“Conconully is a great place for year-round activities, but we’ve found outhouse racing draws people to the community each year,” says Janet Warner, race organizer and president of the Conconully Chamber of Commerce. “It’s the tradition of it all that keeps everyone coming back."
The town’s population “hovers around 208 people,” Warner says. Last Saturday, more than 2,000 people packed Conconully to witness the annual weirdness, bond with family and catch up with friends.
Conconully is almost equidistant from Seattle and Spokane, nestled between two mountain lakes and surrounded by both state and national forest lands — a winter wonderland of sorts. It’s composed of myriad small A-frame cabins. On Main Street, where the outhouse races take place, there’s a small and unassuming hotel, a corner quick-mart playing A River Runs Through It on television at the register, and two divey bars with bonfires and a beer garden.
Marilyn and Walt Womack helped found the Conconully Outhouse Races 36 years ago.
“When we were young and stupid then we just did things for fun,” Marilyn Womack says, laughing, while sitting in a chair on top of a flatbed trailer along the approximately 100-yard-long race course. “We needed something to bring people to Conconully in the winter time. We formed the town’s first chamber of commerce in 1979, and thought a couple years later that we needed something silly to do during the winter that would bring people to visit.”
The race draws more than 2,000 people every year. Each outhouse must include a toilet seat, a roll of toilet paper and be uniquely decorated — think Star Wars, Grease, and Peanuts cartoon references. The outhouses sit on skis. Each three-person team consists of a sitter, who is required to wear a helmet, and two pushers who help hurl the contraptions down a 100-yard course. There is a total of ten different race categories, ranging from a kids competition to the bucket race, where pushers wear a bucket over their heads and must rely only the voice of the sitter for navigation.
According to Warner, some 40 people volunteered in this year's event, whether building bonfires, bringing in extra snow because the weather didn't cooperate, or creating the hand-crafted trophies for race winners. There’s no prize money, just community bragging rights.
Womack was a competitor in the early days. “I competed in the very first one, and I smoked then. The course was much longer and I was sucking oxygen by the end of it,” she exclaims. “We learned you’ve gotta build them light — the lighter they are the faster they go.” Lightweight construction is now a common strategy, another is getting good traction for the pushers. Some even attach ice cleats to their boots for that added edge.
The outhouse races have been an Ehlinger family tradition since the races began in 1983. “We’re well into the third generation of outhouse racers in our family,” says Marcie Ehlinger, who stood at the starting line on Main Street, cheering on her nephew and son who were racing in Ye Old Butt Hutt yet again this year. “For the longest time, we were the team to beat. We learned a strategy of bumping into our competitor’s outhouse at the start of the race to slow them down, and over the years it almost always wins us our races.”
Randy Hurley moved to Conconully more recently, in his retirement, and now invites his kids and grandchildren to visit, championing their outhouse, the Hurley Hut. “This is our second year competing in the outhouse races as a family. It's a great way to get everyone together and visit our cabin during the winter.”
“This has always just been an ongoing event,” says Warner, of the outhouse race’s longstanding history. “It doesn’t feel like we really plan on it anymore. It’s just known among the community and region that it’s going to happen each year at this time.”
Molly Hornbeck of Tacoma gives Masyn Fugate, 10, of Concrete a high-five during the opening ceremonies portion of the Outhouse Races. "This is such an awesome family outing," says Hornbeck who traveled across the state with her partner and kids to the event. "It's a good way to get out of town and experience something fun and different during the winter."
William Mallory of Everett (center) takes a spill while pushing Yvonne Bussler-White of Okanogan in May The Force Be With You team's outhouse during the bucket race competition. "It's impossible to see anything with that bucket on your head," Mallory later said. "I couldn't hear her telling me which way to turn."
Christopher "Kevin" Allen of the Colville Tribe visits with a friend in Sit'n Bull Saloon & Cafe after the conclusion of the Outhouse Races. "This is such a great way for people to come together each year and visit with old friends," Allen says. Allen works for the Bureau of Indian Affairs roads division on the Colville Reservation and recently received his last paycheck from the federal government while a government shutdown begins to enter its second month.