By Dan Guttenplan
---- — NEWBURYPORT — Don Hennigar remembers a time when he couldn’t run through Maudslay State Park without having the police called on him for trespassing.
That was some time before 1986, the year in which the Maudslay family sold the land to the state of Massachusetts for $5 million. Ever since, Maudslay has become the crown jewel of the running community in Greater Newburyport, and Hennigar, a Newburyport High cross-country and track coach, no longer has to go on training runs through private property.
Hennigar has taken to sharing the Maudslay experience with runners young and old during the summer months when he hosts the Maudslay Summer Cross-Country Series on Thursday nights. Last night, a group of 30-plus runners gathered for the weekly run in a slow, steady rain. The week before, more than 60 runners joined at the starting line before splitting up on the 1.5- and 3.0-mile course.
Runners of all backgrounds navigated their way through the drizzle last night. Some ran for time. Others ran at a chatting pace. One man ran alongside his dog while holding a leash.
John Tommasi came down from Windham, N.H., with his wife, two sons and a friend of the family.
“We just started this last week, and my (11-year-old) son got the running bug,” Tommasi said. “This was his first race, and he was hooked. He got really excited, so we came back this week. We stopped at Nick’s (Pizza of Newburyport) afterward last week, and that’s the plan again for tonight.”
Immaculate Conception eighth-grader Cam Leonard fell into the category of runners who raced the clock hoping for a best time. He was the first to cross the finish line in the 1.5-mile race, clocking 10:00 — nine seconds slower than his personal best.
“I want to stay in shape for cross-country because I want to get a better time this year,” Leonard said. “I thought the best way to do that was come out and do races at Maudslay. I’m not doing much else.”
Salisbury resident Paul Cyr trains at Maudslay several times a week, and has become a regular at the Maudslay Cross-Country Series. He says he uses the Thursday night series to fulfill his speed work requirement each week.
“This is a way to get in my speed training for running races and triathlons,” Cyr said. “This is the most beautiful area to run around. It’s where I do most of my training runs, but when I come on my own, I’m not giving 100 percent like I would with other people. I seem to be getting faster every week.”
The appeal of the state park seems to be the consistent draw among runners. Tommasi said he lived in Newburyport “for many years” before moving to Windham, and he brings his family back to his former hometown whenever he can, for events like Haunted Places around Halloween.
“I used to mountain bike through the park,” Tommasi said. “Now, we have a chance to do cross-country here. I talk to my son about running on roads and trails, and he loves running through the woods.”