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Summer gets off to a running start; Thousands flock to city for ever-popular events

With music blaring and the smell of barbecue wafting through the air, 12,500 sweaty, tired runners overtook Delaware Park on Thursday night eager to celebrate the completion of the annual JPMorgan Chase Corporate Challenge and relax with co-workers and friends.

"I just think it's a great Buffalo thing," said Eileen Merberg, who ran for the first time with Buffalo State College. "I'm overwhelmed and awed, it's just awesome."

Meanwhile, thousands of people stormed to the Erie Canal Harbor Central Wharf for the first Thursday at the Harbor, which included the music of rock bands The Icarus Line, Against Me! and The Cult.

Some in attendance wore shorts and T-shirts on the comfortable Thursday evening, complete with sunshine and a cool breeze off the waterfront. Some pushed their kids in strollers. Some held cold beers in their hand and others sported sleeves of tattoos. Not everyone was there for the music, with some admitting they just wanted a night out.

Both events provided locals a chance to spend time with friends, co-workers, and family, and to celebrate the unofficial kickoff to a Buffalo summer.

Buffalo's busy summer of outdoor activities continues this weekend with one of the biggest of the open air, summer attractions, the 55th annual Allentown Art Festival, which brings about 450 juried exhibitors and thousands of prospective art buyers to the city.

The Corporate Challenge, in its 32nd year, drew its biggest Buffalo crowd ever, with 12,500 runners from 445 companies.

"It's really a welcome-to-summer event for Western New York," said Bob Ryan, of JPMorgan Chase. This year's corporate challenge saw its biggest turnout in Buffalo, with 445 organizations participating. Runners went off in three waves, with the most-serious competitors starting first, and slower runners and walkers in the back. But for most people in attendance, the spirit of camaraderie was more important than the competition.

Buffalo Public Schools brought in the second largest amount of runners, with nearly 400 participants and 30 volunteers.

The race serves as a way "to motivate people to work as a team," said Dawn DiNatalie, team captain and principal of School 99. "We put down all barriers and issues we have and come together."

The run is a way to bring people together and give back to the community, as proceeds go toward the area's chapter of the American Red Cross.

For many runners, the community-building comes after the race, rather than during it. The Buffalo race has the biggest after-party of any Corporate Challenge in the country. Teams set up tents and provide food and music. Following the race, runners chowed down on hot dogs and macaroni salad while slurping water or, in some cases, sipping a beer.

Emily Schultz, a psychology teacher at Buffalo State College, said she was impressed with the number of people who came out for the event and the crowd's energy. She also enjoyed meeting the other runners from Buffalo State.

"It says a lot for Buffalo that this attracted so many people," she said.

Tops Markets had the largest representation at the run, with more than 600 employees from the corporate offices and stores across Western New York. Frank Curci, chief executive officer, said he enjoys everyone coming together and challenging each other while participating in a healthy activity. His favorite part each year is seeing employees from across the company come together.

"We're a big Buffalo company, this is a big Buffalo event," he said.

The Thursday at the Harbor series will be having its first full season at the waterfront location and music lovers seemed to appreciate the change of venue from Lafayette Square, which allows for more room, a better view, easier parking and more family-oriented entertainment.

The night got off to a little bit of a slow start as The Icarus Line didn't start playing until about 5:30 p.m. The wharf stayed pretty empty until shortly before 7 p.m., when people started filtering in by the hundreds and more started to crowd the stage while Against Me! played.

Ron Cornell, of Buffalo, said that although Lafayette Square offered a sense of nostalgia, it didn't provide much room, as concertgoers were crammed in and couldn't move easily. That wasn't a problem Thursday evening, as those in attendance could still navigate from the beer tents and food stands to the lawn in front of the stage without trouble.

The 33-year-old Cornell said he will be attending the rest of the Thursday at the Harbor concerts as well as the Buffalo Place Rocks the Harbor series, also held at the wharf.

Buffalo residents Katie Shryne and Sara Arbogast, both 24, didn't go to the wharf on Thursday for a particular band, but both appreciated the change in location. Shryne said the wharf provides more room and a nice view of the waterfront, both of which weren't available in Lafayette Square.

Jay Lewis had been attending Thursday at the Square concerts for more than a decade. But even he can admit the venue was changed for the better.

"The original Thursday at the Square, you were literally climbing on people," said Lewis, of Cheektowaga. The 48-year-old said the wharf makes it easier to get a drink and is more "user-friendly."

Lewis, who stopped scheduling himself Thursdays so he could attend the concerts, said the new venue helps Buffalo's waterfront and the region. "This is the best part of what Buffalo is right now," he said.

Lewis, who said he came to the wharf for The Cult, said the concert series also has a good mix of artists. "It's an eclectic and diverse group of artists and that's what you got to love about it," he said.

Next Thursday, indie pop band Fitz and the Tantrums with Sister Sparrow and the Dirty Birds and ZZ Ward will come to the wharf.

For the rest of the summer, there's pretty much something to do every weekend.

Next weekend, the 2012 Juneteenth Festival is scheduled to move into Martin Luther King Park at the intersection of Best Street and Fillmore Avenue. The festival, now in its 37th year, will feature food, live entertainment and vendors set up in booths to sell ethnic foods and wares.

Next month, the annual Taste of Buffalo kicks off on the weekend of July 7 and 8 on Delaware Avenue, from Chippewa Street to Niagara Square in downtown Buffalo. The event, sponsored by Tops Markets, is billed as the largest two-day food festival in the country.

The three-day 2012 Sorrento Cheese Italian Heritage Festival will follow July 12 through 15 on Hertel Avenue, while the 13th annual Elmwood Avenue Festival of the Arts gets in gear on the weekend of Aug. 25 and 26 on Elmwood Avenue from West Ferry Street to Lafayette Avenue.

The season of outdoor festivals will be capped off by the 11th annual National Buffalo Chicken Wing Festival or Wingfest on Sept. 1 and 2 in Coca-Cola Field.

News Staff Reporter Harold McNeil contributed to this report.

email: kronayne@buffnews.com and jharris@buffnews.com