Alastair Aitken
Alastair Aitken
Alastair Aitken's
Interviews and


The man who changed the face of major Championships 10,000m running history was Juha Vaatainen, the double European Champion of 1971. It was some 41 years ago now. In Helsinki I saw the most incredible last lap in the 10,000m Final. It was before Juha went on to win the 5,000 metre Final. Usually or nearly always up till then, there was never a really very fast finish in a Championship 10k more a grinding the opposition down like with the 'Great' Emil Zatopek or the surging of Vladimir Kuts.
  One must not forget a young David Bedford, three years before  he broke the World record for 10k, was the new 'World' Star' in 1971 (Like Steve Prefontaine was in America) and, had won the International (World) cross country Championships that year in the mud at San Sebastian from Trevor Wright (England)..Following him were  Eddy Grey (New Zealand), Alvarez Salgado (Spain), Malcolm Thomas (Wales), Noel Tijou (France), Mariano Haro (Spain), Ian Stewart (Scotland), Pekka Paivarinta (Finland), Gaston Roelants,Tony Simmons and Rod Dixon behind that to mention a few more 'Star' names.
   Much later that year in the European Championship 10k Final on the 10th of August with a 20.45 start. Temperature 16' degrees Centigrade, Average humidity the evening at the famous Helsinki Stadium.
These were the Laps and who was leading which tells a storey in itself with the individual lap time of the leader:- Bedford Lap one, 67.4, 2- 63.4; 3-65.2 4- 65.2; 5- 65.4; 6- 67.6.6; 7- 66.6; 8- 68.2; 9- 67.2; 8 ; 10-Haase 68.6;Bedford again- 11- 68.6; 12- 64.8; 13- 69.2; 14- 67.6; 15-64.8;13- 69.2;.2; 14- 67.6; 15 Vaatainen took over and ran lap 15 in 69.8;& 16 in 63.4; Dave Bedford took over and on 17 ran 70.4;  then 18 in 70.8; 19- 69.2; 20- 68.6; 21- Haro took over and did a 70.4; Bedford back in lap 22 in 66.8 followed by lap 23 in 69.2 and 24 in 65.2 then on the last lap Vaatainen ran 54.00, some said he did 53.9. His time was a Championship Best Performance  27:52.8, (Faster than 'Great' European winners of the past Haase, Bolotnikov, Krzyszkowiak, Zatopek and the Finnish runner Viljo Heino)
           Jurgen Haase the East German European Champion at the two previous European Championships was 2nd in that race in 1971 running 27:53.4, 3 Rashid Sharefetdinov of the Soviet Union 27:56.4, 4 Daniel Korica (Yugoslavia) 27:58.4; 5 Mariano Haro (Spain) 27:59.4;  6 Dave Bedford in 28:04.4, with Mike Tagg (GB), Seppo Tuominen (Finland), Manfred Letzerich (West Germany) and Noel Tijou (France) filling the next places out of the 33 finishers.The  first six runners were all in contention at the bell!! but the finish was devastating and of course being in Helsinki the roar of the crowd was deafening. I talked to Seb Coe (Lord Coe) some years later in Putney Pub later in 1984 about that change in 10,000m racing and his opinion bares out my original comments " I am afraid, Vaatainen, in the course of one race, changed 10,000metres running on that last lap with Jurgen Haase . It put it into a different area. Those distances are no longer the refuge of the second class runner. People moved up because they were not fast enough for 5000 ' I will give it a go at 10,000 ', but it is no longer like that. It is a specialist distance."
   I spoke to Juha Vaatainen in the Olympic Village and he gave me his thoughts on how he built up to that amazing last lap victory in the 10,000m. The following interview was part of what appeared in Athletics Arena in which Chralie Elliott was the Editor)
JV:- " I have always been a ' loner'  in training.I did have a coach, later, but he is dead now. I started my running alone, and have nearly always run alone. Sometimes I do run with other fellows however, but not very often, because i always seem to be nervous when I am running with others, I find that my training goes the wrong way and I am tense, and always thinking about what my training partner is doing. It is essential to stay relaxed at all times as an athlete, and I am very conscious of this. Maybe you noticed the way I come into the stadium: I run differently to others, running further round the track, and faster, my warm-up and everything is different: only one thing is the same...I run in the same race."
I said to him " You say you started training for athletics at the age of sixteen, and that your best performance at that time was 3:46.0 for 1000 metres. How did things turn out after a year of taking it seriously?
  " Well, things turned out quite good for me. At the end of my first real season, I had clocked 12.0 sec for 100m, 53.7 for 400 and 2:43.0 for 1000m, that as in 1958, after having stopped smoking and drinking in the February of that year. I continued training and racing cross-country, developing a real interest in running, and was looking forward to my next season. Then tragedy  for me: I was involved in an accident with a tractor, and broke my leg. This put me completely out of running for the whole of the 1959 season. I did not lose my keenness, however, and started training again in  the autumn, probably with even more determination to make up for the lost year. In 1960 I won the Finnish Junior intermediate hurdles title, as well as improving on my flat times 11.1 (1`00m), about 51.0 (400) and 800metres in 1:58.9.
' Next year I broke my knee, so did nothing. Then the following year, 1962, I went into the Army for National Service, and although I kept up a reasonable amount of training I only competed twice, in relays. The following year I decided to concentrate my efforts on the 800m and came sixth in the Finnish Championships of 1963 with 1:52.0 In 1964 I had to have an operation on a broken Achilles tendon, but after it was better I was back running again. I suppose that once it gets in your blood, it doesn't matter what problems you have you still come back to running, if you are able. Anyway, I persevered and in 1965 I won the Finnish 800metres title, and also became champion of Scandinavia in about 1:49.0. Although I was still relatively a short-distance runner, I was competing to in 6 kilometre cross country races, and came second in the National Championships."
   So at last he seemed to be getting somewhere so how did things go in 1966?
