It was a simple and modest start.

That’s all that could be expected in 1992, before the days of the Internet. But Ray Hunt’s plan was hardly simple. He wanted to bring together the state’s top post-collegiate runners and have them run a cross country race representing their home towns.

To locate would-be runners, he used the library, phone books and various newspapers and sent out handwritten invitations. He charged just $1 per entry and had runners wear similar colors that were assigned to their teams.

It was 1992, and 70 runners showed up at University of Montana Golf Course in Missoula. That was the birth of what is now known as the Montana Cup. Last year, more than 200 harriers ran in Helena. This year, the event comes to Bozeman for the first time since 2002.

And again, the field should easily top 200 for what should be a sloppy track along the trails near Lindley Park and behind Bozeman Deaconess Hospital.

The event not only brings together many of the state’s runners, it offers divisions for youngsters (19 and under), masters (40-plus) and open (20-39) competitors.

Said Hunt: “The mixing of ages competing together has truly fulfilled the Cup’s underlying mission, which is to unite the state’s widespread runners and running communities and to foster continued training and racing among Montana runners of all ages - and I’m happy to be one of them.”

Hunt, who lives and works in Deer Lodge, has only missed one Montana Cup and is a member of its hall of fame. He won the race in 1998 while representing Bozeman and has served as meet director in the past. He will wear green today (Butte’s color).

The idea for this event was actually hatched by University of Montana cross country coach Dick Koontz. Hunt, then a U of M assistant, soon ran with it and helped create what was known as the Montana Open Cross Country Championship 17 years ago.

After that first year, the field dwindled to 37 runners n only nine of which were women n in 1993.

“We agreed that once the word got around the state about this meet, the next year's draw would be vastly greater,” Hunt said. “We believed this so strongly that we didn't even bother adding promotions for the second year, but we were wrong.”

It wasn’t until Nicole Murray, who became Hunt’s wife, and Patrick (rick) Judge joined with the likes of Martin Miller, Jeff Thomas, Jennifer Pearson and Ann Seifert in 2000 that the event began to blossom.

After several years in Missoula and Butte, the race was moved to Helena for the start of the millennium, and in 2001, more than 100 runners showed up. The Cup has since revolved between Billings, Great Falls, Kalispell, Butte, Missoula, Bozeman and Helena.

The most appealing part of the event is its openness, according to Bozeman’s John Zombro, this year’s race director.

“Anyone can enter and run and be part of a team event regardless of how fast or slow they are,” he said. “On the most basic level, Montana Cup is about healthy living and exercise, and those involved tend to be ambassadors in this pursuit. On another level, it has become one of the most well-organized and competitive events around the state.”

Oh yes, the competition.

Missoula’s men have won the open race the past three years with the women from Billings taking the Cup last year for the first time since 2003. For masters, Bozeman is riding a two-year win streak for the men. Helena’s women took the title last year.

Today’s men’s race begins at noon, with the women to follow at 1 p.m. Registration is still available, beginning at 10 a.m.