Unexpectedly warm and sunny weather drew hundreds of people to Baltimore's Jones Falls Valley yesterday to experience the green and gritty urban corridor in a way that few residents ever do.
More than 350 athletes, from grade-schoolers to runners in their 70s, turned out at Wyman Park for the Jones Falls 8K Express Race, a five-mile morning run down the northbound lanes of the Jones Falls Expressway - closed for the event - from the 28th Street ramp to Chase Street and back.
At least as many showed up to walk, bicycle or roller-skate on the eerily still highway as far north as Cold Spring Lane, and to explore the less-familiar byways that thread below it through the valley's hidden woods and streamside glades.
It was all part of the fifth annual Jones Falls Valley Celebration, a gathering designed to awaken the community to the neglected beauty of the waterway valley, and to raise money and manpower for its cleanup and restoration.
Scores of sweat-drenched runners and bicyclists who paused to climb down through the woods to the James W. Rouse Memorial Deck off Falls Road, discovered tree-shaded Round Falls. One by one, they made almost identical confessions: "I never even knew this was down here."
"That's the whole point of this event," said Jacqueline M. Carrera, executive director of the Parks and People Foundation, sponsor of the day's activities. "We're really interested in getting people into places they've never seen before, to introduce people to recreational opportunities, and to get to know the stream valleys."
The hope is that people who know the valley will be more willing to support and assist in its restoration.
Madeline Bayard, 44, climbed down to Round Falls after finishing her first 8K Jones Falls Express run, and admitted her surprise.
As a Baltimore resident, she said, "I do know certain places in the city that are hidden gems. But I didn't know about this one. It's really beautiful except for the graffiti - like a little oasis."
Organizers had hoped to include canoes and kayaks in the day's events. A highlight in past years has been for spectators to watch boaters end their run by plunging 14 feet over Round Falls. But boating on the Jones Falls requires the release of 8 inches of water from Lake Roland, water that would take weeks or months to replace if the current drought persists.
"We don't want to be extravagant with water at a time when the state is trying to persuade people to be thrifty with it," said Michael Beer, a founding member of the Jones Falls Watershed Association. The river run will be rescheduled when the rains return.
A different sort of water shortage prevailed up on the expressway, as rain forecasts shriveled in summer-like heat that reached 80 degrees at race time. Sunshine and humidity drained the 8K runners.
Yussef Ennaliri, 22, a Moroccan-born Baltimorean training for the Olympics, crossed the finish line first. He clocked a time of 26 minutes, 20 seconds, then collapsed on the pavement, calling for water.
Second was Sean Dinces, 20, a 5-foot-11-inch, 120-pound Californian and a junior at the Naval Academy. It was his first race on a highway, and he liked it. "You have a lot more freedom in terms of strategy - you're not confined by any type of trail," he said.
For Paul Woods, 20, a Maryland Institute College of Art student from Texas, running on the JFX was "a little surreal," but also a chance to reflect on the old mills that line the historic river.
"I drive up and down the road every day at 70 mph, and I don't really look around," he said. "And there's some really great scenery. Running for me has always been a sort of meditative experience."
Denise Knickman was the first woman to finish, in 30 minutes, 47 seconds.
Twenty-four minutes behind her was Rebekah Montz, 9, who ran with her brother Jake, 10, and father, Rick Montz, 47, all of Roland Park.
Rebekah finished third in the age 15-and-under class. But the joy of running isn't always in winning, she said: "I like [it] because we get to throw water on each other."