By Justin Franz
The walls of Mike Murray’s basement are lined with mementos from his athletic achievements. There are posters from marathons he has run in New York City and Cincinnati, medals from multiple Iron Man competitions, and a newspaper clipping from when he ran 50 miles across the Bob Marshall Wilderness — over two mountain passes — in just 17 hours.
But Murray, a 63-year-old retired contractor in Whitefish, dismisses those accomplishments as mere training exercises in preparation for his true passion: barstool racing.
Barstool racing is the marquee event at Cabin Fever Days, an annual winter celebration in Martin City, Hungry Horse and Coram, which this year runs from Feb. 8–10. The races attract thousands of spectators who line Central Avenue in Martin City to see dozens of brave souls ride a barstool on skis down a steep hill. For the last decade or so, Murray has been one of the premier competitors, with numerous appearances in the finals and two world championship titles to his name.
Murray is so good that Steve Paugh, one of Cabin Fever Days’ organizers, is making a short film inspired by the Whitefish man and his unparalleled career in the sport.
Barstool racing in the Canyon (the nickname for the communities along U.S. Highway 2 between Columbia Falls and West Glacier) got its start in the 1970s, according to Monty Pruett, former owner of the Southfork Saloon, the unofficial headquarters of the sport.“He’s the Michael Jordan of barstool racing,” Paugh said.
“It all started in West Glacier when two drunks were sitting at the bar and challenged each other to a barstool race,” Pruett said.
After that inaugural race, the sport moved to Martin City, where it’s been ever since. The annual race has four divisions: non-steerable, steerable, open and show class. The winners in the first three divisions are based entirely on how fast competitors get across the finish line, whereas the winner of the show class is based entirely on the creativity of what competitors ride down the hill as voted on by the audience. While “anything goes” in the open class, the steerable and non-steerable classes have a few more restrictions, and in order to win, a competitor must cross the finish line atop the stool in the “drinking position.”
The barstool-racing course, dubbed “Sugar Hill,” runs 750 feet down Central Avenue and requires upwards of 40 dump truck loads of snow to construct. According to organizer Ben Shafer, the course gets its name from the “sweet” snow used to build it, but a few locals have said it has a more scandalous origin. According to legend, back when the Hungry Horse Dam was being constructed, Sugar Hill was home to Martin City’s red-light district.
About 10 years ago, Murray was at Cabin Fever Days watching barstool racing when he got the wild idea to give it a try. The following year, Murray got a “cheapo $18 barstool” at Home Depot, screwed some old skis to the legs and lugged the contraption up Sugar Hill. Unfortunately, the barstool disintegrated on one of its first runs down the slope, but Murray was undeterred. The following year, he rebuilt his barstool racer with more wood and red spray paint (one of the keys to having a fast barstool, Murray said). That time Murray and “Big Red” made it down the hill, and they’ve been racing together ever since. He won championship titles in the non-steering class in 2013 and 2018.
With more than a decade of experience under his belt, Murray has learned many of the secrets to being a world champion barstool racer. One is having a great team, including a good ski waxer, a powerful pusher to get you started down the hill and someone to offer moral support. Murray’s wife Cheryl fills the latter role, even though she admits it’s a peculiar pursuit.
Another key to victory is drinking the right amount before the checkered flag waves. Murray said he’s found that two Bloody Marys — nothing more, nothing less and never a double — is the perfect amount.
But not every race has ended in triumph for Murray. One year, Murray had a buddy who was once captain of the Ohio State University football team push him off at the starting line. Unfortunately, the former football player pushed him right into the ditch. Another year, Murray used Rain-X, a product used to make water bead on windshields, in hopes of getting a little more speed out of his skis. But the combination of Rain-X and ski wax did quite the opposite.
“I ended up having to push the stool down the hill myself,” he said. “But I didn’t let that get me down. We just went to the bar.”
Over the years, Murray has developed a unique riding stance that few others have replicated. While some ride down the hill sitting up, Murray lays down as straight as he can for the majority of the ride. He starts to sit back up as he nears the finish line so that he can put his feet ahead of the barstool to stop.
“It’s a weird feeling laying down riding a barstool down a hill,” Murray said, but it works.
A few years ago, some other racers said Murray’s unique riding stance violated the rules, specifically the part about crossing the finish line in the “drinking position.” However, an exhaustive experiment by some of Murray’s supporters proved that it is possible to drink a beer while laying down on a barstool, and officials have decided to let him continue riding horizontally.
Like another storied athlete who has danced with controversy during his unparalleled career — New England Patriots Quarterback Tom Brady — Murray is quick to dismiss his critics.
“I think they’re jealous,” he said.
As Murray goes into this weekend’s race, he is confident that if everything goes according to plan, he will walk away with his third non-steerable division title, firmly cementing himself as one of the best athletes to have ever ridden a barstool. If he does win his third championship, Murray said he might retire from the sport so he can “leave on top.”
However, he wants to stay involved with the sport and possibly volunteer in the future. Cabin Fever Days is put on by the Trapline Association, and all the money raised goes toward the local fire department or to buy Christmas presents for local kids. Murray always donates his winnings back to the cause.
If he does retire, Murray hopes to find someone else to ride “Big Red” down Sugar Hill. After all, it would be a shame to let “the fastest barstool on the hill” sit and gather dust. When asked what advice he would give to barstool racing newcomers, he keeps it simple.
“Don’t overthink it.”
This story was published by the Flathead Beacon in February 2019.