Eleven years ago, 100 runners showed up for Prickly Pear Land Trust's first Don't Fence Me In Trail Run.
"I was heartbroken because I knew about 80 of them," said Kris Larson who has helped organize the race ever since.
The 10K race - the only distance offered at the time - began and ended on Davis Gulch near the old shooting range.
Larson said no one among the organizers of that first trail run knew anything about putting on such an event. The group just knew they liked to run and they wanted to support the Prickly Pear Land Trust, a nonprofit organization committed to protecting open space in Lewis and Clark, Jefferson and Broadwater counties.
The course had to be designed, permits obtained, a logo created, trophies made.
"We didn't have any money," Larson said.
Martin Miller stepped in to help - the Helena endurance runner designed the course, which Larson describes as being similar to a design by Dutch artist M.C. Escher, who is famous for his intricate and complicated works.
"I had some experience with the Mount Helena Run," Miller said, "and I had a few contacts."
Community members pulled together and donated time, money, food and other race necessities. A fourth-grader drew a picture that became the design on the T-shirts.
A Helena tradition was born.
During the first few years, the Don't Fence Me In Trail Run experienced some growing pains. Parking became an issue and through-traffic on Davis Gulch presented a problem.
"I remember one year all the runners were lined up ready to start," Larson said. "We yelled, ‘On your mark, get set, WAIT!'"
A vehicle was trying to drive through the crowd of runners, Larson said.
Eventually the start- and finish-line were moved downtown and the 10K run became a 12K. A 5K and a 5K dog walk also were added.
"Now, it's a whole family affair," Larson said.
It's also a destination for runners trying to get some early-season mileage under their belts.
"Since Helena is lower in elevation, we can do these types of runs early," Miller said. "Runners use it for a training run."
Don't Fence Me In introduced a 30K to the lineup in 2008, which attracted even more runners.
"The 30K was huge," Larson said.
Don't Fence Me In, which has grown steadily every year, jumped from 375 runners in 2008 to 572 in 2009. Last year there were 610 runners and PPLT expects even more this year.
According to Joanne Martonik, events coordinator for PPLT, 327 runners had registered for this year's race as of Monday morning. Of those, 111 registered for the 30K. Registration continues through this week and is open until the start of the races (except for the 30K, which closed Wednesday).
PPLT has printed 680 T-shirts with a drawing by Rossiter fourth-grader Ethan Miller. His pencil drawing shows a horse inside a fence. Miller said it was the name of the race that inspired the drawing.
"I'd say it took me about 10 minutes to draw it," said the 10-year-old, who plans to run the 5K this year.
An additional draw for runners this year is the inclusion of the 30K race in La Sportiva's Mountain Cup Series. Don't Fence Me In's 30K is one of 10 trail races around the country included in the series.
Martonik said the race typically raises between $30,000 and $35,000 each year for PPLT.
"When it first started, we just wanted to turn people on to the trails," Larson said. "Now it has become a money maker."
And as it becomes a bigger fundraiser, it gives more resources to PPLT to make more acquisitions for the South Hills Trail System and to continue its other conservation work.
Michele Bazzanella, a PPLT board member, has run the race for the last nine years. She said she looks forward to the run every year.
"It's the time of year when you can get back on the trails," she said. "It's like a giant breath of fresh air. It gets people motivated."
Over the nine years she's run the race - some years the 12K, others the 30K - Bazzanella said she's seen the event, the participants and the trails evolve.
"The trail system has changed in its use," she said. "There's more people running and riding. As a result, that changes the energy - a lot of people feel like it's their backyard."