One of the stranger sports events of the season, the European Sauna Marathon in Otepää is a parade of extremes, in terms of physical challenges as as much as fashion. Don't believe us? Try running through South Estonia's wintery landscape in a dressing gown and flipflops after dipping in an ice hole and warming up again at 90 degrees.
The corridor is crammed with people. We push our way through the crowd towards the main hall of the Kääriku Sports Center, where we hope to find the marathon’s organizers. About half way down, the participants in Otepää’s 2017 sauna marathon can all get a cup of pea soup, an arrangement that isn’t making our passage any safer.
Someone lets their friend Raivo know at the top of their screechy voice that they’ve finally scored some soup, and that moving back outside for a cigarette is the next thing to do. As a sauna athlete in surgeon’s scrubs knocks a nurse’s bonnet out of her hair, a rather tired-looking gentleman in a flowered dressing gown makes the quickest progress yet through the queue by way of a decidedly top-heavy stumble that is either pure genius or barely contained disaster.
Down the corridor, the thumping of a late 90s techno hit provides the backdrop to what sounds like a passable singer with a lot of very enthusiastic help.
It is minutes past the marathon’s cut-off time, and all of the competition’s 198 teams are returning to base. They are handing in their score sheets with the sauna owners’ stamps and lining up for soup, while right next door the judges are adding up the number of saunas they visited.
The day’s dammed-up euphoria, the pounding of bruised shins and tailbones, and copious amounts of various refreshments make for a scene lost somewhere between a spa resort, a high school party, and a village fair. All of this is set in a legendary winter sports center that dates back to Soviet times visually as much as historically. The marathon started here five and a half hours ago.
“Ice hole first!”
Outside the sports centre, a hazardous icy slope drops down towards the first sauna. The organisers have decided that this makes an ideal starting point for a day of mayhem and are sending the competitors down in batches, while the rest wait nervously at the top in sub-zero temperatures and little more than dressing gowns.
The organisers have made sure that everyone signed waivers immediately beforehand, clarifying that any injuries are our own fault. From our good vantage point over the frozen landscape below, we can’t seem to spot any first aid professionals. Some competitors are dressed as nurses, but it seems unlikely they have any medical training.
When the whistle blows for our turn, it dawns on us while slipping down the slope in trainers just how woefully unprepared we are for the race ahead. Less than a minute in, and before reaching the first sauna, Adam Rang realises his GoPro camera is missing. We frantically retrace his steps and spot it back at the bottom of the slope.
Our producer, eyes on the precious piece of equipment, watches on in horror as the whistle blows for another round of antarctic freaks to come stampeding down towards it. Once the coast is clear, he dives for the little camera and gets it back before the next group comes down.
The first sauna is a wooden hut at the edge of a frozen lake with a walkway leading out to the ice hole. By this point, the cold is already painful, so we can think of nothing more appealing than getting inside that sauna straight away. But the sauna owner has a different idea.
“Ice hole first!”, he shouts at us.
The surface of the lake is frozen solid with the exception of a neatly cut rectangular swimming pool, which can be reached by ladder at the end of a walkway. It might be an unusually warm 0 degrees considering it’s the first weekend in February, but that’s no consolation as we reluctantly walk the plank towards our fate.
The most commonly repeated advice among competitors is to jump straight in, but standing at the edge of the ice gives you a very different perspective. We choose to prolong the pain instead and take one step down at a time as our bodies are slowly overwhelmed by the cold. Finally, the steps disappear and the only option left is to let go and fall beneath the surface, which is a feeling best compared to being stabbed by a thousand tiny needles.
After emerging, the feeling is euphoria mixed with disorientation as we stumble towards the sauna in a desperate attempt to find heat.
It could have been 100 degrees inside, but the three minutes we have to spend there isn’t long enough for any warmth to return to our bodies.
We run back outside to continue with the race, but the next challenge is just putting our shoes back on when there’s no feeling in our hands and feet. Before the race, we naively discussed how we would handle the intense heat during the competition, but we now realise today is going to be a very cold day instead.
Maids, Jägermeister, and Mexicans on icy roads
The next sauna we reach is a temporary structure made of plastic at the end of a country lane. It’s neither a luxurious nor a traditional sauna experience, but the owners are determined to make it the most fun. They’ve set up a karaoke tent next to the ice hole and are pouring shots of Jägermeister to get people in the mood. A group of girls dressed as French maids emerge from the sauna and head straight to the muddy dance floor to sing a distinctly Estonian version of In the Navy by the Village people with the words replaced by sauna references.
