The point of no return

Rick Reilly never thought he'd have to revisit the World Sauna Championships because of a death. AP Photo/ Lehtikuva/Sari Gustafsson

Some people say they would die before giving up. Now we have one man who proved it, and one who nearly did.

A Russian, Vladimir Ladyzhenskiy, died Saturday and a Finn, five-time champion Timo Kaukonen, was hospitalized in serious condition after refusing to quit Saturday in the World Sauna Championships in Heinola, Finland.

The final started with six men, but the 230-degree heat was so literally scarring that four of them left after only two to three minutes, a very early exit for a competitor in the final.

A woman, who asked not to be identified, witnessed the entire thing. She writes:

"I saw Timo and the Russian confirming [to medics] every 10 or 20 seconds that they were OK. They were raising their thumbs all the time but after six minutes -- and only seconds after another raised thumb -- the referees decided to take them both out, first Timo who was still able to -- or at least half able, with some help -- to come out. The Russian had to be dragged out and after that he fell on the floor in front of the sauna and was sort of convulsing and cramping. Then they put a curtain up in front as they [medics] worked on them."

No wonder. Just the photos of the Russian are ghastly.

Blisters and burns cover most of his body. The blisters had burst, covering the floor of the sauna in blood.

Ossi Arvela, the director of the championships, said the two men were giving paramedics the thumbs-up "very often, and they did so much more frequently closer to the end. The interval between the last thumbs up and the moment the paramedics went in was 3 seconds."

"They were conscious," Arvela said, "but unable to get out of the sauna on their own."

I know something of the crippling heat they suffered because I competed in the event in 2007. Our saunas were actually hotter -- 260 degrees Fahrenheit - but there was something worse this time, something exponentially more scorching.

"It doesn't feel good getting in there this year," Kaukonen said before the final, in Finnish. "But I will clench my teeth and see where this leads us."

It led him to the ICU, and Ladyzhenskiy to his coffin.

The mystery is what happened. According to Ossi Arvela, the organizer, all the rules and safety precautions were followed. The temperatures in the sauna were similar to other years and the times of the competitors were about the same -- until the gruesome final.

When you enter the WSC, you sign a waiver saying you know saunas can cause "injury and death." I didn't see death my year, but I saw the way there.

I remember the only other American entered -- a New Yorker named Rick Ellis -- getting out of his first "heat" after 8 minutes. I wrote in my book, "Sports from Hell":

I'm waiting to congratulate him when I notice something awful. There's two big patches of skin missing on his upper lip, just under his nostrils.
"Dude, were you by any chance breathing through your nose in there?"
"Yeah, why?" he says.
"Your skin is all gone under your nose! It's burnt off!"
He feels his upper lip in horror. He runs to the mirror. It's worse. The tops of his ears have split open and are bubbling. Under his arms and on his back are bright purple patches. His forehead is painted bright red and blistering in front of his eyes. I take him to the beer garden to try to cool him off, but nothing helps. He is sweating like Pam Anderson at Bible study. "Man, I'm burning up. Even my tongue is burnt." His wife begs him to quit, but he refuses. Says he's trained too hard. She shakes her head.
He refused to quit, though, and moved on to the second round later in the day. In that one, he bolted out after only 4 minutes and 15 seconds.

Walking into that sauna feels like you're climbing into your own personal pizza oven and closing the door. It feels like benzene torches have been stuck in your mouth, your ears and your nose.

When we greet him, I nearly ralph. He is melting like the wicked witch. His forehead, his lips, and his ears are giant sacks of pus. His tricep is riddled with pebble-sized blisters, dozens of them. So much skin is hanging off him he looks like the world's most successful gastric-bypass patient. His forehead is a science fiction movie. His nose is cooked like a forgotten kielbasa. And this is just what we can see.

"I don't know, man," I say. "Maybe you should go to first aid."
"Nah, I'm fine!" he insists. "Although, it does kinda hurt back here." He lifts up his shirt and there it is: this horrible, huge, pus-filled huge sack -- the size of a $3 pancake -- just hanging off his armpit. His wife gasps. My wife turns away in horror.

When we drag him to the first-aid EMT, the guy says, "You must go to the hospital. Within 24 hours, when these blisters break, you will lose lots of fluid. You will be highly susceptible to infection. We can't do anything for you here. It is too serious."

So we pile him into our rented Volvo and take him to the hospital, where, as we're leaving, his wife is shaking her head.

Water boils at 212 degrees, so walking into that sauna feels like you're climbing into your own personal pizza oven and closing the door. It feels like benzene torches have been stuck in your mouth, your ears and your nose. Every 30 seconds, they drop a pitiless stream of water on the white-hot rocks in the middle of the sauna. That steam hits you like a slap in the face from the devil himself. But there are 1,000 people in the audience watching you and a Finnish national TV audience and your family and friends, so you take as much pain as possible before your brain screams "Let's get out of here!"

The problem is, sometimes your body can't obey. In the women's final in 2007, a Belarusian woman, Natalya Trifanova, was so crumpled by the heat that she literally couldn't get up off the bench to save herself. Panicked, she motioned for the medics to come get her.

I wrote:

Natalya motions the judges again, "Come get me!" At last, they go in -- and you can see the heat hit them in the face like a Holyfield right -- but they can't get her off the bench! It's as though she is glued! One try! Two tries! Nothing! She's going to die in there, in front of 500 people! Finally, they get a third man, and they're able to scrape her off the bench. They try to get her into a wheelchair, but it's like trying to put an elm tree into a box, limbs are everywhere, and spasming. At last they fold her into it and race her to the cold showers.

Natalya wound up fine, just as Kaukonen always survived happily. Kaukonen trains year-round for this one weekend. He gets in hotter saunas than the WSC three times a day. He drinks three to four gallons of water a day. He is sponsored by a sauna manufacturer. He arrived at the event in a mobile home with a sauna inside it. For him to nearly die in a sauna after only six minutes is like a dolphin nearly drowning. Sometimes, the competitive instinct will kill you.

"Why is it that 128 [other competitors] leave the sauna when their body tells them to and then these two [don't]," the witness writes. "What were they thinking, or were they thinking at all? There must be some explanation or reason why they stayed there over three minutes longer than the others, why their skin burnt the way it did and reacted the way it did, in a way never seen before. I hope the [police] investigation gives us some answers."

Finnish police have decided not to charge anybody in the case, according to Arvela, but the investigation continues.

This was the 12th championship. Arvela says he'll never hold it again.

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