Eight hundred miles from the bright colors, music and costumes of Mardi Gras in New Orleans, a quiet snow falls on the southwest Kansas town of Liberal. It’s not obvious right away that something important is happening, but as you move downtown it becomes pretty clear that Liberal is not going to let a few inches of snow stop them from their annual celebration—the International Pancake Race between Liberal and Olney, England.
A LONG HISTORY
According to legend, an English woman in 1455 was busy using up her eggs, sugar and milk on the day before Lent by making pancakes. She heard the local church bells ringing, realized she was late for the service, and dashed off while still holding her frying pan and pancakes. In Olney—a town of about 6,000— this caught on, and “pancake racing” was born.
The race continued each year on the day before Ash Wednesday, until, in 1950, Liberal resident R.J. Leete had his curiosity piqued by an article about Olney’s tradition in Time Magazine.
Gary Classen, Liberal’s general chairman for the International Pancake Race said Leete made some phone calls, contacted Olney, and challenged them to a race.
And they said, “The race is on!”
RECIPE FOR A RACE
The rules of the race are strict, but not complicated, and mostly designed to reflect the origin of the event:
- Only women over the age of 18 can compete.
- Women in the Liberal race must be from Liberal (no ringers allowed!).
- Racers are required to wear a head scarf and an apron.
- Racers must carry a pancake in a skillet while they race.
- Pancakes must be flipped once before the race starts and once after crossing the finish line, just to prove the racer still has the pancake. Runners are not required to flip the pancake while actually running.
- The course is 415 yards, covering about three blocks in an “s” shape.
- The race is held at 11:55 a.m. local time, regardless of weather conditions, in both Liberal and Olney.
Each year, the race is followed by a shriving service at the nearest church, and then Liberal and Olney connect through telephone or Skype to compare results.
Clearly, Liberal takes the race seriously—coming into 2013, they led the overall standings 36-26, with the results from 1980 being thrown out when a BBC truck blocked the finish line in Olney. Still, the bonds that have grown between the two towns seem to have made it hard for Liberal residents to feel too good about their general dominance.
“Secretly, I think I kind of hope that England wins,” Classen says, “just because they’re so far behind.”
Classen says that Liberal and Olney have developed a real friendship through the race, and that last year, two representatives from Olney, Mike and Susan Hughes, came to Liberal to see how things were run here, and then came back later that August, just for fun.
“Mike emailed and said, ‘I’m going to be at Billy’s Bar-B-Q on Thursday, you all come,’” Classen says. “And we came, and just had a meal together… it’s a great friendship.”
AN ENGLISH JUGGERNAUT
As much as Liberal has won historically, though, they haven’t fared quite as well lately. The race in 2012 was won by Olney’s Devon Byrne, whose time of 58 seconds not only beat Liberal by a solid 10 seconds, but nearly broke the all-time race record of 57.5 seconds, which was set by Liberal’s Tasha Gallegos in 2009.
But that’s nothing compared to what Byrne did this year.
On Liberal’s side, the race was won by Caitlin Demarest, an assistant basketball coach at Seward County Community College, with a time of 64 seconds. This was an improvement for Liberal over the previous year, despite the snowy conditions, but with Devon Byrne running again for Olney, the Liberal contingent knew their likelihood of winning with that time was low.
By the time the two towns connected to compare results, the word was already out. Not only had Byrne won the race—that much might have been expected—but she smashed the previous record, coming in at an even 56 seconds. Not only that, but Byrne—whose mother was a three-time Olney champion—says she plans to run again next year.
Which means that Gary Classen’s hope for a healthy rivalry might have a bright future.