Bicycling 20 miles to work in the snow. Full-length triathlons in foreign countries. Marathons run on aircraft carriers. Paddling a kayak to the office.
They’re all just a few ways employees of the Defense Logistics Agency stay fit, focused and motivated while keeping stress at bay.
Army Col. Wil McCauley lives in Maryland and works for DLA at the McNamara Headquarters Complex in Fort Belvoir, Virginia. Unlike many in the greater Washington, D.C., area, he usually enjoys his trip to work and back.
McCauley, chief of the Military Service Support Division of DLA Logistics Operations, shares the “road” with herons, bald eagles, fish and other creatures as he paddles his kayak across the Potomac River about three days a week, even in winter.
He begins by driving from his home in Maryland, on a bay just across the water from George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate, to Marshall Hall Landing, a public dock. From there he paddles across the Lower Potomac to Fort Belvoir’s small marina on Dogue Creek, a wide inlet on the northeast side of the post. The paddle takes 22-30 minutes, he said.
Once at the marina, McCauley stows his boat and then rides a mountain bike another 20 minutes across Fort Belvoir to the HQC. His total commute by bike, boat and car is about an hour and a half.
McCauley respects the danger that comes with being on any body of water, especially one like the Potomac, which has currents and tides that can be deadly. He always wears a life vest, in addition to a headlamp so the motorboat drivers can see him. He uses a spray skirt to keep water out of his 17-foot sea kayak, which is much more stable in waves than a sit-on-top kayak.
Generally, he won’t paddle if there’s a wind greater than 10 knots.
“If the tide is coming in and you have the wind with it, it can make for some really big waves,” he said.
But he does paddle through the winter.
“The only thing that stops me in the winter is if Dogue Creek ices up,” he said. Or if the need for a car during the day requires him to drive the whole way to work — a trip that takes at best 45 minutes and at worst an hour and a half.
Seeing nature up close is one of the best parts of his commute, McCauley explained.
“One of the primary nesting sites for bald eagles is right here on Fort Belvoir,” he said. “I get to marvel at the fish jumping and the osprey catching the fish. I get to see the cycle of the seasons, the migration of birds, the different types of birds and fish, whether snakeheads or perch, long-nosed gar or shad. I get to either look at tail lights, or I get to see fox, beaver and cormorant,” he said. He also sees herons and small diving ducks known as grebes.
And being on the river so early in the morning lets him see natural phenomena many don’t get to witness.
“There’s something amazing about a flock of 100 tundra swan taking off, which most people have never heard — the amazing thundering of their wings beating on the water,” he said. “Or the sound of a grebe or a cormorant taking off, as they run across the top of the water.
“You get to see what happens after a rainstorm. You get to see the stars and their movement in the sky and their effects on the water. You feel like you get to understand what’s going on in the world around you.”
McCauley has commuted by bicycle and/or kayak for about 22 years, since he was a young Army captain. So he naturally thought about alternative commutes when he was first assigned to Fort Belvoir, he said. He had to adapt at first.
“There’s a bit of conditioning. I hadn’t used those [paddling] muscles,” he said. “And then there’s figuring out winds and weather. But then it becomes second nature.”
Being on the water definitely reduces his stress, he said.
“I know I personally need the time and space mentally to think, to pray, to mediate. My family knows when I’ve paddled. They can tell things are a little better,” McCauley said.
Being the sole vehicle on the “road” has practical benefits as well.
“Sometimes, I’ll talk to somebody on the telephone,” McCauley said — a task one can’t safely do while driving. “Or sometimes I’ll literally close my eyes and paddle for a minute and just completely zone out.”
“It centers me and is relaxing — and fun.”
McCauley retires from his Army career this year and looks forward to spending more time in nature — whether on the water or in the mountains.
The decision to commute this way grew out of a lifetime spent outdoors, McCauley noted.
“I’ve paddled since I was a little kid,” he said. “Some of my earliest memories are in a canoe. So being on the water’s normal for me.
“As a kid, my dad didn’t buy me a car; he bought me a bike,” McCauley recalled.
So his choice as an adult to take the more physically arduous but spiritually rejuvenating route to work?
“It’s probably his fault.”
Navy Lt. Cmdr. Ryan Stickel also spends time around the water. But for him, that can mean swimming 2.4 miles just before a 112-mile bike ride and a full 26.2-mile marathon.
Stickel, the military deputy for Order Management in DLA Logistics Operations, is a triathlete. He’s done seven full-length triathlons in six countries, along with more than 30 marathons. And he swims every morning at a pool on Fort Belvoir.
But he wasn’t always so serious about exercise, he said. In fact, the 42-year-old considers himself to be just an average athlete.
