By Budd Bailey


Jennifer Koeppel-Acker and Chris Walters have much in common. They both have been out of college for a few years, and they are trying to continue their pursuit of running excellence while getting on with the rest of their lives.

So far, they are doing a fine job of it. Both won championships in the 2012 News’ Runner of the Year competition.

Koeppel-Acker had come close to winning the title in the past, but six-time champion Allison Carr always seemed to be in her way. This time, Koeppel-Acker decided to change her approach a bit.

“I raced a lot more this year than I have in the past,” she said. “I talked to my coach, and we decided to try for a new goal. We wanted to take a break from marathon training and go for the Runner of the Year trophy. It has all sorts of distances and is fun.”

Racing can be even more fun when you win, and Koeppel-Acker won five races in the series during the course of the year. She took two 5-kilometer races, the storm-shortened Shamrock Run (7.3K), a 10K run in Lancaster, and a half-marathon. Those wins went along with a victory in the Corporate Challenge.

Koeppel-Acker, who lives in Cheektowaga, has been running for more than a decade. She fell into the sport unexpectedly.

“I started in middle school. A gym teacher saw me run and told me I should try out for cross country. I said, ‘What is it?’ I had never run for anyone except the gym teacher,” Koeppel-Acker said.

From there, she ran at Amherst High School and the University at Buffalo (a 2005 graduate). Now she’s back at Amherst, teaching geometry. As a bonus, Koeppel-Acker has passed along some of her knowledge and enthusiasm to young people in her role there as a coach.

“I’ve been coaching for the past few years, modified cross country. I’m moving up to coach varsity track this year,” she said. “It’s definitely different on the other side of the spectrum. It’s exciting to see young people grow into runners. It’s fun to get them to want to come to practice.”

In the meantime, Koeppel-Acker has learned to balance running with work. She’s been bundling up early in the morning for workouts, as she discovered quite quickly after college that she missed the sport. And she hasn’t put those marathon dreams away either.

“It’s different than what I did for so many years,” Koeppel-Acker said. “I enjoyed training for the marathon. … It takes a lot of dedication to get there.

“My best time is 2 [hours], 58 [minutes]. I figure I’m still working toward my peak.”

Walters, who lives in Buffalo, already had a championship trophy in his house, the win coming in 2009 just after he graduated from SUNY Fredonia. Much has happened to him since then.

“I had twin boys. I’m married. I went to grad school and interned,” he said. “Fortunately, I’ve been able to keep running. I have a wife that is nice enough to let me do that.”

Then there’s the matter of work, which can get in the way of running.

“I got my master’s in social work back in the spring,” said Walters, who went to Sweet Home. “I work as a social worker for a company called Health Force, a home care agency. They also do some contract work for Medicaid. It’s good, it’s meaningful work for sure. I’m just fortunate.”

The only bad break in Walters’ year was a physical problem. He didn’t let it get in the way of his pursuit of running excellence.

“It [the year] turned out better than I thought it would,” Walters said.

“In May, I ended up injuring myself, and I lost May and June. I’m not exactly sure what happened. It was in my right glut. It was knotted or partially pulled. I was not able to run for long without the pain getting severe.”

Walters was able to do some biking during the layoff, so he didn’t lose much fitness. Walters had five top-three finishes in series races to finish ahead of Vasilis Kariolis by 10 points.

The two overall winners will receive trophies, while the top 10 in the overall standings and the top three in each age-group will receive certificates of achievement. Winners should send mailing information to the email address below.

Race calendar

• Caroler 5K Run, 206 Main St., East Aurora, 10 a.m. Saturday, 830-6713.

• Freezer 5K, 95 Perry St., Buffalo, 11 a.m. on Dec. 16.