I'm sitting half-naked and shivering wet on an outdoor stage in Heinola, a sleepy town in southern Finland. A crowd of hundreds cheers and takes pictures. On either side of me sit five other barely clad men, all of whom are shivering uncontrollably despite the balmy summer weather. We have spent the past half hour lowering our body temperatures by bathing in ice water. The Swede next to me is nearly hypothermic – his lips have turned blue - and he is having trouble understanding the referee, who explains to us that we are about to enter a 210 degree sauna. Whoever stays in the longest wins. This is the Sauna World Championship and those are the rules.
Extreme sauna-ing is a brutal sport and I have to admit that I’m not particularly pleased to be a contestant. But, for better or for worse, this is my family vacation and I’ve got no choice but to go through with it. We’ve come all the way from California to compete. My brother was in the first round – he lasted three minutes and six seconds - and he’s now hoarsely shouting encouragements at me. His skin is glowing red. My mom and step-dad are also in the crowd; our family traces its roots back to Finland and we thought that this would be a fun way to explore our Finnish identity and bond as a family.
Choosing the right family vacation can be difficult but I can see now that this was a particularly bad idea. Previous contestants have been dragged barely breathing out of the sauna by black-clad sauna wranglers. Paramedics anxiously pace the stage and large Finnish women with hoses wait to douse those who’ve gotten too hot. Every thirty seconds, a liter of water is dropped on the sauna rocks so that anyone inside is essentially parboiled. Some view it as an opportunity to confront death.
The referee indicates our group is up next. We stand like condemned criminals and slowly shuffle towards the sauna door. It’s a nice octagonal sauna which sits on the side of the stage. Large windows look out on the crowd, and windshield wipers periodically clear the glass so that the audience has a view unobstructed by steam or exploded entrails. The door is quickly pulled open and a blast of warm air rolls across my body. I smile for the cameras and step across the threshold into the heat.
Contrary to appearances, I don’t have a death wish. It’s just the opposite. Over the past few years, my life has been transformed for the better by unusual contests, and I hoped that the Sauna World Championship would also help me. It started in the southern Californian desert three years ago. At the time, I was in and out of work as a data entry clerk at a local phone company. I typed numbers into a computer. It was not what I wanted out of life.
On a road-trip through the desert, I stopped at a diner and saw a flier for the U.S. National Arm Wrestling Championship. It noted that anyone could compete. My wife had been on my case to get a better job and do something with my life. I felt trapped because I had yet to find anything I was good at. Right then it suddenly occurred to me that maybe I was a world class arm wrestler. Sure, I’ve always been skinny, somewhat scrawny, and had failed in everything else. But I had never arm wrestled before, so how could I know that this wasn’t my calling?
Amazingly, I ended up placing fourth in the United States in the lightweight division. It qualified me for the World Arm Wrestling Championship in Poland, where I competed as part of Team USA. Suddenly, I felt like a capable person and I started to explore the possibilities. I retired from arm wrestling after placing 17th in the world and became a professional matador in Spain. I also took up sumo wrestling and, at 134 pounds, became the lightest man to ever wrestle at the US Sumo Open. I even ran backwards through the Indian and Italian countryside. At the end of every day, I wrote notes about how my life was changing, and now those notes are being published (“The Underdog,” Random House - available on Amazon). I quit my job as a data entry clerk for good (I hope).
Before, I worked in a small cubicle. Now all I wanted was to travel and see the world. So when my step-dad suggested we go to Finland for the Sauna Championship, it seemed like it would be an exciting adventure.
My mom, however, really wanted to go on a cruise around Australia. Last year, she convinced us to take one to Mexico and she loved it. The rest of us had a different opinion. The ship went from San Pedro Harbor in Los Angeles—one of the world’s ugliest bulk-freight harbors—to Ensenada, Mexico, about 150 miles south. Inexplicably, it lasted four days. The captain drove us in zigzags around the Paciﬁc in a mammoth, aging tub inappropriately named The Ecstasy. We ran out of the booze we brought the ﬁrst night and were forced to pay eight dollars per pink plastic cup of weak, artiﬁcially ﬂavored piña colada. It cost ﬁfty bucks per person to get tolerably drunk.
“That cruise was a low point in my life,” I told my mom. “Forget about Australia. I’m not doing it again.”
“It was fun.”
“It was not fun.”
“We got to see the blowhole.”
