Walking through Dorris Ranch in Springfield on a cold winter morning, Ben Blankenship, founder of the nonprofit Endless Mileage Project and a 2016 Olympian in the 1,500 meters, points to new trees as a way to illustrate how fast runners have become.
The first row of a new orchard of filbert (aka hazelnut) trees represents about 20 years of U.S. male runners breaking the 4-minute mile barrier, starting in 1957, he says. “As you go through, it becomes more and more broken,” Blakenship says. “Now we have one every few months. Then you get to the end of the grove and it’s almost every day, which is super cool.”
These new trees symbolize how fast runners have become; they’ve been planted at Dorris Ranch to commemorate the first time an American male runner breaks the 4-minute mile mark and an American female beats 4 minutes, 30 seconds.
Endless Mileage Project’s Fast Forest program is a way to work with Springfield’s Willamalane Park and Recreation District to address the ongoing blight that has affected trees on the Dorris Ranch living history orchard while creating a sustainable running landmark in Springfield.
Before 1954, breaking the 4-minute mile was seen as an impossible feat, beyond the limits of a human. “For men, it was like, you’ll die. For women, your uterus will fall out if you try to run that fast,” says Jessi Gabriel, Endless Mileage Project’s operations lead. “Once the barrier is broken and it is seen that that achievement is possible, then people can do it.”
British medical student Roger Banister broke 4 minutes in 1954, and several weeks later another runner accomplished the feat. Then, in 1957, Don Bowden broke the barrier in Stockton, California, becoming the first American to do so.
Dedicating the Fast Forest at Dorris Ranch to the mile was the perfect track and field event to commemorate, Blakenship says. “Almost everybody has some interaction with the mile, whether it’s that high school gym class that you’re forced to run or you turn on the Olympics every four years,” he says.
The Fast Forest is more than a way to remember the hundreds of U.S. runners — which includes Blankenship’s own 3:57.9 mile in 2010 — who have joined the elite ranks of mile-distance runners. It’s also a way for Willamalane to address the loss and impending loss of the trees at Dorris Ranch to the Eastern filbert blight, a fungus that spreads quickly in orchards.
Willamalane and Endless Mileage Project are planting trees that are blight-resistant varieties and developed by Oregon State University, says Eric Adams, Willamalane Parks’ Planning and Facilities director.
At some point, trees infected with blight will die, so Willamalane has been working since 2016 on replacing them with blight resistant ones. In 2016, the agency replaced two full orchards, removing about 1,200 infected trees, and planted 1,400 in their place. And those trees have already produced a healthy crop, says Kenny Weigandt, Willamalane’s community engagement director. The Endless Mileage Project additions mean that Willamalane needs 4,800 more trees to replace all of the blight-infested trees.
“This was a dream partnership,” Gabriel says. “The actual land that is required to plant these many trees that are also publicly accessible is pretty rare.”
Blankenship says that Willamalane planted about 1,500 filbert trees. The Endless Mileage Project and Willamalane have an agreement that the nonprofit will pay for the filbert trees as it inducts runners.
To find out how much a tree would cost, Willamalane broke down the total costs for removal, replanting and the work necessary in the first five years. The public agency then divided that sum by the number of athletes who have broken the 4-minute or 4:30 mile, Adams says. The total for the first 692 trees, representing the number of men and women runners from 1957 to 2021, was $32,240 — about $47 per tree.
Every time that a runner breaks those times, Endless Mileage Project pays Willamalane the cost for the tree, Blankenship says, and plans to start paying the park agency on an annual basis.
The seed money to get the project underway came from two donors who are passionate about track and field, Blankenship says: co-CEO and co-founder of sports company EOS Bill Shelton and U.S.A. Foundation Board of Directors Track and Field member Bob Moran. “They loved the concept of blending sustainability with track and field,” he says.
At the end of each year, the Endless Mileage Project plans to induct classes of men, women and nonbinary runners who run a mile faster than 4 minutes or 4:30 for the first time. During the induction, the nonprofit will add tags to filbert trees (there are about 700 that are unclaimed so far) that have the runner’s name, date and venue where they beat the time, and the time.
Gabriel jokes that some runners may see their tree and say that the tag doesn’t have their personal best. “It’s actually the time you first broke the barrier that’s represented here.”
Because the project is new, the first-ever induction of runners in November 2022 included all runners who beat 4 minutes and 4:30, respectively, from 1957 to 2021. The second induction on Feb. 1, 2023, saw the most runners break those times in one year, Gabriel says, with 64 runners, from high school student-athletes to professionals.
Blankenship says via email that the 2023 class already has about 30 athletes who have broken their respective barriers. Those runners — and others who break those barriers for the first time throughout 2023 — will be inducted into the orchard in early 2024.
Deciding on the time of 4 minutes was already an accepted barrier for men, Gabriel says. But setting barrier time for the women’s mile shows the institutional barriers that women have faced in track and field, she says. “It’s a very visual testament to the reality of the lack of opportunities for women’s racing,” Gabriel says. “Now there are many more opportunities, which is awesome, and we expect that it’s going to catch up.”
The fastest women’s mile time was set by Dutch runner Sifan Hassan, who ran the distance in 4:12.33 in 2019.
Although the program is only a year old, it’s already developed a reputation in the running community. Shortly after the nonprofit had announced it had installed its first class, a high school runner in Virginia had broken the 4-minute mark. “He was like, ‘The best part about breaking 4 [minutes] is that I know I have a tree in my name,’” Gabriel recalls. “When he’s here, he says he’s going to come and visit his tree.”
That pull of attracting runners to see their tree and having running fans admire the number of fast American runners is what adds another historical element to Dorris Ranch, a living history orchard that is already full of so much history.
“It’s adding another layer of history to what’s already existing at Dorris Ranch as the original commercial filbert orchard in the country,” Adams says. “Just the legacy of that is adding another facet to it that makes it more significant and puts it on the map.”
For more information about the Endless Mileage Project or to donate, visit EndlessMileage.org.