The rousing rendition lures a group of men out of the sauna who run over to form an impromptu group of backing dancers for them. It’s a scene that could be taking place in a bar late at night in Tallinn’s old town, but we’re half naked in the middle of an icy field and it’s only early afternoon.
There are 21 saunas on the course, but we’ve already spent a large portion of the time visiting just two so we jump back in the car and zoom off down the icy road towards the next one on our long list. There are a number of ways in which this ‘marathon’ is unlike any other, and the ability to drive is one of them.
There’s around 100 km between all the saunas after all, and that’s only if the participants take direct routes. In reality, a lot of time is spent driving in circles around remote icy roads while studying the faded black and white map and trying to figure out where the next sauna could be.
A team of Mexican expats came within 10 cm of crashing into a tree, but were less fortunate later when they slid their car into a bush. “After that we almost ran out of gas in the middle of nowhere” adds Carlos Ivan Vargas of the Los Mexas team. “But it was a very nice experience. Everyone we met was very friendly, helpful and amazed that we were a full Mexican team competing in Estonia.”
A lottery and a plate of sausages waiting
There may be prizes for the teams that come first, second and third, but they are not actually awarded to the teams who cross the line in that order. The Mexican team completed the full course in their allocated time and were awarded a plate of sausages, although for reasons they are still not entirely able to explain.
The slightly arbitrary nature of the prizes is to ensure the event does not become a road race between competitors who should understand that the real prize is to try as many saunas as possible in a single day, while the actual competition is taking place among the sauna owners, as each team must choose their favourite sauna at the end of the day.
As we move on to more saunas, we notice that some have wooden signs above their entrances proudly displaying their victories in previous sauna marathons. Some owners will stop at nothing to win this coveted marketing prize with tactics ranging from live entertainment to a tiny amount of bribery, which is often delivered in the form of garlic bread, meat and shots of alcohol.
One of the most heavily decorated with awards is a smoke sauna at Sokka Puhkekeskus, which boasts that it’s been both the hottest sauna and the contestants’ favourite sauna in recent years.
We’re greeted outside with freshly smoked meat from the sauna and then step inside to be serenaded by an accordion duo as we remove our shoes.
The sauna door opens and an enthusiastic sauna master greets each new arrival and proudly explains why his sauna is the best. “Remember,” he says as anyone tries to leave. “Sokka is the name of this sauna”. Three minutes later, Justin Petrone steps back outside the sauna with black soot on his face and the appearance of a coal miner.
The rules state that competitors are not allowed to be drunk inside the saunas, although many do become increasingly merry as the day progresses, which is not usually the trend at sport races. Like the competitors, some of the saunas are slightly worse for wear too by the time darkness descends.
We head to our final sauna and are pleased to see it has a hot tub outside, although slightly less pleased when we peer inside it at the murky brown water. Shivering from the cold, we choose to believe it’s just a bit of mud and get in.
A girl in a purple swimsuit and blonde wig arrives straight after us and quickly jumps into the ice hole before reemerging slightly disorientated to lead her team past us into the sauna. Her team members then discover why it’s unwise to follow someone still in a state of shock from icy water: they run after her into the sauna house, continue straight ran past the actual door leading to the sauna and then push past other competitors to reach the door at the back of the building, which they pile through. It leads them straight back outside into the cold.
One of the stranger events of the season
Now the soup is distributed, there is slow but determined movement back towards the contestants’ cars. It is quickly getting darker now, and at the foot of the hill trunk lights dimly illuminate yet another unusual scene: dozens of people frantically changing out of their funny bathrobes and dressing gowns into warmer clothing.
After a quick live broadcast to the Facebook audience of ERR we do the same, although it will take another hour of driving in our overheated car for our frozen toes and fingers to warm up. A quick round of questions in the car produces the day’s verdict: one of the strangest things we’ve seen, but good fun.
Adam Rang and Justin Petrone, dragged along as the team’s foremost expatriates, both express their fondness of the area. The Swiss team member is happy about South Estonia’s hills, and Sokka’s smoke sauna unanimously gets very good reviews. We’re determined to go back and spend some more (and perhaps quieter) time there relaxing.
Perhaps we’re biased, as we’ve had plenty of time to take in the competition’s surroundings as well, and got a chance to talk to the local hosts also. But as far as we are concerned, the European Sauna Marathon meets its two apparent objectives: the contestants have fun, and won’t forget South Estonia too soon either.
Editor: Editor: Dario Cavegn