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World Sauna Championships
OK, kids, today's activity is to go down to your local Pizza Hut, have them set the oven for 261 degrees, and insert your entire body into it. The tips of your ears start to ignite. The backs of your arms scream. Your throat feels like somebody stuck a tiki torch down it. Your lips are bitten by large, unseen raccoons. You vow to move to Alaska. And you haven't even hit thirty seconds.
Now do it for ten minutes or more and you have an idea of what it's like to compete in quite possibly the world's dumbest sport-the World Sauna Championships.
I know. I entered.
These are the 9th Annual World Sauna Championships in Heinola, Finland, a Heidi-esque little lake-riddled town 140 kilometers north of Helsinki. I've covered a lot of thrilling athletic endeavors, but never men sitting in small rooms and sweating. What other championships does the world have? Napping? Barcalounging? Standing in Front of the Fridge?
Announcer: And now Struhdler leans in for the leftover tuna-nope! No! He switches to the fudge!
As we drove up, my mind reeled at what kind of things competitors in the World Sauna Championships say to sportswriters afterward in the locker room. "I just got hot. What can I say?"
I went over the rules. Simple. Competing in "six-person heats"-said without irony-the field of eighty-four men (including me) and eighteen women battle to see whose skin can boil last. You may wear only bathing suits that go eight inches down the leg and absolutely nothing else. (Women can wear one-piece bathing suits.) You can wipe sweat from your face, but not your body. You cannot cover your ears. You may not lean over too far. You get one warning, then you're out. Ambulances will be standing by. Good luck!
I wondered if sauna sitting has trash-talking like other sports. For instance, what if I came into my heat on the first day with a lit Winston and a cup of coffee? Maybe look at the other five guys and go, "Hey, when are they gonna turn this bitch on?" Start knocking on the window and yelling, "Let's get some heat in here! You want us to catch our deaths?" Maybe look at the crotch of the guy next to me and go, "That's weird. I thought COLD caused shrinkage." Or maybe wait outside the sauna while six other guys are about to go in and hand them a half-baked ziti. "Hey, would you mind taking this in there? I've got a potluck in, like, twenty minutes."
In her research, TLC discovered that there was an Australian gambling site that has set the odds. Three-time defending champ Timmo (the Great) Kaukonen is a 2.15-to-1 favorite. I was listed at 101-to-1.
First of all, nobody but a Finn has ever won the World Sauna Championships. In fact, nobody but a Finn has ever been in the six- man finals. There are 5.2 million Finns and 3 million saunas. Legend has it most Finns are born in saunas. To a Finn, a sauna is a holy place. Then again, so is Hell.
Secondly, I wouldn't bet on me at 1,000,001 to one. At that point, I had saunaed five times in my life. I had about as much chance as a slice of Neopolitan ice cream. But the gambling site makes me realize how easy it would be for Timmo the Great to tank. All he'd have to do is bet on his chief rival (a young guy named Markku with a Charlie Chan fu), get down to the final two and then immediately bolt, so that Markku the Fu would win. He'd just have to make it look real. You'd hate to have the official go, "Uh, Timmo, do you mind waiting until we turn the sauna on first?"
By the time we arrived, Heinola was in full steam. This is a national event, televised no less, and the bars were already bubbling with insaunity. In one sidewalk bar about six guys, smashed already, with white-and-green painted faces and Viking horns, carried satchels full of reindeer powderhorn (To help your horn stay stiff! the sign on the pouch says. Don't leave in mouth too long.) and had bows of birch tied to their belts. Finns take them into the sauna and slap themselves on the back to increase circulation.
"We cheer for Redneck and Ironback," one face-painter named Samu yelled lustily. "One will be champion!" Saunists have nicknames? Who knew? What would my sauna nickname be? Babyback?
Samu was amazingly plastered for 11 a.m. "You are going in?" he slobbered at me, flabbergasted. "Look, I am Finnish and even I won't go in there!" Then he began hanging all over TLC, asking her what she does. "I'm a teacher," she said. He's right up in her face, two inches from it, wilting her eyelashes with his Finlandia breath, and said, "I'm a drunk."
