The Things They Carried: At The National Wife-Carrying Championships

In which the author learns the Estonian Carry, meets America's foremost competitors in one of the world's weirdest sports, and nearly dies.
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In 2011, Dave Castro came up three feet short.

It's happened before—for Dave and for his wife Lacey, perennial contenders at the North American Wife-Carrying Championships, a raucous gathering attended by both fitness fiends and softies like me who think, wrongly, that Wife-Carrying is an easy kind of carnival game. It's not.

The basics on the most difficult nuptial sport around: fifty couples run in the Championships, two in each heat, and the two best times overall make the finals. The husband dangles his wife upside-down over his head and tries to traverse a hilly, sloppy, divot-filled, 278-yard obstacle course as fast as he can while gradually coming to realize, once and for all, that his hamstrings are useless. He thinks, Oh God, I'm about to tumble in the most emasculating fashion possible. That was my experience, at least.

But Dave Castro did much better than that. He came up only three feet short, and he hasn't stopped thinking about it since.

***

Well before these Wife-Carrying Championships came to Newry, Maine's Sunday River Ski Resort a decade ago, and well before Dave and Lacey Castro were a world-class pair, Wife-Carrying already had a long, half-nefarious history. While Wife-Carrying sounds like something an enterprising Jack might have invented in 1956 to amuse the local Rotarians, it's actually a centuries-old Scandinavian tradition.

Story goes that a Finnish robber named Herkko Rosvo-Ronkainen used women as training weights to prepare his marauding bands for their raids on nearby villages. That's the sanitized tale, at least; it's also possible that modern-day Wife-Carrying has its origins in Rosvo-Ronkainen's knack for women-napping. This is part of why I'd been a bit reluctant to haul my progressive wife on my back like she was some sort of nifty plunder.

“Some people say, 'Oh, Wife-Carrying is such a sexist sport,'" Lacey Castro says. "But I feel like I've been training just as long as my husband has. The women are forcing the husbands to do it just as much as the other way.”

The Castros have forced themselves into phenomenal shape for the one-minute a year when they have a chance to be the absolute best at something. Silly as that something may seem to an outsider, they take the Championships seriously, and they're made for them. Lacey, a body-builder with about a thimble's-worth of body fat, weighs in at around 108 pounds, which is the minimum for wives; Dave, compact and slim, has the bulging calves of a UPS driver. Which is because he is a UPS driver.

“He's basically training all the time,” Lacey told me. “Five days a week he's running around with 50-pound boxes from door to door.”

During peak wife-carrying season, which is a long season for the Castros, Dave hauls an extra 40-pound weight vest on his route and trains in the local pool to prepare himself for Wife-Carrying's most daunting obstacle, the 15-yard long “Widow Maker.” This year, Dave took up crossfit training at a local gym. “I want to be wife-carrying specific,” he told me. “[The instructors] came up with these way-off-the-wall workouts and, well, we'll see. I feel a little more cut-up.”

Dave learned this kind of determination on the blue field of Boise State, where he played football for the Broncos in the early nineties. A wide receiver, Dave always prepared himself fanatically, even though he was sixth (or lower) on the depth charts of what was then a 1-AA program. “For me, it was always a fight. I was never big enough, strong enough, fast enough. I kind of feel like that now, too.”

In his early seasons, his teams stunk, bottoming out at 3-8 in 1993. But in his last year, '94, the Broncos, coached by the late Pokey Allen, won the Big Sky and made a run to the I-AA National Championship game (fans call that season “The Magic Carpet Ride”). In the final, they played Jim Tressel's Youngstown State Penguins, and fell behind in the second quarter.

“I got to play right before halftime,” Dave recalls. “The coach looked me right in the eye and said, 'Dave, you're in.' The one cool part that I haven't told a lot of people is that I walked on to the team and kept beating these other kids out. After all that hard work and everything I did, playing in the Championship meant a lot, and it kind of made it all worth it.”

The 5-10 walk-on was not supposed to do much on the play—his role was to be a warm body on the weak side of the field, occupying a cornerback in case the errant Hail Mary came his way. In the excitement of the moment—this wasn't the National Championship, but it was a National Championship—Castro ditched the script, broke his route and sprinted to the far side of the field for the half-ending jump ball. He closed on the scrum, 30 yards, then 20 yards. The pass was deflected, tipped outward. Tipped towards Castro and his burning lungs, and he's hauling ass far from where he was supposed to be.

“It could have been a pretty good moment,” Dave says. “They had me at single receiver. I knew in my mind they were going to throw it deep. And when the ball got tipped I came within three feet of the bounce. And I was thinking, 'Holy Jesus, if only I had gotten there a little sooner.'”

