Where running like a chicken with its head cut off is a badge of honor

The legendary Mike the Headless Chicken, in a LIFE magazine photo  Credit: LIFE magazine
People don't really want to run around like a chicken with its head cut off unless, of course, they're competing in the "Run Like a Chicken With Your Head Cut Off 5K."

More than 250 folks are expected to be running, walking or scratching their way for 5 kilometers in Fruita, Colo., on May 20.

The 5K Run (or walk) Like a Chicken with Your Head Cut Off is one of the featured events of the Mike the Headless Chicken Days festival May 19 and 20 in Fruita, about 10 miles west of Grand Junction, Colo.

Mike was a chicken that survived a beheading some years back. More on that later.

Some of the other activities of this annual event include the Fruita Area Chamber of Commerce Head Hunt, the Fruita Children's Theatre Company's performance of Henny Penny and Chicken Little; and every chicken game one could think of: chicken bingo, cluck-off, egg toss, rubber chicken juggling, egg races etc, etc.

There also will be vendor booths selling all manner of chicken items including the very elusive "chicken noodle soap" as well as home-brew contests, root beer tasting and the Chris Rouse Polka Band playing all your polka favorites, including the chicken dance, over and over and over. Did someone say marathon?

Before it all starts on Friday, May 19, there will be a reception and dedication of Lyle Nichols' "Miracle Mike Sculpture," a 4-foot high, 2-foot wide, 300-pound metal sculpture of the beheaded rooster. It is made of ax heads, hay-rake teeth, sickle blades and other cutting objects.

Nichols' grandfather Carl grew up with Lloyd Olsen, who was an integral part of the legend of Mike the Headless Chicken.

It was Olsen who actually chopped Mike's head off, which set in motion this true story of one bird's will to live.

Appointment with an ax

On Sept. 10, 1945, Clara Olsen sent her husband Lloyd out to the hen house to prepare a designated fryer for the pan. Nothing about this task turned out to be routine.

Olsen knew his mother-in-law would be dining with them and would savor the neck. He positioned his ax precisely on this 5 1/2-month-old Wyandotte rooster, estimating just the right tolerance to leave a generous neck bone. A skillful blow was executed, and the chicken staggered around like most freshly terminated poultry.

Then the determined bird shook off the traumatic event and never looked back. Mike (it is unclear when this famous rooster took on the name) returned to his job of being a chicken, pecking for food and preening his feathers.

When Olsen found Mike the next morning, sleeping with his "head" under his wing, he decided that if Mike had that much will to live, he would figure out a way to feed and water him. He did so with an eyedropper.

A week into Mike's new life, Olsen took him to the University of Utah, where scientists theorized that Mike had enough of a brain stem left to live headless. The ax blade had missed the jugular vein, and a clot had prevented Mike from bleeding to death. Since most of a chicken's reflex actions are controlled by the brain stem, Mike was able to remain quite healthy.

He made it into both Life and Time magazines and the Guinness Book of World Records. He went on a national tour, during which people would pay 25 cents to see "The Headless Wonder Chicken."

Mike grew from 2 1/2 pounds to nearly 8 pounds during the reported 18 months he lived.

While returning from one of those road trips, the Olsens stopped at a motel in the Arizona desert. In the middle of the night Mike began to choke on a kernel of corn. However, the Olsens weren't able to find the eyedropper used to clear Mike's open esophagus and Miracle Mike passed on.

The source from which legends are made

Now Mike's spirit is celebrated every third weekend in May in Fruita.

He also is immortalized in Lyle Nichols' sculpture, which is currently on display outside the Java Junction coffee shop on the corner of Mulberry and Aspen Avenue in downtown Fruita.

We caught up with Nichols recently in a telephone interview, during which he touched on a number of subjects dealing with the sculpture, the legend of Mike, and the 5K race.

"I look at myself as an idea person, and then I figure out how to do it," Nichols said. "I've carved stone, made sculptures out of bottles and some out of glass, 7-Up bottles and a variety of things. The thrill is figuring out how to do it."

Certainly sculpturing a headless chicken was a new experience for Nichols.

"I had never worked with a headless chicken," Nichols said. "I wanted him to look like he has some character. The old saying about holding your chin up high I took to heart, and I wanted him to look proud even without a head.

"I didn't want him to look droopy and hung over," he said. "So with the spurs I put on his ankle and his chest sticking out, he had his neck back like he was holding his head high the effect was there."

Nichols, a self-taught artist, is the fourth generation of his family to grow up in western Colorado. Working in stone, steel and wood, many of his sculptures are on display in the Grand Valley, including "The Chardonnay Chicken," which is 8 1/2 feet tall and contains 1,200 pounds of antique "farm junk."

Civic pride

The idea for the 5K came from Karen Leonhart, director of the Fruita Parks and Recreation Department.

"I am member of the Fruita Rotary Club," Leonhart said. "I was a fairly new member since I came here from Southern Illinois a few years ago. One day the guys were telling me all about Mike the Headless Chicken. And I just felt they were trying to put one over on me. The next day the editor from the local paper came over and laid out all the material, including pictures from Life magazine in 1945 on my desk. That was proof enough that all their stories were true.

"I got to thinking that we ought to celebrate Mike in some way, and why not a road race?" Leonhart said. "We are a very small town (6,000) and we've struggled with our own identity. And here was a local project that was inspired by a local legend. And it was a perfect fit."

Indeed, the miketheheadlesschicken.org Web site has received more than 150,000 hits this year. Members of the Chamber of Commerce and Leonhart have done interviews with the BBC, CBC, South Africa Broadcast Company (SAFM) and points in between.

Each participant will receive ceramic medallions made of chicken feed hand thrown, of course, by local artists.

As for the prize money for the race, it's chicken feed what else did you expect?

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