The idea was pretty simple. Back in the mid-1970s, there wasn’t much of an indoor track season for Western New York high schools. There were a couple of meets, but that mostly worked for the sprinters. The longer-distance runners didn’t have many, if any, races to motivate their training.
So Jeff Gemmer, track coach at Canisius High School, had an idea. He would run a 5K in February to test the fitness of his runners.
“I started it to see what kind of shape my distance runners were in,” Gemmer said. “Everybody on the team got to participate in one way or another, either running or helping the race in a variety of positions.”
And thus the Chilly Challenge was born. The 5K, believed to be one of the oldest still running in Western New York, will have its 40th run March 24.
The race has grown from a small 5K mostly comprised of Canisuis High School students, alumni, and family, to one that drew 428 finishers last year.
“It was a gradual thing,” Gemmer said about the growth of the race. “It started out real small in the foyer of the school. Part of it originally was a fundraiser for the athlete fund. If a kid can’t afford something for a sport, this helps them out.”
It also served another purpose – allowing the track team to get long-sleeved t-shirts to wear under their singlets at meets in the spring.
“Track demands that if you wear a shirt under your singlet, everyone has to wear the same color," Gemmer said. "We had blue singlets at the time, so we gave out gold long-sleeved t-shirts at the race. Killed two birds with one stone.”
The name “Chilly Challenge” came from Chris O’Brien, who graduated from Canisius in 1981 and was a runner for Gemmer.
“One of my runners got (longtime broadcaster) Joe Chille involved and it was usually pretty cold,” Gemmer said. “That’s how that kicked off.”
And one of the main draws of the race has been the plethora of post-race awards. Nearly 180 awards are given out after runners have had their fill of chili and snacks.
Along with the usual overall men's and women's winners and three-deep awards in each gender’s age group are awards for the first place Canisius High School Alumnus (the Bill Malley ’57 Memorial Award), and first place for a current Canisius student.
Then, the race gives out awards for the top three among Canisius alums and faculty and top three in each family division and team category.
And while all those awards take some time to distribute, Gemmer says that’s part of the lure of the race.
“I think people like the number of awards,” he said. “There’s food. It’s family-friendly. We don’t serve beer. We have a Mass beforehand so it’s a one-stop shop for a runner on a Sunday. A lot of faculty participates. A lot of alumni help out. A lot of people give up a lot of time and effort to make this race happen.”
And in turn, the race has drawn a few new students to Canisius High School.
“It brings people into the school,” Gemmer. “I’ve had students who have run the race and been exposed to the school for the first time and end up coming there because of the race.”
Saturday, March 16
- St. Patrick's Dash, 3 miles, 9:15 a.m., Northwest Arena, 319 West Third St., Jamestown
Sunday, March 17
- St. Patrick's Day Rock'n 5K, noon, Youngstown Volunteer Fire Co., 625 Third St., Youngstown
Saturday, March 23
- The Mustache March, 5K, 10 a.m., Mang Park, Mang Ave., Kenmore
Sunday, March 24
- Canisius Chilly Challenge, 5K, 10 a.m., Canisius High School, 1180 Delaware Ave.
Wednesday, April 3
- Flatliner Series No. 1, 3 miles, 6:15 p.m., Chestnut Ridge Park
Saturday, April 6
- Health Fair 5K and 1-Mile Family Fun Run, 9 a.m., North Tonawanda Middle School, 1500 Vanderbilt Ave., North Tonawanda
- Feel the Spirit 5K, 11 a.m., Infant of Prague Church, 921 Cleveland Dr., Cheektowaga
Sunday, April 7
- 20th Annual Canisius College Shoes for the Shelter, 5K, 10 a.m., Canisius College
Wednesday, April 10
- Flatliner Series No. 2, 3 miles, 6:15 p.m., Chestnut Ridge Park
Saturday, April 13
- Friends of Night People Putting Hunger on the Run 5K, 9:30 a.m., Beaver Island State Park
- Run Forest Run 5K, 10 a.m., Forest Elementary School, 250 N. Forest Rd., Williamsville
Sunday, April 14
- Purple Ribbon Warrior 5K, 10 a.m., Say Cheese Pizza Co., 1771 Love Rd., Grand Island
Wednesday, April 17
- Flatliner Series No. 3, 3 miles, 6:15 p.m., Chestnut Ridge Park
Saturday, April 20
- Bunny Hop, 5K, 10:30 a.m., American Legion Post No. 362, 1 Legion Dr., East Aurora
Wednesday, April 24
- Flatliner Series No. 4, 3 Miles, 6:15 p.m., Chestnut Ridge Park
Saturday, April 27
- Appleseed 5K, 10 a.m., Welch Field, Elm Street and 3rd Street, Westfield
- UB Dental School Run for Smiles, 10 a.m., UB South Campus
- Envirun, 5K, 10:30 a.m., Whirlpool State Park
- The 716 Mile, track mile, 11 a.m., UB Stadium Track
Sunday, April 28
- 23rd Annual BuffaloRunners 6-Hour Distance Classic, 6-Hour Ultra, 8 a.m., North of the Northtown Center, 1615 Amherst Manor Dr., Williamsville
- WNY Maple Festival SAPS Race, 10K, 5K and 5K walk, 9 a.m., Franklinville Central School, 31 N. Main St., Franklinville
- 1891 Run, 5K, 9 a.m., 1891 Fredonia Opera House, 9 Church St., Fredonia
- Niagara Power 5K Run/Walk, 10 a.m., Gallagher Center, Niagara University