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WXPR's We Live Up Here series is a home for stories that focus on the people, history, and culture that make the Northwoods of Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan such a unique place to live.

50 Years Strong: Running the Paavo Nurmi

Wisconsin’s oldest marathon – the Paavo Nurmi - is celebrating 50 years this Saturday, August 11th.

Just ahead, the story of a woman who is finally running the full marathon, 50 years after deciding to do it. WXPR’s Larry Lapachin has the story.

This Saturday, August 11, runners will gather in the quiet community of Upson, just outside of Hurley, to participate in Wisconsin’s oldest marathon, the Paavo Nurmi.  But for one participant, running the Paavo Nurmi marathon has been a goal ever since that inaugural race 50 years ago.

Enni Gregas lives in Bessemer, MI, and she’s 74 years old. She first moved to the area in the years when the Paavo Nurmi marathon was just being established.

“And when I first heard all of that on the radio every morning as a young housewife, I thought someday I’m going to run that Paavo Nurmi marathon,” says Gregas. “Women weren’t even running marathons in those days.”

Credit Wikimedia Commons
Paavo Nurmi at the 1920 Summer Olympics in Antwerp.

Paavo Nurmi was perhaps the best middle- and long- distance runner for Finland. He dominated international races throughout the 1920s. Then fast forward to the summer of 1969, race organizers in northern Wisconsin honored the great Finnish runner by naming a marathon after him because of the Finnish heritage that predominates the area.

For the past 10 years, Gregas has been participating in the Paavo Nurmi, running the half marathon and being part of relay teams.  But she has never run the full marathon.

“This is the first year that I’m tackling the full marathon because it is the 50th,” says Gregas.

But to better understand Gregas’ drive and determination, we need to first recognize the emergence of a newly independent Finland and the importance of its great runner, Paavo Nurmi.

The year was 1917. Finland just declared its independence from an oppressive Russian regime. Many Finnish Americans went back to Finland to provide labor for family farms. That included Enni Gregas’ father, John "Walt" Waldemar Koski.

“My father was born in this country of Finnish immigrants and when he was 11, the family moved back to Finland to help the grandparents out,” she says. “So he spent his adolescences in poor, rural Finland.” 

As Koski toiled on his grandparent’s farm, Finland entered the 1920 Summer Olympics in Belgium for the first time as an independent nation. It was on this stage that Paavo Nurmi won 3 gold medals and 1 silver. 

“Paavo Nurmi was the hero of Finland,” says Gregas. “A distance runner that carried the flag of Finland pride and hope, as this young, struggling independent country was forming its place in the world.”

Then, at the 1924 Summer Olympics in Paris, Paavo Nurmi had his greatest performance on the track. He achieved 2 gold metals in 2 different long distance events within hours, the 1500 meter and the 5000 meter.

Paavo Nurmi left Paris with 5 Gold medals. He was at his peak. And Finland embraced him.

“Paavo Nurmi symbolized for the country achievement and power and identity,” she says. “He wasn’t only my father’s personal hero but he became the national hero.”

Paavo Nurmi competed in 3 Olympics. He won 9 Gold and 3 Silver medals, becoming one of the most decorated Olympians of all time.  

Around the time Paavo Nurmi’s Olympic career ended, Gregas’ father, Walt Koski, made the fateful decision to leave Finland and return to the US.

“At 19, he came back,” she says. “He would have lost his American citizenship had he not done that. So he came back to the US and spent the rest of his life here, and half of his family remained in Finland, so we have strong ties. He was a proud American and a proud Finn.”

Credit Enni Gregas
John "Walt" Waldemar Koski in his younger years.

Koski married and settled in Superior, WI. He raised a family. He would share stories of Finland and the influence of his boyhood hero, Paavo Nurmi.

“After work, my father and his brothers would organize mock Olympics,” says Gregas. “One of his favorite stories about his rather stern, remote Finnish father was the day that his father ran the mile in their mock Olympics.”

In addition to Paavo Nurmi, Koski’s stories also instilled a uniquely Finnish identity and concept of life called Sisu. So what exactly is Sisu?

“Sisu is endurance, fortitude, resilience,” says Gregas. “But it adds up to you do what needs to be done no matter what the obstacles. One old Finn once described it as stubbornness beyond all reason.”

In fact, Gregas’ Sisu, much like that of Paavo Nurmi’s, is inspiring. Last winter, she organized the Paavo Nurmi 50th Running Group because of how much the 50th anniversary meant to her area. She thought of it as an opportunity for anyone who has ever dreamt of doing a marathon. Some are doing the relays, some are doing the half marathon, but she says many people are doing the full marathon for the first time. They’ve been training since last November.

“This is the essence of sisu,” she says. “Set a goal. Do the hard work that it takes to get there. It represents, I think for everybody that dream or that goal that you’ve had, let’s just go and do it. In fact, that’s our motto: Let’s do this.”

The Paavo Nurmi marathon takes its runners through the small villages of Upson, Iron Belt, Pence, Montreal, and Gile, before finishing in Hurley. Along this hilly, often hot and humid, 26.2 mile course, Enni Gregas knows there will be rough patches. But similar to life, you get through them. And so when Gregas is drawing upon her sisu, she will be thinking of her father.

“I’m dedicating this one to my father,” she says. “I began that goal 50 years ago and so this is for him. I would have been lovely to do it during his lifetime but I’m doing it for him.”

Larry Lapachin and Enni Gregas will both be running in the Paavo Nurmi this weekend. 27 years ago, Enni was Larry’s high school English teacher in Ironwood, Michigan. They recently reconnected through running.

This story was written by Larry Lapachin and produced for radio by Mackenzie Martin. It's part of our We Live Up Here series, where we tell the stories of the people and culture of northern Wisconsin. Some music for this story came from Podington Bear.

This story was funded in part by a grant from the Wisconsin Humanities Council, with funds from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the State of Wisconsin. Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this project do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities. The Wisconsin Humanities Council supports and creates programs that use history, culture, and discussion to strengthen community life for everyone in Wisconsin.

Larry Lapachin was born and raised in Ironwood, Michigan, and currently lives along the shores of Lake Superior. Keeping to his Yooper roots, Larry has been making pasties at Joe’s Pasty Shop in Rhinelander since 2004. His educational background includes a master’s degree in Environmental Science and a bachelor’s degree in Social Work. He enjoys running, reading, and traveling with his wife and aspires to become the World Champion in Rock Skipping.
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