Kari Sinkkonen’s athletes have won more than 1,000 collective medals, including a 1972 Olympic gold medal in the 1500m. His name is one you’ve likely never heard in running circles, and yet he holds a legendary place among the greatest running coaches of all time.
This past May, with the help of Karhu, he coached the first ever Karhu Finnish Running Camp, and picked up a 2020 Olympic hopeful along the way. Here’s how it all happened.
Karhu is, perhaps, the oldest running brand in the world. CEO Huub Valkenburg still sometimes jokes that it’s, “the most famous brand you’ve never heard of.”
The company, founded in 1916, entered into the world of track spikes in 1920. The well-crafted shoes quickly gained an international following. Over the next 10 years, Olympians looped the track in Karhu spikes, taking home PRs and gold medals.
In the 1950s, Karhu sold their three-stripe logo to a little German company named adidas. Then in the 1970s, Karhu invented air cushion technology, and later, in the 1980s, their fulcrum forward-propulsion system. But, despite being an innovative brand, when other shoe companies outsourced their production to Asia, Karhu stayed in Finland. That nearly fatal decision kept costs higher and production slower than their competition. Long story short: they couldn’t keep up.
Today, all that’s changing.
For one, the company teamed up with Fleet Feet to create new shoes based off of millions of 3D foot scans. And lately, they’ve been digging into their past to share the company’s 100-year legacy and forge a path into the future. And it all started with the inaugural Karhu Finnish Running Camp that took place this past spring.
It’s late May, and six runners are cooling down around the track near Sinkkonen’s home in the remote area of Kangasniemi, Finland. Three Americans and three Finns. The weather here is often unpredictable and cold. But late May offers the perfect training ground for a distance running camp.
“It was ‘Finnish Summer’ weather,” says Jordan Kinley, global brand manager of performance running at Karhu. “So, like 50s and overcast most days.”
In other words, perfect running weather.
Kinley is here cooling down. Along with Christian Thompson and Zach Barker, both Fleet Feet store managers from Chattanooga, Tennessee, and West Reading, Pennsylvania, respectively.
Thanks to Karhu, they’ve come to Finland to learn from Sinkkonen. For Karhu, the chance to host a running camp here was an ideal stage for sharing their roots and uncovering the “Finnish running secrets.” They had four days to soak in as much knowledge as they possibly could.
“The purpose was to learn the Finnish Running Secrets,” says Kinley. “There is a book by that name, and it details the highs (and lows) of the Flying Finns. Of course, there are no secrets other than hard work and consistency, but Kari Sinkkonen is a wealth of knowledge.”
Sinkkonen also trained the Chairman of Karhu, Franco Arese. And, says Kinley, “They share a special bond 40-plus years later. To not learn or share the story of Sinkkonen would be a shame.”
But Sinkkonen wasn’t all that keen on the camp at first. He and his wife Raia were hesitant about letting the group into their home every afternoon—much less a camera crew. But, their hesitations didn’t last, and they welcomed everyone into their home day after day for the duration of the camp.
One morning after finishing a hard track workout of 6 x 1K reps, Kinley, Thompson and Barker were standing off to the side watching the other athletes finish their laps when Raia came over to them, big smile beaming. “You have no idea how happy you made an old coach,” she said, referring to Sinkkonen. She said these days he only coaches a youth group once per week. And he's happiest when he comes home that day. So the extra athletes and training sessions meant that much more.
Kinley also says they were selective when choosing participants for this inaugural camp. They picked runners who they felt would be game to work hard. They also wanted runners with “bold goals for the future.”
“Zach is training to qualify for the Olympic Trials and Christian has already done so,” says Kinley. “I knew both of these guys prior to the trip and believed they would be up to the experience. I was delighted when both accepted and knew we were bringing two fast, humble and dedicated runners to the camp.”
For Sinkkonen, coaching runners is more than a passion. And helping competitive athletes reach their potential is more like a calling. He saw potential in Thompson, and he reached out.
“I think Sinkkonen saw a committed athlete with a big goal race ahead,” says Kinley. “I think a passionate coach like Sinkkonen recognized this and offered his expertise. It’s in his DNA to help athletes, and I think he just wanted to help if Christian was interested.”
And he was.
For Thompson, who’s training to hopefully make the 2020 US Olympic team, training with Sinkkonen is a dream come true. And hopefully the thing that helps take him to the next level (stay tuned; Karhu will have a follow up video about this mid-fall).
"Qualifying for the Olympic Trials has always been a life long dream of mine," says Thompson. "I felt like for me personally it was the pinnacle of marathon racing. I get to compete against the very best in the country, and when I watch the Olympics I will be able to say I raced against those Americans. That drove me because I really just wanted to see how far I could go."
In addition to new PRs and next-level athletic success, the camp—and future events like the camp—are integral to who Karhu is as a brand.
“It's important because Karhu is more than a producer of comfortable running shoes or stylish sneakers,” says Kinley. “We have a long history with the sport and like to celebrate it through stories connecting our past with the present.”
They’re also hoping to bring more athletes to Kangasniemi in the future. But, in true Karhu spirit, it won’t be a trip for the faint of heart. The area is remote, the weather is fast-changing and winter is long and grueling.
By Ashley Arnold. Ashley has been running competitively since 2000. She went from winning the high school 300m hurdle state championship as a sophomore in 2002 to breaking the tape at the Leadville Trail 100 in 2013. Now, her full time role is managing content as the Senior Content Marketing Manger at Fleet Feet.