World Cup soccer no match for an outhouse race.

While a lot of the world has been focused on soccer the past couple of weeks, the serious sports aficionados have been gathering in Bristol, Vermont for the most extreme X Game there is: outhouse racing. This coming Friday morning at nine a.m., for the 36th consecutive year, Bristol will celebrate the 4th of July with its annual road race rich with one-holers – chariots born of old-fashioned outhouses.

And once again, as he has almost every race since he helped to create the sport back in the late 1970s, Larry Gile, now 69, will be the starter. Gile, along with his friend, Bill Paine, realized that there was no better way to celebrate the Spirit of ’76 and the intellectual foundation of legislative self-determination than by racing outhouses around the Bristol green.

“It’s hard to believe the tradition is still going,” Gile told me this week. “Bill Paine and I thought it would last five years, max.”

Today the outhouses are replicas of the real thing, built by each team around a platform with castors provided by the race organizers. Two people push (or pull) their outhouse, while a third person sits atop a faux pot inside. And while the course indeed once wound its way around the green, these days it’s a mad sprint down Main Street. Most years, there are five heats.

“There was a real outhouse that first year,” Giles recalled. “It was stolen from up in Starksboro. The team took the castors off a supermarket shopping cart, and plopped the outhouse upside down on them. The darn thing almost won.”

He estimates roughly 2,500 spectators line the streets most years to watch the races, and his favorite people in the crowd are often summer tourists who are staring in utter disbelief: “They just can’t believe what they’re watching. They just never thought they’d see folks racing outhouses down a main street in Vermont.” One time, a family visiting from Ohio stumbled upon the races on the 4th of July, and returned the following year to compete.

Among the teams racing this Friday will be one from the town’s Village Creeme Stand. (There’s only one “e” in creemee’s second syllable in Bristol, because you want to save room for a second twist.) Among the two runners is Whit Lower, 17, a senior at Mount Abraham Union High School. Lower plays soccer. He teaches little kids how to play soccer. But as physically taxing as that sport is, he knows how hard he has had to train for the outhouse race. “You have to eat a lot of creemees. French fries, too. That’s how you prepare,” he told me. Another tip he offered? “You want someone slight inside the outhouse.”

For three years, Lincoln’s Will Smith was on the Village Creeme Stand team. He’s 20 and a junior at Syracuse University. But this year, he said, he is “passing the torch. Whit is a real hero for continuing to run for us.” But Smith recalled how energized he would get immediately before the race those years he participated: “You get excited. Seriously riled up. There is a beating heart inside every outhouse.”

Gile knows how much the community looks forward to the races and has no plan to give up the job as Official Starter anytime soon. “It’s one thing to retire from work,” he said. “It’s another thing to retire from the outhouse races.”

And so while a lot of eyes will be watching soccer this week, at least on Friday morning I will be watching a boatload of pretend port-a-potties on wheels. It’s just one more reason why I love this corner of Addison County. Louisville might have the Kentucky Derby, but Bristol, Vermont can take pride in its outhouse races.

(This column appeared originally in the Burlington Free Press on June 29, 2014. Chris’s new novel, “Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands,” arrives in nine days.)

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Chris Bohjalian
Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of eighteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Guest Room. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, and The Double Bind.

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