Many have worn the mantle of the “Flying Finn”— an athlete that appears from the Finnish wilderness to win every medal and world record in sight. This rich tradition began in 1912 with Hannes Kolehmainen.

Hannes emerged at the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm to win first the ten thousand meter run, then the five thousand meter run, then the twelve kilometer cross-country race. In the ten thousand meters, he flew through the halfway mark in 15:11, just eleven seconds slower than a world record. In the five thousand meters, he and a French man named Jean Bouin broke away from the field, probing and surging and probing and surging until, finally, with fifty meters left, Bouin broke. Though Bouin finished twenty four seconds faster than the previous world record, Hannes Kolehmainen had beat him by a yard, setting a world record that would last for a decade. 

Had in not been for the first World War, Hannes might have won more medals. Instead, he sailed to America, began working as a bricklayer, joined the Irish American Athletic Club with his brother, ran the Boston Marathon and lost to Clarence DeMar, then returned to Europe in 1920 for the Olympic Marathon in Antwerp, won his final gold medal and set his final world record. 

Hannes grew up on a farm in Kuopio, Finland, raised by his single mother. Winters required constant movement to stay warm— outdoors all day in the bitter frost, tramping or working the fields. A trip to town meant skiing one hundred kilometers there and back. Food consisted of whole grain breads, whatever vegetables they could grow, and raw milk. Hannes never ate meat.

He and his four brothers took to running after the 1906 Olympics. Fascinated by the Marathon, they began running twenty kilometers, every other day, with a day to recover in between. They ran their first marathon together in 1908. Hannes finished behind his older brother Willy, who ran eighteen more races that year, including another marathon, never finishing lower than third. In 1909 Willy ran eight marathons, winning six of them. In 1910, he moved to American, joined the Irish American Athletic Club, and turned professional.

He trained under Lawson Robertson and sent letters home to his brothers with training advice. Mostly, he advised long, brisk walks in the morning with shorter, quicker runs in the evening, always cautioning against running too much or too hard. In 1911, he returned to Finland for a seven month training stint with Hannes before the Stockholm Olympics. As a professional, Willy couldn’t compete, so Hannes showed up solo and simply won everything in sight. 

Hannes’s lifestyle sculpted him into a world-beater— the wicked winters made him tough, the long daily walks, the skiing to town, and the farm work made him strong. He ate food from the earth, healthier than that of the “modernized” United States and Europe. He didn’t smoke. The raw, harsh living in Finland begat a culture that celebrated grit, or sisu, in the same way that the English celebrated manners, the French celebrated beauty, or the American celebrated enterprise.

It’s no surprise, then, that with a few years of training both Hannes and Willy could set a man-killing pace against the best athletes of the world and break their spirits . Their opponents had lungs soggy with the smog and smoke of industrial Europe, and none of them had ever endured a Finnish winter. 

Willy, a professional runner, would go on to win world titles in the marathon against the likes of Alf Shrubb and Tom Longboat; he would be the first man to break 2:30 for the marathon. Hannes, a professional bricklayer, would appropriately lay the foundation for all the “Flying Finns” to follow.