Eight hundred miles from the bright colors, music and costumes of Mardi Gras in New Orleans, a quiet snow fell on the southwest Kansas town of Liberal. And while it was not obvious right away that something very important was happening there that day, as you moved downtown it became pretty clear that Liberal was not going to let a few inches of snow stop them from their annual celebration — the International Pancake Race between Liberal and Olney, England.
“The city crews are real good about clearing the streets,” said Gary Classen, General Chairman of International Pancake Day in Liberal. “I’ve seen them out there with blowtorches in the past, when we have sleet or rain, out there melting the ice from the street with torches.”
The day before Ash Wednesday is Mardi Gras, yes, but to a lot of people it’s also known as Pancake Day — the last chance to use up eggs and sugar and other rich foods before the start of Lent.
According to legend, Classen said, back in 15th century England, a woman was busy making pancakes out of those foods when she realized it was time for church.
“She heard the church bells ringing and dashed off to church realizing that she was late,” Classen said. “Well, she still had her pancake in her hand, and ran all the way to the church like that.”
In Olney, a town of about 6,000, this whole running-with-pancakes thing kind of caught on, and they started to have a race each year, requiring the women of the town to run while holding pancakes in frying pans.
In 1950, a resident of Liberal named RJ Leete read about Olney’s racing tradition in Time Magazine.
“And he thought, ‘that’s a really cool event,’” Classen said. “And so he made some phone calls and contacted them in Olney and challenged them to a race. And they said, ‘the race is on!’”
And, just like that, the International Pancake Race was born.
The race is about three blocks long, only women over the age of 18 can run, and to reflect the origin of the event, runners have to wear a headscarf and apron, and, of course, to carry a pancake in a skillet. And no, they’re not required to flip the pancakes while they’re actually running, though they do have to flip them once before they start, and again after crossing the finish line, just to prove they still have them.
The race is a big deal for Liberal. You enter the town of 20,000 on a highway called “Pancake Boulevard,” the local schools close down for the day, and more than a couple thousand people attend the various festivities, including a talent show, a parade, and, of course, a pancake feed.
And they run the race regardless of the weather. Tessy Barnett is running for what she says is her 12th year, with her 18-year-old daughter also in the race for the first time, and she’s not letting the snow faze her.
“Yes, and I am excited, this is a great year. And the weather is lovely. Can’t beat it,” she said with a laugh.
And taking the race this seriously has led to some pretty good results for Liberal.
“The standings are 36 wins for Liberal, 26 wins for Olney, and then one year, in 1980, a BBC truck got in the way of one of the racers, and so we don’t count that year,” Classen said. “One of the racers actually ran into their truck.”
Coming into this year, the record time in the race was held by Liberal’s Tasha Gallegos, at 57.5 seconds set in 2009, although that record was threatened in 2012 when Olney’s Devon Byrne stomped Liberal with a time of 58 seconds–10 seconds better than Liberal’s top runner. This year, with Byrne racing again, the Liberal contingent knew they had their work cut out for them, although Classen seemed to be taking a sportsmanlike attitude toward the whole thing.
“Secretly, I think I kinda hope that England wins, just because they’re so far behind,” Classen said. “It’s just, again, it’s that friendship that you develop with them—you don’t want to be too far ahead of them.”
And it’s probably that friendship that’s helped this race continue for more than 60 years. Some residents of Liberal say they heard from Olney after 9/11, just to let them know they were thinking of them, and occasionally a representative from Olney will make the trek across the ocean for the race.
“And they came last year, they’d always heard how great it was over here—they came last year, they were so enthralled with the people of Liberal, they actually traveled back in August just to come see everybody, because they had made such close friendships,” Classen said.
This year’s race went off without a hitch, at 11:55 a.m., same time as every year, and the Liberal side was won by Caitlin Demarest, an assistant basketball coach at the local community college, with a time of 64 seconds. Of course, winning in Liberal is only part of the game — the real prize is beating Olney and their juggernaut, Devon Byrne.
After a shriving service at the nearest church, a Skype connection is set up between Liberal and Olney to compare results. Olney’s representative, Tony Lamming, is soon face-to-face with Liberal’s winner, Caitlin Demarest.
“Uh, Caitlin, do you know — I’ll ask you straightaway — do you know our time?” Lamming asked.
“Yes, I do, and congratulations on a record-setting time,” Demarest said.
For the second year in a row, Olney’s Devon Byrne won easily, this time setting a race record of 56 seconds, a full second-and-a-half better than the previous record. And Byrne, whose mother was a three-time Olney champion, says she’s running again next year, which means that Gary Classen’s hope for a healthy rivalry might have a bright future.