She had me there. When we got to Ensenada, the cruise director said that a local wave-driven geyser was the most interesting sight in the area. We took a cab to see it and were confronted by the sight of water splashing lazily around an inlet. I could have pissed higher. On the family vacation before that, in Hawaii, we had seen the famous Spouting Horn, another ocean geyser. It produced a 3 foot tall burst of water when we visited. According to my mother’s guidebooks, there were only three natural wave-driven geysers in the world. We had so far seen two of them. The third and ﬁnal blowhole was located in Australia.
“We could round out the collection,” Mom said, arguing for her cruise idea. “Imagine seeing all three blowholes in the world? It would be like climbing all the tall mountains in the world.”
“It would be nothing like that, Mom. They’re just blowholes. And they don’t blow.”
“They do blow,” my brother said. “Just not literally.”
“Another miserable blowhole is not going to entice me to get back on a boat with you,” I said, ignoring Erik.
“You can bring more vodka,” she offered.
“I don’t think that’s a healthy way of approaching the family vacation.”
“Well, then, what do you want to do this summer?” she said, hurt that her long-savored travel plan had been so quickly rejected.
It was then that John, my step-dad, came in with the compromise solution: the Sauna World Championship.
Sixteen minutes at 212 degrees!
I enter the sauna with two Finns, a Belarusian, a Lithuanian, and Anders Mellert, the hypothermic Swede. Mellert is the Swedish national sauna champion – he lasted sixteen minutes at 212 degrees a few months ago. One of his supporters told me that he had been stabbed ﬁfteen times when he was a teenager. He then pulled the knife out of himself and killed his assailant with it. Needless to say, he has a high pain threshold.
I’m seated next to him and am surprised at first. It doesn’t feel that hot. The air smells pleasantly of cedar and it’s certainly one of the nicest saunas I’ve ever been in. Then the first blast of steam hits and I sud¬denly feel like I have a sunburn. Thirty-seconds later, the next blast comes and the air becomes dense and superheated. When I try to breathe in, my tongue sizzles as the boiling air sweeps across it. My lungs rebel and re¬fuse to cooperate. It feels like knives are being drawn across my shoulders; the sweat rolling down my back is like blood.
It is a peculiar way to experience Finland. We haven’t done any of the typical tourist things – no tours, no museums, no castles. We came straight to Heinola, which is an unexciting town on the edge of a lake. But this is exciting. This is life and death. As the organizers like to say, it is the hottest event of the summer.
For me, it is the end of a journey. I have competed in some the world’s wildest competitions in order to answer questions about my life. What should I do for a living? When will I be ready to have children? Will my Mom ever stop annoying me? By running backwards, sumo wrestling, fighting bulls, and arm wrestling, I’ve been able to answer those questions. Now, in the sauna, I realize I’m done. I’m ready to stop taking so many risks. I see with life-threatening clarity that I’ve had a good life, and that despite my mom’s insistence on package vacations, she’s been a great mom. The sauna has crisped away all my needless sarcasm. I just don’t know if I’ll survive to tell her that.
I stand up and move towards the sauna door but the pain is overwhelming. I start to black out. The more I move, the more boiling air runs across my already scorched shoulders. Even though it is only ﬁve feet to the door, it’s ﬁve feet of expo¬nential agony. I feel the darkness pushing in on all sides of my vision.
The sauna door ﬂies open and I catapult forward, landing in the arms of a wrangler. The announcer gleefully points out that I only lasted three minutes and one second. Even though I’m out, the pain doesn’t stop. Tears well up, mix with my sweat, and dribble off my nose while the audience cheers and claps. I end up suffering ﬁrst-degree burns over most of my torso but the sauna has clarified things for me. Once again, competition has helped me see my life more clearly. I realize two things. First, I never need to see things that clearly again. And second, we should have gone on that cruise to Australia.
Text: Joshua Davis
Joshua Davis, who did not enter this year’s sauna championships in Heinola, (held every year in August) wrote a book based on his experiences, “The Underdog.” An inspirational and hilariously amusing read; more on the book at www.underdognation.com
In his own words, ‘the son of a peripatetic father and a beauty queen, he grew up all over the world, which instilled early on an ability to adapt.’ He is a contributing editor for Wired magazine. His writing has appeared in GQ, Wired, Outside, and Food & Wine.
For more info on the sauna championships, see: www.saunaheinola.com
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