Many people are familiar with Mardi Gras celebrations on the day before Lent, but in Liberal, Kansas, the day before Lent means just one thing – it’s Pancake Day.
For the past 71 years, on Shrove or Fat Tuesday at 11:55 a.m. Liberal and Olney, England, have squared off in the International Pancake Race with women running down the streets of each town with pancakes. 2021 will mark the 72nd Annual Race for Liberal but sadly Olney has decided to cancel the English side of the event due to Covid concerns. Liberal’s Pancake Day Board of Directors, who has occasionally canceled other events associated with the day due to weather, has never canceled the race itself.
Olney’s tradition declares that the race was first run in the year 1445, pancakes at the time being a popular dish, receiving royal favor. It was run on Shrove Tuesday, the day before Lent, and the whole day was given over to a festival of celebration, pranks and pastimes. It is not known where the original start line was but the finish line was at the Church door.
The race continued off and on through the centuries with many lapses that never caused the race to be entirely. After a lapse during the Second World War, it was revived again in 1948 by the Vicar of Olney the Reverend Canon Ronald Collins. He came across some old photographs, which had obviously been taken in the 1920s and 30s of women running with frying pans. Filled with enthusiasm to revive the ancient custom, he called for volunteers, and in response 13 runners appeared on Shrove Tuesday. The race caught on and the people of Olney set out to enjoy this link with their past.
The International Race started in 1950 from a magazine picture of the Olney women racing each other to the church. Liberal Jaycee President R.J. Leete contacted Rev. Ronald Collins, Vicar of St. Peter and St. Paul’s Church, challenging their women to race against women of Liberal. The traditional prize of the race is still the “Kiss of Peace” from the verger (bellringer). This friendly little race is still the only race of its kind on the planet.
The overall score stands at 39 wins for Liberal and 30 for Olney. In 1980 the score didn’t count, because a media truck blocked the finish line in Olney and in 2017, the race did not count due to a malfunction in the timeclock.
International Pancake Day in Liberal is more of a festival with multiple events including eating and flipping contests in the elementary schools, a 5K Fun Run, public pancake eating and flipping contests for all ages and a carnival in the days leading up to the main event.
International Pancake Day itself begins with an all-you-can eat breakfast followed by races for 3-year-olds and up. Once the big race takes place and the winner is crowned, the crowd moves to the United Methodist Church for the Shriving Service and then the winners on each continent share a video chat to compare times and declare the International winner for the year. A parade rounds out the festivities in the afternoon.
Go to pancakeday.net or call 620-624-6423 for all the details.