By Beccy Tanner

Tribune News Service

WICHITA -- Liberal might employ a sneaky strategy Tuesday when it comes to competition in the International Pancake Day Race.

Devon Byrne, the three-time winner from Olney, England, has been invited as an honorary runner. At 21, Byrne has now retired from pancake racing. Although she has been invited to run in Liberal's race, her time can't be counted, nor can she be counted as a resident of Liberal -- one of the race rules -- despite the fact she has been staying in the southwest Kansas town since last week.

"We hope this means our race will go faster," said Janice Northerns, publicity chairman of Liberal's International Pancake Day Race. "She's pretty competitive; she won't go slow."

Byrne holds the world record for running the race at 55.6 seconds.

This marks the 66th year for the quirky tradition in which women from Liberal race against the women in Olney to determine who will be the International Pancake Day Race champion.

The race pits women, skillets and pancakes from Liberal against women, skillets and pancakes from Olney. The race -- a 415-yard, S-shaped course through downtown Liberal -- is always run at 11:55 a.m. on Shrove Tuesday, also known as Fat Tuesday.

According to legend, the Olney Pancake Race began on Shrove Tuesday in 1445, when a housewife was using the last of her family's cooking fat before Lent, when it is forbidden. She heard the church bells ring for services and ran to the church still wearing her apron, with skillet and pancake in hand.

When Time magazine did a feature on the race in 1950, Liberal challenged Olney to a friendly trans-Atlantic competition. It has been a rivalry since, and the event has turned into a four-day celebration in Liberal.

Liberal has won 36 times, Olney 28.

One year, the race was not counted when a BBC television van blocked the course in England.

Liberal, a town of 20,000 residents, traditionally attracts between 3,000 and 5,000 visitors on Pancake Day.

This year's race will be different in a couple of ways, Northerns said Sunday.

First, the temperature is forecast to be in the mid-40s for Liberal; the course is expected to be dry. Last year, runners in Liberal raced with 2 inches of snow on the ground. Olney's forecast calls for lots of sun.

Second, nine of this year's runners in Liberal are racing for a cause. They are running as Team Levi to raise awareness for Liberal kindergartner Levi Foreman, who is battling brain cancer. The 6-year-old was diagnosed with a rare form of brain cancer in November and has been at the Children's Hospital in Aurora, Colo., since then.

Liberal has 15 women who are expected to compete, Northerns said. Olney has nearly two dozen contestants signed up.

"The race is supposed to be about community involvement and participation," Northerns said. "We want to win, but it is also about how the whole community comes out for the event."

And besides, Northerns said, even if Olney wins the race this year, "they still have some catching up to do."