Honk 4 Boston

Can’t stop sisu

The radius of the Boston Marathon bomb was 15 feet, but the effects of that day reached much further.

They can be traced all the way to a small town on the outskirts of Toronto called Richmond Hill, where a teacher got an idea.

“The bombing really hit home for me and it was truly shocking what happened,” said Petja Taivassalo, the head of physical education at Langstaff Secondary School. “It just felt right to do something for Boston. I remember sitting upstairs with a colleague of mine, and thinking that I really want to do something.”

Petja, a competitive runner at age 39, decided to run from his home in Newmarket to the small Richmond Hill high school with the words “HONK 4 BOSTON” written across his back.

“Hearing people’s responses gave me the feeling like I had really hit a chord,” Petja said. “It was just something to do that felt right, and every honk on the way was reassurance of that. And then students were coming up to me all through the day after they had heard what I did and congratulating me. It was truly a great feeling.”

Local news outlets would pick up the story and he would gain publicity for his selfless action, but the Taivassalo family was setting sights on a greater goal.

They wanted to run in Boston.

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Keijo Taivassalo
Keijo Taivassalo showing off his medal at a 2011 marathon. (Courtesy Petja Taivassalo)

Petja’s father, Keijo Taivassalo, had been a competitive runner since he was a child, but he’d never ran the Boston Marathon.

“To be honest, [running Boston] was always on my bucket list,” said Keijo, a 75-year-old Finnish Canadian. “I wanted to support Boston after seeing what they went through last year.”

Father and son began training, side by side.

Boston’s only entrance requirement for his age group is to run a sanctioned qualifying marathon in under four hours and 40 minutes.

Incredibly, Keijo crossed the finish line in under four hours. His dreams of running in Boston were about to come true.

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Father and son began training harder, running mile after mile as a team, with the sole goal of Boston in their minds.

“Three weeks before Boston, I was training and I was running pretty fast but then I felt a grab in my hamstring,” said Keijo. “I started training for the race in January and I was running so many miles that I think I overexerted myself.”

The official diagnosis was a pulled hamstring.

The whole family had planned to go to Boston, but with such a limited amount of recovery time, it was uncertain whether Keijo would be able to run.

“I was in therapy for the three weeks leading up to the race,” said Keijo. “After the injury I didn’t expect too much, my goal was to just finish the race. But it turned out that my confidence came back and I kept going and I became more and more confident.”

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Finnish people have a word for Boston Strong, it’s called Sisu.

Sisu roughly translates to grit and determination. It’s a word that Keijo seems to have embodied during the rigorous rehabbing assignments he underwent to get ready for the race.

The family would turn the word into a mantra, even making shirts with the words “can’t stop sisu” across the chest.

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The day of the race Keijo was at the starting line, feeling right at home with the thousands of elite long distance runners around him.

And as the gun sounded and the race started, Keijo was holding his own.

“We never talked to [Keijo] about it but the first thing we did when we found out he had qualified for the marathon was look at where he stacked up against the other runners,” Petja said. “We didn’t tell him because I knew he would put enough pressure on himself, but we always knew he had a shot.”

The Taivassalo family split up during the race to root on Keijo from several checkpoints, texting each other updates on how he was doing.

Tanja, Petja’s sister, was stationed at the top of Heartbreak Hill – a key point in the race – and sent a text to Petja simply saying “he looks great.”

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Keijo crossed the finish line in a time of 3:39:08, a pace he had never reached in his training. It was truly the run of his life.

However, because the race is run in waves, the family had no idea where his time would stack up.

“We didn’t know his final time,” Petja said. “I had a U.S. data plan and it was really close to running out of data. We walked back to the hotel and I was getting in an elevator and I got a text saying he had won his age group.

“I looked down at my phone, and I was like ‘you got to be kidding me’, then my whole family came back with my dad and we saw him in the lobby and was like ‘you son of a gun, you did it’. He just had a sarcastic little smile like ‘I guess I ran a good race’.”

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“It comes back to sisu,” Petja said. “Our family was raised on determination, my dad growing up during the two world wars in Finland and was able to persevere. Finnish people are very strong that way, and to bring it over to Canada is very special.”

Keijo’s resiliency and determination have breed a new generation of Taivassalo runners, as Petja’s two children have gotten into the family business.

Braden Taivassalo, a fresh-faced 10-year-old seems to be setting his sights higher than his grandfather, simply saying “just wait, you’ll see me in the Olympics one day!”

There really is no stopping sisu.