In this centuries-old English pancake race, ‘you just have to go flat out’

OLNEY, England (AP) — Women in matching checkered aprons, headscarves and a rainbow of running shoes limbered up Tuesday as they prepared for the centuries-old pancake race in this English country town.

They rolled their shoulders in unison, raised up on their toes and did squats before stepping to the starting line — frying pans in hand.

At the word “Go” they sprinted through the streets, trying not to drop their pancakes as they roughly traced the path taken by a harried housewife in 1445, who legend has it heard the church bells signaling the Shrove Tuesday service and raced off with her skillet.

“It’s a horrible distance,” said Kaisa Larkas, 44, a mother of four who legged it past Eloise Kramer to capture the Olney title with a time of 63.37 seconds. “You just have to go flat out and then hope that you’re not gonna fall over. … But it’s good fun.”

The tradition has been repeated over the centuries — not only in Olney but across England and even in the United States, where the Kansas town of Liberal copied the idea and has been trying to outrun their friendly British rivals for 75 years.

This year the U.S. leg won, with Pamela Bolivar, a 19-year-old college student and nursing assistant, crossing the line in a time of 63.03 seconds. It was one of the closest races ever.

The race is held the day before the start of Lent, the Christian period of repentance and sacrifice before Easter. Celebrated as Mardi Gras or Fat Tuesday in other parts of the world, the name Shrove Tuesday derives from the English word meaning to seek forgiveness or be granted absolution.

If a secret recipe behind winning the race exists, it probably would call for a pinch of skill, a dash of athleticism and an extra scoop of whimsy. The competition falls somewhere between the Great British Bake Off and zany local pursuits such as the rough-and-tumble cheese wheel chase down Cooper’s Hill.

Runners must flip the pancake at the start and finish.

The 415-yard (380-meter) sprint itself may be a form of penance ahead of Lent.

Two Kansas sisters who competed in Liberal since they were children traveled to Olney this year to see where it all began.

“We’ve been talking about it for a long time,” said Amy Thompson, who painted her nails with British and American flags and, of course, pancakes. “We like those festival odd things and we decided to quit talking about it. It’s the 75th anniversary and … this would be the perfect time to come.”

Olney in Buckinghamshire, is about 60 miles (100 kilometers) northwest of London. Liberal is in southwest Kansas, just north of the Oklahoma state line and about 200 miles (320 kilometers) west of Wichita.

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Melley reported from London. Heather Hollingsworth reported from Mission, Kansas.

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