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Thursday
February 29th, 2024

penny grego olney runnerPenny Grego, who finished third in the Olney leg of the 1974 International Pancake Race, is scheduled to run in the Liberal leg of this year’s race Tuesday. Grego’s aunt, Florence Mynard, was the winner of the first race in 1950, beating out Liberal’s Billie Warden. Courtesy photoROBERT PIERCE • Leader & Times

 

Tuesday marks the 75th annual edition of the International Pancake Race between Liberal and Olney, England, and while this year’s race is a landmark event, one of the racers in America’s portion will be a past contestant from another landmark edition from across the pond.

Penny Grego ran and placed third in the Olney leg of the race in 1974, the 25th edition of Pancake Day, and she is coming to Liberal’s race this coming Tuesday as part of the local celebration.

Grego said she remembers much about her chance at the Olney race in the mid-’70s, particularly her preparation.

“I remember the night before, I ran the whole thing at full speed,” she said. “The next morning on race day, I could hardly walk. We had to supply our own pancake and skillet. I had to go downtown and buy a skillet, and I had to make a pancake. Then I had to walk back downtown, which is about a quarter of a mile. Then I was thinking, ‘This is no big deal. Here we go.’ I was disappointed.”

Grego, who now lives in Plano, Texas, said she went back to Olney in the middle part of the last decade, and she recalled the early days of the international race born out of a race that has been taking place in England since the mid-1400s.

“In the early days when it was re-established in the ’50s, the TV people used to come,” she said. “Then it got to be just something very ordinary, and the TV didn’t come. Now they’re back. They do come and record it.”

In Liberal, school is dismissed for the day on Pancake Day, and Grego said as a child, she remembers students went to lunch early in Olney to see the race. She said even with nearly 600 years of history in England, the race has remained a big deal there.

“To the outside world, perhaps not so much, but since people have become much more aware Olney is the place where ‘Amazing Grace’ was written, they’ve become much more interested in Olney in general and the Pancake race as a result of that,” she said.

Grego said she has considered coming to Liberal to see the race for many years, but with young children and working as a teaching assistant in the Plano school district, she could not find the time off. She is now retired and her children, John, Jennifer and Elizabeth, are now grown, leaving her with more free time to travel.

Past Olney contestants have run in the Liberal race, including three-time international winner Devon Byrne, and Grego said along with herself, everyone she has spoken to is excited for her to compete in the American portion of the race, including her two daughters, grandson and husband, William, a retired engineer and school bus driver.

Grego said it was not her idea to compete in the Liberal Pancake Day race, but rather her husband’s.

“He’s the one who contacted the race committee, had me fill out the form,” she said.

Pancake Day typically takes place in February, with some celebrations taking place in March, and the day is notoriously known, at least in Liberal, for cold weather. The 2023 event, however, had mild weather with windy conditions. Grego said although many forecasts are calling for low 50s for Tuesday, she still feels the day will bring its usual chill.

“I assume the weather’s going to be cold, but not too bad,” she said. “If the roads are icy, we’ll perhaps change our mind, but we keep checking the forecast.”

Having made hotel reservations, the Gregos are planning to come to Liberal Monday and stay through the end of Tuesday’s celebration.

“It’s all done,” Grego said. 

Though she has no plans for winning the local leg of the International Pancake Race, Grego said she has been training to run the course of just more than 400 yards.

“We work out with a fitness place three times a week,” she said. “They have a track upstairs. I’ve been running around up there. I’ve been doing that for a couple weeks now, and I can go six laps, which is more than I need without stopping.”

Grego said she inquired from the local Pancake Day committee if any members knew any of the contestants from the 1974 race.

“The lady said she would see if any of those were available and could come out,” she said.

Though she has been to other parts of the Sunflower State, Grego will be making her first visit to Southwest Kansas, and just as much of the state is, she will see the region is also flat as well, a pancake. She did say, though, she is excited to come somewhere where the locals are familiar with Olney and what that town is about.

“Maybe at the video chat after the race, I might see my sister,” she said. “She’s involved with the race in Olney. She may be there.”

Grego’s older sister, Susan Bailey, is the verger at the Anglican church in Olney and will officiate the Pancake Race there. Grego’s connections to the international event go even further, with her aunt Florence Mynard, winning the Olney leg of the first race in 1950 and beating out Liberal’s Billie Warden and winning the initial race.

As she continues to prepare for Tuesday’s race, Grego said her excitement continues to increase.

“I’m not quite confident if I’m fast enough or have the endurance,” she said. “We’re getting excited about it.”

Grego has lived in Plano since 1985 and officially became a U.S. citizen six years ago. One piece of advice Grego gives first-time racers is to respect elders with no jostling taking place.

At age 66, though she knows she will not win, she is proud to be able to have bragging rights after having run both full length courses in each country.