Since the 1970s, solitary waves have commonly been used to model tsunamis especially in experimental and mathematical studies. Unfortunately, the link to geophysical scales is not well established, and in this work we question the geophysical relevance of this paradigm. In part 1, we simulate the evolution of initial rectangular shaped humps of water propagating large distances over a constant depth. The objective is to clarify under which circumstances the front of the wave can develop into an undular bore with a leading soliton. In this connection we discuss and test various measures for the threshold distance necessary for nonlinear and dispersive effects to manifest in a transient wave train. In part 2, we simulate the shoaling of long smooth transient and periodic waves on a mild slope and conclude that these waves are effectively non-dispersive. In this connection we discuss the relevance of finite amplitude solitary wave theory in laboratory studies of tsunamis. We conclude that order-of-magnitude errors in effective temporal and spatial duration occur when this theory is used as an approximation for long waves on a sloping bottom. In part 3, we investigate the phenomenon of disintegration of long waves into shorter waves, which has been observed e.g. in connection with the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004. This happens if the front of the tsunami becomes sufficently steep, and as a result the front turns into an undular bore. We discuss the importance of these very short waves in connection with breaking and runup, and conclude that they do not justify a solitary wave model for the bulk tsunami.