NEWS | March 16, 2021

From Sea to Shining Sea: Combating the Pandemic One Mile at a Time

By Kevin McAndrews, U.S. Naval Research Laboratory Corporate Communications

When COVID-19 began to spread more than a year ago, few people could have imagined the drastic, far-reaching changes in our lives — both socially and professionally. But in a year’s time, the pandemic has turned the world upside down.

The World Health Organization declared a pandemic on March 11, 2020 and wearing masks, social distancing, and teleworking soon became the new norm.  This month marked the one-year anniversary for many people to be teleworking full time at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory (NRL), as well as many other federal agencies and private companies.

Folks at NRL’s Ocean and Atmosphere Science and Technology Directorate, or Code 7000 as it’s known internally at the lab, didn’t take the pandemic lying down. In fact, they decided to escape home-bound isolation by walking or running 7,000 miles. It was a way to combat the blues that come with being cooped up.

“We had a discussion among the 7000 division heads that it would be a good idea to do something to boost morale,” said Dr. Christoph Englert, superintendent of NRL’s Space Science Division.

“Especially during the winter when the days are short and some people have to deal with hardships and loss.” 

They nicknamed the challenge, “7,000 Miles for Code 7000.”

Initially, the challenge was to collectively walk or run toward the 7,000-mile goal, but it was expanded to include just about any activity, from kayaking to skiing to bicycling and even chopping wood. All were converted into miles that were logged into a spreadsheet to keep track.

Driving didn’t count, but Wade Duvall, a research physicist at NRL in D.C., hadn’t had a vacation in a year. He felt like flying wasn’t safe during the pandemic, so he drove more than halfway across the country, nearly 2,000 miles, to Big Bend National Park in southwest Texas near the border with Mexico.

Duvall went a long way to hike, he said, but more importantly, he wanted to do some running. He found himself along the south rim of the Chisos Mountains where the elevation reaches more than 7,000 feet. He did a shortened version of the 17-mile trail.

“There is a place in Far West Texas where the night skies are dark as coal and rivers carve temple-like canyons in ancient limestone,” says the National Park Service website about Big Bend. “Here, at the end of the road, hundreds of bird species take refuge in a solitary mountain range surrounded by weather-beaten desert. Tenacious cactus bloom in sublime southwestern sun, and diversity of species is the best in the country.”

Who wouldn’t want to visit this “magical place,” right? And so, spurred on by the challenge, Duvall did, and his spirit was better for it.

Running along the trail in the Chisos was the highlight of his trip. His ascent went to 3,700 feet.

His reluctance to fly during the pandemic gave him a chance to experience places along the highways and byways of America he’d never seen.

“I started devising a plan for a socially distant vacation in the fall and converted my SUV into a sort of camping vehicle with a sleeping platform in back,” he said. “It turns out this is also a great way to see the country.”

The initial challenge of completing 7,000 miles between December and January was eventually blown away. As the workout craze caught on, the goal was exceeded by almost double the initial challenge.

“We didn’t want to force people to run,” Englert said. “We just wanted to make sure people went out and that it was a fun activity for them. We got over 12,000 miles together.”

A site on Microsoft Teams was created to encourage dialogue and share adventures. People posted photographs of the places they’d been.

The 7000 directorate has five divisions which include Acoustics, Remote Sensing, Ocean Sciences, Marine Meteorology, and Space Science.

With divisions from California to Washington, D.C and points in between, it was truly a sea-to-shining-sea challenge. The directorate’s participants began taking pictures while they were outside logging miles, then posted them on Teams.

Shawn Harrison, an oceanographer with NRL at the Stennis Space Center, Mississippi, not only learned to run during the challenge, he introduced jogging to his two children.

“I’ve never really been into running,” Harrison said. “I always found it a bit painful. I see the advantages of running, though; no equipment and it can be done anywhere. I spent many years as an active cyclist, which is easier on the knees.”

But the challenge motivated him to try running.

Harrison and his family are relatively new to Mississippi, and not used to the hot, humid summers. The inhospitable climate contributed to less bicycling. Raising a family while keeping a busy work schedule also led to a more sedentary lifestyle.

“The 7000-mile challenge seemed like an easy, non-committal opportunity to make a little extra effort to exercise,” he said. “And since it’s winter, the weather in Mississippi is fantastic for outdoor activities.”

He started with easy, nightly jogs around his neighborhood, discovering several potential routes of varying distances. 

“My goal was to run every night, at least one mile,” he said. “I was surprised to find the runs enjoyable, and increased my overall motivation.”

He added exercises around the house, including free weights, and eventually increased his runs to four miles. His pace also picked up, going from a 12-minute mile to a 10-minute mile. Forty of the 100 miles he finished were jogging. He converted lots of other activities to mileage using a conversion chart.

Because of the pandemic, everyone is working from home in the Harrison household.

“The kids are in a strange situation where their parents are at home, but mostly unavailable to them,” Harrison said. “So I try to take time out from my typical work schedule to teach them useful things, like how to chop wood, build a birdhouse, learning to use a saw, hammer, drill sander and paint.”

And what better thing for an oceanographer to teach his kids than about the ocean?

“We have a large map setup in our shared work space,” he said. “I took time to show them different coastlines and famous surfing spots on the map. Then we looked them up on satellite and watch the wave on YouTube.”

 He explained to them what makes each coastline and surf break different and unique. This piqued their curiosity.

“My daughter started a list of places she wants to explore in person once we’re able to travel more freely,” Harrison said. “I think daily exercise is important for all of us. I feel more confident about running, and we’d like to continue investing in physical fitness to help my body through the golden years.”

In California, James Doyle, a senior scientist with the Marine Meteorology Division, ran, hiked, biked and walked four or five days a week along the recreational trail in Monterey and Pacific Grove.

“It’s a beautiful stretch of coastline,” Doyle said. “We’re very fortunate to have nice weather all year round.”

He used his early morning runs to listen to audiobooks, ponder research he’s working on, plan the day ahead.

“I work very hard and across many projects,” Doyle said, “and it’s great to unplug and enjoy the outdoors. We have great walking options on the Monterey Peninsula and nearby Big Sur and Carmel Valley.”

Some of the awesome moments Doyle took away from the challenge include seeing waves as high as 20 feet.

“Being able to run along the coast with a full moon in the early morning and seeing the breaking waves from the trail was really memorable,” he said. “It was also really great to see coyotes and bobcats along with free-range cattle on our Carmel Valley hikes.”

Elizabeth Twarog, an electronics engineer in the Remote Sensing Division in Washington, D.C., also got her children involved. She ran 105 miles and walked 25 for a total of 130 miles.

“I’m an every-other-day runner,” she said, “and sometimes I dragged my children out for walks on the off days.”

Her motivation comes from an internal competitiveness, one that keeps her exercise routines consistent. Plus, she didn’t want to let her division down by skipping a run.

“Since the fall, I have been enjoying some of the virtual distance challenges to keep myself motivated,” she said. “Either trying to get 250 miles as soon as I can just running, or an 828-mile virtual trip around Iceland with a routine that included running, walking and cycling.”

She enjoyed the challenge because it was a positive and inclusive effort with coworkers that she doesn’t get to see. 

“I enjoyed the chance to see what people in Monterey and Stennis were up to, since I have very little contact with them.”

Even though the challenge is over, people are still logging in hours, Englert said.

“I thought it was a great success because people were really into it,” he said. “That’s pretty cool. It was a fun thing that lifted morale.”