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All's fair at Corporate Challenge; Weather provides the racer's edge

The JPMorgan Chase and Co. Corporate Challenge had established a reputation for unusual weather in its 31 previous annual runnings. When the 3.5-mile race wasn't held on one of the hottest days of the year, it was hit with rain, thunder, high winds or some other problem.

Thursday's 32nd staging of the event was different.

"Perfect night, perfect weather," Vasilis Kariolis said.

In fairness, Kariolis was a little biased. The conditions were perfect for him as he captured the men's race. He finished in 17 minutes and 51 seconds, which was 15 seconds ahead of Jon French. The weather also agreed with Jennifer Koeppel-Acker, who took first place in the women's race with a time of 20:35. That was 33 seconds ahead of Allison Carr.

It was Kariolis' first Corporate Challenge run, so he had to adapt to the format. The event is only open to companies that enter, so no one can be too sure who might be at the starting line until the beginning of the race.

"Some of the guys I usually run road races against came out, so I knew it was going to be a good pace early on," Kariolis said. "I found a pace and I was feeling good."

Kariolis has only worked at Dopkins and Co., an accounting firm, for about 10 months. One of his coworkers is Jonathan McDonald, who eventually finished fifth.

"My teammate Jon, who I ran cross country with at Canisius, and I were next to each other at first. We just want to take it out and go from there," Kariolis said. "We just got up around Gates Circle. I heard people clapping, and there was no one behind me. I just tried to keep kicking it.

"Coming back, I saw a lot of people from my company on the other side of the line. They were yelling for me, pumping me up. Everybody was behind me from the beginning."

French said he felt a little fortunate to stay as close to Kariolis for as long as he did.

"I haven't run in a race in about six months, so it took a while for my legs to wake up," said French, who ran for the University at Buffalo. "Once they did, he had a pretty good gap on the field. I tried to work with Kevin [Smith, the eventual third-place finisher] on the way back. I was able to have some sort of kick at the end to get him, but I was still a ways from first."

Koeppel-Acker has had success in this race before. She won the event in 2009, and finished second last year. Her 2011 effort was a little surprising, since she had run a marathon shortly before competing in the Corporate Challenge.

"This time, I was a little bit more in shape for a shorter race," she said. "We had a good starting group out there. We went out really fast, but we always do here."

Koeppel-Acker found herself in the lead quickly, but she soon realized that Carr, one of the best runners the area has had in the past decade, wasn't far behind.

"I think I heard her breathing behind me at mile one. She's a really good competitor," Koeppel-Acker said.

Carr, running for the New York State Office for People with Developmental Disabilities, felt fortunate to stay as close to the lead for as long as she did.

"I wasn't expecting much. I wasn't feeling well," she said. "The times slowed down drastically after the first mile. I think I went out too fast."

From there, the high school teacher in Amherst pulled away to a good-sized victory.

"This year, I've been concentrating on the shorter races [as compared to marathons]," Koeppel-Acker said. "I've made some changes to my training. I've been training with a new coach. It's taken a little bit to get used to it, but it's been fun. It feels good to be getting back to the speedwork."

Carr added, "[Koeppel-Acker] has been feeling better. She's been getting her speed back. It's great. She's really coming around now."

The race drew an official total of 12,667 runners and walkers. That's the third-largest total in the race's history, although it is a little behind the Turkey Trot's total of 13,500 for the title of Western New York's largest annual race. A total of 403 companies took part.

The winning teams, which will be announced later this week, will compete against other champion squads from different cities at a site to be determined. The individual winners receive an item made by Tiffany. Koeppel-Acker already has one but she says she'll find a spot for a second.

"There's always room for Tiffany," she said with a laugh.