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How to Lose at Wife-Carrying, and Win at Marriage

(Image: Christopher Silas Neal)

Author and journalist Jo Piazza had no idea what to do when she got engaged. She was terrified of taking on the role of someone’s wife. To figure it out, she traveled to 20 countries on five continents for her new memoir, How to Be Married: What I Learned From Real Women on Five Continents About Surviving My First (Really Hard) Year of Marriage. Told in honest prose with astute reporting, the book is a survival guide for the first year of marriage. The following is an adapted excerpt from the book.

Most dating advice given to newlyweds is horrible. Maybe not horrible, but at least not terrifically helpful. It’s like the people writing the advice wrote sitcoms in the ‘80s where the laugh track covered the sadness and every problem was fixed in 28 minutes, including commercials.

There’s a lot of “don’t forget to have a date night,” and “never go to bed angry,” and “say ‘I love you’ at least once a day.”

In other words, there’s a lot of bullshit.

In the months leading up to our wedding, there was one piece of advice that rang true — that didn’t sound tired and trite and recycled. I heard it from my 96-year-old neighbor, Rosie: “Never stop having adventures, goddammit.” Rosie liked to punctuate everything with “goddammit” or “sonofabitch.” She had the mouth of a truck driver and the face of Betty White.

Rosie’s advice was rattling around in my brain a month after Nick and I got married, the day I first heard about the North American Wife Carrying Race in Sunday River, Maine — a gonzo competition where a husband slings his wife over his shoulders and runs up a ski slope, over logs and obstacles, into a sand trap and through a freezing cold mud pit. It was on the same date and just two hours away from a friend’s wedding. We couldn’t say no.

Popular in Finland as Eukonkanto and legally christened a “sport” by the Finnish in 1991, wife carrying typically involves a mad cap race wherein a man hurls a woman over his shoulders like a sack of potatoes and stumbles through obstacles to cross a finish line and collect his prize — his wife’s weight in beer.

Yes, that’s really the prize.

It turns out that there are a lot of ways a man can carry his wife across the finish line in the sport of eukonkanto, but by far the most popular method for racing is the “Estonian carry,” whereby the woman hangs upside down behind her husband with her legs thrown over his shoulders. It looks ridiculous, but it properly balances the woman’s weight and allows the husband’s hands to be free for climbing over logs and protecting himself when he falls on his face.

Of course, there are rules. A wife has to weigh at least 108 pounds. If she weighs less, she has to carry a heavy rucksack to make up for it. Neither husband nor wife can wear any sort of “equipment.” This means no harnesses, saddles or ropes. If a contestant drops his wife, he is required to pick her up and continue carrying her to the finish line unless he is gravely injured.

[pullquote]A wife who is being carried is encouraged to smack her husband’s ass like a jockey urging on a prize-winning steed.[/pullquote]

The Finnish wife-carrying website offers wonderful tips for how to become a “master wife carrier” that may or may not have been written by the author of Fifty Shades of Grey:

This is an actual excerpt from the site, verbatim: “Wife carrying is an attitude toward life.

Yes, whipping. A wife who is being carried is encouraged to smack her husband’s ass like a jockey urging on a prize-winning steed.

We were cocky. Who competed in a wife-carrying competition anyway? It was surely more of a joke than an actual match. How naïve we were.

It wasn’t until we arrived in Sunday River that we realized how serious about wife carrying the people who participate in wife-carrying competitions really are.

We were not the only ones attempting to inject a little adventure into our relationship on a lazy autumn morning. Couples flew in from all over the world for this.

“That’s a steep-ass hill,” Nick said, gazing up at the ski slope. The other men leaped over log hurdles like gazelles or Namibians, 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.”

There was the Alpha Couple. They ran loops around us, doing synchronized jumping jacks while emitting low intimidating grunts.

There were the strangely swift grandparents and a pregnant couple that moved like a pair of panthers.

“Let’s do a practice run,” I said, rubbing his shoulders. “It’s cool. We’ve got this. We’re a team.”

We attempted a hurdle. Nick lost his balance, and I fell on my head.

“Sonofabitch!” Rubbing my head and glaring up at my husband from the ground, I began to think that a marriage is like a long and difficult race…or an obstacle course where you carry your wife up a mountain and through a pond of muck and sometimes, albeit by accident, drop her on her face. You can’t expect to glide through it. There will be obstacles and pain and incredible highs and terrible lows, and you need to keep moving through it together. I told my sentimental thoughts to Nick, but he was preoccupied.

“Did you see that guy’s biceps?” he said about a wife-carrying challenger with upper arms the size of chubby babies.

It was clear we were the least prepared couple to arrive in Sunday River.

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

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

“Saddle up!” cried the announcer.

“We’ve got this!” I hollered.

Nick heaved me precariously over his shoulders, and we were off.

Our competition sped up the hill and became tiny specks in the distance within seconds. We moved slowly. Unable to see anything, I trusted Nick to tell me when we were about to do something dangerous.

“LOG COMIN’,” he’d shout.

“We’ve got a hole in the ground! Watch your head.”

All I could spy were his feet, moving slower and slower.

“You’re the best! Don’t drop me. I love you. Don’t drop me. I love you,” I shouted.

He didn’t drop me. We crossed the finish line in two minutes and 20 seconds, the longest race time of any team that hadn’t dropped a wife.

Nick was out of breath, muddy and freezing. I expected my husband to be bummed we’d essentially failed at the sport of wife carrying. Instead, he wrapped me in an enormous bear hug, pride radiating from his muddy and sweaty frame.

“We did it. We finished. I’m just happy I didn’t drop you. We’re a good team. Also, I think I threw out my back.”

We didn’t win my weight in beer, but we had the best story to tell at the wedding’s cocktail hour. And some excellent advice for the bride and the groom, goddammit.

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