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Every year, during Ottawa's Winterlude celebrations, a motley lot of Carleton Cup racers sets off on skates down the city's Rideau Canal, competing fiercely to win what has come to be known as "the ultimate Canadian triathlon."

With numbered bibs pinned to their toques, parkas and kilts, competitors navigate the eight-kilometre length of what's billed as "the world's longest skating rink," run through the Byward Market to the Château Lafayette pub, then finish the race with the final event -- a drink from a "victory quart" of beer.

The 13-year-old Carleton Cup traditionally takes place on the first Saturday of the Winterlude festival, which begins this weekend. But because mild weather has caused a lack of ice on the canal, the race has been postponed this year to Feb. 9. The festival, which continues over three weekends, features events such as a stew cook-off, a Mardi Gras party and a snowboard jumping competition.

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Competitors warm up for the race at Rooster's pub on Carleton University campus, where they register and exchange bravado, loudly predicting finishing times that tend to defy the laws of physics. A bagpiper gets the adrenalin flowing with a rousing rendition of the Hockey Night in Canada theme.

Next comes the reading of the rules. Runners-up in each category (men and women are timed separately) are obligated to purchase a beverage for the respective winners. "Should either of the winners die before the end of the evening, the outstanding debts still stand," one statute states.

As racers march down to the canal, it's easy to pick out those who will earn "pioneer status" for completing the cup in a unique fashion. Pioneers to date include someone who portaged a canoe down the canal, a racer who finished the triathlon in a wheelchair, and a woman who took part while seven months pregnant.

As competitors lace their skates, posturing reaches a fever pitch. When the group reaches the ice, however, is when the mystique of the event starts to hit home, says co-founder and director Jonathan Knowles. "There's a real feeling of camaraderie," he says, "a realization that winter is easier to take if you embrace it instead of hibernating and pushing it away."

Finally the starter's pistol sounds and the skaters disappear in a cloud of ice crystals. It may be unlikely to appear in the Olympics any time soon, but the Carleton Cup requires endurance, skating skill and knowledge of the canal's twists and turns, and racers take it seriously. Once the eight-kilometre skate is completed, exhausted competitors must switch footwear -- an important exchange that some practice prior to the event. Sprinting another 800 metres to the bar, they are greeted with cheers and a sip from a victory beverage of their choice. The male and female winners take a ceremonial swig from the Carleton Cup trophy, and are elevated to celebrity status -- at least for the evening.

Defending champion Sean Smith finished the race in 21 minutes, 40 seconds last year, his third cup and second first-place showing. "I was physically drained, but totally pumped up after the race," the 28-year-old Toronto resident says. "This year the field looks pretty strong, but I'm still predicting a podium finish."

The record time is 18 minutes, 56 seconds, set by Carleton Cup director and co-founder Robert Millar in 1992. The slowest time ever: more than four hours, Knowles says. "Actually, in some cases, we're still waiting."

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Organizers expect more than 100 participants from across the country this year. Last year about 70 racers took part, from as far away as Vancouver and Halifax.

The event was conceived in 1989 as a way to make winter more tolerable for Carleton students, and to help distract them from the national unity questions troubling Canadians at the time, Knowles explains. In 1995, the cup started raising money for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, a move motivated by a repeat participant's battle with the disease. The event has raised nearly $10,000 so far, Knowles says, through the sale of Carleton Cup paraphernalia, racer pledges and a $10 entry fee.

It has also won kudos from several Canadian icons. In a letter to organizers, author Pierre Burton called the event "a very good idea." Others, such as Stompin' Tom Connors and the late Maurice (Rocket) Richard, have proudly donned Carleton Cup T-shirts.

But it hasn't always been smooth skating for the race. In 1990 warm weather forced it to be cancelled, then there was the re-scheduling of this year's race. Organizers have also had to deal with insurance concerns as numbers have grown, and skaters are now required to sign release forms.

Looking ahead, Knowles says the Carleton Cup's main goals are to attract more participants, raise more money for CF, and continue to help people embrace winter as part of the Canadian condition.

But because of global warming, "winter is being phased out," Knowles says. "That's what makes our event more relevant than ever."

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For information on the Carleton Cup, visit http://www.carletoncup.com; for information on Winterlude visit http://www.capcan.ca/winterlude.

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