Her thighs are clamped around his neck and her arms clutch urgently at his waist but it’s not what you think. In fact, it’s nothing you’ve ever thought about before.
It’s the preposterous sport of wife-carrying, in which overconfident men race through a short obstacle course while toting their dead-weight spouses on their backs or shoulders. Lady-laden, the athletes wobble over logs or hay bales, slog through shallow pools, and stagger across the finish line as hundreds of strangers hoot from the sidelines.
The grand prize: The missus’s weight in beer. Plus $5 for each pound she weighs. Plus the head-shaking befuddlement of most other humans.
Wife-carrying originated in Finland a mere 19 years ago, which means we can’t pass it off as the quaint hobby of eccentric ancients; my marriage is older than this sport, people. Fans mumble something about it harking back to the bad habits of Finnish bandits who abducted women from their villages and claimed them as wives — but Finland also hosts the world championships for Air Guitar and Mobile Phone Throwing, so I think it’s safe to assume the Finns just like silly stuff.
Annual wife-carrying competitions are now held in Australia and Hong Kong, and even here in the U.S. a police officer and his wife stumbled to victory just this month in Wisconsin with a race time of 60 seconds — which, he said, was the longest minute of his life, and his cargo weighed only 103 pounds.
The rules aren’t rigid. Couples needn’t actually be married. They needn’t be male-female. And the runner can carry the passenger any which way: piggy back, sack o’ potatoes, wrapped around both shoulders like a wriggling Homo sapiens pashmina. Most popular is the filthy-looking “Estonian” method; she dangles down his back, facing his butt, as he holds onto her knees. (My kingdom for an illustration right about now.)
It’s not pretty. It’s probably not sanitary. And there’s something unsettling about a game in which women serve as nothing more than buns-in-the-air burdens. And yet … dang it, I can’t help seeing the poetry in this peculiar pastime — and recognizing unmistakably the relationship that it symbolizes and celebrates. Sure, I’m a feminist, but I’m also woman enough to admit that my husband does his share of heavy lifting in our alliance, and that bounding through life with me … well, it can be a schlep.
My guy isn’t burly, and I haven’t weighed 103 pounds since I was 12, but I’m here to tell you that if he weren’t constantly hoisting me over the sludge of life — ferrying me through bad days and lousy months, shouldering my fears and freaky frets, buoying me above the muck of my own occasionally subversive mind — well, I’d be losing this race big-time.
While he occasionally buckles a bit under the strain of me (he had to come in and fix my computer twice as I was typing this), he never drops me. Even when he really wants me off his back. (The support goes both ways, of course. I think a husband-pulling competition could be very popular. Most wives I know have to tow their partners to social gatherings, yank them toward the gym, and drag them whining and whimpering to the general practitioner.)
It turns out the North American Wife Carrying Championships take place in Maine this October — the very same state, in the very same month, that my fella and I honeymooned 20 years ago. So we practiced last night to see if we had a shot at the title. I climbed onto his back, Estonian-style, and he trotted around the backyard dauntlessly while I screamed and laughed until I couldn’t breathe. I am actually kind of pissed that my neighbors didn’t call the cops; it sounded like I was being abducted by Finnish bandits.
So I think we’ll celebrate our anniversary elsewhere. But it’s good to know after all these years that he can still bear me.