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Tuesday, July 5, 2005
Updated: July 11, 1:10 PM ET
The amazing race

By Jim Caple
Page 2

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. Click here to read Part 1 of his report from the World Wife Carrying Championship.

SONKAJARVI, Finland -- I'm less than halfway through the World Wife Carrying Championship course when steroids suddenly make a lot of sense.

Everything is going fine until my wife and I hit the water hazard. It's 3 meters deep, about 30 feet long and there is a fireman in scuba gear standing by in case of emergency. By the time I wade its length, I'm so exhausted that we do not so much step from the pool as evolve out of it, like the first amphibians to leave the oceans and crawl onto land.

We switch from the traditional piggyback carry to the fabled Estonian Carry; but as I lift my wife onto my back, only one thought goes through my mind: When did I marry Oprah? The longest stretch of the 253½-meter course remains, but I'm so tired from the water hazard that I feel like I'm not only carrying my wife on my back, but my mother-in-law as well.

Maybe I should have trained for this.

'TIL DEATH DO US PART
Once again, this is not TeamCaple. Just their friendly competition in the World Wife Carrying competition.
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My Lost in Translation Tour of European sports and Page 2's SportsOFFCenter series has brought me to the farming village of Sonkajarvi, six hours north of Helsinki, for the World Wife Carrying Championship. At first, I'd planned simply to cover it; but when the organizers offered to let me compete as well, I leapt at the chance.

Sure, it might be wife carrying, but how often does anyone get the chance to compete in a world championship?

Readers who followed my March Madness tour of NCAA tournament campuses know that my wife is a saint. Vicki put up with me while I slept in sororities, went on late-night drinking binges with college students and appeared in public in a Tigger suit. And she didn't even change the locks to our house.

Miss Finland and Jim Caple
Jim stole away to pose with Miss Finland ... before his wife caught him.

When she got here, she also graciously accepted the offer to compete, though it probably helped that I didn't mention the public weigh-in.

* * * * *

The Top 10 Things Overheard at the World Wife Carrying Championship

10. "Is it against the rules to use pine tar?"

9. "Get back in the sauna and don't leave until you sweat off another five pounds."

8. "I just traded you and 500 Euro for an Estonian."

7. "No, you can't have second helpings."

6. "I'll turn you into a gelding if I catch you staring at her again."

5. "And coming around the final turn, it's TakeOutTheGarbage by a nose with WhatWereYouDoingOutSoLate? coming up on the outside."

4. "The race has been over for half an hour, honey. Can I put you down now?"

3. "Weren't the Estonians named in the BALCO hearings?"

2. "No spurs! No spurs!"

And the No. 1 Thing Overheard at the World Wife Carrying Championship:

1. "If I win, I'm hoping to get put out to stud."

* * * * *

The afternoon of the competition is so perfect -- crystal blue skies and temperatures in the mid-70s -- that if Ernie Banks had been competing, he would say, "It's a beautiful day. Let's carry two wives."

As we walk the course in the morning, I contemplate warming up by carrying around a heavier woman, like using a batting donut in the on-deck circle. I reject this idea for two reasons. One, I don't want to risk throwing out my back. And two, I don't think it's appropriate to walk up to a stranger and say, "Hey, you look fat. Mind if I carry you around for awhile?"

Dennis Rodman
Dennis Rodman has dealt with far bigger people on his back before.
Instead, I limit my preparation to scouting Miss Finland, Hanna Ek, and Jaana Haavikko, who has some sort of connection to the United Nations. I'd rate them as five-tool players, but my scouting ends prematurely when my wife catches me and threatens to make me run with blinders.

A practice run gives me hope. We're not fast enough to win, but I definitely think we'll finish. So I'm feeling good until I learn that we're listed as 67-1 darkhorses. This is particularly discouraging, given that only 42 couples entered.

Of course, the long odds are perfectly understandable given the speed of our competitors -- particularly the Estonians.

