“The woman hangs upside down behind her husband”

Novelist and travel journalist Jo Piazza on the benefits of competing in the wife-carrying race
“The woman hangs upside down behind her husband”

Illustration: Fabio Consoli

“just don’t drop your wife.”

You don’t hear that enough in life. But it was the first thing my husband and I were told after flying across the country to Sunday River, Maine, to enter the North American Wife Carrying Championship. Never heard of wife carrying? You’re forgiven. Popular in Finland as Eukonkanto and legally dubbed a “sport” there in 1991, wife carrying is a race wherein a man hurls a woman over his shoulders as if she were a sack of potatoes and stumbles through and over obstacles to cross a finish line and collect his prize—his wife’s weight in beer. Yes, that’s the prize.

I’d met Nick just nine months before we got married. We hadn’t been through the typical ups and downs of a long-term relationship, the kind that strain your patience and test your will, ultimately bringing two partners more in sync. That’s why we wanted to run this race, to try to complete something (anything) challenging as a team. We also wanted to win my weight in beer.

How naïve we were. Once we arrived in Sunday River, we saw couples who’d flown in from all over the world. The men leapt over log hurdles like gazelles, their petite wives balanced delicately on their shoulders. “All of these people look very athletic,” Nick said, staring them down. “We are not very athletic.”

We also learned that there are well-thought-out wife-carrying techniques, the most popular being the “Estonian carry,” whereby the woman hangs upside down behind her husband facing his butt, with her legs thrown over his shoulders. It’s as uncomfortable as it sounds.

As we approached the start line for our heat we realized we were racing last year’s burly champions.

“This won’t be humiliating at all,” Nick murmured.

“We’ve got this!” I hollered.

Nick heaved me over his shoulders, teetered and we were off. Blood rushed to my skull. “Please be fast,” I groaned. Our competition sped up the hill and became tiny specks in the distance. Soon, I was unable to see anything ahead, and feared Nick would forget to warn me of danger. But he remembered: “Log!” he’d shout; “Hole in the ground!” All I could see were his feet, moving slower and slower, nearly coming to a standstill. Maybe he was just going to stop. We couldn’t stop now!

“You’re the best! Don’t drop me. I love you. Don’t drop me. I love you,” I yelled, hoping my cheerleading was at least a contribution.

We crossed the finish line at two minutes and 20 seconds, the slowest time of any team that hadn’t dropped a wife. Nick was out of breath, muddy and freezing. I expected him to be bummed we’d essentially failed at the sport of wife carrying. Instead, he wrapped me in an enormous bear hug. “We did it. We finished. We’re a good team,” he said. “Also, I think I threw out my back.”
Adapted from Jo Piazza’s new travel memoir, How to Be Married: What I Learned From Real Women on Five Continents About Surviving My First (Really Hard) Year of Marriage; howtobemarried.us