Johnny Gregorek, the Blue Jean Mile, and Mental Health Awareness

ASICS runner Johnny Gregorek runs on a track

Johnny Gregorek’s year is already off to a strong start. The ASICS and Empire Elite athlete is on his way to chasing down a spot on the US team having recently clocked a 3:36 1500m at the Mt. Sac Golden Games in Walnut, California, earlier this month.

While Gregorek’s times on the track speak for themselves, he’s made his loudest statement as the Blue Jeans Mile world record holder. Yes, you read that right, a mile in blue jeans. Levi’s 501s to be exact. Gregorek threw down a 4:06.25 mile in Levi’s in 2020 in remembrance of his brother Patrick.

After his younger brother Patrick lost his battle with depression in March 2019, Gregorek decided the best way to honor him would be to run a mile in blue jeans, raising money for the National Alliance on Mental Illness’ (NAMI) NYC Metro chapter.

In 2020, he raised more than $14,000 for NAMI, which provides mental health education and resources nationwide. This year, he is joined by ASICS, who has promised to donate $40,625 to NAMI-NYC in support of the Blue Jean Mile.

“ASICS slogan of ‘Sound Mind Sound Body’ rings so true for me when it comes to running,” says Gregorek. “Any time I don’t get a run in, I can always feel it. I feel off. Running is such a key component of my mental health.”

Gregorek specifically chose to partner with NAMI after seeing friends run the New York City Marathon with the Nami Runs team. Inspired by a mental health organization with ties to running and national reach, Gregorek decided that fundraising for NAMI-NYC would be the best way to impact both his local and national community.

“I could tell that what they did was so important and the resources they provided were so essential. They have a really broad national reach so if it ever did get to the point that the Blue Jean Mile grew to be a nation-wide thing, it would be great if the organization I was working with also had that reach,” says Gregorek.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the event this year is virtual, but anyone can participate for free and can fundraise or donate any amount they’d like to NAMI-NYC.

ASICS athlete Johnny Gregorek

Fundraising for NAMI-NYC is a great step toward breaking down stigma around mental illness and mental health. But the real benefit of events like the Blue Jean Mile is beginning conversations about mental health.

“This whole process has been amazing in that it has really opened up the conversation. There’s a lot less stigma and taboo around mental healthcare practices, and I can see that so much in my relationships with family and friends. Ten years ago, it would never have been something that came up. Now you can casually talk about going to a therapist, and it’s just really cool to not have it be something to be embarrassed about,” says Gregorek.

As the Blue Jean Mile continues to grow in popularity, so too does Gregorek and his family’s ability to not only grieve the loss of a brother and son, but to positively impact individuals who similarly suffer from mental illness.

“There's so many different ways you can go through difficult times and grieve, and it's just nice to have a way to honor my brother’s spirit and to connect with a community and help other people who are in need of mental health resources,” says Gregorek. “It’s all about making the most of the time we have. I think that’s in the spirit of what my brother would have wanted and it's a healthy way to operate overall.”

Athletes of all levels have joined in on the Blue Jean Mile, making their own attempts at Gregorek’s record. Retired runner Kyle Merber (and long-time friend of Gregorek) recently took a stab at the Blue Jean Mile, coming in at a measly 4:27.

Though Gregorek claims he could take down Merber head-to-head, Merber’s attempt and others like it are more important than the competition. It points to a trend of vocalization in a sport that is often plagued by mental health issues that have gone unspoken for far too long.

The Blue Jean Mile and events like it give voice and visibility to those who struggle, or who have lost their battles with mental illness, and provides a way to act.

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