He came up three feet short in the last play of his career. Youngstown beat Boise, 28-14.

***

Thirteen years later, Dave was playing mud-football in Maine when Lacey spotted an ad for this new thing they could maybe do together, Wife-Carrying. They couldn't make it that year, then they got pregnant and missed 2008, but in '09, they gave it a shot and ended up with the fastest recorded time in American Wife-Carrying history. It's a short history, to be sure, but their 55-second run was breathtaking and unprecedented.

That victory earned them five times Lacey's weight in cash, her weight in beer, and an entry into the World Championships of Wife-Carrying, in Sonkajarvi, Finland. That's a long way from Boise and Newry. It's also a long way from Helsinki, some six hours' drive into enemy territory, if we can consider Finland enemy territory.

“At first in Finland everyone was very welcoming,” Lacey told me. “But, to be completely honest, it was very clear that they did not want us to do well and they were not supportive of us. They wanted a Finnish couple to win and they were going to do whatever it took to make that happen.”

But Taisto Miettenen, a Finnish Wife-Carrying legend whose first name means 'fighter', sees the international rivalry differently: “It is very good thing that many people are coming from other country like USA,” he wrote to me. “I hope that I can also come there some year to take part in American Wife-Carrying competition. Maybe someone invite us to come there.”

The Castros finished fifth at Worlds. Miettenen won that year, the first of three straight titles. It's easy to be gracious when you're holding the trophy.

“The tension was a little bit higher [in Finland] because you know it's the world stage and these guys are considered world champions," Dave said. "It's not New Hampshire and Massachusetts. It's Lithuania and Estonia.”

***

Wife-Carrying is, honestly, mostly Estonian. If only because The Estonian Carry is the sport's answer to the Fosbury Flop: both stylistic signature and agreed-upon best practice. There is no official technique in wife-carrying—Piggybacks, Fireman's Carries, and Honeymoon Threshold Lifts are all legal. But every champion has used the Estonian Carry, most notably the Estonian Uusorg brothers, the most decorated spouse-hauling athletes, and rivals of Miettenen's for international supremacy. At the farthest opposite end of the prestige spectrum, I also would need to master this Baltic carry for my own turn on the Wife-Carrying Championship course.

Since the North American Championship was my first attempt at extreme sports with my wife—they'd given us a wild card entry—I wasn't sure I could convince her to dangle near my rear as I traversed a slippery ski hill. She'd agreed to participate because I'd made some claim about Immersion Journalism, but we'd yet to get to the touchy subject of head-ass-ground proximity. I turned to the Castros for advice.

“Tell her, 'Look, you might be a little dizzy, but just hold on',” Lacey said. “Go right into the Estonian.”

Dave added: “You'll put her on your back. She might not like it at first. But it'll be good.”

I was convinced, but I was not really the one who needed convincing. Megan and I needed to practice, so before the competition, we took to the field between our apartment and the public library. It was dark. I popped her up on my shoulders and chugged up a hill. Right then, the local book club let out and we were bathed in the accusing glare of a dozen pairs of headlights. Undaunted, I took 17 laps around an oak tree and put her down. She was flushed beneath her helmet, either from embarrassment or because half her blood supply had rushed straight to her cheeks, or both.

***

What is happening? I thought, as a public address announcer called our names at the start line of the Championships. The hill in front of us was steep and I'd breakfasted, like a champion, on a four-egg omelette. We'd decided, finally, on the Estonian carry about five minutes before: “If we're going to do this," Megan said, "let's do this right.” We were ready, kind of.

The Castros had just posted another record-breaking time, 52 seconds. I was hoping to break two minutes.

“Based on your height alone, you could probably walk the course and do as well as us,” Lacey told me a few weeks before the race. Lacey correctly assessed my height—I'm 6-2—and wildly overestimated my physical fitness. She was, in short, hugely incorrect.

And then my wife and I are 15 yards up the hill, and I am breathing hard, making it work. This isn't so bad, I think. Like John Candy in Spaceballs, I say to myself, “I could carry two or three of these.” Maybe a wife and a kid (that's not allowed yet).

“Divot,” Megan shouts. I adjust. I'm a quarter of the way through. I'm a Wife-Carrying natural! This is the best decision that I, no that we, have made in… and I'm pitching forward into a swampy patch of October grass. Just like that, I'd broken a vow I'd made to my father-in-law. As if to maximize the surreal quality of this day, he'd driven up to watch the competition, and now I'd dropped his daughter. Seven-second penalty.

