ELLIOT STOREY OF Delray Beach has run with the bulls in Pamplona, Spain, bicycled up mountains in California and pumped iron in strongman competitions across the United States.
None of that, he said, compares to his experience in the unusual foot race with the whimsical name — the Wife Carrying Competition.
“It is the hardest minute of your life,’’ said Storey, a 6-foot-2, 230-pound athlete who has carried his wife, Giana, to victory in past races, including the North American championship in 2016 in Maine.
“It is absolute all out, puke at the end, everything you’ve got,’’ he said. “I would love to see more elite athletes give this a try.’’
Before you mock Storey’s assessment — Wife-carrying contest? How hard can it be? — see for yourself this Sunday at 1 p.m. in Lake Worth Beach, where the Florida Wife Carrying Championship will be run in Bryant Park as part of the annual Midnight Sun Festival.
The three-day festival starts Friday and celebrates Lake Worth Beach’s rich Finnish heritage by showcasing the music, food and traditions of Finland, including the sport of eukonkanto, as the wife-carrying competition is called in Finnish.
The race’s roots go back to the 19th century when, according to one popular legend, a team of robbers intent on proving their strength would sneak into homes at night, kidnap women and carry them into the forest.
Tom Kuutti of the Midnight Sun Festival’s organizing committee prefers another legend involving "Ronkainen the Robber," who fell in love with the daughter of a mayor who’d chosen another man for her to marry.
“At the wedding ceremony, before ‘I do,’ Ronkainen ran in and swept his girlfriend from the marital stand, picked her off feet and carried her off into the woods on his shoulders,’’ Kuutti said.
The legends morphed into a light-hearted sport that has grown into fierce competition, with world championship heats held each year since 1991 in Sonkajärvi, Finland.
Wife-carrying races have been run in different parts of the world and in 13 U.S. states. Lake Worth Beach has run unofficial races off and on for years until it became sanctioned in 2017 as the annual Florida championship.
Official rules dictate the "wife" doesn’t have to be a marital wife but can be any partner who’s at least 18 years old, weighs at least 108 pounds and wears a helmet (usually a bicycle helmet).
“Lightweight Wives For Rent” reads a whimsical sign posted in Bryant Park every year on the morning of the race. But if she is too light, contest officials will outfit her pockets with bags of sand.
Some wives have been known to sit on the runner’s shoulders, like a dad carrying a kid through Disney World.
But three common carrying methods are the fireman’s over-the-shoulder carry, the classic piggyback and the popular (and provocative) Estonian-style, with the wife upside-down on his back with her legs over the neck and shoulders and her head facing his rear end.
The Florida Championship course in Bryant Park is 280 yards long. Runners must negotiate two log obstacles and a water hazard.
Since the winning times are around one minute, the race is really a sprint — one that, for the runner, gives new meaning to the marital euphemism ball-and-chain.
“It is a real sport, but there's no way anybody can deny that you're going to laugh when you look at it because it seems so hilarious,’’ Kuutti said.
Regardless of whether the course is hilly (Maine), muddy (Finland) or flat (Lake Worth Beach), it’s no walk in the park. And the competition can be fierce, even if the winning prize in the World Championship in Finland is the wife’s weight in beer. (In Lake Worth Beach, the Florida winners will get a cash prize: $200 for winner, $100 for second place and $50 for third.)
“You can feel the acid in your legs,’’ said Taisto Miettinen of Finland, a six-time wife-carrying world champion who has competed in at least three Lake Worth Beach races. “You must have strong and fast legs, and good durability.’’
The “wife” plays an important role, too, even if she’s just going along for the ride.
“Be a good backpack” is the rule Storey’s wife, an aerobics director, follows as she tries to position herself like a backpack while holding on Estonian-style.
“She has to control herself so we don't get off balance,’’ said Storey, who ran the Lake Worth Beach race in 2017. “She tries to stay tight but not too tight.’’
The “most important component of preparing for a wife-carrying competition is actually practicing with your wife. Whether or not you incorporate regular runs with your wife into your training, you’re going to want to devote special sessions simply to working out the proper hold, especially going over obstacles,’’ he wrote in a blog a few years ago.
“Not only will the extra weight and style of hold affect your normal running gait, but practice for the wife is crucial as well. Placing 50 percent or more of your body weight on your shoulders is going to raise your center of gravity. This creates an instability that requires lots of practice to be able to control. The fastest ride is a smooth ride.
“The wife can’t see the course to know what comes next, so she needs to be in tune with your body in order to smooth the bumps. A surefire way to lose a race is to fall, and the most common fall seems to be an overcorrection by a pair towards the end of the race, when the husband’s legs are jello.’’
Other participants just wing it.
Mia Shaughnessy, a native of Finland living in Miami, had never competed in the competition until a friend working at the Midnight Sun Festival called her a few days before the 2018 race with an urgent request.
Miettinen had just arrived in Lake Worth Beach a few days before the competition only to learn that his race partner wasn’t able to make it. Now, he “was desperate to find somebody small enough to be carried the next day,’’ Shaughnessy recalled.
Would Shaughnessy be his partner?
Sure, why not, she said. How hard can it be?
“Taisto came all the way from Finland to try to win this thing. It was funny to see him because he was really nervous and really serious about it. For me, it was more of a joke,’’ she said.
She met Miettinen the day before the race and they didn’t have time to practice. But being Finnish, she figured she knew enough about the competition.
“Holding on for dear life. That's my only job,’’ said Shaughnessy, whose husband got a kick out of watching her race.
Shaughnessy said she weighed 104 pounds, but made weight on race day by drinking "lots of water.''
Then came the awkward part — assuming the Estonian-style position with a complete stranger.
“My legs are, how do I put this, between his head so I am upside down and facing his buttocks,’’ she recalled.
“It's always a little nerve wracking, thinking if you fell down you're gonna break your neck. It's not that easy to hang around upside down for that long. First of all you're bouncing around and you can easily slip off. You also go through these obstacles, jumping over these poles. The last one is the water run so you get wet from the splashing. Even though it lasts about a minute, it felt like forever.’’
The best part of the experience? They won.
She returned in 2019 to partner with Miettinen, who wound up suffering a sprained ankle during the qualifying run. Watching Palm Beach County Fire Rescue paramedics wrap her partner’s ankle, Shaughnessy assumed their bid for a repeat championship had ended.
She was wrong.
Miettinen iced the ankle for 30 minutes, hoisted Shaughnessy onto his back and ran the final heat. They won again.
“He’s an animal,’’ Storey said, complimenting Miettinen.
Those back-to-back wins came after Miettinen suffered an upset loss in the 2017 Florida championship to Mischa Freystaetter and his wife, Rie Takano.
Four months later, Freystaetter went to Finland for the World Championship and finished second to Miettinen.
“That was a tremendous rivalry,’’ Kuutti said.
There’s still time to enter Sunday’s race, which will be limited to about 10 couples. Organizers will waive the $25 entry fee for first responders.
“You absolutely should participate,’’ Storey said. “But give it your all. It’s going to take everything you’ve got.’'
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About the author
Joe Capozzi is an award-winning reporter based in Lake Worth Beach. He spent more than 30 years in the newspaper business, mostly at The Palm Beach Post, where he wrote about the opioid scourge, invasive pythons, the birth of the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches and Palm Beach County government. For 15 years, he covered the Miami Marlins baseball team. Joe left The Post in December 2020. View all posts by Joe Capozzi.