaint town, along the water, in an old indoor market, and by the majestic Turku Cathedral.
The Nurmi celebrations continued the following weekend with the annual Paavo Nurmi Games, one of the most competitive track meets for Finnish athletes. After a really pretty, rainy forest run with my friend and Juha’s athlete Annti-Pekka, I enjoyed an afternoon full of races and field events in Nurmi’s honor and cheered on some friends I met the week prior.
I also tried two new running activities during my stay with the Hellstens, one of which I think I have some potential in and the other, sadly, which I do not. The promising one was a half marathon, which I was invited to run about two weeks beforehand. I had just decided that I didn’t want to race duing the last bit of my trip due to chronic sleep deprivation, all of the moving around, and the difficulty of getting in really high quality workouts, but the idea of getting in a tempo run with hundreds of new friends and a few water stations in a new area of Finland was too good to pass up. So away to Forssa I went, along with Juha, Annti-Pekka, and A.P.’s friend.
The event was really well organized and the course was beautiful (though a little more breezy than ideal), and I latched onto a group of guys for most of the race. It was a nice, comfortable introduction to 21 kilometers of road-racing and I’m pumped to make an honest half marathon debut when I’m rested and specifically trained.
The second new event for me was orienteering, though my future in that discipline is much less promising. Anna, Juha’s sister, was an excellent (and way too patient) coach, politely correcting me every time I misinterpreted all those squiggles, circles, lines, and doodles that some people call a map. You’d think that all of the running and exploring I do daily would make me an ideal candidate for the sport, but sadly it isn’t so.
In addition to dashed dreams, my little trial run in the forest behind the Hellsten’s house infused me with a fascination with Jukola, a famous event and national affair that took place the following weekend. Juha and Helena gave me the full run-down on the 7-person, all-night orienteering relay that brings many of the world’s best orienteers to Finland each summer (over 16,000 participants this year!).
After learning about the complex logistics, rules, and tactics that are involved, I decided that I should either stick to pure running or weasel my way into children’s orienteering competitions where all I have to do is chase a string around a forest path. That, I think I could handle… especially when I’ve got nearly two decades on my competitors.
In between all that action, I was treated to some delicious Finnish and Helena-ish food, and snagged quite a few recipes from her repertoire during my visit.
I reciprocated with a TexMex feast on my last night, which teased my tastebuds in anticipation of the real deal just around the corner.
I got yet another taste of Finnish food during an afternoon of running and Texas reminiscing with Johanna, who is freshly home from a year of studying and running at Sam Houston State University (one of Rice’s nearest neighbor schools). Her meatballs and blueberry pie were divine and it was so nice to chat with her about some familiar places and Texas memories.
My Finnish segment is only halfway over, but my marvelous stay with the Hellstens came to an end on Monday when I transitioned to the Helsinki area. Juha and Helena treated me so well during my two week stay, showing me all around the area, taking me on awesome runs, and giving me my fill of summertime saunas (if that’s even possible). I especially appreciate their elongated effort to speak in English during my whole visit, even to each other, which I know can be effortful for non-native speakers but which kept me connected and involved. I miss that sweet family already, and must admit that mealtimes are a bit lackluster without Matilda’s theatrics and Melissa’s My Little Pony chatter. So thanks, Hellstens, for making my last substantial home-stay a memorable and excellent one, and for providing me with the ultimate display of Finnish culture and running.