By Ted Siefer
NEWRY Maine (Reuters) - Men with their wives slung over their shoulders bounded over log hurdles and charged through a muddy pit on a mountainside in Maine on Saturday, as hundreds of spectators cheered them on at the North American Wife Carrying Championship.
The annual event, now in its 15th year, held at the base of a grassy ski mountain at the Sunday River resort in Maine had all the trappings of a serious competition.
There were fit competitors in numbered bibs, a precision clock and a winners podium, but from the moment the announcer declared "saddle up!" as signal for the couples, it was clear this competition was as whimsical as they come.
Competitor John Lund sported big spikes protruding from shoulder pads, studded wristbands and a skeleton mask.
"The people in Finland put together this event because they felt there should be at least one news story in the year that makes people laugh," said Lund, who spent four years in Finland, the birthplace of wife-carrying as a modern sport.
The competition began there in the 1990s and was inspired loosely by the legend of a 19th century outlaw who tested the mettle of his gang of robbers by having them run an obstacle course with a woman on their backs.
The sport has since gained enthusiasts around the world. The event on Saturday in Maine was one of several official qualifying competitions for the international championship in Finland, with the others held in Australia, Sweden and Estonia.
For all the oddities of the Maine event, the 278-yard course in the shape of a horseshoe presented a grueling challenge to competitors, who ran up and down a steep slope, surmounted log hurdles and charged through a pit filled knee-high with muddy water.
Nearly every team employed the "Estonian carry," in which the woman hangs head down with her legs hooked around the man's neck and her arms around his waist, which frees his hands.
Despite the competition's name, the couple does not need to be married.
The winners on Saturday were Jesse Wall, a gym owner, and his friend Christina Arsenault. Under the rules of the game, they won Arsenault's weight in beer and five times the numerical value of her weight in cash.
Asked what he planned to do with the 10 cases of beer, Wall looked around and said, "Share it with everyone here."
(Editing by Alex Dobuzinskis, Frank McGurty and W Simon)