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Veikko Karvonen, 81; won Boston Marathon in 1954

Veikko Karvonen of Finland and Jim Peters of England during the 1954 Boston Marathon. Mr. Karvonen won the race. Veikko Karvonen of Finland and Jim Peters of England during the 1954 Boston Marathon. Mr. Karvonen won the race. (Boston Athletic Assocation/file)

NEW YORK -- Veikko Karvonen, a Finnish postal clerk who became one of the world's best marathon runners in the 1950s, died Aug. 1 in Turku, Finland. He was 81.

His son Tapio confirmed the death, but did not specify a cause. Mr. Karvonen had been ill for the last year.

Mr. Karvonen made his international marathon debut in 1950, finishing third in the European championship. He won the European title in 1954 and the historic Fukuoka Marathon in Japan in 1955, plus the bronze medal in the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne. In all, he ran 34 marathons and won 14.

In a decade when Finnish runners dominated the Boston Marathon, Mr. Karvonen finished second in 1953, first in 1954, and second in 1957.

In the 1953 race, he placed behind Keizo Yamada, a 108-pound Japanese runner who made Mr. Karvonen, at 128 pounds, look muscular.

In 1954 in Boston, on a day uncomfortably warm for marathoners, Jim Peters of England led until the foot of Heartbreak Hill in the second half of the race.

Mr. Karvonen overtook him there and beat him by two minutes, in a final time of 2 hours 20 minutes 39 seconds. That was a measure of revenge, because the previous fall, in Turku, Peters beat him by seven minutes and set an unofficial world record of 2:18:34.5.

The Associated Press wrote from Boston, "Peters ran with his head and shoulders bobbing from side to side as if he were exhausted from the start. But until the climb up Heartbreak Hill, his style was as effective as the plodding, unbroken pace of Karvonen."

In the 1957 race in Boston, John J. Kelley, a young American, beat Mr. Karvonen by almost four minutes. The New York Times reported that midway through the race, Mr. Karvonen was clutching his side and seemed to have a stitch.

Veikko Leo Karvonen was born Jan. 5, 1926, in Sakkola, a Finnish city later annexed by the Soviet Union. Track and Field News, the American monthly, named him the number one marathoner in the world in 1951, 1954, and 1955.

After Mr. Karvonen had retired as a runner, he served as Finland's national marathon coach from 1961 to 1964. He was a national idol, and in 2002 the Finnish Ministry of Education presented him with the Pro Athletics medal, the nation's top athletic honor.

For all his success, Karvonen was not in love with the marathon. He once called it "a terrible experience -- monotonous, heavy, and exhausting."

In addition to his son Tapio, Mr. Karvonen leaves his wife, Liisa, and another son, Pekka.