Editor's note: Jim Caple is spending two weeks on Page 2's dime traveling through Europe for a firsthand look at, to name a few, Wimbledon, the running of the bulls in Pamplona, Spain, and how far he can carry his wife.
SONKAJARVI, Finland -- The hardest part of the World Wife Carrying Championship is telling your spouse she needs to drop another 10 pounds.
"I've been here seven days, and I didn't have anything to eat on four of them," Dorothy Kazula of Canada says. "I went to saunas, and our trainer has been instructing me on what to eat and what not to eat. I could just have water and tea the first two days. Then on the third day, I could have hard-boiled eggs."
"She's no featherweight," grumbles her partner, Markus Raty.
If Raty keeps up with those sorts of comments, he'll run his next race as a gelding. But I understand where he's coming from. After all, Raty has to carry Kazula on his back over a 253½-meter course (close to three football fields) that includes a meter-deep, 30-foot-long water hazard, a pit of sawdust and two thigh-high barriers. And he has to do it in less than a minute if he wants to win the world championship.
And you think your wife is always on your back about taking out the garbage.
My Lost in Translation Tour of European sports has brought me to Sonkajarvi, a Finnish farming village of about 4,800 residents roughly six hours north of Helsinki and a little south of the Arctic Circle. In other words, it's not just a long way from my first stop at Wimbledon; it's a long, long way from anywhere.
When you're this far removed from the rest of the world, you invent ways to amuse yourself -- which explains why Sonkajarvi initiated the Wife Carrying Championships in 1992. In fact, wife carrying isn't even the strangest competition in the area. The nearby town of Pielavesi holds an annual Boot Throwing Championship; Lapinlahti hosts the Cattle Calling Championship; and the Rajajoki River is the site of the Fish By Hand Championship.
As one resident explains, "There's not much to do here."
There aren't a lot of rules to wife carrying, which is illustrated by the rather notable fact that the woman you carry doesn't need to be your wife. As it turns out, very few of the couples in the field of 43 are married. This would appear to be a gross violation of the spirit of the sport -- like riding the Tour de France on a motorcycle. But it actually hearkens back to the competition's alleged origins, when a Finnish brigand named Rosvo-Ronkainen and his band would ride into neighboring villages, rob the houses and steal the women. Sounds like the 18th century equivalent of Wal-Mart opening a store in your area, but at least it inspired the current wife-carrying competition.
Besides, an organizer says with a measure of pride, "He always picked the best-looking women."
The weight of the woman being carried must be at least 49 kilos, or roughly 108 pounds. If she doesn't tip the scales that much on her own, she must wear a weighted rucksack that brings her to the minimum level. This is a relatively new rule -- up until a couple of years ago, the only requirement was that the woman be at least 17 years old.
"The first time I won it, my partner weighed only 33 kilos (73 pounds)," world-record holder Margo Uusorg says. "She's now a model."
Basketball scouts for its players on urban playgrounds. Baseball scouts for its players on the sandlots of the Dominican Republic. Wife carriers scout the fashion catwalks and the eating disorder wings of local hospitals. It's the only sport in which it's considered an unfair advantage to have an amputee for a partner.
But while you obviously want a light woman in this sport, the Sonkajarvi organizers have included a powerful incentive for her to weigh above the minimum:
The winning team earns the woman's weight in beer.
Which probably explains the partner choice made by Ireland's Paul Richard. Julia Gavin must go at least 250 pounds.
* * * * *
The Top 10 Possibilities If The World Wife Carrying Teams Had Names Like Racehorses:
And the No. 1 Possibility If The World Wife Carrying Teams Had Names Like Racehorses:
* * * * *
|POSTCARDS FROM EUROPE|
KUOPIO, Finland -- Personally, I've never understood the appeal of a sauna.|
I mean, does anyone ever walk into a sauna and think: "Whoa! Blistering heat at 130 degrees. Now that's what I call refreshing."
And yet, the Finns can't get enough of the thing. Sharing a sweat in a sauna is as much a part of their culture as flipping someone off in rush-hour traffic is part of ours. There are more than a million private and public saunas throughout the country, including the world's largest smokehouse sauna in Kuopio. It has a capacity of 60 people, which is just a few too many fat, naked people sweating and swatting themselves with birch branches for my taste. Besides, the sauna was closed when we stopped for a look on the way to the World Wife Carrying Championships.
