Commentary

"Sports from Hell': Hot Boxed

Updated: May 19, 2010, 3:35 PM ET
By Rick Reilly | ESPN.com

Heini HiltunenTimo Kaukonen, left, sweats it out at the Sauna World Championships.

This article appears in the May 31 Travel Issue of ESPN The Magazine. It is an excerpt from Rick's book, which you can find out about and order in the sidebar to the right.

Okay kids, today's activity is to go down to your local Pizza Hut, have the oven set for 261 and insert your body into it. The tips of your ears start to ignite. The backs of your arms scream. Your throat burns as if somebody had stuck a tiki torch down it. Your lips feel bitten by large, unseen raccoons. And you haven't hit 30 seconds.

Now do it for 10 minutes or more, and that's what it's like to compete in quite possibly the world's dumbest sport: the Sauna World Championships.

I know. I entered.

The eighth annual championships were held in August 2007 in Heinola, Finland, a lake-riddled town 87 kilometers north of Helsinki. As my wife, The Lovely Cynthia (TLC), and I drove up, my mind reeled at what kind of things competitors would say to sportswriters afterward: "I just got hot. What can I say?"

I went over the rules. Competing in six-person heats -- written without irony -- the 84 contestants battle to see whose skin boils last. You may wear only a bathing suit that goes eight inches down the leg and absolutely nothing else. You can wipe sweat from your face but not your body. You cannot cover your ears with your hands. You may not lean over too far. Ambulances will be standing by. Good luck!

In doing some prematch research, TLC discovered that there was an Australian gambling site that set the odds. Three-time defending champ Timo "The Great" Kaukonen was a 2.15-1 favorite. I was listed at 101-1. Nobody but a Finn has ever won the title. In fact, nobody but a Finn has ever been in the six-man final. There are 5.2 million people in Finland, and nearly two million saunas. This is a nationally televised event.

At the registration table, officials asked me to remove my shirt, then scrawled my number, 82, on each of my biceps. I learned I was in a heat with Timo the Great. And that's when -- as if on cue -- his sauna-company-sponsored mobile home, complete with a sauna inside, pulled up.

Timo waded through some autograph seekers and arrived at the table carrying a quart of water. His skin is permanently cherry and shiny hard, like a newly painted model car. He has long blond hair (to protect the ears) and is stout and thin lipped (also a very good trait for a saunist). Timo's pulse rises to 200 beats per minute when he competes, and he actually trains aerobically, riding a bike and running a lot. He is also very quiet. In this game you don't want to be a person who needs a lot of movement.

With the help of an interpreter, I interviewed him.

Me: "How much time have you been spending in the sauna?"

Timo: "About 20 sessions a day."

Me: "Oh, my god! At what temperature?"

Timo: "Lately it's been at about 140C [284F]."

Me: "Oh, good lord! Do you drink a lot of water coming into the competition?"

Timo: "Oh, yes, about 10 liters [2.6 gallons] a day the past three days. [He smiles at my reaction.] You too, I'm sure, yes?"

Me: "Do you count beer?"

Timo: "No."

I was so screwed.

The only other American entered was software designer Rick Ellis, formerly of the Soviet Union, who'd built his own sauna at his upstate New York home. "I even considered putting $2,000 down on myself," he told me. "But I couldn't figure out how."

He said he's been training at 110C (230F) and lasted 16 minutes once. His wife looked at him ruefully and shook her head. He turned to her, exasperated, and said, "What?"

Suddenly it was time for the heats to begin, and more than 500 fans took their places in the open-air theater. Onstage were two hexagonal, glass-faced saunas and two giant viewing screens. The gladiators in the opening heat were trotted out, all soaking wet from their freezing preheat showers. Ominously, a little man opened the sauna door, and the six marched in, like drumsticks into a fryer. Fans chanted wildly.

Courtesy of DoubledayReilly was no match for the hot box.

You'd be amazed at how much fun it is to watch a grown man come apart like a $9 sweater. A Belarusian started out sane, just sitting there. Every 30 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% humidity level 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 around wildly, 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 wiping his eyes and mouth. He moved his hands out toward his thighs to rub them, then realized that's not allowed and did so anyway, crazily, as though he were covered in lice. The judges flagged him once, then twice. Then he lurched for the door, and he was out. Sanity and cool air whooshed back into his brain, and suddenly he was normal and smiling again.

