Chris Conley’s favorite trail near his home in Owensboro, Kentucky, starts in a parking lot. When he pulls up, he tucks four green toy soldiers into his pockets and carries them until he reaches almost exactly 4 miles.
There, he finds a tree split at the base, surrounded by Honor and Remember flags and already filled with dozens of plastic troops. He takes the four he has carried and places them among the others within the makeshift .
Before long, he’s back to his run.
“Honestly, I hate running,” Conley, 50, told Runner’s World. “This, doing this for the soldiers and Gold Star Families, is what motivates me.”
Conley has long thought of ways to honor his fellow service members after serving himself from 1988–96 in the U.S. Army. Inspiration first struck during the 2018 , a cross-country relay that took more than four months to complete.
While Conley’s wife, Donna, participated in the run, he followed along in a car, experiencing the entire trip as a spectator. Seeing the passion and camaraderie gave him the motivation he needed to start running again after serving, and to support his fellow troops, too.
“At the end of every mile, they would stop the run and read the names of every fallen hero [from the War on Terror] aloud,” Conley said. “By the end, when we arrived at Arlington National Cemetery, I told one gal I had latched onto for the run that I was going to start running again.”
Running was ideal for various reasons. He could raise money, he could run half marathons for or with Gold Star Families and give his medal to them, and he could host a race, which he did this summer with Kentucky’s first ever cross-state Run for the Fallen.
Despite these projects, he didn’t want the events to be spread so far apart throughout the year. He wanted something habitual that he could work toward regularly.
He thought about it on his weekly runs. Then in October, he went to one of his favorite trails for what he thought would be just another run.
On the trail, he passed a gnome family that had been set up in a carved-out tree for as long as he could remember. No one knew why it was there, but it was always there, untouched.
A couple miles later, at the halfway point of his run, he saw a similar tree split at the base. That’s when the idea for a Fallen Heroes Memorial dawned on him. Conley’s story .
“I went to Consumers Mall [a local store] and bought 100 plastic soldiers,” he said. “On the bottom of each, I write the name of a soldier and their date of death. That way, when people come across the tree, they’ll see the names and know not to mess with it—and think about our troops who serve and died for this country.”
The idea is simple: A runner can carry four toy soldiers, each with the name and date of death of a soldier killed in action, to the memorial from the parking lot—one for each mile to the location. Then they have to run back to the trailhead. There have been 253 Kentuckians killed in the line of duty, and Conley plans to fill the tree with a toy soldier for every one. It will take 506 miles—in and out of the woods—to do so.
The soldiers will remain in the tree as a memorial for any who pass by until next September. Then, Conley plans to collect them and bring them to the and present them to Gold Star Families.
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Less than a month into the effort, Conley said there are already 48 soldiers at the memorial. For someone training for his first ultras—a 50K in March and a 50 miler in May—he shouldn’t have a problem completing his mission of 506 miles to fill the tree, but he’s not doing it alone.
After he posted on Facebook about the first four he placed in the tree on November 5, he received positive feedback and offers to assist in the process from runners, hikers, and mountain bikers.
Conley hopes to grow the ceremonial delivery of the toy troops into a community affair, and invite Gold Star Families to contribute as well.
“It means the world to the families,” he said. “Whether it’s doing a race with them or giving them these toy soldiers, on that day, nobody forgets their child.”
Gear & News Editor Drew covers a variety of subjects for Runner’s World and Bicycling, and he specializes in writing and editing human interest pieces while also covering health, wellness, gear, and fitness for the brand.