A Man for the Mountain

What does it really mean to give back? Is it just the return of something we’ve borrowed and used, and now no longer need? Like, "thanks, Mom, here’s your Kleenex back.” Or, is it more – the repayment of a debt or obligation requiring some gift or action of equivalent value? "Wow, you shovelled that never-ending winter off the driveway again – Have a mugga hot chocolate!” We all know that giving back generally feels pretty good…a kind of a "you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” feeling. But isn’t it mostly that giving back feels so good because it’s really about giving forward?

Mike Thibodeau lives in the understanding that forward or back, it’s all about being in motion, and having a personal bottom line that means do whatever you can to give and make the living community a better place. Mike is a calmly busy man, easily recognizable on the local scene. Described as thoughtful, generous and funny, he sports the tall, lean build of an athlete along with his signature style and a wickedly thick full beard. In his day job, Mike manages Nanaimo’s Running Room store where besides offering his expertise about the latest in technical products, gear, and training, he runs and organizes weekly clinics for walkers and runners of all abilities along local roads and trails. When he’s not outside running or biking or hiking, he enjoys drumming and playing bass guitar with friends in a local group they call, "Early Man.”

But he’s also a self-proclaimed nature lover and ‘Mountain Man,’ particularly for Nanaimo’s Mount Benson. For the past three years, (and with definite plans to do so for many more years) Mike has been the instigator for organizing and promoting an increasingly successful, "Run For the Mountain.” The annual September 6km walk/stroll/run around the shoreline of Westwood Lake was Mike’s idea to help raise funds for the Nanaimo Area Land Trust (NALT) in its efforts to preserve part of Mt. Benson as a regional park for public use and enjoyment.

"I thought I’d like to do something more for the community through the use of running. A way of keeping Nanaimo’s background nice and green and beautiful.” And it’s an idea that resonates strongly within the running community, he says. "Lots of people have helped…people in the city have joined in to help with the race and the event, and people in our run club have given a lot of their time to organize it and make it become successful. The first year there were 100 participants, and last year we were over 200, so it’s going in the right direction. The first race raised over $5,000 and the second was over $7,000, so, again, this is the right direction.”

With the "Run For the Mountain,” Mike says that the whole idea for the event grew from his feeling of wanting to have somewhere in Nanaimo where people can get away from it all, to enjoy nature and enjoy who they’re with, and enjoy being. "Being in the present isn’t something that a lot of people focus on. They’re always thinking about what happened in the past, or what they’re going to get in the future. Standing among the big trees in the forest kind of centers you into now.”

"I think it’s important to have an area like Mount Benson. To keep that place for everybody who visits us or lives here, because the world is pretty crazy in the sense of how fast things go, how people get overstressed, how there’s work pressures, family pressures, financial pressures. People use a lot of things to escape in life. Up there, just close the car, throw the cell phone in the trunk, get rid of all the things around your life – walk around the lake, swim in the lake, walk up on the ridge, listen to the birdsong, escape by just being in nature, and then it kind of reconnects. It doesn’t make all the stressors go away, but I find sometimes it gives you a break from them, and when you go back, they don’t seem as bad as they did.”

The nice thing about running, Mike says, is how it not only relieves stress, but ties into a greater awareness. "It gets the blood flowing through your body, the air through your system – it wakes you up… and because it does stuff like that, I think you might not walk through life with as many blinders on. In that more awakened state, you might see a few things that you might not have before.” And one of the things that Mike saw was another opportunity to help out.

"We’re also involved this year (registration is through The Running Room) with Big Brothers, Big Sisters, Nanaimo, in their Run for Kids Sake, which is on May 11th. The main individual who approached us, Pauline, she’s a runner herself, and always thought it would be neat for Big Brothers, Big Sisters to have an event that would help out, and again, create awareness for what they do in the community. They have a tremendous waiting list of five years for a young boy to get a big brother, and often by the time they get to the top of the list, they’re too old for the service. So this is a way of having an event where it might raise a bit of money for them, but it also might raise some awareness, so it’s just something that the running community can help with.” And he adds, it’s a continuation of what a lot of people are doing in town to help out with fundraising for local charities and causes.

While life and the demands of chasing a career got in the way of much of Mike’s personal activity in his 30’s, now that he’s moving again, in his 40’s he’s developed a more critical eye and a clearer understanding of priorities. "I think all bodies are meant to move. Watch little kids – they run. You hit a certain age and people tell you to stop running. Somewhere along the line, adulthood and success have been equated with somebody who lays on a hammock and doesn’t do anything. Success should be having a healthy body and the time to pursue athletic endeavours to keep your body healthy.”

"I’ve never been career driven, and don’t think I ever will be. At the end of the day, some people may find themselves financially ahead of me, but if they’re 70, and they haven’t taken care of their body, and they can’t get off their couch with ease, what good is all the money going to be? If I go through life, make a little less money, stay active, and at 70 if I wanted to walk up Mount Benson, and I can, then, I’d rather take the health.”

So what compels him to be so involved in the life of the community? "I believe I have to give back to keep it going. I volunteer at races and events because there’s tons of people who’ve done it for me over the years: marshals standing out in the rain and pointing you in the right direction, race directors giving of their free time – losing their hair, putting races together – for me. I think it’s kind of important for good karma. Some of my giving is self-centredness, too. I love driving and biking around Nanaimo, seeing Mount Benson, enjoying it. The more beautiful spaces that we save, the nicer world we’re going to have to live in, and a nicer community. I honestly believe that. If you’re surrounded by ugliness, harshness, that’s going to bleed into what the community is, and so, there’s a correlation: beautiful place to live, beautiful places to go, warmer more giving people in a community. If I can help in a little way, save a tree, or a branch or two, that helps people feel good about where they live, then that’s going to lead to wanting to help your community and do things for the community. A big circle that just keeps on going and everybody will win-win eventually.”

Giving back, giving forward, just moving – it really does feel good, and Mike Thibodeau will vouch for that. "You don’t have to make giving your whole life, or be an activist. Run For the Mountain next Sept. 20th, or walk or Run for Kids Sake on May 11th. You don’t have to organize it, or devote huge amounts of time, just participate – that’s doing something for others. Get out there! You’ll like it, your body will like it, your partner will like it, your friends will like you better, you’ll have better friends. Everything will be better!”

Hey – doesn’t that feel like a gift? Pass it on.

Janelle Hoddevik is a freelance writer in Nanaimo.