Unsung Heroes - Athletes Making an Impact: Ben Blankenship and Endless Mileage
When you talk with Ben Blankenship and get deeper and deeper into the origins of his new Endless Mileage non-profit foundation (Endlessmileage.org), the conversation comes around to another great Minnesota native who he knew first as a rival when the two were preps back in 2004-07. “Hassan (Mead) was awesome. He made a lot of (U.S.) teams and he was really gracious,” Blankenship remembers. “He would fill a duffle bag full of stuff (running shoes & apparel) and give it to high school kids. He was an inspiration.”
Maybe Blankenship knew then that someday he might be doing something similar. Indeed, at first it was speaking at schools and working out of his car to distribute some of his extra shoes and clothes to athletes and teams in need.
But he certainly didn’t know then that in the twilight of his competitive running career, years later, he would rather suddenly launch a full-blown non-profit foundation that would not only be collecting and distributing shoes, clothing and much more to needy kids and teams in four states – the Recovered Running initiative – but that another creative dream would also be simultaneously realized in Fast Forest: Planting trees to celebrate 100s of America’s barrier breaking milers.
So now Fast Forest and Recovered Running are twin “pillars,” as Blankenship says, of Endless Mileage, launched rather spontaneously last fall – but powerfully, with tremendous support – and now spreading by word-of-mouth and social media faster than a bunch of milers zipping around the oval at Hayward Field.
It’s really about sustainability for Blankenship – sustaining the sport for the next generation, trying to do his part to sustain the planet. For Fast Forest, he says, “I had this idea about planting trees and representing athletes and kind of combining sustainability within track & field,” he says. “This is how it all came together.
“I was really passionate about this for a long time, 4-5 years. I wanted to plant trees, just figure out how to plant trees. And I kept rolling over ideas of how can I relate it back to track & field. And then it was like one of those things if it could be a full-circle moment, where we're able to donate items to a high school, then one of those kids do something really cool and we can plant a tree. That would be amazing.”
A great deal of Blankenship brainstorming followed, mostly with the legions of fellow runners and friends that have been drawn to his passion for giving back – in his own laid-back way. It came down to wanting to plant trees to recognize a certain level of excellence in the sport and, in the end, the mile – and the barriers of 4:00 for men and 4:30 for women – was chosen. A tree would be planted for each American man and American woman in history with those achievements and a Fast Forest – of Filbert and Hazelnut trees, it was determined – would rise into the sky.
Each step along the way, support and money have been manifested, as well as – most importantly – a place to plant all of these trees. “We wanted them to be publically accessible, and we wanted to find a place within a short distance of Hayward. We wanted trees that would last, that would always be there. At one point, we were making calls all around the state – the eastern and western halves of the state, all up and down I-5, but we finally found a home right here in Springfield with Willamalane.”
That’s the Willamalane Park and Recreation District; specifically, Dorris Ranch. Many of the athletes honored by the forest have learned about the project and come out to see their trees. In a few cases, multiple family members are “enshrined” there, including father-son sub-4:00 milers John and Johnny Gregorek, as well as Chris Gregorek – John’s wife and Johnny’s mother – who broke 4:30 herself.
“That’s definitely the most in one family,” says Blankenship.
A total of 692 trees had been planted by last fall, recognizing all of those breaking the two barriers through 2021. Just this week, Blankenship says, 64 more tree tags were hung representing each runner who achieved the standard in 2022 – “which is 15 people more than in any other year,” he says.
The Fast Forest – or Endless Mileage at all – would not have happened without tremendous support of those Blankenship reached out to for ideas, financial support, resources, or a combination of all three. The Endless Mileage website graciously acknowledges all of them, including Carolyn Stein, the foundation president and commissioner for the City of Eugene’s Sustainability Commission – who convinced Blankenship last summer that he could successfully turn his dreams into a non-profit. Still, the speed by which he was able to assemble a team behind him was stunning.
Meanwhile, Recovered Runner is humming along with equal energy. “Last year, between November and December, we collected 3,000 items to donation that will go back to HS students in and around Oregon before track season begins,” Blankenship says.
And the donations aren’t all shoes and spikes. “We make a big push out here for rain jackets. Rain jackets make a huge difference, especially in cross country season. One thing we really want to help coaches with is retention, especially when you start the fall with great weather for XC, and we slowly get to October and the weather deteriorates. If kids don't have the right or proper gear, their running experience is really miserable. So it's all about can we get coaches what they need, rain jackets, spikes and shoes.”
Then there was the time the school with a hot asphalt track in a valley wanted yoga mats. “I was able to reach out to a friend who owns a yoga studio in Eugene and she was able to accumulate 35 yoga mats overnight,” says Blankenship, “which was really cool. Another time, we got a donation of shot puts from U-W.
“We’ve got programs right now in Oregon, Minnesota, Washington and Arizona. For our first year, I’m excited about that. Donations have come on really well just by word of mouth and social media. Before it was just me leaning on a lot of my friends and people inside this community.
“My goal is to be able to do this in all 50 states.”
Blankenship says he was always “an outdoor kid” growing up in Minnesota and preserving natural environments comes naturally to him. But “If you had interviewed me in high school and said, ‘You're doing to travel the world, across all continents, and have these awesome moments of being able run through European forests, Japanese forests, I never would have believed you. So my career has taken me to some really cool places, but it does comes at a cost. It’s a big carbon footprint, getting on a plane all the time. Going to Doha to run in air-conditioned facility. How do we give back and make sure the next generation can experience this as well?
“That's how we ended up falling on trees, we know trees make a difference. It's not going to reverse climate change, but it’s something that we can do.”