Preview: 2014 Don't Fence Me In

In 1805, Meriwether Lewis named a stretch of the Missouri River just north of Helena “Gates of the Mountains.” He might as well have applied the name to the entire Prickly Pear Valley because his expedition encountered plenty of mountains from that point forward. Over 200 years have since gone by and, for many Montanans, the Helena area is still the Gates of the Mountains. For people who love to run, hike, and bike, Prickly Pear Land Trust (PPLT) is the gate keeper—or gate opener. Founded in 1996, PPLT is Helena’s go-to organization for open space and trails; quite literally opening recreational access to miles of trails in the greater Helena area.
Mike Wolfe getting it done - Credit: Dylan Brown/Independent Record

The non-profit PPLT accomplishes its work in preserving open space through conservation easements—it currently has 15 conservation easements covering nearly 3,700 acres in the greater Helena area. For the past 13 years, it has also functioned as the City of Helena’s trail coordinator. This has meant building and maintaining trails in Helena’s South Hills Trails System. The trail network features more than 70 miles of trails adjacent to the city’s downtown core. It's pretty much a trail runner's paradise.

This Saturday, Montana runners get to race those trails and experience PPLT’s work first hand in the 14th running of the Don’t Fence Me In Trail Race. According to race director Martin Miller, the general idea for the event came from fellow land trust volunteer Kris Larsen. Originally taking place at the Old Shooting Range and covering 5K and 10K distances, the event moved to Helena’s historic downtown in 2004 and upped its longest race to 12k. In 2008, it added a challenging 30K route.

The 12K is a classic. Now in its 10th edition, Miller surmises that the course has “been around long enough, and unaltered, to accumulate some experiences with it.” With over 1200 feet of elevation gain highlighted by its “crux climb” taking place on the race’s namesake Don't Fence Me In Trail, the race is no walk in the park. Indeed, the long and sustained ascent is well-timed at the 9K mark and comes shortly after the placid Waterline Trail. Miller observes that it’s a point in the race where runners “are lulled into complacency by the easy running” before the hitting the veritable wall with the abrupt climb up and over Rodney Ridge. Once over the ridge, they descend a switch-backed downhill before hitting another short, steep uphill on the Rodney Ridge Trail. The route is plenty tough. According to Miller, “The comments I get about this 1-2 punch usually consist of obscenities and death threats.”
The calm before the climb - Credit: PPLT
But those who really want to take a beating opt for the 30K. Pounding runners into submission with a total vertical gain of over 4,000 feet, the course was revamped a few years ago to add the difficult but rewarding summits of Mount Ascension and Mount Helena. Miller calls the East Ridge ascent of Ascension a “wake up call for the runners.” But what goes up, must come down. Miller says that the descent off of Mount Helena on tired legs is most often fitted with descriptors including “gnarly” and “technical.” But it’s not all pain. Runners are treated to a fast downhill to the finish line which Miller dubs the “Hero’s Finish.”

Hero: Rob Krar 2012 Champ - Credit: PPLT
Montana trail runners are no strangers to challenging courses that boast impressive statistics, but Don’t Fence Me In is somewhat rare in the state in that it’s also a major draw for top level trail runners from throughout the country. A number of years ago, the 30K attracted the attention of the La Sportiva Mountain Cup—a Euro-style race circuit spanning the country where runners compete for points and their place in the series’ overall standings. According to PPLT’s Kelli Butenko, the relationship came about through Tim Lynch of The Base Camp in Helena. From his urging, La Sportiva sent a “pilot” runner to compete in the in the 30K to see if the event was worthy of a place on the Mountain Cup. It clearly made an impression, because the next year La Sportiva added it to the series. In fact, Butenko reports, La Sportiva reps often fight over the chance to come to Helena for the race. She points to the fact that the event’s draw is much more than a great race, “Don’t Fence Me In has an Open Space Fair including live music, free beer for participants, activities for kids, and more. It’s a party for the whole community to celebrate our trails, and unlike any other in the La Sportiva series.”
Fun for the whole family! - Credit: PPLT
For the PPLT, the Don’t Fence Me In race means a whole lot more than a fun day in the mountains. It’s a major fundraiser with many participants gathering pledges for their favorite trail organization, the PPLT. According to Butenko, PPLT also benefits from trail work days from a broad spectrum of constituents, ranging from dog-walkers to the local high school cross country team. She encourages trail runners to become active stewards of trails and suggests that we do our part by supporting our local land trust.

For those of you who are able to experience the 2014 Don’t Fence Me In (you can still enter, but 30K registration closes today--Wednesday--at midnight! Race day registration is available for the other distances) you’re in for a show. Fans of the competitive side of things will be treated to what may be the deepest field in the event's history as the La Sportiva Mountain Cup ensures its place among the most competitive trail races under the Big Sky. Montanans Keifer Hahn, Justin Yates, and Mike Wolfe have stood on top of the 30K podium, as have accomplished out-of-staters Jared Scott, Megan Kimmel, and Rob Krar. This year’s race should follow a similar script with a number of fast Montanans toeing the line against top-level national talent drawn to Helena to improve their place on the Mountain Cup’s standings.

Here are some of the athletes (as of May 5) who’ll be contending for their place on the podium. (Note: Be advised there is nothing scientific about this, just a quick perusal of the entrant list. If I missed you and you crush it, I promise to remember you next time!):

Justin Ricks… Colorado Springs, Co… 2:22 marathon, CR at 2014 Moab Red Hot 33K, winner of 2011 Eugene Marathon, 2nd place at 2012 DFMI.

Jared Scott… Dolores, CO… 2:27 marathon, Former U.S. Mountain Running Team member, 2011 DFMI Champion, 2011 La Sportiva Cup Champion, DFMI 2nd place in 2012.

Bret Ferrier… Ogden, UT… 2:32 marathon, winner of 2014 Hillbilly Half (La Sportiva Cup event), currently 3rd in series standings.

Justin Houck… Mercer Island, WA… 2:25 marathon, 1:10 half marathon.

Jesse Zentz… Helena, MT… Local favorite representing the Vigilante Runners, Former UM Griz and Big Sky Conference champion in the mile, past champion of the DFMI 12K, 3rd 2014 Snow Joke.

Chase Parnell… Missoula, MT… 2:35 marathon, 12th 2012 Chuckanut 50K (4:00),

Jimmy Grant… Missoula, MT… (yep, I’m running too.)

Megan Kimmel… Silverton, CO… 3-time champion at DFMI, Former U.S. Mountain Running Team member, 2012 USATF Trail Runner of the Year.

Maria Dalzot… Bellingham, WA… 2011 North American Mountain Running Champion, podium finishes at several U.S. Trail Championships.

Em Kendrick… Missoula, MT… 3rd at 2012 DFMI.

Paige Pattillo… Ellensburg, WA… Champion 2014 Hillbilly Half, currently 5th in Mountain Cup standings.

Sarah Kjorstad… Helena, MT… 3rd at 2014 Hillbilly Half, 4th at 2014 Moab Red Hot 33K, currently 4th in Mountain Cup standings.

Lindsay Swan… Bozeman, MT… Winner 2013 Elkhorn 50K, 4th place 2012 DFMI.

5/9 Update via Running Times: 
David Roche... Washington, D.C. ... 2012 USA 10K Trail National Champion

Megan Deakins... Palo Alto, CA... 1:16 half marathon


  1. Didn't realize this was such a big event! #justgotscurred



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