Oh, the Weather Outside is Frightful… Let’s Hit the Sauna!

During the longest, cold winter nights, you may want to curl up under your blanket with a cup of hot cocoa and a favorite film. But why not try something different? Estonians did. And now, each year, they host the European Sauna Marathon!

People run during the sauna marathon
Participants must track down, locate and visit designated saunas in the Otepaa area as fast as possible during the event. The team that completed all of the saunas in the shortest time wins. Photo: INTS KALNINS / Reuters / Forum

But first things first. The oldest record of saunas being used by the Estonian people dates back to the 13th century. Not a big deal, you might think. After all, saunas have always been a strong tradition amongst the Finno-Urgic people. Estonian, Finnish – there is no difference.

Estonian smoke sauna: the UNESCO heritage

Wrong! Estonian smoke saunas are exceptional enough to have been entered on the UNESCO list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. They are different as they do not have a chimney, and the smoke fills the interior while the fire heats the rocks, which then generate steam. Elevated platforms on the sides are used for sitting on or laying down.

woman wearing a costume takes a dip in cold water during the Sauna Marathon
A woman wearing a costume takes a dip in cold water during the Sauna Marathon near Otepaa, Estonia. Photo: PAP / EPA / TOMS KALNINS

Whipping the body with specially prepared whisks exfoliates the skin and increases blood circulation. And why not kill two birds with one stone? “Shame to waste all that good smoke” was what Estonian ancestors had to have thought. “Let’s use it and smoke some meat at the same time. At least we can be sure no one comes to steal it,” is how the internal monologue could have carried on. And that’s how Estonians started smoking meat in their saunas. Yummy and efficient!

A new tradition

The first sauna marathon event took place in 2009 in Otepää. Having been voted one of the best Estonian tourist attractions, it was destined to become an annual tradition. Although the word ‘marathon’ suggests a lot of strain, preparation, and rushing, the reality of the competition couldn’t be more different. It is one of the most pleasant ‘sporting’ events anyone can enter, regardless of their stamina (although, we must stress that being in good health is essential when attempting to visit a sauna anywhere in the world).

The construction of the Marathon is simple. You gather a team of four. You have to visit as many saunas, which take place in the competition, as possible. And when you do, you need to stick to the following rules:

  • The team needs to spend at least 3 minutes in the leiliruum (the oven-hot room);
  • Then they have to take a hot tub;
  • At least one team member has to immerse themselves in icy-cold water.

And then comes the only part of the competition that resembles the original marathon – running. You run to the next sauna. According to the competitors – you have no choice, as it is unbelievably cold outside!

Hot tubs, hot snacks, hot prizes

The saunas are prepared by the locals, who cordially welcome their adventure-hungry guests. And inventive hosts they can be! Some shall welcome them with traditional snacks, some with traditional beverages, and some.. will fill the hot tub with kvass (a traditional rye drink). Possibilities seem endless. Perhaps that’s the best place to mention that the saunas compete for the title of the best sauna in the competition (not that the owners would let you go hungry or thirsty otherwise).

Got you hooked? And we didn’t even get to the prize yet! What would a competition be if there was no prize to win? This one fits the nature of the event perfectly. The lucky team goes home with a brand new… hot tub! Something to remember the most extreme ‘sauna-ing’ event by.

Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your take), the winners are chosen randomly. After all, using a sauna should be a relaxing experience that has positive effects on your health, not a way to cook yourself senselessly. The teams participating in the competition know about it and do not seem overly pressured by the watch.

Estonia knows how to use those hot temples of unwinding spirit, and it is eager to promote that knowledge across Europe. And indeed, even across the ocean! In 2019 the teams who entered the competition came from Hungary, Germany, Russia, Norway, Greece, Finland, New Zealand, Italy, Poland, England, Japan, United States, Mexico, Ecuador, Latvia, and Lithuania.

Right then, we take it your winter plans are now sorted. To the Estonian saunas, everyone!

Weronika Edmunds

Holder of a DPSI in English Law and an MBA, she believes in lifelong learning. Her passion for theatre shaped her sensitivity to the spoken and written word, leading her to become a creative copywriter. She lives for words and knows how to pour life into otherwise lifeless wording. She likes to repeat after M. Ondaatje: “Words, Caravaggio. They have a power.”

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