Barbara Cronin-Stagnari wore her wet suit. Ginger Bonner and Sue Kelly laced up their walking shoes. Jim and Doreen McDougall took their four children; John and Janet Tighe brought along their memories.
All converged recently at Jones Beach. Like many of the 6 1/2 million annual visitors to the Long Island landmark, they went there not just to soak up rays or build castles in the sand, but rather to do what Jones Beach State Park was designed nearly a century ago to get people to do:
Jones Beach was built to be a playground. When it opened 83 years ago this month, former New York State Gov. Al Smith stood on a platform outside the newly constructed East Bathhouse and, in his gravelly Lower East Side accent, articulated the philosophy behind the oceanfront park in Wantagh that he and protege Robert Moses had envisioned and (after much political maneuvering) developed.
"The preservation of the health of the people is a vital concern," Smith told the crowd of 3,000 on Aug. 4, 1929. "No state can rise above the physical strength of the people."
That was the original purpose of Jones Beach: to give the residents of crowded Manhattan a clean, safe place to swim and play ball, to stretch their legs and build that strength. Although the sports and the people have changed, that's still what brings many to Long Island's most famous beach — even on a quiet, weekday afternoon in August.
It seemed as if almost every one of the sparse crowd left at 5 p.m. was involved in some sort of activity, from walking to golfing to running.
Ginger Bonner, 54, would soon arrive at field 4 after work, for her nightly two-mile constitutional. She's been walking here regularly for about 20 years, and has been coming down to the beach even longer.
Bonner, who lives in Bellmore, is a member of the Jones Beach Bums, a group of about 200 Long Islanders from various South Shore communities who started hanging out here as teenagers in the 1970s and still continue to hold reunions every five years.
Bonner is the most dedicated of the Bums, at least when it comes to exercise and Jones Beach. She's recuperating from a knee injury that sidelined her for part of the summer. Her rehab facility is Jones Beach.
"It's an awesome place for anybody to exercise," she said. "The fresh air, the smell of the ocean, the sound of the seagulls. It's just a beautiful place to refresh yourself."
Sue Kelly, of Massapequa, walks, rides her bike and practices yoga. As part of that fitness regimen, she also makes it down to the beach once a week, where she joins friends at field 6 for a round-trip sojourn on the boardwalk (total distance: four miles.) "I love the smell of the beach, the scenery, the sunset .?.?. the whole atmosphere of the park," said Kelly, 58.
She's also a fan of the boardwalk's surface, re-decked, section by section, over the past 10 years with a Brazilian hardwood called "ipe." "It's really comfortable to walk on," Kelly noted.
A last outing
Just off the boardwalk, in the beach's popular games area, the Tighe family of Lindenhurst is enjoying a round of miniature golf. This will be one of their last times together before son John, 21, leaves for boot camp. He has joined the Marine Corps and will be heading to basic training by the end of the month. Janet and John Sr. brought their children here when they were small. Now they're back for a last, nostalgic outing with their son and daughter, Kelly. John Sr., himself a former Marine, has his own memories.
"I used to be down here all the time as a kid," he recalled. "Played softball, hung out. You don't live on Long Island for 50 years and not come to Jones Beach."
Cronin-Stagnari, of Mineola, hardly lets a summer day go by that she isn't here. The 12-time Ironman triathlete has four children, ages 16-22, all of whom trained as junior lifeguards at Jones Beach. Arriving at field 4 early this afternoon, she went for a two-mile swim in the ocean and then, for fun, "I rode the waves for an hour." After drying off, Cronin-Stagnari, 50, walked through the tunnel to field 5, and into the hurly-burly of the Long Island State Parks Summer Run Series. The five-mile race at Jones Beach is the culmination of this series, held at eight different state parks, every Monday evening from mid-June until August.
Cronin-Stagnari was pregnant with her fourth child when she ran the race in 1996. "The baby wasn't due for three weeks," she recalled. "So I jogged the race, came home, started doing dishes, and my water broke."
Her daughter Katie, now 16, was born the next morning. "We've always called her 'the Jones Beach baby,' " said Cronin-Stagnari.
Race has taken off
In stark contrast to the quiet of the boardwalk on this weekday evening, the bay side was hopping: There were 1,748 finishers in the race — ranging in age from 8 to 85, and including Cronin-Stagnari, who capped off her long day of exercise at the beach by running five miles.
Dozens of runners came with their families. "Everyone wants to be at the beach," said Doreen McDougall, 48, of Ronkonkoma. "It's a special place." She and her husband, veteran road racer Jim McDougall, 57, were at Jones Beach to run the five-miler, while their son Robert, 15, was a volunteer, helping to hand out water to thirsty runners. Thomas, 10, and 6-year-old twins Marissa and Megan participated in the quarter-mile kids' fun run held before the adults' race.
"It was more fun when we used to run on the boardwalk," said Jim McDougall. "But this is a big parking lot."
When the Parks series began in the mid-1980s, the race was held on the boardwalk. But three years ago, as more families began coming and participation in the post-race picnic grew, organizers moved the event to the bay side of Ocean Parkway, where field 5 offers ample parking and the grounds adjacent to Zach's Bay can accommodate thousands of people.
The five-mile course now takes runners along Bay Parkway, the slightly less scenic part of the 2,400-acre state park. No matter: The runners seem happy to be here.
"Jones Beach is iconic, it's historic .?.?. You can talk to people from Europe and they know Jones Beach," said runner Lou Lafleur, 56, of Holbrook. "And it's so big. You could have Woodstock here!"
Jones Beach has a range of sports facilities. Although many of them will close after Labor Day, there are still plenty of opportunities to be a good sport beyond the holiday. Walkers and joggers use the boardwalk — which has a two-mile health-walk course from Field 1 to Field 6 — all year long (bicyclists can join them after Oct. 1 and until May 1, 2013); there are softball fields and basketball courts; and the annual Making Strides Against Breast Cancer fundraising walk is to be held Oct. 21. There is also:
Swimming (East and West Bathhouse Pool): $3/adults, $1/children.
Fishing: For night fishing, $30 annual fee.
Golf: 18-hole miniature golf, $5; 18-hole pitch-and-putt golf course: $7/adults.
Paddleball (15 courts) and shuffleboard (22 courts): $2 per court per half-hour.
Volleyball: Eight courts, by group-use permit. Public use daily from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., and Friday and Saturday evenings if there are no makeup games due to rainouts.
Year-round surfing: At West End 2, and between Fields 1 and 2 from May 15 to Oct. 15. Surfing permitted at all open parking fields from Oct. 16 to May 14.
For information on group permits call 631-669-1000. For other information on Jones Beach call 516-785-1600. There is a $10 vehicle-use fee for admission to Jones Beach, which is open from sunrise to sunset. Some of the activities have additional fees and restrictions.