NEWRY – A Finnish couple edged out a Maine duo to win the 2012 North American Wife Carrying Championship on Saturday.

But Jesse Wall, a strength and conditioning trainer from South Paris, and his teammate, Christine Arsenault, a Portland bartender and mother, came in just a little more than a second behind Taisto Miettinen and Kristiina Haapanen of Helsinki.

“Not falling in the water is the hardest part,” said Wall.

Although Wall and Arsenault were hoping to win, having taken second and third place in the past two years, they were facing stiff competition. Not only are the Finnish couple the reigning wife-carrying world champions for four years in a row, the arcane sport was invented in Finland.

They were among 50 couples competing in the championship at Sunday River ski area, surrounded by a sea of spectators. The teams had to run uphill, straddle a log hurdle, make a hairpin turn, trudge through a muddy pond and make it over a sand pile, all while carrying a teammate 280 yards to the finish.

Surprisingly, the event is far from silly. Participants have to be in top condition. The couples look like mythical creatures, the men carrying the clutching women upside down with the women’s legs draped over their chests. The fastest were able to make it through the course in just under 53 seconds while most managed the course in about 90 seconds.

Audrey and Rick Martin traveled from their Portland home to watch their daughter and son-in-law, Emily and Michael Sangillo of Brookline, N.H., compete.

“It was an impulse thing. Her husband just signed them up,” said Martin.

Contestants included couples from Michigan, Virginia and Nova Scotia — and a honeymooning pair from Kentucky. The winners receive the woman’s weight in beer and five times her weight in cash. But most of the couples said they were in the race to have fun.

The sport’s origins have been traced back to a 19th-century Finnish brigand, Herkko Rosvo-Ronkainen, who required his band of wife-stealing henchmen to prove themselves on an obstacle course.

But contestants these days do not have to be married or even in a romantic relationship. Contestants must be over 21, and the wife participant must weigh at least 108 pounds or wear weights to reach the requirement.

Megan Howard, a Standish bookkeeper, and Matt Kelley, a South Portland truck driver, were competing for the first time. They said they got some strange looks when they practiced in Payson Park in Portland.

“We slowly figured it out,” said Kelley.

Matt and Beth Chabot of Chicopee, Mass., both medical residents at Bay State Medical Center, said when they watched their first wife-carrying race on television, they knew they had to try it. The couple was accompanied by a cheering squad and their dog, Darby.

“We are winging it,” said Matt Chabot.

The practice run just before the race was the first time Josh Grenier of Otisfield and a student at Boston University’s dental school, and his girlfriend, Jessie Alpert of Boston, ever tried wife-carrying. They managed to come in just a few seconds over a minute.

“I just held on while he did all the work,” said Alpert.

Staff Writer Beth Quimby can be contacted at 791-6363 or at:

bquimby@pressherald.com