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Riding back to Helsinki, the visitors talk. Rami Hannonen, a Finnish marketing analyst who has done the interpreting, is agitated, unsatisfied at this first meeting with his nation's foremost celebrity. "He seems to have hit the right balance," he says. "To run in faraway cities and still have the life he grew to love. But to not wish to go beyond that, to not be interested in anything else...I couldn't live like that."
Hannonen seems struck, too, by Viren's lassitude. "It doesn't seem to matter what he talks about, he never gets excited. You see no evidence of force of character."
"Well, we know that is there," the other visitor replies. "Might he not be simply a man perfectly suited for running, without great ambition or talent otherwise?"
"Yes," says Hannonen. "But I don't believe that ambition is ever cured by success."
The Virens have been massively exploited by Finland's women's magazines. Almost monthly they smile from the covers of slick, superficial rags, P�ivi with the face of a thousand windblown Nordic wives pressed to the shoulder of her rugged, scraggly-bearded husband. Inside, there are more pictures of them jogging or gardening or wrinkling noses at each other. Connect the dots on the pencil page and there is Lasse again. But the text of these pieces is oddly abusive. "A clown who fell down and who got up and became famous," reads one, remarking on Viren's fall early in the Munich 10,000, where he bounded back to his feet and defeated Emiel Puttemans of Belgium in the world record time of 27:38.4.
Viren seems to cooperate in these unfunny jokes, giving the reporters the type of answer they want. Asked his secret, he replies, "The milk of a cow in heat." The result is that, like the rest of the world, few Finns have a clear idea of the nature of the man. A Finnish reporter, Juha Numminen, attempted to profile Viren for a newsmagazine. Afterward he lamented Viren's refusal to discuss politics or philosophies. "It was my worst story," he said.
Fishermen tramp the frozen Helsinki harbor, a white plain stretching away to low islands that in summer curve like whales' backs into the calm Baltic. In August the air from the forest carries a fragrance like sawdust and cream. Now it is cutting, sterile, rushing across the Arctic space. Finns seem to come to their land on its own terms, rejoicing in its sweep and hardness. "Winter," one hears time and again, "is when everything is so clean."
Only the cluttered language seems out of character with such people. Its 14 cases and absence of prepositions confound the listener. Nothing ever seems to sound the same. But the effect is to bind these people to this land, the only one where they are understood. The experience of being a Finn is far more precise than that of being an American or Russian. The colors of Finland's flag are well chosen, the blue and white, sky and snow, water and birch, the blue eyes and the luminous Nordic complexion. Both Lasse and P�ivi Viren have those eyes, a polished granite blue. These are not eyes you fall into; they are hard places, with a deflecting gloss. They have weight. It sometimes seems it must be hard to hold up a head with such eyes. "Eyes," Evelyn Waugh wrote, "pale blue, blank and mad."
There is madness in the spring, a sloppy, dirty time when more snow melts than falls, but still it falls. Helsinki sees its first crocus in May. This is the suicide season, and Finland's rate is one of the highest in the world. "It's when a few things are beginning to bloom and grow," says Hannonen. "The animals are finding each other, birds arrive, and yet the winter-wearied people are so drained, so tired. The contrast is too much for some." Finnish runners, the best and most promising of them, spend a winter month in the Canary Islands or Kenya or Brazil, but seldom run well at indoor events or spring cross-country races. They peak late in the summer, and if Lasse Viren has been good at it in selected summers it is because his whole life has been lived that way. He is a Finn.
Viren began training in earnest in 1969, when he was 19. For his coach he sought out Rolf Haikkola, also of Myrskyl�. Haikkola was influenced by New Zealand's Arthur Lydiard, whom he got to come to Finland to advise runners and coaches. " Lydiard's ideas of how to bring runners to the best shape at the right time seemed ideal for us with our long winter and short racing season," says Haikkola, who is now executive director of the Finnish Amateur Athletic Association. He is a large man with horn-rimmed glasses and fine, receding hair. In 1954 he ran 5,000 meters in 14:14, which was 10th best in the world that year. Now, in a business suit and polka-dot tie, he sits in Helsinki's Hotel Torni restaurant, where the menu lists snow grouse with cranberry puree and noisettes of reindeer baked in crust. Haikkola speaks in clear, carefully built sentences, and as the evening wears on and empty cognac snifters collect before him, he becomes more voluble.