At the registration table, they asked me to remove my shirt and then scrawl "82" on each of my biceps in Magic Marker, my competitor's number. I found out I was in a heat with the Tiger Woods of saunists, three-time champ Timmo the Great, the favorite. And that's when-as if on cue-his giant sauna-company-sponsored mobile home, complete with a sauna inside it, pulled up. The man even travels in a sauna.
Honey, I'm going down to the 7-Eleven for some milk and a shvitz. You want anything?
Timmo the Great waded through some autograph seekers (no joke) and arrived at the registration table carrying a quart of water. His skin is a kind of permanent cherry, and shiny hard, like a newly painted model car. He has long blond hair (turns out it protects the ears) and he's stout, stocky, maybe slightly pudgy. He is thin-lipped (also a very good trait for a saunist-Angelina Jolie would be awful at this). Timmo's pulse gets up to 200 bpm when he competes and he actually does train aerobically for this, riding the bike a lot and running. Have absolutely no idea why. He is also very quiet. You don't want to be a person who needs a lot of movement. You have to be happy to be just sitting, especially while your very organs boil inside you.
In short, he's the world's most famous saunist. He probably has his own signature-model back-birch-bow swatter.
With the help of an interpreter, I interviewed him.
Me: How much time have you been spending in the sauna lately?
Timmo the Great: Off and on, all day and night, about twenty sessions a day.
Me: Oh, my God! At what temperature?
Timmo the Great: Lately, it's been at about 140°C [or 284°F].
Me: Oh, good Christ! Do you drink a lot of water coming into the competition or what?
Timmo the Great: Oh, yes, about ten liters a day [2.6 gallons] the last three days. (He smiles at my reaction.) You, too, I'm sure, yes?
Me: Do you count beer?
Timmo the Great: No.
I was so screwed.
Because I was one of the first Americans to ever have entered the WSC, I did some very small interviews myself. There were all kinds of TV crews here-Ukraine, Germany, Sweden, and Russia. Variously, I pretended that I thought the competitors were running the sauna, or that it was a hot-tub competition, or that I had been training for this by eating jalapeños. I had brought along my six-eight shock- white-haired basketball buddy from Wisconsin, Bill "Thor" Pearson, who chimed in helpfully every now and then as though he was my publicist. "Rick does not have access to a sauna," Thor confided to one reporter. "So he's just been doing really, really long stretches at room temperature."
They nodded earnestly.
There were all kinds of odd entrants. A Japanese teen idol singer was here, name of Kazumi Morohoshi, and he was followed everywhere by his manager, his agent, his coach, some fans, and a Japanese TV crew. His odds were a ridiculous 13-to-1. I would have bet my last saunamobile against him. He was skinny and pale and much too pretty to suffer like my man Timmo.
The only other American entered was software designer Rick Ellis, formerly of the Soviet Union, who was so into this that he'd built his own sauna at his home in upstate New York. "I even considered putting $2,000 down on myself, but I couldn't figure out how." He said he's been training at 110°C (230°F) and had made it sixteen minutes once. His wife looked at him ruefully and shook her head. He turned to her, exasperated, "What?"
Suddenly, it was time for the heats to begin, and over 500 sauna fans took their places in the open-air theater. On stage were two hexagonal glass-faced saunas and two giant viewing screens. The gladiators for the opening heat were trotted out, all soaking wet from their freezing pre-heat showers. Ominously, a little man opened the door to the sauna and the six marched ruefully in, like drumsticks into a fryer. The fans chanted wildly. Sauna cheers? The mind reels:
We love Boris!
Here in the stands!
He'll never sweat!
He has no glands!
How bored must you be to watch people sweat? Actually, you'd be amazed at how fun it is to watch a grown man come apart like a $9 Walgreens sweater. How often do you get to see a man go from normal to nuttier than Ross Perot in less than ten minutes? We watched a Bellarussian, for instance, dissolve for our amusement. He started out sane, just sitting there, minding his own business. Every thirty seconds, a pitiless stream of water came out from a ceiling shower in the center of the sauna and splashed on the molten-hot rocks, creating a 100-percent humidity in the room that would melt gold. About two minutes in, our man started rocking a little. At three his eyes started blinking oddly. At four he began twitching. At five his eyes got huge. At six he started swallowing each breath like a gulp of scorching soup. Then he started glancing wildly around the sauna, as if to say to the others, "Are you mad? Don't you see what's happening? They've locked us in a Crock-Pot!" He started madly wiping his eyes and mouth. He reached his hands out to his thighs to rub them, then realized he can't, then did so anyway, crazily, wildly, like he was covered in lice. The judges flagged him once, then twice, and yet he would not stop rubbing. Then suddenly he lurched for the door and he was out and sanity and cool air whooshed back into his brain and suddenly he was normal and smiling again.
