By KATHRYN FLAGG
BRISTOL — Even intermittent rain showers and cloudy skies this year couldn’t dampen what in Bristol marks the jovial kick-off of Independence Day: the annual running of the outhouses.
In the 31st annual Great Outhouse Race — which this year included head-over-heel tumbles, outhouse crashes and a disputed photo finish — the team from Snap’s Restaurant walked away with the championship title, though eyewitnesses disputed the neck-and-neck finish between Snap’s and a team from No. 15 School House Maple.
The race, in which two runners push or pull a third team member in a wheeled outhouse down one block in downtown Bristol, has been a Fourth of July institution in the town for decades.
This year, 14 teams faced off in four preliminary heats, each battling for a spot in the final run down Bristol’s West Street. Tugging large wooden crates atop spinning castors, the competitors lined up near Howden Hall as onlookers crowded the sides of the street.
The competition looked tough, racers agreed as they gathered at the staging area for the race. With no clear team-to-beat on the horizon, most racers said their strategies boiled down to two words: “Run fast.”
In the morning’s first heat, that’s what a team representing Natural Heat Works did. Runners Ben Davis and Toby Salas tugged rider Kieran “Scrappers” Dougherty across the finish line first, earning the day’s first berth in the final heat.
The day’s first real excitement came in the second heat, when not one but two outhouses ran into trouble. Ethan Heffernan, 16, and Patrick Etka, 16, who were racing for the Bristol Historical Society, said before the heat that their goal was to “try to stay in the center of the road.”
“I’m chomping at the bit here,” Heffernan said, as they waited at the starting line for the race to begin. “I just want to go.”
But once the outhouses began rattling down the asphalt, just staying upright seemed to be a challenge for the team. Heffernan lost his footing and tumbled head-over-heels onto the road. He managed to pick himself up quickly, and the two racers — towing 20-year-old Kate Heffernan, Ethan’s cousin — made it across the finish line in one piece.
Not quite so lucky were the racers from the Village Creeme Stand, decked out in yellow and white uniforms for the race. Before the sprint, runner Courtney Jipner, 16, joked, “He’s the muscles,” pointing to fellow runner Craig Camara, 17, “and I’m the speed.”
But the muscles and the speed ran into trouble a little more than half way down the course, and their outhouse went down in a crash. Rider Shanna Gebo, 17, clambered out of the toppled outhouse unhurt.
In the end, it was No. 15 School House Maple, tugged along by runners John McGlenn, 18, and Corey Vancura, 20, that advanced to the last round.
Also joining the finalists was the winning team in the third heat, Snap’s Restaurant, with Kevin Berry, 18, and Chris Berry, 21, tugging along Vicky Lattrell.
And in a surprise finish in the fourth heat, the team from Bristol Financial Services outpaced the favorites from the Bristol Mountain Greens Market. The Mountain Greens outhouse — this year ornamented with a papier-mâché Lake Champlain sea monster — claimed the grand title in the race for the last two years running.
But in the end, John Buonincontro, 34, and Shawn Oxford, 40, dashed across the finish line first.
The two runners — the oldest in this year’s race — joked beforehand about just hoping to make it to the finish line. They’ve both raced before — an experience that means “we should know better,” Oxford said before the heat.
But when the two teams neared the finish line during the fourth heat, Mountain Greens lost speed. Buonincontro saw them drop behind from the corner of his eye, and speculated that the team had suffered some confusion about what marked the finish line for this year’s race.
“My first thought was, ‘Oh no! We’ve got to show down,’” Buonincontro said.
But the Bristol Financial Services outhouse rolled across the finish line first, meaning Buonincontro and Oxford were locked in for another go down the race track, like it or not.
“Just having the legs to do it again is tough,” Oxford said.
Mountain Greens, by way of consolation, did take home one trophy on Saturday, earning the prize for the best decorated outhouse of day.
ON TO THE FINAL
After the trophies for each heat were doled out, the four finalists took their spots at the starting line one last time. Larry Gile, decked out in suspenders, stood several paces ahead of the rattling outhouses. He was in on the group that started these races three decades back.
Originally, he said, the track was much longer — and that “damn near killed (the racers).”
Has he ever raced?
“Heavens no,” Gile said. “But it’s been fun talking people into it.”
Nearby, ham radio operator Mary Alice Rath’s handheld radio crackled as she took in dispatches from the announcer’s steps on Holley Hall. Rath, of Middlebury, has helped out at the races as a radio operator for three years.
“It’s a lot of fun,” she said. But then it was back to business — Rath’s radio buzzed, and she passed on word to Gile: the announcers were ready to start the race.
Toeing the starting line were racers from No. 15 School House Maple, Snap’s, Bristol Financial Services and Natural Heat Works.
But once the racers were off, the Financial Services and Natural Heat Works racers lagged behind — the first team worn out after running in the previous heat, the second derailed by a wheel that came flying off their outhouse.
No.15 School House Maple took the early lead, and for much of the race the team from Snap’s was dashing to catch up. Catch up they did, as the two teams cruised across the finish line just past Holley Hall at almost exactly the same time.
The question went up from racers and onlookers alike: Who was first?
The race was called for Snap’s — but McGlenn, panting and out of breath, shook his head ruefully.
“I really thought we had it,” he said.
But for a race meant all in good fun, no one pursued the question of the photo finish, and the Snap’s team took the day’s trophy — a small wooden depiction of an outhouse — and this year’s title.
“It was really a lot closer than I thought,” Chris Berry said after the race. “We just saw that we were losing and I was hammering.”
The two Berrys said they’d be back next year to defend their title in the 32nd annual Great Outhouse Race, with the same strategy they brought to the road this year: “Run fast.”