The sun sets and
the air grows colder. A wind comes up. Viren puts his gloves back on. In the
last few miles the surface water begins to glaze; mushy snow becomes ice,
crackling underfoot. Returning to his house, he stretches in the driveway and
P�ivi comes out to tell him that the electricity is off again. Viren, who has
promised his guest a Finnish sauna, and whose sauna heater is electric, is
prepared for this. He leads the way across the road to the home of a neighbor
who has a wood-burning sauna. His black and white cat named Tappila (Spot)
leaps ahead. "The cat loves to go to sauna," he says.
insists. It's hard to get her out."
take a shower afterward, surely?"
"No, but she
licks herself for an hour."
The sauna is in a
shed on a hillside. Tappila circles and declines to enter. Viren shrugs, strips
off his moist running clothes in an anteroom and goes in. He climbs to the top
of a tier of benches and sits on a checkered linen cloth, his head near the
ceiling, where pitch has extruded from the wood in large amber globules. The
temperature is 185� F.
For the visitor
the sauna is like a run. In the beginning it is pleasant to sit and sweat and
talk, but as the heat begins really to penetrate, as Viren tosses a cupful of
water on the shimmering red stones and steam fills the room it is like a race.
There is the same unease. Thought becomes random, hard to control. The time
before relief is permissible seems to stretch out of view. A small window,
curtained, with four tiny panes, gives a little light. The dim scene out the
window is of icicles on nearby branches, the cat crouched on a snowbank. It
cannot be that cold so near. It becomes irresistible to think of how it will be
to emerge, faint and heavy, and sink into cool water, the heat draining away,
passing out like a vaporous spirit. Then the routine will be repeated,
cultivating the demon and expunging him with simple snow or a dive into the
pond. When one comes finally from the recovery room, the Finnish night is found
to be a balmy evening, the snow about your ankles no more than goosedown. And
so the winter passes. Surely the sauna is a nurturer of hope through these
long, cold silences.
Lasse Viren isn't
a staunch sauna man. He does this only about once a week, and now leaves first,
washes and goes to thank his neighbor for the favor. Soon he is back in his own
candlelit kitchen, sipping black coffee and chewing on sweet, pretzelly bread.
He is asked questions that have come to seem important to the visitor. What
made him decide to sacrifice everything for running? Was there a real moment of
decision? Is there a psychological aspect to peaking? These do not seem
unusually vague or analytical, but Viren shrinks from them, squirming. "I
just wanted to run," he says. "I had no goal. It is perfectly normal to
run at midnight when you are 18 without having a goal. Then I trained for the
European Games and then the Olympics. But when did I decide this and that? Why?
I can't remember." He speaks in a whisper. "I can't remember."
His discomfort is
so clearly evident that it makes his guest ashamed. Running is not verbal for
Lasse Viren, not something to be dwelt upon and picked apart. Viren's rationale
lies back there on the crusty roads, back among the pines and granite boulders,
or out on the Tartan of Olympic stadia with astonished praise raining about
Seeing this, one
feels a protective urge. Such a man cannot by himself make himself understood.
He will either be maligned by all those who see his silences and awkward
deflecting jokes as rude screens for secrets or he will be thought dumb. He is
neither rude nor dumb. And yet it suddenly seems by far the wisest life that he
stay near his roots, that he live, shielded, in Myrskyl�.