“It's a lot more physical than people give it credit for,” Darcy Morse, the organizer of the race, warned when I signed up, and all at once I believe her. Suddenly, I feel like John Candy in Spaceballs. But I throw Megan onto my back again and come to the first obstacle, the Pommel Log. I'm over it, but I'm behind the couple we're racing against, and starting to hear sympathy cheers. “You can do it,” say some good-hearted Mainers with the sweet inflection of wincing, hopeful mommies.

And now I'm approaching the “Widow-Maker,” a devilish, three-foot deep moat that guards the finish line.

Last year, a chiropractor competing for the first time had taken a leap into the “Widow-Maker” and broken his leg. About a quarter of the runners this year had already fallen too. As I approach, I hear spectators shouting about my wife, “She's thirsty, she's thirsty.” I tentatively edge into the moat. Immersion Journalism.

***

“You know, I'm expecting to run well,” Dave told me as he limbered up before the race. “We definitely want to put on a show. And I'm going to go out dying. If I'm not fast enough, I'm jumping.”

The Castros made the final of the Championships. And at the place where I'd tip-toed into the “Widow-Maker” in my own heat an hour before, Dave and Lacey plunged in full-speed, trying to make up a 2-yard deficit against Rocco Andreozi and his girlfriend Kim Wasko (yes, that's allowed). Rocco and Kim, 2010's champions, had run a 56-second heat, barely qualifying for the showdown, but they were setting the pace in the final, tearing toward the six-foot Sand Hill, the last obstacle.

And here Dave Castro was again, off the script and closing—a 39-year old guy, two kids, good solid job, nothing too wild, and trying to win a championship of something a little stranger than football. Stranger, but not necessarily smaller: a National Championship of a sport that brought him and his wife closer together, that reignited some of what he felt in his college football days. He'd trained, sometimes over-trained, and the old walk-on's determination to outwork was blazing again. And, still, he was behind the action by a few steps.

“It definitely brings me back to Boise, and that's one of the reasons I still do wife-carrying,” Dave told me. “It's a great feeling when you can work hard and come out on top. I definitely like the atmosphere. I get jacked when it comes to that.”

***

When I approached the Sand Hill in my own heat, I was wet and weak, but I'd kept my wife dry though the moat. I only had to climb up, climb down, and cross the finish line. At the top of the sandy temple, I was brought to my knees by the gods of Wife-Carrying and the crowd sensed my demise. But I rose up again and Megan, hammy as always, gestured for cheers. The crowd obliged. Triumphantly, I trudged up and down the hill. 1:45 would be a fine time, I thought. And as the Public Address announcer called out, “Here come The Wanczyks to the finish line,” I collapsed in a two-bodied heap. Father-in-law watching. Seven-second penalty, again.

***

“Our little baby,” Dave says. “She'll put a little dog or bear on her neck and run around shouting, 'I'm wife-carrying, I'm wife-carrying. Are you going to let me win, daddy?'”

I get the sense that Dave Castro doesn't let people win, and when he sped toward the finish line during the final, paces behind Rocco and Kim, he looked like a tailback ready to jump over the D-line to finish a two-point conversion. This was what he'd thought about during all those UPS runs with the weight-vest. He could taste Finland, wanted another crack at Taisto. Lacey, sitting like shoulder pads, held on as Dave churned. Rocco churned harder.

They were a different species than me, these guys. An hour earlier, out of contention by more than a minute, I'd picked up Megan one last time after our second fall and slumped her over the finish line as our middle-aged competition looked on with concern. My lips were as white as her face was red. “Water,” I gasped.

“Falling at the end is the equivalent of running a 400-meter dash and someone coming and punching you in the stomach,” Dave told me. Dave Castro is correct about that. Megan and I finished 38th out of 51 entrants. But the couples at the top were in it for records and victory.

***

And as they came down the Sand Hill in the final, Dave and Lacey trailed Rocco and Kim by three steps. Then Dave got punched in the stomach. He fell, too.

Had he jumped for the finish line like he'd told me he would? Or had he tripped like I had, unsteady after such ridiculous exertion. It didn't matter; his effort was the same either way, and the Castros came in a narrow second, somehow beating their old record in the process. Dave, like me, had skinned his knee and his elbow, but he was smiling.

“I go up to these wife-carrying things, and I'm ready to go,” Dave told me. “I wake up and go to UPS and I'm ready to go, I'm ready to compete. I've had to fight for it. The guy in front of me might be better, but if he doesn't get a good start, I'm definitely going to be ready.”

Dave Castro came up three feet short, but he's signed up for this year. In 2012, I'll be sitting out the Championships, unable to defend my 38th place because of impending fatherhood. But the Castros will be there October 6th.

“We just try to be better than last year,” he said. “Getting older. And at the same time getting better.”


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