As a scientist who likes to keep track of stuff — the books he has read, his blood pressure readings, the miles he has run — George Mason University chemistry professor John Schreifels realized something several years ago: Between jogging outside and running on a treadmill, he was not too far from running a full circle around the Earth.
But what to do with this little bit of personal trivia? Schreifels didn’t want to just let it pass. The 66-year-old had long ago begun a small endowment for the university’s chemistry students, with hopes of creating a permanent annual scholarship. So he decided to meld the endowment and the running, and started to gather pledges to raise money for his students, tied to his imaginary intercontinental journey.
“I always wanted to do something to help students,” Schreifels said, adding that his idea to fund students’ education came when he won the university’s Teaching Excellence Award several years back, which carried with it a $3,000 cash prize. “But I never knew how to do it.”
Now, Schreifels is approaching the end of his Earth lap. He has about 1,400 miles to go, the professor estimates, putting him roughly in western Nebraska en route to the Fairfax finish line. As he enters the final leg of his 24,901-mile circuit, he has raised more than $40,000 and is shooting for more by the time he finishes the 24-year, globespanning jaunt.
Schreifels hopes the endowment will crack $50,000, to enable an annual student scholarship of $1,000. Each eventual winner must display leadership qualities, Schreifels said: “I felt that was important, to encourage students to lead.”
“It says a whole lot about who John is,” said Kim Eby, the university’s associate provost for faculty development, “that he chose to turn that [teaching award money] into something for students. He’s always been somebody who’s been very committed and dedicated to his students.”
If there are any obstacles left, they will be self-imposed by Schreifels’s body. He is a candidate for a double hip replacement. He has torn his Achilles tendon. And he is a prostate cancer survivor. He now runs only on a treadmill, and his body lets him know when it is time to stop.
After his tendon injury in 2005, when his mileage total was about 8,000, “my physician said, ‘Your running days are over.’ I’ve done about 15,000 since then,” Schreifels said. After prostate surgery in 2007, he was running again in three weeks.
His running days began in northwestern Idaho, when as a young boy “it was a mile to the school bus stop, and it was cold,” Schreifels said. “I just wanted to get home and get my work done so I could start goofing off. My gloves didn’t work too well, so I ran to stay warm. That was probably the start.”
He began running seriously after a stint in the Navy, where he worked as a cook on a submarine during the Vietnam War. He said he sampled too much of the food, and a doctor told him he was getting “soft,” so when he returned to terra firma he began doing runs of up to 10 miles, several times a week.
Schreifels moved to Virginia and began teaching at George Mason in 1988. He started running about four miles a day in 1991, trying for five days a week. Though he shifted to a treadmill about 10 years ago, both to ease the stress on his body and to avoid the occasional angry dog on his morning run, he still manages a pretty decent pace: about eight minutes per mile for a recent 10-mile run.
He also is chairman of his department. “My goal is to finish the running when I step down as chairman,” Schreifels said.
He said that when he first had the idea of establishing an endowment, someone in the fundraising department was “kind of negative.” On his $3,000 teaching award, the official advised him, “just spend it on a single individual.”
But he pressed on until he found Eby, who he said was very supportive and agreed with his goal. “I don’t want to help a student,” Schreifels said, “I want to help students indefinitely. But it’s like running, one step at a time.”
For Donna M. Fox, associate dean of the university’s College of Science, “John’s decision to raise money for a student scholarship comes as no surprise to anyone who knows him well.” She said the scholarship was “a beautiful blend of this passion [for running] and of his passion for chemistry. . . . I think some of our newer faculty members were surprised to learn that John is a runner. Once they heard why John was running — to benefit his students — however, it all made perfect sense to them.”