In each opening heat only two of the six moved on. 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 breathing through your nose?" I asked.

"Yeah, why?" he said.

"Your skin is all gone under your nose! It's burned off!"

He felt his upper lip in horror. He ran to the mirror. 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. "Man, I'm burning up. Even my tongue is burned." His wife begged him to quit, but he refused. Said he had trained too hard. She shook her head.

"What?" he asked.

And that's when they called my heat backstage.

I vowed to do whatever Timo 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. By the time I was introduced, I was shivering like a newly shaved Chihuahua.

I drew seat No. 6, near the door. Timo was 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. My strategy was to go in and keep time by the 30-second water splashes, but that plan was scrapped approximately seven seconds in. 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. I was sure flames were coming out of my mouth. My back seemed to have ignited. I was convinced my ears were literally on fire, but if I moved even slightly, they hurt more. I tried sitting up higher, but it was even hotter. I tried crouching down more, but then I was nearer to the unforgiving rocks. It was so awful I wished Barry Bonds were in there. Then came the hideous, cruel, pitiless splashes of water, each one lasting three seconds. I decided to think of something to get my mind off the torturous pain, so I began naming every National League team. I counted the Jets twice. I was just about to bolt into the fresh air when -- miraculously -- the tall, skinny guy next to me ran out. Amazing! I wasn't last! I had no idea how much time had elapsed -- four minutes? Six? I promised myself: When I get to the point where I can no longer stand it, I'll count 60 seconds and go.

Four seconds later, I decided I could no longer stand it.

So I started counting. One, two, three ... It was the longest minute of my life. At 60 I went barreling out. Watching other heats, I'd wondered why even losers came out grinning and raising their hands in victory, but now I knew. The cool air was so beautiful, so redeeming, so life giving. You could French-kiss Osama bin Laden.

I looked at the clock. 3:10? That was it? When did the first guy bolt? "2:40," I was told. Which meant I'd counted my 60 seconds in 30.

I took a gloriously freezing shower, then watched the rest of the heat on TV. Timo, wearing a spa-maker's name across the front of his Speedo, made the quarterfinals. Backstage he was surprisingly pink. I went up to him, chummy, and slapped him on the back in congratulation. He turned as if he wanted to knife me. Note to self: Slapping backs a definite no-no among saunists.

Then there was Ellis, who entered the quarterfinals with dozens of blisters on his body. "Man, I knew I was in trouble right away," he later said. "When I felt this big, half-dollar-size blister behind my back, I said, 'Okay, that's enough. I gotta get out.'"

He was the first out, at 4:15, and he was melting like the wicked witch. His forehead, his lips and his ears were giant lumps of pus. His triceps were riddled with pebble-size blisters, dozens of them. So much skin was hanging off him he looked like the world's most successful gastric-bypass patient. His forehead was a science-fiction movie. His nose was cooked like a forgotten kielbasa. And this was just what we could see.

He lifted up his shirt and there it was: this horrible, huge, pus-filled sac -- the size of a $3 pancake -- just hanging off his armpit. His wife gasped. TLC turned away in horror. When we dragged him to first aid the guy said, "You must go to the hospital. When these blisters break, you will lose lots of fluid and be highly susceptible to infection. We can't do anything for you here. It is too serious."

TLC and I piled him into our rented Volvo and took him to the hospital. As we left, his wife shook her head. They'll be turning his sauna into a shoe closet. The two favorites -- Timo the Great and Markku Mustonen -- made the final. Each of them just sat and sweated and took furtive glances at the other, waiting to see if he'd do him the great favor of expiring so he could get the hell out. Ten minutes. Eleven. Twelve. It was a Hades standoff.

Suddenly, out of nowhere, Markku stuck his hand out for Timo to shake. Timo looked down and shook it, whereupon Markku jumped up and flew out the door, followed like a noon shadow by Timo, champion again, in a winning time of 12:26.

The winner was humble. "I was guessing he was better than me today," the great man said afterward. "So I was surprised he shook my hand and left. Nobody's ever done that before."

And what did Timo the Great get for suffering longer than every other person?

Sauna speakers.

Rick Reilly | email

Columnist, ESPN.com