Stickel, who’s also the Navy fitness lead at DLA Headquarters, grew up in Los Angeles, playing youth sports. But he kept getting injured. So he began focusing on endurance sports like running and swimming.
At age 22, he enlisted in the Navy, where he became a search-and-rescue swimmer. He served two deployments on a submarine, one on a destroyer and one on an aircraft carrier. But that didn’t stop him from running on the ship’s treadmill. He even ran in a shipboard marathon, the Marine Corps Forward, joined remotely by warfighters in Iraq and Afghanistan. Another time, he and a group of shipmates did a treadmill relay run around the world.
“I kind of started off with baby steps,” he said. “I was doing 5Ks and 10Ks back when I was enlisted, and that morphed into doing half marathons in college. And it’s kind of grown from there.”
After three years as an enlisted sailor, he was accepted into the Navy’s Broadened Opportunity for Officer Selection and Training Program. BOOST allowed him to earn his degree while participating in the Reserve Officer Training Corps Program.
That’s when he got serious about fitness, he said. During college summers, he worked as a beach lifeguard in the Outer Banks, rescuing swimmers from the rough Atlantic Ocean.
“It exposed me to a different caliber of athlete,” he said, including a coworker who was on the U.S. National Lifesaving Team. So Stickel began doing shorter-length “sprint” triathlons and marathons. His first full marathon was in 2005.
“I was totally unprepared,” he said, explaining that he ran the first half in good time but had no energy for the rest of the race and finished in about six hours.
He now runs one or two and has done as many as six marathons in one year. And just like McCauley and Price, Stickel and his family planned their choice of residence around the idea of staying fit.
“When we moved to Norfolk, I drew a radius around the pier where the ship was docked, and I said ‘Let’s live within five miles. We’ll sell the second car when we get there.
“So we sold the car, and I was forced to run to work every single day. I ran five miles to work, and then ran five miles home every single day,” he said.
He did this for two years except for deployments, before the family was transferred to Germany. Again, Stickel drew his radius around the base — but this time for 10 miles.
“I rode my bike every day for three years straight, because we only had one car.”
The German motto is, “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing,” Stickel recalled. So he bought cold-weather riding gear and installed tires with metal studs on his bike so he could ride even through the German winter.
He and his wife now plan family vacations to coincide with triathlons. While in Germany, they arranged a three-week vacation around an Ironman triathlon in Copenhagen, Denmark. Another trip involved a race in the Canary Islands.
Why does he do it?
Part of it is the desire to stay fit, Stickel acknowledged. But he also enjoys the challenge of increasing his performance.
“I’m always learning more about myself — the nutrition, the training, reading, training plans,” he said.
Exercise also helps him reduce stress, he noted.
“I’m kind of a high-energy, action-oriented person,” Stickel said. “So I think it mellows me out.”
It also keeps him in the habit of fighting through adversity.
“I think it’s a mental thing, breaking through those barriers,” he said. “If you’re struggling with something at work, it gives you confidence you can turn to your work environment.”
And starting the day with an achievement is a great mental motivator.
“You’ve heard that old saying, ‘If you win the morning, you win the day.’ If you’re in a good mood because you got up in the morning and didn’t hit that snooze button, but you instead said ‘I’m going to go to the gym,’ — whatever your job is, it sets you up for success the rest of the day,” he said.
His training also sets an example for his four young sons, Stickel noted.
“They know Daddy set a goal, and that’s what he’s training for,” he said. “They know that Daddy can be back in time for breakfast after running 15 or 20 miles. So it’s a life lesson for them. It’s goal setting, it’s leading by example, it’s showing my boys that you can decide you want to do something and work toward it.”
Just setting a goal and sticking with it is the key to getting started, Stickel said — even for those who will never do a marathon but just want to be more active.
As for Stickel, his next challenge is qualifying for the Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii.
Whether it’s two miles or 20; whether on a bike, in a boat or in a pair of shoes, becoming more active is something almost anyone can benefit from.
Wheels In Motion
Rain, snow, dark of night — none of it is enough to keep Craig Price from using his bicycle to commute every day to and from his job at DLA, also in the McNamara HQC.
Price began life as a bike commuter nearly 20 years ago, when he was working in the Pentagon. He was a casual cyclist and runner, but then a co-worker pointed out the nearby bike and running path that runs through the woods along the Potomac River next to the George Washington Memorial Parkway, to Mount Vernon and just next door to Fort Belvoir.
So he took the plunge. Already a regular runner and marathoner, Price said it wasn’t a big adjustment to cycle to and from work every work day. And he discovered it was faster than driving, as well as less stressful.
Now he’s the deputy director of the Program Integration Division, in DLA Logistics Operations’ Joint Contingency Acquisition Support Office. His current 14-mile one-way commute on a path along the George Washington Memorial Parkway takes a bit longer than his ride to the Pentagon did — an hour and 20 minutes.