Instead, we rented a traditional and private sauna near a lake. We rented it for an hour; but frankly, I was ready to leave after five minutes. The heat wasn't the worst part, though. The worst part was the traditional finish to a sauna in Finland: a jump into a cold lake.
Our guidebook says the ideal temperature for a sauna is 90 degrees Celsius, which would be more than 190 degrees Fahrenheit. Either that's a misprint or the Finns should be the first astronauts when we send a mission to explore the surface of the sun.
The Finns might have invented the sport, but you would definitely go with an Estonian in the first round of your fantasy wife carrying draft. Heading into this year's championship, Estonians had won the past seven championships, with Uusorg and his younger brother, Madis, accounting for four of them. The Uusorgs are the Mannings of wife carrying.
"My older brother is a very good runner, too," Margo warns, "and I hear he wants to run next year."
The Estonians always seem to be several steps ahead of the rest of the world in this sport. While others were slogging about with the traditional piggyback carry, the Estonians revolutionized the sport with their own technique -- the fabled Estonian Carry. What the Fosbury Flop did for the high jump, the slider did for baseball and Brandi Chastain's sports bra did for women's soccer, the Estonian Carry has done for wife carrying.
The Estonian technique provides optimum balance and weight distribution, but it's a tricky position. The woman is held upside-down with the front of her body pressed against the man's back, her arms wrapped around his waist and her legs interlocked in front of his neck. Depending on the relative heights of the two partners, the woman's face is often flush with the man's rear end.
Which is why wife carrying might never hit it big in the U.S. -- the Estonian Carry is illegal in most states south of the Mason-Dixon Line.
Canada's Raty says he and Kazula mistakenly started out with what they now term the Reverse Estonian Carry.
"We knew it involved some sort of backwards upside-down thing going on, but we got it all wrong and I had her upside-down and in front of me," he said. "We were at a competition in northern Ontario, and just before the race, this little Finnish-Canadian guy in his 70s came rushing up and screaming at us that we were doing it all wrong."
Most everyone opts for the Estonian Carry or the traditional piggyback with the exception of the Irish couple. Richard is part of the Irish Strength Association, and he's built like a keg of Guinness. He simply tosses Gavin over his shoulder like Santa Claus with a sack of toys. A very large sack of toys.
The story of how Julia came to be here is a long and convoluted one that involves a Welsh sport called bogsnorkeling (don't ask). The short version: Basically, she found out about wife carrying the same way every athlete discovers the sport of his or her dreams -- she read about it in the newspaper.
"I didn't know whether I would be able to do it because I'm so big," she says. "But I started looking for a man who could carry me. I got a lot of responses. Some men were looking for a date, but I didn't want any of that frilly stuff -- I was just in for the sport. I wound up getting in touch with the Irish Strength Association, and that's how I met Paul."
Although Paul volunteered his services, he isn't above commenting about his share of the burden in the competition.
"She's not light," he complains.
"Be nice," Julia scolds.
"I'm just telling it like it is."
This brings up the twin hazards of wife carrying: 1. Run too hard and you risk throwing out your back; and 2. Finish too slowly and you risk implying your wife is fat. Which is why everyone goes all out in this competition. At least if you're in traction, you don't have to sleep on the couch for a month.
Most of the people here are competing for fun, but it's clear that some have victory predominantly on their mind. John Lund of Boston shaved his legs for the event, while his partner, Julie Berson, consulted a yoga instructor for advice on body positioning. The Canadians are so intense, Raty practiced by carrying their 200-pound trainer around the gym.
And as for the Estonians? Well, while many of us went from a night-before-the-race dinner to a beer garden, they went directly on a training run.
As for me, I haven't even tried picking up my wife since that whole disaster with the hotel room threshold and the bellboy on our wedding night.
Tomorrow could be rough.
WEDNESDAY: She ain't heavy; she's my
Jim Caple is a senior writer at ESPN.com. His first book, "The Devil Wears Pinstripes," is on sale now at bookstores nationwide. It also can be ordered through his Web site, Jimcaple.com.