HELENA -- This year marks the 101st anniversary of the 1916 race to the top of Mount Helena and back down, which later inspired the founding of the modern-day Mt. Helena Run.
And for this year’s race – air quality permitting – there are at least three runners registered who took part in that inaugural race revival in 1975, including the grandsons of the winner 101 years ago.
In 1916 a nationally ranked distance runner from San Francisco named Vic Norman 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, another 18-year local, ahead of pre-race favorite Norman.
“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.”
Fifty-nine years after the first race, 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 the 1916 race would be contested, sponsored by the Mt. Helena Racing Club and the Downtown Shoppers Inc.
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,” the IR reported.
Bill Lannan became the men’s first champion, winning the 5.3 mile race in 35:09, while Patty Sodja of East Helena, 11, captured the women’s crown, in 47:05.
The event has survived now for 41 races, enduring several changes, and one cancellation (1988) due to fire danger. In 1977, the length was increased to its present 5.6 miles, with an elevation gain of 1,700 feet.
This year’s race is slated for Saturday, Sept. 23, beginning at 10 a.m. The race starts and ends on the walking mall, just south of Broadway Avenue. To register, visit https://runsignup.com/Race/MT/Helena/MountHelenaRun.
The three contestants from 1975 currently entered are Mark Burgess, Jeff Thomas and Tim Cail.
Burgess was 18, Thomas – who became known as the “King of the Mt. Helena Run” after winning the race a record 11 times – was 16, and Cail was 25. Cail, now 67 years of age, has competed in all 41 Mt. Helenas.
Thomas, however, will be slowed down after recently sustaining a knee injury.
Burgess, whose grandfather won the 1916 race, recalls that his grandmother helped Dr. Jack Burgess (no relation) present the winning trophy to the race winners in 1975. The 12-by-24 inch plaque consisted of Ben Burgess’s photo from his youth and a likeness of his 1916 medal (see photo).
The plaque was designed to display each race’s winners for the next 18 years, through 1993, although it has since disappeared, according to Thomas. But Burgess’ original medal has survived, in the possession of Mark, who will be bringing to this year’s race.
“Grampa was in running condition for having run behind the milk wagon – the horse knew the route – grabbing bottles of milk to run them up to a house and retrieve the empties from the front porch of his customers,” Mark related in a 2015 email. “Dad tells me his prep for the race was to eat a quart of ice cream for energy and that when cramps set in, he would flop on his back and peddle his legs in the air until the cramp subsided.
“I remember Grampa as a gentleman, always in a vest and bow tie driving his convertible Thunderbird.”
The younger Burgess described how Ben Burgess’s interests in “mining and perpetual energy” led him to wonder why asphalt smelled musty. After arranging laboratory time at the Montana Highway department, Burgess discovered that anaerobic bacteria broke it down, a reason why highway departments nationwide starting adding chlorine to the asphalt to kill the bacteria.
Burgess and his younger brother Craig plan on flying up from California to run this year’s race, with several other family members in attendance to cheer them on.
“Neither of us is in great shape; I'm 60 and Craig is 56, so we’re both going to need to get training soon,” Mark wrote in an email last month. “I routinely do a couple of miles but haven’t gone 5 in a long time. We obviously won’t be competing for place but running to honor our grandfather.”