The lake was their gym, their therapy, their chance to see red-winged blackbirds and jumping fish.
So when the city closed the loop around Lake Montebello for repairs two years ago, the regulars felt they lost something. Some found health clubs and high school tracks nearby; others went to the lake anyway, even though only half of the 1.3-mile loop was open and the place looked like a construction zone.
But whether they went or stayed away, their morning routines weren't the same. They missed their lake, and they missed each other.
Lake Montebello officially reopens today, but the regulars aren't waiting. Bikers, runners and walkers have been ignoring the orange cones and returning to the loop, happy to be back and thrilled about the improvements.
"The treadmill will never equal this," said Paul Kennedy, a 48-year-old nursing technician who has been going to the lake four mornings a week for about two years. "This is just like a meeting place, a gathering place. A lot of people are being reunited. It's a watering hole."
As he spoke, his friend Larry Jefferson greeted him with a "Hi, soldier" as he strode past, keeping a pace that was almost a jog. It seemed to be working for him: Since he returned to the lake in June, the Towson resident has lost 20 pounds.
"Love it, love it, it's the best thing that could have happened," Jefferson said of the lake's reopening. "I thank God for Montebello lake."
Though Lake Montebello has always felt like a park, it is part of Baltimore's water system. Two plants filter water from the Loch Raven and Prettyboy reservoirs, which then flows to the taps of residents in Baltimore and Baltimore County. The lake is filled with the water from the processing, and the leftover sediment eventually drops to its bottom.
Lake Montebello needed to be dredged to keep the plant operational and to keep sediment from reaching Herring Run and, eventually, the Chesapeake Bay, said Kurt L. Kocher, spokesman for the city Department of Public Works.
As part of the $15 million project, Kocher said, city officials decided to improve the lake and its loop. They got rid of the cattails and phragmites - tall, weedy plants that blocked the view of the lake - and the old, worn fence and mesh trash cans. They planted grasses, installed an ornamental fence, added lighting and resurfaced the road, carefully delineating which lanes are for bikers and which are for runners. The Department of Transportation added four bike racks.
"We needed to have the lake dredged, but at the same time there was an obvious need for resurfacing the roadway and doing a few more things to make it more enjoyable for all of the residents in the area," said Kocher, who as a boy rode his bike by the lake often on his way to Memorial Stadium. "It's much safer than it was before, much more attractive than it was before."
City workers completed the project nine months ahead of schedule. Mayor Sheila Dixon will join several community groups for today's reopening ceremony, which will include the Morgan State University Marching Band and a display of historical photos.
One of the biggest improvements at the lake is a median strip separating the running and biking lanes from car lanes. Before, drivers often pulled into the running and biking lanes, leading to close calls with exercisers.
With the weeds gone, runners and bikers will be able to see the lake. Coming around a bend, with the sun shimmering off the water and beautiful homes visible on a nearby hill, Lake Montebello looks more pastoral than urban. But with Harford Road and 33rd Street close by, it is convenient to many city neighborhoods.
Jeannine Disviscour, 45, of nearby Hamilton said she loves seeing yellow finches, red-winged blackbirds and great blue herons fly over the lake as she jogs. Disviscour, who has lost 35 pounds since she began going to the lake six years ago, ran at the track at the former Northern High School while Montebello was closed, but she said it wasn't the same.
"When it closed, I felt really sad. I didn't know where I'd go," she said. "I always see the lake as a gift. I do have to wake up early in the morning, but I get to treat myself to it."
Among the regulars who have trickled back in recent days are the middle-aged guys who walk every morning at 6 a.m., the stroller moms who arrive about 8 a.m. and characters such as Tom William, who is supposed to get there at 4:30 a.m. to meet friends but often arrives later. William, 73, arrived about 7 a.m. yesterday, a golf club in one hand and the leash to his daughter's pink-hued dog in the other.
And there was Nisio Mendonca, a Brazilian hair salon owner who said he was touched when, after a long absence because of an injured leg, the lake crowd welcomed him back and asked where he had been. He was back at the lake by 7 a.m. yesterday, jogging and waving to old friends.
"I'm going back, little by little," he said. "The lake is 100 percent better now. Before, you couldn't see it. Everyone loves it now."
Disviscour said it might take a week or two but that the rest of what she calls "the lake family" will come back.
"There really was a community of people who came all the time," she said. "I'm sure we'll get back to that."