By 10:30 a.m. Saturday, vendors were out on street corners in Buffalo’s Old First Ward, selling hot dogs, green hats and green beads, and the sweet melody of “Danny Boy” could be heard coming from the beer tent outside the Old First Ward Community Center on Republic Street.
At noon, the starter fired his pistol, and a record 5,600 runners – all of them either Irish or honorary Irish for the day – took off on Louisiana Street for the annual Shamrock Run in one of the city’s most colorful and historic neighborhoods. Thousands more were watching and celebrating along the 4.97-mile (8 kilometer) jaunt.
The run has been a popular event for 35 years now, and perhaps none more popular than this year.
Participants like Grant Graves, 32, of Buffalo, couldn’t wipe the smiles off their faces.
“I love the music, the atmosphere and all the goofy costumes, including my own,” said Graves, who arrived decked out in a bright green Irish cap and a green plaid kilt. “It’s my favorite race in Buffalo. This is the day when I pretend I’m Irish.”
Even happier was Laura Kelly, director of the community center, which sponsors the race as a fundraiser.
“This is our biggest turnout ever, and the race seems to get more and more popular every year,” Kelly said.
How does a race become so popular when it’s run in early March, hardly the time for good weather in Buffalo?
“We’ve asked people, and they told us it’s because it’s the first major race of spring, the first race in the Buffalo News racing series, and because it’s considered the start of the high holy days for St. Patrick’s Day around here.”
Saturday’s race temperatures were in the low 20s, with a bit of a breeze and light snowfall. That was a huge improvement over last year’s race conditions, which included icy temperatures, steady winds of more than 30 mph, and wind gusts over 60 mph.
“Last year, we had 500 runners who ran straight from the starting line to the beer tent. They didn’t run the course, didn’t pass go, because of that wind,” Kelly said.
The Shamrock draws participants from all over Western New York.
Sean Towlson drove in from Lockport with his 10-year-old son, Cameron.
Sonya Kaster, 50, came from North Tonawanda, wearing a bright green “tutu” skirt over her black running clothes.
Lauren Mruk and Kelly Botsoglou, both 27, came from Lancaster.
Diane Rejman and her daughter-in-law, Amanda Rejman, came from Cheektowaga with a cooler of beer to watch the festivities and root for Amanda’s husband, Craig.
Ann and Jerry Wienckowski, who are in their 60s, drove in from Depew to run the race.
“My parents came from the Old First Ward, and it makes me feel good to run through their old neighborhood,” Ann Wienckowski said. “This event is like a big family reunion for us. We all get together for dinner at my sister’s house right after.”
The Shamrock Run “is exactly the type of event that makes Buffalo great,” said a smiling Mayor Byron W. Brown. “It’s all about hardy Buffalonians who will come out together in any kind of weather to support a great cause,” said Brown, who was on the starter’s stand when the race began.
Marion Mann, 72, who has lived in the Old First Ward since she was 10, said she enjoys the music, the excitement and the way the annual race reinvigorates her neighborhood.
“The people are all outside, welcoming everyone, having fun. I love to watch the race,” Mann said. “It brings this neighborhood back to life.”
Bryan Baumgartner, 21, from Edinboro State University in Pennsylvania, was the overall first finisher with a time of 25 minutes, 9 seconds. Aileen Hoak, 30, of Buffalo was the first woman finisher, at 29:27. She finished 38th overall.
Baumgartner’s dad is one of Pennsylvania’s most famous amateur athletes – Bruce Baumgartner, a heavyweight wrestling champion who won medals at four Olympics.
With a Buffalo Sabres game starting three hours after the race, police were concerned about traffic, but no serious problems materialized.
And in addition to the record number of runners, the Old First Ward Community Center set another record on Saturday.
“For the first time in the history of this race,” Kelly said, “we ran out of beer in the beer tent.”