Mount Helena Run History

Note: This is an article written prior to the race in 2004.  Therefore, some of the information regarding records, etc. are outdated, but the article still does a great job of explaining the history of the run.  For a current list of records, top-5 times in each category, and results, see the other links on the Mount Helena page. 

Special thanks to Curt Synness of the Helena Independent Record for granting us permission to post this article here.

The Mt. Helena Run

In 1975, two members of the Save Mt. Helena Committee, Rick Reese and Wayne Phillips, came up with an idea on how to help promote the improvement and preservation of the mountain’s city park. A re-enactment of a race from 59 years earlier – when two local teenagers beat an “athlete from the coast” to the top of Mt. Helena and back – would be contested, sponsored by the Mt. Helena Racing Club and the Downtown Shoppers, Inc.

Apparently one Vic Norman, who was visiting from San Francisco, organized the race after making several solo runs. According to the April 30, 1916 Helena Daily Independent, “Ben Burgess, a local youth, sprang a big surprise yesterday when he won in handy fashion the race from Moore’s Book Store to the summit of Mt. Helena and return. Burgess made the trip in 30 minutes and 58 seconds.” Coming in second was Harvey “Speed” Yates while pre-race favorite Norman finished third.

“There was no course laid out back then,” Yates, then 77, told the Independent Record in 1975, “You went straight up the mountain the best way you could and then came down about 90 miles an hour.” Yates said that he and Burgess were both only 18 back then and were able to beat the older Norman because “we each had milk delivery routes and you had to do a lot of running to keep up with the horses that pulled the wagons.”

For the revival run, “among the entries will be four men who have worked diligently to get the race organized – Tom Kotynski, Bill Schneider, Phillips and Reese,” IR sports writer Marty Mouat reported. “Another local entry will be Bill Lannan, a consistent winner in area road races.”

And it was Lannan who became the men’s first champion, winning the 5.3 mile race in 35:09 while Reese finished fourth. Patty Sodja of East Helena, only 11-years old, captured the inaugural women’s crown, in 47:05.

The event has survived for 28 races, enduring several changes, one non-running due to fire danger (in 1988) and one near cancellation (1985). In 1977, the length was increased to its present 5.6 miles.

One of the more harrowing races took place in what is now known as “the Race of the Bees,” when in 1978 the leaders disturbed a bee’s next on the way down and almost every participant thereafter sustained a bee sting. One of the coldest was in 1985, with temperatures in the mid-20s and a light snow falling; and perhaps the muddiest occurred in 1976 during a rainstorm.

The all-time leader in wins is Jeff Thomas, who has won the contest 11 times (1981, 1983-91, 1998-99) and placed in the top-three 16 times, finishing runner-up four times and third once. At one point he strung together eight consecutive victories.

“My strategy was always to run like Hell to the top and then just try and hold on coming down,” Thomas explained, “I think my advantage is being built low to the ground (5-feet-6½) and light, but I’ve also trained on the course a lot. I always knew every turn and every rock on that trail.”

Thomas, 44, who ran in the first race in 1975, has missed only six races. His tender Achilles tendon will again force him to sit out this year’s event, but he fully intends to recover and compete again by next year.

Other multiple winners are Pat Judge, five times (1994-97, 2000), and Branch Brady, three times (1976, 1980, 1982). The record belongs to Judge, who covered the distance of 1,348 vertical feet and back down in 36:10 in 1995. Rounding out the five fastest times are: Steve Simpson – 36:23 in 1992, Thomas – 36:41 in 1992, Judge – 36:43 in 2000 and (tie) Thomas and Judge – 36:44 in 1990 and 1992, respectively.

Perhaps the Grandfather of the Mt. Helena Run is Tim Cail. Cail is the only runner to have participated in all 28 races, with his best finishes being third (1981), fourth (1983, 1986), fifth (1982), sixth (1979) and seventh (1980, 1984).

Over on the women’s side, no female had won more than twice until Michele Franchi came along. Franchi owns four Mt. Helena crowns, winning in 1996, 1997, 2000 and 2002; and she took second in 1995, 1998 and 2003. Previous double winners included Patty Sodja in 1975 and ’76, Gigi Moy in 1977 and ’86, Cheryl Johnson in 1980 and ’81, Mary Ellen Crockford in 1982 and ’83, Ann Seifert in 1984 and ’85, Jenny Murney in 1990 and ’91 and Nancy Dolan in 1994 and ’95. Lara Thomas, who captured the 1998 title, is the sister of men’s initial winner Bill Lannan.

Cheryl Johnson’s time of 46:26 lasted as the gal’s record for 19 years, until it was broken by Franchi’s 45:56 in 2000. Johnson is better known these days as Cheryl Liedle, Lewis and Clark County Sheriff. The current mark belongs to Kristina Trygstad-Saari of Bozeman, who lowered the time in 2001 to 44:56.

Two women who are believed to have competed in the most Mt. Helena events are Carol Bondy, about 18 times, and Doris Copenhaver, in approximately 14.

Last year’s champions were Tommy Manning and Shayla Swanson, both of Bozeman.