These people are absolutely amazing. The woman is upside down on the guy's back with her head facing his butt, her arms gripped around his abdomen and her legs interlocked around his neck, and yet he's pumping his arms and sprinting down the track as if she were filled with helium. They resemble John Kruk running the bases, only much faster.

Bear in mind, the course is close to three football fields long, and competitors carry a minimum of 108 pounds on their backs. Plus, they have to wade through a deep pool of water and jump over two thigh-high barriers. And yet the record time is 55 seconds. World-class sprinters need more than 30 seconds to cover that distance, and that's without water hazards or women on their backs.

Hey, Michael Johnson was great and all, but I'd like to see him run the 400 with Ireland's Julia Gavin on his back. She's well over 200 pounds.

Not even Dennis Rodman, who is on hand for a promotion involving a sponsor, wants to take on the Estonians. Citing some lame excuse about lack of training, he refuses to compete in the race.

Jim and Vicki Caple
Eventually, Jim and Vicki resorted to the famed Estonian Carry.
"I'm very sad," world record-holder Margo Uusorg says. "It's the one chance in my life that I could have been in the same competition as Dennis. Maybe next year."

Given Rodman's general attitude -- "One thing that is [expletive] up is the light; they say it stays daylight for 24 hours." -- probably not.

The championship format is simple. Two couples at a time race around the course and the fastest time wins the title, along with the woman's weight in beer.

Vicki and I are couple No. 14, and as we step up to the starting line, I glance at our competition. The woman does not appear anorexic and the man looks to be about 50, likely making him the oldest competitor in the field. I feel good about the matchup. But when the starter tells us to go, the other couple bursts away from us as if he's Secretariat carrying Mary-Kate Olsen.

I can't believe it. I'm getting my butt kicked by a 50-year-old man. And the guy isn't even Estonian.

My sluggishness is partly due to our gross inexperience, my lack of strength and a failure to properly carbo-load. But it is also due to something I learn only later while reviewing the videotape: My wife is slowing us down by waving to the crowd.

For crying out loud, I'm risking my sacroiliac and she's running for office. We must look like a float in the Rose Parade.

At the water hazard, things really deteriorate. By the time we've pulled ourselves from the pool and started down the 80-meter straightaway, we're going so slow and falling so far behind that I'm ready for my wife to complain that I should have stopped and asked for directions.

As we make the final turn and head into the final stretch, I've slowed to a walk and my wife is in intense pain from my body repeatedly digging into hers. We're both in agony and there's still at least 70 meters to go. It can't possibly get any worse.

And then we come to the two thigh-high obstacles.

I begin to wish I had married Kerri Strug.

Somehow, we clear the obstacles without incident or hernia and reach the finish line. I put my wife down and collapse to the ground. She races to my side and resuscitates me with a kiss.

Forget all those previous comments. I feel strong enough to carry Kirstie Alley.

Our time is 2 minutes, 39 seconds, but two 15-second penalties raise it to 3:09. That's more than two minutes off the winning mark, but at least we're not last. Besides, if you only count the couples who are actually married, we finish in the top 10.

Naturally, the Estonians win, with Uusorg claiming his fourth championship in a time of 59.1 seconds and younger brother Madis finishing third. I ask whether they were inspired as children by watching their father carry their mother around, and Madis laughs. "I know my father is very strong, and if he tried that, he would do it well."

The next morning, we reluctantly leave Sonkajarvi, where our hosts were so welcoming and so concerned for our well-being that their orientation tour included the Orthodox and Lutheran churches. Rodman is wrong. These are good, fun people. There are few rules to the championship, but the main one is to have fun. The Sonkajarvi hosts made that very easy.

Then again, I'm not here in the winter.

My next stop is the Tour de France, well known as the most grueling event in all of sports. Now I'm not so sure. Granted, riding your bike 110 miles through the mountains can't be easy. But at least Lance Armstrong doesn't have to tell Sheryl Crow to mix in a salad.

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.