Finding My Sisu: a Suunto Runner’s Story

Photos by Tanner Johnson

Sisu is a Finnish word generally meaning determination, bravery, and resilience. Sisu (pronounced – see’-soo) is about taking action against the odds and displaying courage and resoluteness in the face of adversity.

Inspired by this distinctly Finnish word, Strava and Suunto are challenging athletes to push the limits and run 65 kilometers (40.4mi) between May 17th and June 1st. For some mid challenge motivation, Suunto athlete and Strava run pro Matt Flaherty shares a personal reflection from preparing for and finishing his best ultra marathon race ever.

Matt Flaherty: As I was on my way to one of my biggest races of the year, the Ice Age 50 miler, I got to thinking about my race plan and wondering if I embodied the concept of sisu.

Despite the fact that I don’t speak Finnish, sisu is a word I have been familiar with for some time. I first encountered the concept via the legendary New Zealander Arthur Lydiard, coach of greats like Peter Snell and Barry Magee.  Lydiard went to Finland in the 1970s in order to teach his system to multi-Olympic medalist Lasse Virrén and other top Finns. After spending time with the great Finnish runners, Lydiard famously said:

They have a word in Finnish called sisu, which basically means guts.  It’s the strongest word in the Finnish language.  You tell a Finn he doesn’t have sisu, that’s like spitting in his face.

I asked myself how this relates to endurance athletics and my race in Wisconsin. I would attempt to take down a course record held by Canadian ultramarathon great Andy Jones, something no one had been able to do in 26 years.  I was also facing top competitors like Max King and Zach Bitter. It would take boldness and even faith—trust in my preparations—to set a record pace from the gun.  It’s a scary way to race.  But all the determination and resilience in the world wouldn’t save me if I was unprepared to do what I set out to do.

People tend to talk about bravery like it’s an immutable quality.  But is it really some innate characteristic, something that only a few are blessed with? Or is it something that can be developed and built? I’d like to believe the latter. My thoughts stray to a quote from running writer John L. Parker. In an essay called ‘Courage and the Long Distance Runner’, Parker wrote the following about bravery:

It doesn’t have to be summoned; it’s already there. Endurance athletes build it slowly, painfully, along with their conditioning, day by day, over the course of months and years. They don’t talk about it much among themselves because there’s no need to.  It’s the one thing they all have in common.

That last sentence hits the nail squarely on the head in my opinion. It takes boldness and courage to be a runner. To attempt to be your best, to set out to accomplish a new goal—whether that is a certain number of kilometers or miles to run in training, a new mountain or trail to explore, or even a course record or personal best to improve upon. It all takes boldness and intention in a world where it’s oh so easy to be complacent.

As the Ice Age Trail 50 mile race progressed on Saturday morning May 10th, my sisu paid off. I faded a bit late in the race due to my hot early pace, but I ran tough, still besting the old course record by four minutes with a time of 5:49:13.  I think it was the best ultra marathon I’ve ever run.  But I didn’t win.  Max King also had one of the best races of his life, and he was well clear of me in an astonishing 5:41:07 winning time (women’s winner: Kaci Lickteig and winning time). I was ecstatic all the same, because with determination and guts, I was able to get the absolute best out of myself.

While my race strategy required boldness and toughness to see it through, these qualities were not magically summoned for the race.  As Parker writes, they were already there.  They were built, mile by mile, hill by hill, over years of training.  To prevail and show true sisu when it matters most, one needs to temper one’s ambition over months and years of consistent preparation.  It isn’t always glamorous, but it is beautiful in its simplicity.  In endurance athletics, hard work pays off.  Not only does one build fitness, but also bravery—sisu.

The best thing about Strava is its community.  How better to weather the natural highs and lows inherent in training and racing than to share in these endeavors?  Through CRs, Kudos, and Challenges, we can motivate one another. I hope everyone will join me in the Suunto Sisu Challenge, with a focus on adventure, conquering new routes and exploring new terrain.  And in so doing, we can cultivate our sisu—daily, out on the trails and roads.  When it matters most, we’ll have it in abundance.

To the next adventure!

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