I’ve been to my first official Pancake Day Race, but not the one on U.S. soil. Instead my sisters and I met in England to attend the one there.
I first learned of the International Pancake Day Race when my daughter moved to Liberal, Kan. It was a curiosity to me to learn school was dismissed each year on race day in order for residents in town to attend the race and participate in the day’s activities, which of course included eating pancakes.
Even more astonishing was my daughter’s declaration that she intended to enter the race.
It does a mother’s heart good when she sees her children embrace the living part of life, especially after they’ve been bruised by the darkness of death and other things.
There’s a photo capturing my daughter crossing the finish line that year. She has a huge smile on her face and a look of triumph. It didn’t matter that she finished in last place or that the race took place while it was snowing. She accomplished what she set out to do and it shows on her countenance. That same photo has been used to promote subsequent pancake races, even without people knowing the rest of the story, including a tragic and severe car accident just seven months earlier.
Racers are women who wear an apron and scarf and carry a pan filled with a single pancake as they compete. There’s a reason for the seemingly peculiar race gear and it spans back over 500 years.
In a tradition dating to 1445, women in Olney, Buckinghamshire, England, race from the town square to the church down the street, a distance of about 415 yards.
According to legend, the race started when a harried housewife arrived at church on Shrove Tuesday still clutching her frying pan with a pancake in it. She reportedly flipped it while running so it wouldn’t burn.
In the following years, neighbors copied that event and it became a race to see who could reach the church first and obtain a “kiss of peace” from the verger, or bell ringer.
Apparently Liberal challenged Olney to a friendly international competition in 1950 after seeing photos of the race in a magazine. It has been a trans-Atlantic event ever since.
The race is always run in both towns at 11:55 a.m. on Shrove Tuesday, also known as Fat Tuesday, but mostly referred to as Pancake Day in England. Olney is six hours ahead of Kansas so their race comes first. The international winner is determined based on time.
Racers must flip their pancake at the starting signal and again after crossing the finish line to prove they still have it.
Initially I thought of the race as reenactment of a running late moment. I cringed to think what the race details might look like if people acted out, year after year, one of my unpunctual occasions. (Ward children, remember breaking into our own house to get the keys that were locked inside so we could drive to church?)
As the announcer at the race site in Olney told the story: a woman was at home cooking when she heard the church bells ring calling everyone to the shriving service, so she took off running to get there still apron clad with the skillet and pancake in hand. She had been using her cooking fats, forbidden during Lent, to make pancakes. She grabbed her head scarf because it was required in church.
It’s a different perspective and greater celebration when I think of this woman not letting the circumstances of life hold her back from getting where she wanted to be. She didn’t use excuses, such as how she was dressed, how her hair looked or that her work at home wasn’t finished.
One of my sisters, who lives in England, invited a friend, also currently residing in England, to join us in observing the race. This woman came despite learning the devastating news earlier in the day that her womb was no longer carrying the child she and her husband had hoped for and longed for. Painful and costly medical procedures to become pregnant had ultimately not been successful this time. And after, nine years of trying, now what?
In between walking, driving, shopping and touring that day we had brief but meaningful conversations with one another about life, grief, submitting and endurance. Her sister would be flying from the United States to spend time with her, but for that day we got to be substitute sisters at a time when a sister was needed.
We stood near the finish line and cheered the racers as they zoomed past, just steps away from their goal. For many the race ended quickly, over in about a minute. There was also anticipation and cheers for the woman competing in a wheelchair, who came along at a slower pace.
Next came the news that the timing clock in Olney failed. Since there were no official times the race would go to Liberal. (I later learned that after consulting with Liberal it was declared a draw. That also occurred in 1980 when a BBC news truck blocked the race path in Olney.)
No one in Olney seemed too concerned about the outcome. The racers I observed, including Kaia Larkas who came in first place, kept the same smiles they had displayed after they crossed the finish line as they were greeted by family and friends. After the congratulations everyone headed into the Church of St. Peter and St. Paul for a service.
People were thrilled to know that some of us from the United States had come to watch the race, that we already knew about it through Liberal and that goodwill between nations was present.
As it stands Liberal has won the race 37 times and Olney 29 since the two towns have been competing against each other.
The winner in Liberal was 4th grade teacher Maggie Lapinski, who ran the somewhat s-shaped course in 61.6 seconds.
As it was from the start, I suspect this race is really about other things besides who arrives quickest. The being there to carry on a tradition counts more.