Kind of like watching Tom Cruise be interviewed.
One guy got in, sat down, and immediately bolted before they closed the doors. He grabbed the handheld mike and yelled, "Somebody farted in there!" Turned out to be a German TV comic. Backstage, a Dutchman held two bags of ice to his ears, thinking it might help. It didn't. He lost. I heard one guy coming out tell another who was going in: "Every second after six minutes is sheer hell." One German said his temporary fillings were rattling in his mouth the whole time. Not the kind of thing our hero wanted to hear before his turn.
In each opening heat, only two of the six move on, and our friend Rick Ellis from New York went 8:03 to advance. I was waiting to congratulate him when I noticed something awful. There were two big patches of skin missing on his upper lip, just under his nostrils.
"Dude, were you by any chance breathing through your nose in there?"
"Yeah, why?" he says.
"Your skin is all gone under your nose! It's burnt off!"
He felt his upper lip in horror. He ran to the mirror. It was worse. The tops of his ears were split open and bubbling. Under his arms and on his back were bright purple patches. His forehead was painted bright red and blistering in front of his eyes. I took him to the beer garden to try to cool him off, but nothing helped. He was sweating like Pam Anderson at Bible study. "Man, I'm burning up. Even my tongue is burnt." His wife begged him to quit, but he refused. Said he trained too hard. She shook her head.
"What?" he asked.
And that's when they called my heat backstage.
On the way back there, I saw the great Finn saunist Leo Pusa, four- time champ, a stone-faced Greyhound bus of a man. I asked him for some quick words of wisdom before I went in, some secret he used to win all those titles. "I sat longer than the others," he said.
Let me write that down.
I vowed to do whatever Timmo the Great did. He took a drink. I took a drink. He stretched his neck. I stretched my neck. Three times, he took a freezing-cold shower backstage, so three times I took one, so that by the time I got introduced, I was shivering like a newly shaved Chihuahua. As they were reading us the rules, each competitor's fans were waving their nation's flag and chanting encouragement. Then I saw TLC in the crowd, mouthing, "Don't do it!" She'd said it before I left, too. "You know you can't win, so why not get out first? You're going to lose anyway!" She was right, of course. I mean, why try to out-eat Kirstie Alley?
I drew seat No. 6 near the door. Timmo the Great is No. 2. We went in and it was so instantly, shockingly, insanely hot, my brain just stopped working. It was like walking into a bonfire and pulling up a chair in the middle of it. It was like putting your face over the white coals of your barbecue and shutting the hood. It was so hot that if I owned this sauna and Hell, I'd live in Hell and rent this place out.
My strategy was to go in and keep time by the thirty-second water splashes, but that plan was scrapped approximately seven seconds in. It was just so goddamn hot I couldn't think. Thinking literally hurt. I tried to stare at the rocks and not blink, because blinking hurt. I tried to take very few breaths, because breathing hurt. Leo Pusa had shown me how to sit, slightly hunched, with your hands under their opposite arms, each of them protecting the fragile skin at the small of your back. But I was cursing Leo Pusa because it didn't help. Sitting hurt most of all.
My back seemed to have ignited. I was sure flames were coming out with each breath. I was convinced my ears were literally on fire, but if I moved even slightly, they would hurt more. I tried sitting up higher, but it was hotter the higher you went. I tried crouching down more, but then I was nearer the hideous, unforgiving rocks. It was so awful I could only wish Barry Bonds were in here. And then came the hideous, cruel, pitiless splashes of water, lasting maybe three seconds each. I did not count them. I looked at nobody. I heard nobody. I saw nobody, just the red rocks, glowing, laughing, mocking. I would sooner have my kidney removed at Jiffy Lube than this.