As the sun rose Monday, Kraig Sheetz and his wife packed their final necessities into their silver camper and drove off from their Thurmont home. They were leaving on a weeklong trip to Florence, Oregon, where they’ll then begin the real adventure.
Sheetz, the executive vice president of Mount St. Mary’s University, will spend the next two months biking across the continental U.S. The trip will take 62 days, and he plans to cross 14 states, putting in about 50 to 100 miles on his bike each day. He calls the trip the “Tour de Sheetz.”
Biking across the country has been a goal of Sheetz for as long as he can remember. His original plan was to make the trek after retiring from the Army in 2018, but after securing a position with the Mount, the voyage was put on hold.
It worked out for the best, though, as Sheetz’s trip has now been coupled with a fundraising effort for the university. Along his cross-country adventure, Sheetz will raise funds to support renovations for the School of Natural Science and Mathematics.
When Sheetz first joined the Mount, he served as dean for the School of Natural Science and Mathematics. He still serves as a professor, teaching physics and other STEM classes, and has seen firsthand the need for a renovated space for the school.
The plan is to both renovate and expand the building that currently houses the school.
Originally built in 1964, the facilities are old, Sheetz said, and it needs to be updated to fit in with the modern-day needs of students.
“It’s a beautiful building, but it’s dated, and our programs and disciplines are growing significantly. ... Enrollment has been on an upward trajectory for a number of years, so really the two main reasons for the renovation and expansion are we need more space, and we need more modern space for all the great research we do,” Sheetz said.
The number of students majoring in programs within the School of Natural Science and Mathematics has increased more than 30 percent over the last four years, according to information provided by The Mount.
About 35 percent of incoming freshmen on average indicate they intend to major in one of the university’s STEM programs. In the fall of 2020, 47 percent of the incoming class claimed interest in a STEM program.
The university says the growth is driven in part by the expansion of fields such as cybersecurity, data science and neuroscience.
The expansion and renovation of the school’s building will be phased out over three years, Sheetz said, and the goal is to have a new building with modern laboratory and learning spaces that foster collaboration.
The fundraising goal is $75,000. As of Monday, $30,000 had already been raised. Donations are collected online through the university’s website, and donors can give by the mile or by state or choose a flat amount to contribute. Every dollar will go towards the building project, Sheetz said.
Sheetz and his wife will drive across the country to Oregon this week. On Saturday they plan to do last-minute logistics and supply runs, and Sunday is the first day of biking. Sheetz’s wife will drive the camper but does plan to bike some of the trip with him.
Baked into the 62-day schedule are six rest days for Sheetz to do leg recovery and catch up on work. He also plans to do daily social media updates for The Mount community.
Mental preparation for the trip went hand-in-hand with the physical preparation Sheetz said. He has been training for a year on both a stationary spin bike and by doing some shorter, high-intensity road trips.
“It’s hard because the only way to truly simulate riding all day is to ride all day, and you don’t really have time to do that when you’re training ... but I feel good physically and I’m ready to go,” he said.
Sheetz has been drawn to cycling since he was a child.
“I grew up in the country, and I spent a lot of time on bicycles,” Sheetz said. “I love to see things, seeing America on a bicycle is so thrilling to me, and I love the sort of quiet motion that you get when you’re just cruising on a bicycle.”
The idea of seeing America on a bike is something he has heard stories about from others who have done similar trips.
“All of them say you get to a view a really amazing side of people in America,” Sheetz said. “There are stories about how gracious people are to cyclists that they see, how many of them offer to feed you or get you drinks or if you happen to break down to help you with that ... there’s all kinds of really great stories about human nature.”
Sheetz also plans to spread the word about The Mount to people he meets along the way. He will be wearing Mount jerseys, and the camper will be decked out in Mount stickers.
Mount St. Mary’s President Timothy Trainor said he can’t wait to follow the journey virtually.
“[Sheetz] is displaying characteristics that make him a true Mountie: an audacious spirt, an entrepreneurial focus, a planful approach and a dedication to service,” Trainor said. “I am thrilled that Kraig will be spreading The Mount’s goodness and fostering support for the School of Natural Science and Mathematics as he rides.”
For the students following along, Sheetz said he hopes they see how invested he and other faculty are in their education.
“We want everything to be the best experience and most relevant experience for the students, and that’s really the driving force behind renovating a building. We have incredible faculty and we have incredible programs, but I can’t say that about our facilities, and our students deserve that,” Sheetz said. “I hope they see how important we think it is to create a premier academic experience for them in every way possible.”
For most, the idea of biking thousands of miles cross-country is daunting, maybe even a little terrifying. But not for Sheetz. As he made final preparations for his trip, the excitement was taking over.
“I’m fired up,” he said. “I’m ready to go.”