After you graduate from college, you begin to realize that your chances to score touchdowns, to slam a basketball or to jai the alai are pretty much at an end. When you have the chance for just a sampling of that sort of glory, even in its most minute forms, you embrace it, you hold it tight, and then you sprint to the bathroom.
That, at least, was my experience with The Great Nome Bathtub Race.
The race is an annual event in the Bering seaside city of Nome, Alaska, a town most people seem to have heard of but don’t know much about. Located just below the Arctic Circle and 100-odd miles from Russia, Nome is where I spent the two years after graduation from Notre Dame as a volunteer at KNOM, a public service Catholic radio station serving isolated Eskimo and Indian villages in Western Alaska. Nome is a small town, around 3,500 inhabitants, and when it holds an event, it seems that everyone in town is either participating or watching.
The bathtub race takes place during Labor Day weekend, as teams race 100 yards down Nome’s Front Street, each pushing or pulling a tub containing a team member and gallons of water. I first landed in Nome about a month before the annual event was to take place.
Shortly after my arrival, Olin, a quiet KNOM volunteer from Georgia, showed me our tub, which was in a shed behind the radio station. It was a smooth-looking machine. The hulking box of a bathtub had been placed in a vaguely isosceles triangular frame, and the frame had been encased in black canvas, leaving the tub itself uncovered. KNOM was painted along both sides of the car in bright yellow lettering, and a bolt of red lightning slashed across the monstrosity’s sides. As a nice decorative touch, previous racers had pasted an assortment of labels from cans and boxes on the sides of the vehicle. All were from products that are the staples of volunteer living in Northwest Alaska: Pilot bread, peanut butter, Ramen noodles and all sorts of foods that take years to spoil.
A long bar was soldered to the back of the frame, so four people working together could shove the tub. The apparent weakness in the vehicle lay in its wheels. It had four, and they were all too small to be considered a reasonable means of conveying a beast this large. It was like a minivan outfitted with wheels from a shopping cart. The two wheels toward the back of the tub seemed to have been taken from a child’s wagon, and those beneath the vehicle’s nose were, at best, vestigial. They looked as though someone had robbed them off an office chair.
The designer and primary craftsman of our goodly ship was KNOM’s engineer and all-around handyman, Les Brown. Les, a man who aptly describes himself as “Santa Claus gone bad,” explained that he originally created the tub car with the intention of skirting the guidelines provided by the Nome Bathtub Racing committee. Officially, the tub had to have four wheels, but Les figured that if he could design a tub that ran on only two wheels, team KNOM would have an advantage. Two wheels on the ground creates less friction than four, in theory.
Les’s plan was that at the starting line the racers could push down on the bar at the back of the tub, causing the front end of the tub-car to tip up in the air, its nose hovering inches above the ground as team KNOM sprinted effortlessly toward the finish line. Unfortunately, the group of volunteers two years ago were all out-of-shape smokers, according to Les, and hadn’t been strong enough to lift the tub off of its front wheels, let alone sprint 100 or so yards with it. It should be noted that while discussing the tub, Les always stressed that he was an electrical engineer, not a mechanical engineer. That first group of volunteers to use Les’s tub finished in last place, continuing a KNOM volunteer tradition of excelling at radio broadcasting but failing miserably at bathtub sprinting events.
Nevertheless, the tub in the shed was going to be our tub. We determined this because: 1. It was painted black, which we agreed would be faster than blue; and 2. We didn’t have a clue how to build a whole new bathtub racing car. Olin, Victoria (a redhead, sparkplug of a volunteer from New York) and I managed to attach two larger wheels to the rear of the tub, which seemed a sufficient alteration considering our abilities.
The rules of the annual Nome Bathtub Race require, among other things, that every participant must wear suspenders and a wide-brimmed hat. Four members of the crew must push the tub, and a fifth must ride in the tub. The tub must be full of water and also contain one washcloth, one bath towel, one bath mat and one bar of soap. We didn’t have a single suspender among the lot of us, so on the day of the race we constructed makeshift suspenders out of duct tape. Everything was ready, I thought, as I ate my pre-race oatmeal. Carbs: loaded up. Larger wheels: affixed. Suspenders: made of tape. Little did I know that, as I ate, events were being set in motion that no amount of friction could slow.
Outlined against a blue-gray September sky, team KNOM rode again. At high noon, we lined up against five other bathtubs at the starting line by the Glue Pot Cafe on Front Street. The crowd was rabid with anticipation and was heaving water balloons at race participants: my first experience of being the target of a mob with projectiles. It was just like Mother always said it would be. Victoria, a bathtub race veteran, brought balloons she had filled with water and handed some to members of our team. We soon discovered a special difference between water balloons and balloons that just happen to be full of water. Water balloons are designed to burst on impact and splatter their victim accordingly. Balloons filled with water didn’t seem to burst as easily, or at all, and were simply smacking people’s faces and arms and bounding across the gravelly sidewalk, dancing across nails, broken bottles, piranhas, then skidding to a stop and resting. Utterly unpopped. In essence, we pounded a number of bystanders with gelatinous baseballs—a practice not generally appreciated, and one which we temporarily abandoned.
Mayor Leo Rasmussen conducted a loud and official inspection to ensure that everyone had the effects necessary to run the great bathtub race. As this meandered on, I eyed the competition. The team to beat was obvious. Arctic Lighterage’s tub looked light and sat cradled in a framework of welded piping. It had bars attached so that two runners could push from the front of the tub and two from the rear. According to a rumor making the rounds among the racers, Arctic Lighterage’s runners were all on the high school track team.
I could feel a nervous energy in my stomach as the field lined up for the official start. I hadn’t experienced butterflies as hyperactive as these since the last time I ran a foot race: sixth grade. Adrenaline was inexplicably coursing through my veins . . . for a bathtub race.
And then, as if God had snapped his fingers, the cap gun fired and I was running as hard as I could alongside three teammates: Olin and our friends Mike and Karin. Victoria now sat soaking in the tub, enjoying the ride and whipping more water baseballs at the competition.
I don’t remember most of the race from there, I honestly do not. I can only assume I was in the same hypnotic state that a gazelle must enter in order to escape a cheetah. I think that’s what happens. Regardless, as I would realize at the end of the race, at some point Karin lost her grip on the bar and couldn’t catch up to us again. All I can really remember seeing was Arctic Lighterage fading into the distance, and, briefly, I remember being neck and neck with the tub belonging to KICY, the rival radio station in town run by the Evangelical Covenant Church. If we can just beat the proselytizers, I thought, we’ll have won something. But something strange, something wonderful began to happen as we passed Pizza Napoli and the Polar Cub restaurants. We began to pull away. KICY was no more. The Laughing Ladies got tangled up, I believe, and the Mayor’s tub lost steam. Then, the finish line. Exhaustion. Applause. Flash bulbs. They all blurred into one sensation. The sensation of second-place. Or not-last, as we called it. We were not last!
After the race I staggered back to the KNOM Volunteer house, went upstairs, turned on the shower, turned the water off again quickly, knelt in front of the toilet, and then, well, I shook down the thunder, calling Ralph’s name. I puked up every spoonful of what further investigation would reveal to be three-years-expired oatmeal that I had eaten for breakfast before the race.
You live, you learn, you try as hard as you can. Sometimes it still isn’t enough. Especially if you don’t read the box before you start eating stuff out of it.
Andrew McDonnell is finishing his master’s degree in English at the University of Maine and working on his first novel.