Women go flipping crazy for world's oldest pancake race

by Robin Millard, Agence France-Presse

Posted at Mar 09 2011 10:21 AM | Updated as of Mar 09 2011 06:21 PM

OLNEY - Aprons on and frying pans in hand, the womenfolk of Olney charged through the English town's picturesque streets Tuesday in the world's oldest pancake race.

The quirky tradition in Britain dates back to 1445, when legend has it a stressed-out Olney housewife heard the Shrove Tuesday church bells and stormed through the streets, still cooking her pancakes, arriving just in time for the service.

In the Christian calendar, Shrove Tuesday, also known as Mardi Gras, is the feast before the fast of Lent, celebrated in Britain as Pancake Day.

Five and a half centuries on, the custom endures in the quaint market town in Buckinghamshire, southeast England -- home of the pancake race.

In crisp spring sunshine, the women of the town lined up in the marketplace at exactly 11:55 am, frying pans in hand, aprons and headscarves on -- and 415 yards (379 meters) of sheer exertion and pancake balancing ahead of them.

The 16 runners ranged in age from 29 to 61-year-old Deirdre Bethune.

"It's nerve-wracking," the pancake racing veteran said. "This is worse than running the London Marathon because this is a sprint."

The mayor of Olney, Michael Hughes, said the historic race was the highlight of the year, bringing thousands of people into the town and putting it on the map.

"It makes us a little world-renowned place for a moment or two," he told AFP.

"I can't see this tradition ever finishing. I will speak for the whole town on this -- we love it.

"We love the history, the fact that we've been here for a long while and we intend to remain doing just this."

With the ring of a bell and a toss of the pancake, the race got under way and less than a minute and a half later, childcare worker Nicky Sallis had negotiated the winding streets to cross the finish line first.

"I was just telling my legs to keep going. I feel all right now, it's just my chest and lungs," the 37-year-old said as she got her breath back.

Her reward? A few hundred pounds (dollars, euros), a clutch of prizes, a place in history and the traditional kiss from the verger of St Peter and St Paul Church, Ken Noon.

"Somebody has to do it," the sprightly churchman joked. "We spend all year doing our duties and then we get the perk!"

Inside, the Shriving Service includes the world-famous Olney hymn "Amazing Grace", written by the church's former curate John Newton.

Sallis vowed to defend her title next year and said she would celebrate her victory in style.

"A few drinks and a few pancakes, that's for sure," she said.