" Not so good. I was doing quite well in cross country running though, and in fact raced as far as 12 kilometres. On the track I was relegated to third place in the Finnish 800m Championships, but ventured into the 1500, and came second. I had trained hard for those two races, but something was wrong with me. I don't know what it was though; perhaps I lacked variety in my training. My performances were up-and-down the whole season. Still, when it is in your blood, you try to find reasons for some lapses, rather than just give up, so when the autumn came round again I started doing much longer runs in training.'
' I had a coach, then, and he was really good for me. He was a school teacher, Mr Meskaes. It seemed easy for him to know what I should do in training: he got to learn everything about me, not just the running angle, but my complete background - my home life, work, eating and drinking, social life (girl friends and so on) and psychological needs. He insisted that I work out my own training programme, however, and only afterwards did he discuss it with me; advising what was right or wrong. I know that there are coaches who discuss training schedules very carefully with their proteges, so that the athlete understands the rights or wrongs about training, and can see the common sense in the schedules, but there is also the danger that many coaches can be dogmatic about their methods without the young athlete really understanding clearly what they are doing, and why. Meskaes and I worked  on the first approach, but with me planning the basic work.'.
' In 1967 I followed-up my longer work of the winter with more speedwork than I had done before, concentrating my efforts on improving my best performances. This worked out well, and I ended the season with times of 10.9 (100m), 22.1 (200m). about 48.4 (400m), 1:48.0 something (800metres) and one 1500, of 3:46.0 Next year was Olympic year, and I desperately wanted to go to the Olympic Games in Mexico, but I was just not good enough for 800m My last 200 metres in races was always my strong point, but overall my times were not very fast. I had been lucky enough, to race against people such as Arese, Szordykowsky and other over 1500metres, and some of the World's best 800 metres runners sucn as Kiprugut and Matuschewski; so many outstanding athletes come to Finland to compete, especially before the Olympic Games and European Championships, so I was lucky in that respect"
   Did it help Juha, in the longer distance event to know that he had competed with athletes of such great standing at lower distances?
" Yes, it did. But the change came when my coach died in 1968, and I found myself alone again. I thought long and hard about what I should do now, and decided that maybe I should try the longer distances, and I subsequently trained with that in mind, and in 1969 I competed in my  first 10,000m. There is a little story behind that , which you might be interested in (Alastair) :- ' In Finland, the Press, Radio and TV people always show a great interest in athletics,because everybody in the country is interested in it, and so one reads and hears a great deal about athletes who are not just internationals, or world record-breakers. I was so confident in my own ability by now, that although I had not yet run a 10,000m in competition, I felt quite capable of competing in the following week's international match versus Norway, but the Finnish Federation said I could not, and this really made me angry as I knew I was in good shape. I said on TV three days before  the match that I could run below 29 minutes ((our National record was 29:07.0, and Kuha the steeplechase World record-holder held it), and of course many people thought I was crazy since I had not run a 10,000m before. Anyway, on the same day the international  took place in Helsinki, and Risa won the 10,000 in 29:58, I raced in my home town over the same distance, and clocked 28:53 -on my own!'
   ' In 1970 I got my 10,000m team place in the match against France, and did 28:19.0, and three days later won the World Games event in Helsinki, beating guys like Dick Taylor, Sharafetdinov, Andre de Hertoghe and Gaston Roelants. Taylor, ten days earlier, had run a fast 5000m in about 13:26 but in Helsinki we ran a slow early race, with Taylor making his effort with five laps to go. I was waiting the whole time, because I knew he could run faster (my best 5000 was 13:43), but with 300m to go I was able to respond easily to his effort, and after going away from him won the race by a clear six seconds. But now here we are in Helsinki a year later and with 27:52.8!' (How I remember what a smooth runner Juha was with his blond hair and excellent stride pattern, with only Haase matching him towards the last 100m of the Helsinki 10k race)
   He then trained hard for the European where he won his two gold medals ?
"Oh yes, I trained harder than before, and with greater variety, but still nothing but running: long distance work, speed work, tempo-training; it would take me a month to describe it, and then it would only be training to suit myself: very individual t aining. I was not a born runner, you see. I was short, and fat, and had to work out special training, just for me."
       How many times a week did he train
" About fifteen to twenty times a week. Whilst I am teaching in Finland my first session has to be about 6-'o'clock in the morning, and lasts about 70 to 90 minutes. Then I must go to school, and from 8.30  I tech for about  six or seven hours and then go back home and I start my second training run from school; it lasts for about an hour, sometimes more, depending on how I feel, or what type of running I am doing. Then I have a meal, and go out again about 10' o'clock in the evening. Usually this third session lasts about an hour, maybe less. Sometimes I am tired, naturally, but during my holidays I try to vary the sessions as much as possible: morning training and am much fresher, as more often than not I am too tired in the  evening.
He was second in the European ranking list with 28:19.8 before the Games. You did that time in Finland?
" I ran in my home town Oulu. Tuominen was 25 seconds behind me and Viren was third. It was terrible weather, really windy, and raining, and I said I could run half a minute faster"

Alastair Aitken

Back to Reports Index

Back to Archive index