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Runners flock to Corporate Challenge

The usual image of the JPMorgan Chase and Company Corporate Challenge is that of companies which each send hundreds of runners and walkers to Delaware Park to take part in the annual event. After completing the 3.5-mile athletic portion of the night, the participants then head back to a massive tent for a post-race "recovery period."

That's true in some cases, but hardly all of them.

Large and small companies will show up for tonight's competition -- from Tops Friendly Markets' total of 636 athletes to others in the single digits. More than 13,000 participants from 450 companies will be at the starting line on Amherst Street at 6:45 p.m. to get the athletic portion of the night underway.

Usually participation in an event such as this is driven by the enthusiasm of the company's captain. Two people who certainly can supply that are Karl Hoffner of Birdair in Amherst and Kat Monk of Catalyst Fitness in Depew.

Hoffner will head up a team of about 17 athletes, with 10 planning to run. He said he doesn't think anyone from Bird Air will be winning any trips to the Corporate Challenge Championship, which will be held at a date and location to be announced. In fact, Hoffner said he usually has a brief view of the top runners along Delaware Ave. -- going the other way on the loop course.

"At about a mile and three-quarters, I usually see the eventual winner going toward the finish," he said.

Hoffner usually is a good runner, finishing the distance in about 24 minutes. But he's recovering from knee surgery right now, so he suspects that he'll be a few minutes slower than normal this time around.

The Birdair team has been a regular participant for about 20 years, missing out in 2010 when Hoffner wasn't available to be the captain and as he put it, "no one else took the reins."

For a relatively small contingent, Bird Air makes quite an effort to make sure everyone has a good time.

"The company was supplying basically the main food and beverages, and people would bring a dish to pass. That got troublesome after a while," Hoffner said. "Now we go to Wegmans and get simple stuff, like a tray of fruits and vegetables. We still grill hamburgers and hot dogs.

"We go down to the park on one of those party buses. They drop us off, and everyone brings the food to the tent."

While Birdair is a veteran of the competition, Catalyst Fitness is a newcomer.

"They did it about six years ago, when it was known as Gold's Gym," captain Kat Monk said. "It was my idea. We've got about 30 people signed up -- 26 runners and four walkers.

"I think everyone is really excited about it. It's good for team-building."

It would be easy to assume that members of a fitness company would have a bull's-eye on their backs in a physical competition like this. Monk said that's true for some but not all of the company's athletes.

"There are a lot of corporate people, such as accountants," she said. "It's not just personal trainers. Hopefully we'll all represent our company well."

The biggest innovation for the event this year is the introduction of chip timing. The race website will have the complete order of finish within a couple of hours of the conclusion of the race, and team scores will be instantly available. Captains won't have to try to collect times from runners and submit them to race officials, as they have done in the past.

Dan Giza of Moog and Maura Frauhenhofer of Catholic Health are the defending champions, but they are not competing in this year's race.

Todd Witzleben, a coach at the University at Buffalo, figures to be a top contender on the men's side. In the women's race, Jennifer Acker is considered one of the favorites. Both finished second in the race last year.

A portion of the proceeds will benefit the Buffalo chapter of the American Red Cross.