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So far we've had a penguin race. Next week, it's a dogsled team. And the week after that, a polar bear.

It must be mid-winter racing season, a time when most people take a look at the weekend weather outside and go back to sleep.

But the hardy among us are not only up and about, they're slipping and sliding their way toward the finish line.

It takes a different kind of runner to keep racing throughout the winter months, and a really different kind of race director to put these races on.

They can't rely on the weather, a big walk-up crowd of entries on race day, or even decent footing on the course. Can you blame them for relying on help from the animal planet?

City recreation director Jim Nowicki is calling on a team of sled dogs for this coming Saturday's Wegmans Winterfest 2 or 3 Mile race, part of the winter celebration in the city's Olmsted parks.

When runners gather at noon in front of the snack bar in Delaware Park, there will be no lead police vehicle to take them around the park. A sled-dog team will have the honors.

After a loop of the park, the course then heads into the neighboring side streets of Meadow Road and Bedford Avenue and then to Nottingham Terrace to the footbridge over the Scajaquada Expressway and the finish on the other side.

That's the three-mile course.

"If we get a major snowstorm, or the footbridge is not passable, then we'll stay in the park," Nowicki said.

And that's the two-mile course, the explanation to one of the stranger sounding race names in the area.

Nowicki is also shuttling runners from Winterfest headquarters at Hoyt Lake by hay wagon, or shuttle van for the less adventurous. And he's also promising awards that "go deep, real deep." He won't say how deep, but it's a rare runner who doesn't win something.

The awards ceremony afterward will be tied into Winterfest's Chili Cook-off.

The following week, on Feb. 25, the Olcott Volunteer Fire Company will have its Polar Bear 5K Run in the picturesque village along Lake Ontario's shore.

This will be the third year that runners will compete against a polar bear, or a reasonable impression of one who turns out to be a pretty decent runner.

At the finish line, racers will be given a T-shirt depending on how they placed against the big white creature. Their shirts will say either "I BEAT THE BEAR!" or "I CAN'T BELIEVE THE BEAR BEAT ME!"

Too many people got beat by the bear last year when he ran a 22:30 for the 5K, a little too fast for race director Jeff Tracy's liking. So to cut down on the complaints this year, the bear was told to lay off the training and run a little slower. Tracy got the idea from a runner in Minnesota who had a similar race there.

On the same day in Buffalo, Canisius High School puts on its 22nd version of the Chilly Challenge, the 3.1-mile race that starts and ends at the Canisius campus on Delaware with a romp of the nicer neighborhoods of the West Side in between.

Hot chili is the draw for the post-race party. The race also gets young kids initiated into colder-weather racing with the 1K (800 meters) Fun Run for children in grades 3-8.

For the record

A couple of corrections are needed for the Buffalo News Runner of the Year schedule announced here last week.

The Checker's A.C. Mile Run changed its May 19 date to avoid a conflict with the Chris Griswold 5K and will be held on June 9.

And the Subaru 4-mile Chase will be held on July 21, its traditional third Saturday in July, not on July 14.

A full night

In addition to the Buffalo News Runner of the Year awards ceremony at the Buffalo Philharmonic A.C.'s Runners Medical Forum on Feb. 28, the panel of medical experts from the UB Sports Medicine Institute, honors for the three top local masters runners, and Team BrownStone members from Rochester, you can also register for the March 3 Shamrock Run and the May 27 Buffalo-Erie Buick Marathon.

The evening begins at 6:30 at Madonna Hall on the D'Youville College Campus (the northwest corner of Porter Avenue and Fargo Street) and includes post-race style refreshments after the formal presentations. The price is $4.

Upcoming races

Olmsted Winterfest 2 or 3 mile race (depending on weather), Delaware Park, noon, Sat., 851-5806; Polar Bear Run, 5K, Olcott, 11 a.m., Feb. 25, 434-8887 or; Canisius Chilly Challenge, 5K, Canisius High School, noon, Feb. 25, 882-0466; Old First Ward Shamrock Run, 8K, Buffalo, noon, March 3, 856-8613.

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