Athletes from around the world prepare for Estonia’s sauna marathon

The European Sauna Marathon 2019 will include teams representing Mexico, Japan, the UK & Italy.

Adam Rang
Estonian Saunas magazine
6 min readJan 29, 2019

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Yushi Nakashima has a passion for extreme races. The Japanese athlete has previously competed in a 251 km ultramarathon across the sweltering Sahara Desert, as well as a nearly 200 km run across the grueling Rocky Mountains in America — while dressed as a Samurai in long black robes.

His next challenge won’t be quite as tough, but it will still require team work, determination …and silly outfits.

This Saturday on 2 February he will be among 800 competitors from around the world taking part in the ‘European Sauna Marathon’ 2019 in Estonia.

Competitors are given a map of the Estonian winter capital of Otepää along with a list of saunas on it, which they then have to track down in the fastest possible time. Teams of four must spend at least three minutes in each leiliruum (hot room), tünnisaun (wood-fired hot tub), and nominate one team member to jump in each ice hole.

This year’s competition will also include some high tech twists. Competitors will now be given an orienteering chip to track their team’s progress and the sauna map will be downloadable as an app.

As it happens, Yushi now lives in Estonia and has learned to love Estonian sauna culture — in part thanks to Baruto Kaito, the Estonian sumo wrestler beloved in Japan.

Here’s a glimpse of Yushi in training for the sauna marathon at Baruto’s sauna in Estonia:

The idea of holding a ‘European sauna marathon’ in a small Estonian town was started as a joke ten years ago. Today though, it’s… well, it’s still a joke, but an increasingly popular one.

Not long after the competition was started, International competitors eventually did join from neighbouring Finland, Russia and Latvia. As the competition continues to grow every year, they are now coming from increasingly further away. Team Mexico, for example, has been a particularly popular feature in recent years.

This year’s competition is expected to be the most international yet and tickets for the 200 team places sold out at record speed, suggesting that the real winner as always will be Otepää itself.

In addition to Team Japan led by Yushi, Team Mexico will be returning, and many others from abroad will be competing for the first time — such as the fast growing British Sauna Society.

The British Sauna Society was founded by Mika Meskanen, a Finn who moved to the UK in 2010 and is passionate about promoting traditional saunas. Mika is no stranger to (genuinely) tough competitions either. He has previously represented Finland in the World Free Diving Pool Championship and even waved a Union Jack there in tribute to his adopted home too where he trained.

He has since made numerous visits to Estonia for sauna tours, including with other members of the society. One of them, Katie Bracher, has already opened her own Finnish style sauna on England’s famous Brighton beach.

Mika has participated three times in Finland’s Sarvenperä sauna marathon, but never in Estonia’s European sauna marathon, which he describes as “an omission which needs to be corrected”. He’ll be competing alongside his partner, Wendy Liu, who had her first “proper” sauna experience in Otepää during one of the Society’s visits here.

‘Team Italy’, led by Marcello Filippi and his Estonian partner Anni Tedrema, will also be entering the sauna marathon for the first time this year and will be travelling all the way from Italy to take part.

The duo have built their own business, Ecosauna, to export Estonian saunas to Italy where they are proving particularly popular among the Alpine chalets.

Marcello says Estonia became an important part of his life after meeting Anni so he was keen to learn more about Estonian traditions and soon fell in love with the sauna.

“In 2016, the sauna also became my work when I started exporting them from Estonia to Italy so I wanted get as deep as possible into the topic and my thirst for knowledge keeps growing. That’s how I discovered this legendary sauna marathon. Finally, this year my dream has come true to take part together with Anni. Otepää, we are coming!”

Closer to home, Estonian stove manufacturer HUUM from Tartu is also getting ready enter a team for the first time. They are a sponsor of the competition so will be donating prizes to the winners, but Helena Helendi from HUUM says their main focus for the day is to simply have fun and check out as many saunas as possible.

Although not an actual marathon, the main aim of the tongue-in-cheek event is to promote tourism to the area in the hope that more people will enjoy the saunas another day at a more leisurely pace. In fact, the real competition takes place between the saunas because all competitors that complete the course will be able to vote for their favourites afterwards and then proudly display their titles on plaques above their sauna doors — as you can see on this plaque behind Mika and Wendy during their previous visit to Otepää.

And nothing about the European sauna marathon should be taken too seriously, something that Yushi is fully prepared for as leader of Team Japan — which also includes an Italian, an Estonian, and a British-Estonian (me). We’ll be competing in traditional Japanese underwear known as Fundoshi and will be handing out our own special prizes along the way. Watch this space.

About ‘Estonian Saunas’

Thanks for reading. The Estonian Saunas blog is run by Anni and Adam, explorers and exporters of Estonian saunas.

Anni is a green building specialist who grew up here in Estonia immersed in sauna culture, while Adam is a väliseestlane (‘foreign Estonian’) whose family were exiled to the UK during Soviet times but he has now returned and is still trying to understand the sauna — and everything else about his Estonian heritage.

Together, we love finding weird and wonderful saunas all over Estonia and telling the world about them. Check out our plan to make 100 Estonian saunas more famous around the world.

We also offer two saunas in Tallinn that you can visit. Both are based on the best of Estonian design and technology, although in very different ways. The first is our smoke sauna, Rangi saun, which combines an ancient sauna heating technique with a contemporary Estonian design. The second is our WiFi-controlled e-sauna, Tondi Saun, which is part of our apartment that you can book through Airbnb.

In addition to reading our blog, you can follow Estonian Saunas on Instagram, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. There’s also a Facebook group for fans of Estonian saunas where you can share advice and stories.

Finally, you can email us at tere@estoniansaunas.com.

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Adam Rang
Estonian Saunas magazine

I'm a big fan of Estonian saunas. I also have an e-Residency profile here: https://medium.com/@adamrang