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1,000 to brave Baltic winter in clothes-optional marathon

Though competing bare-bummed is an option, participants often go for flashy costumes. At the 2015 Otepää Sauna Marathon
Though competing bare-bummed is an option, participants often go for flashy costumes. At the 2015 Otepää Sauna Marathon Source: (Postimees/Scanpix)

The great thing about being in Estonia is that you have a good chance of becoming the national champion in almost any sport. More than 97 percent of people on this planet belong to countries with larger populations, after all. However, if the sport is kiiking, wife carrying, or saunas, then it’s fairly likely that an Estonian is actually the world champion too.

On that note, the Southern Estonian town of Otepää is hosting the European Sauna Marathon 2017 on Feb. 4. In fact, Otepää hosts the European Sauna Marathon every year because Estonia is still one of just two countries in Europe (and the world) that consider this to be some kind of sport. The other is Finland.

Up to 1,000 participants are expected to strip off at what is usually the coldest time of year and race between 27 saunas, as well as ice holes, hot tubs, and a few surprises along the way. If that’s not bad enough for them, this year ERR will be there to film it.

Expect extremes: This marathon is not for the weak

Average temperatures in Otepää at the start of February are around -7°C, although it is not uncommon for the temperature to drop even lower.

“A couple of years ago we had -20°C during the event,” recalls event organiser Sirje Ginter. “I remember one sauna owner was cutting the icehole on his pond all night because it kept freezing up. There were huge ice blocks in the morning.”

Considering that some saunas can be heated to more than 100°C, that’s a 120°C temperature difference. Nothing for the weak. 

There are a wide range of saunas on the course, including a smoke sauna, an igloo sauna, an Indian sauna, a vehicle sauna, a sauna tent, and an inflatable sauna.

“Of course there are always urban people who have never seen the smoke sauna,” adds Ginter.

At the start of the race, each team is given a sauna map to navigate the course, and a sauna card that gets marked at each location they visit.

All team members have to spend at least three minutes in each sauna or incur a 30-minute penalty for any saunas not visited. They can also reduce their time by ten minutes every time all team members jump in a hot tub, and when at least one team member jumps in an ice hole.

There have been a range of colourful costumes over the years, which are often more commonly worn by British stag and hen parties in Tallinn’s old town, including Borat, doctors, angels, brides, Vikings, Spartans, and Soviet military officers. Most participants opt for sauna hats, dressing gowns, and swimming costumes, although the bravest participants do not require any clothes when running between the saunas and their ice hole.

Bring a towel... and a car

Stopping to take saunas isn’t the only thing that makes this marathon slightly unconventional. In fact, the word “marathon” is used very loosely.

For a start, you’ll need a car. The total distance is around 100 km (assuming you don’t get lost), as some saunas are in the neighbouring municipalities of Valgjärve, Sangaste, Palupera, and Urvaste. Previous participants have used everything from Hummers to old Soviet ambulances to get around, although it’s probably best not to use a vehicle with nice leather seats.

“Last year I saw a local guy in the ditch with his car and he couldn’t get out,” explains Ginter. “There were participants in a Hummer who just popped out of the car half naked, took the rope, and pulled this car out. I don’t know what the local guy must have thought about it.”

In addition, the winners are not necessarily the first participants across the line, as the organisers are keen to ensure all traffic laws are obeyed. Participants are gently reminded that the police will be there to make sure the event runs smoothly. Instead, the top three prizes will be randomly allocated among the first 30 teams.

Another key difference with this marathon is that there are no tests for performance enhancing drugs. Instead, competitors are warned not to take one particular performance deteriorating drug, alcohol. Also, participants are not allowed to keep any alcoholic drinks in the car—participants can be checked by the police. Instead, there will be an after party at Otepää’s Kääriku Sports Center for that.

Last year’s competition: 192 teams, including ambassadors

The format of the competition has not changed much since the first event organised by local businesspeople in 2011, although there were only 60 participants then and the number has increased every year since. The event is now cohosted by the Otepää Culture Centre, the Otepää Rural Municipality, and the sauna owners themselves.

There were a record 192 teams competing last year, of which 181 were from Estonia. The international participants have included visitors from Latvia and Russia, as well as students, embassy staff, and even ambassadors.

“The Sauna Marathon remains one of the silliest things I’ve ever done and I loved it,” says former U.S. Ambassador Jeffrey Levine. “My best advice to those who are actually serious about doing well in the event is to wear shoes that fit and have a driver who knows the area.”

Levine has retained his links with Estonia, as he now works for the Estonian technology company Teleport, albeit from the considerably warmer climes of California, which gives him a legitimate excuse to not attend the competition again this year.

Arguably the most valuable prize is actually awarded to the owners of the sauna that participants select as their favourite on the day.

For all the laughs generated by this competition, it is a lot of fun, and it does do an increasingly good job every year of promoting tourism in Otepää and showing the world that Estonia is a fun, sauna-loving nation.

“The Sauna Marathon is a fun and relaxing event, and we want to introduce Estonian sauna culture and the beautiful places in Otepää,” says Ginter. “Almost all participants complete the course, but there are always those who don’t compete, they just enjoy the saunas.”

Let’s hope Estonia will host the European Sauna Marathon for many more years to come.

Tickets are available here and cost 60€ for each team of up to four participants.

Editor: Editor: Dario Cavegn

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