Barring an off-site meeting, Price still bikes to and from work each day — putting in just over the distance of a full marathon.
“It’s a great way to start and end the day,” Price said, also noting he enjoys seeing the change of seasons.
That includes winter, when he has the trail pretty much to himself.
“The only thing that’ll stop me is ice or a really heavy snow,” he said. “If it’s just a couple of inches, I know where the turns are,” he said with a laugh. “I just take it slow.”
Price also enjoys sharing the commute with local Virginia wildlife.
“I’ve actually found five bald eagles’ nests along the way,” he said, in addition to deer, fox, raccoons and groundhogs. “Oh, and a beaver lodge in one of the Potomac tributaries; in early spring the newborn beavers are out splashing, learning to swim and reinforcing their dams — amazing to watch.
“I listen for the birds. If I’m hearing them, I’m not concerned about some meeting that might or might not go well. It’s a way to detach from that sense of control.”
Thanks to his daily rides, “My heart rate is lower, and I think that helps me during the work day to just focus,” he added. “It provides a sense of, ‘Let’s get beyond the chaff and the thrashing. What are we trying to do here?’”
He noted that the time away from problems can actually help the unconscious mind come up with solutions.
“I find I come to most of my clear thinking when I get away from that,” Price said.
“And I might not actually be thinking about [the particular problem] at all. Something will just come into my mind. And I probably would never have come up with that thought sitting at my desk, reading the next email.”
Price praised the HQC for offering conveniences that make it easier to be a daily bike commuter.
“The gym is one of the best facilities that DLA has. Plus, a while back, they added the free towel service, which is great.”
He recalled other HQC employees who have seen him with his bike and said something along the lines of, “Gosh, I wish I could do that, except I live in X community, and it would be dangerous.” But one option is to take the bus or rail transit part of the way and then finish the commute by bike, Price noted.
“The idea is to experiment a bit and see if the car keys can become optional for a day or two — or more — and that opens up more chances for adventure. It’s terrific to see fellow bikers along the way,” Price said. “And talk about convenient parking at the HQC — it just doesn’t get any better!”
Like McCauley, Price factored in his alternative commute when searching for his current home, making access to the bike paths a priority. He finds that the commute actually benefits his mental outlook. By staying out of the traffic and getting exercise before and after work, he said, he avoids a great deal of stress and tension.
“It helps you slow down, gain some perspective and take in the beauty of the creation,” he said. “It’s a way to see the hand of the ‘Great Artist’ and connect with our spiritual nature.”
He recalled a small waterfall on his route, fed by a tributary of the Potomac.
“Sometimes I’ll stop there to just get some perspective and think about all the things I’m thankful for. Like a bunch of us who have been deployed ... It makes you appreciate that there are places where there’s no rule of law, per se.”
Compared with driving each day, “I just have a much healthier perspective about the whole idea of coming to work,” Price said.
“The DLA Resiliency concept is helpful,” he noted, “and reminds us there’s a physical dimension to our overall wellness — as long as we’re doing something, even taking the stairs.
“I’m really blessed,” he added. “It’s just a dream experience to have this option to be able to bike in — and have a great job.”
Tips for Beginners
Stickel suggested the following for those wanting to get active.
ASK FOR HELP
“Get with someone who’s done it before,” whether it’s getting in a running club or hiring a coach. In many DLA locations, there are fitness facilities with staff who have training in exercise.
START SMALL, SET ACHIEVABLE GOALS
“Take baby steps and build momentum. You don’t have to start with an hour workout session. Get on there for 10 or 15 minutes and see how you feel.”
ENJOY THE PROCESS
“Don’t just focus on the end result or the goal. You have to enjoy every single time.” That means you won’t get overly discouraged if you don’t meet every single goal.”
GIVE YOURSELF CREDIT
“Enjoy your small successes, because those will lead to bigger successes. And it builds on itself. Fifteen or 20 years ago, I was happy to have completed a 10K. If you’d told me what I’m doing now, I’d have said ‘No way.’”
“When I was at Navy Postgraduate School, I was part of 12-person team that did a 200-mile relay race from Napa, California, to Santa Cruz. We thought we were awesome. We had some Marines, Naval Special Warfare operators, Air Force — we had some really good runners. We did three legs with about 20 miles for each person. And then I read that [author and renowned ultramarathoner] Dean Karnazes ran the same race by himself, 200 miles nonstop. But he didn’t start off that way.”
“Figure out why it is you want to do it. The ‘how’ will come to you. Are you wanting to feel better? Is it your health? Is it for your job performance? Are you just getting ready for the summer, to fit into a bathing suit? Then just get in there for 15 minutes and call it good. And build from there.”
— Navy Lt. Cmdr. Ryan Stickel