In 2009, Mark Gillis was divorced, depressed and dangerously overweight. At 6 feet 5 inches tall, he once topped out at 410 pounds, and his doctor warned him that he was well on his way to a heart attack.
“I ended up facing being single for the first time in my adult life,” said Gillis, now 55. “I was a workaholic and wanted to provide for a good living – the house with the white picket fence and a pond in the back and send the kids to college – everything that is the corporate illusion of the American Dream.”
Along the way, he said his health went to hell in a handbasket.
“After I had some bloodwork done, the doctor told me that I was pre-diabetic and that he was thinking about prescribing some statins and that we needed to worry about this,” he said.
In 2011, after a period of what he called being fat, lonely and crying into his beer, Gillis found himself on a date in Charleston and noticed that there were bicycles for rent. Gillis convinced his incredulous date to go for a spin with him.
“Once I got on that bike, it all came back. I was like, ‘OK – yeah – this is good,’” he said.
He was hooked.
Since then, Gillis has logged more than 17,000 miles on his bicycles, shedding 150 pounds in the process. He has also become an integral part of the local cycling community and an evangelist for the life-changing benefits of the sport.
Originally from Glendale, Arizona, Gillis moved to the Grand Strand in 1998. He had been to Myrtle Beach years before when he served in the U.S. Air Force. He comes from an IT background, and is currently database manager for Myrtle Beach Seaside Resorts.
Bicycling was an integral part of his life as a kid in Arizona.
“When we had miles of open desert to cover, we hopped on two wheels,” he said. “Bicycles were everything, and I rode from the age of six on. When I went into the military and got married, both of those conditions did not encourage maximum amounts of cycling – and eventually it fell away.”
But that fateful day in Charleston changed everything.
“I have been very enthusiastic about cycling. It has been a great release.”
In the ensuing years, Gillis has forged friendships with other members of the cycling community through social rides, charity events and from biking the trails at places like the Horry County Bike and Run Park, also known as The Hulk.
Gillis recently took a bicycle camping trip around Lake Waccamaw in North Carolina with a group of friends, including locals Andre Pope, Stacey Vaughan and James D. Cooper.
“These are great examples of people who load up their bikes with camping gear and go out for two, three or four days,” he said.
He has a string of long solo trips under his belt as well: Roanoke, Va., to Myrtle Beach, Washington, DC to Pittsburgh – and hops from Myrtle Beach to Charleston or Wilmington. N.C. He has done the New River Trail from Galax, Va., to Pulaski, Va., many times.
Later this month, he and friend Jeremy Cude of Greenville plan on covering 485 miles in Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina – much of it on the picture-perfect Blue Ridge Parkway.
July will mark his third year of cycling in a fundraising event for the Alzheimer’s Association called A Ride to Remember – traveling from Simpsonville to Charleston.
“We are trying to raise money and raise awareness,” he said. “We have all had people in our lives who have had Alzheimer’s, and it needs to end. It’s something that I am very passionate about.”
Gillis said he feels like he dodged a bullet when it came to his own health.
“I don’t deserve to be this healthy because I squandered it for so many years – and to get back on track, I had to bust my ass. I feel like I owe something to somebody out there.”
Another way Gillis is paying it forward is through an undertaking he began called Back on the Road, where he rehabilitates cast-off or donated bicycles, makes sure they are roadworthy and matches them up with folks who need them.
“I am back on the road, and I want other people to be back on the road,” he said. “I see a lot of bikes that have been used and dumped – and there’s a lot of miles left on them.”
The implication is clear. The recipients of these rehabbed bicycles have a lot of miles left on them too. Since Gillis’ personal transformation, putting these people on two wheels and pointing them toward the healthier lifestyle that cycling affords has become his mission.
“Cycling saved my life,” he said. “If I can pass that on – if somebody doesn’t have to go through what I allowed myself to go through – then it’s worth it. I don’t care who they are out there. They are not done.”
Cooper, of Cooper Mechanical Services, Inc., has been refurbishing bicycles long before Back on the Road became a reality, and is the organizer of various local cycling events including the annual Santa’s Toy Ride, which benefits Help4Kids/Backpack Buddies. Gillis frequently asks Cooper for advice on all aspects of cycling.
“As far as institutional knowledge of cycling and how much he has gone out of his way to help the cycling community, Cooper is the godfather of cycling now on the Grand Strand.
Gillis donated a Back on the Road bicycle to Donna Lovejoy, a professional clown who lost her husband last year.
“I found this little pink bike. It was donated to me, and I’m like – ‘oh my god, this says clown bike all over it.’ I gave it go her [in January], and at 60 years old – she went out and did eight miles today and has lost 12 pounds. I’m not just saying it. I’m seeing it, it’s happening and it has happened.”
He gave another bike to a man who once topped out at 500 pounds, but was down to 400 when he took possession of the bike.
“I had an Electra Townie, which is a cruiser style and a very substantial bike. I’m like, ‘alright dude, this is a $500 bike. I want you to ride this thing, and it will hold you.’ He has lost another 60 pounds since then.”
Gillis was right at 400 pounds when he began his journey.
He recently went to work part-time at Pee Dee Bicycle Company as a bicycle mechanic.
“I go in when I can – one or two days a weekend, and I develop my skills. I love it,” he said.
He has earned certifications from Trek University, a proprietary educational program from Trek Bicycle.
“Of course, you learn more with your fingers greasy than you do sitting at a computer keyboard, but this was something I wanted to go through and get the formal training, but I have a lot more to go. You are getting a bike, putting your life on those two wheels – so you have got to take that seriously.”
The Sun News asked Gillis to share some pointers for those interested in getting started or getting back into cycling.
“It’s hard to come up with one answer because everybody is different,” he said. “Everybody is going to have their own thing. Find yours and love your ride. The best bike ride is the one you love. Period.”
Lovejoy, known as HaHa The Clown, called Gillis her hero.
“Because of him, I am down 14 pounds since January 16 when he gave me my first bike in 33 years,” she said. “When I started, I could barely go a half mile. Today I did eight miles.”
But she said there was another reason why she needed the pink bicycle.
“I lost my husband of 32 years in September. Getting on this bicycle has gotten me out of the house. From September to January, I pretty much just sat in the house and cried.”
Lovejoy said Gillis reminds her of a giant teddy bear.
“He is my hero because I would never have lost this weight if I didn’t have a bicycle. I can’t walk half a mile, but I can ride the bicycle for eight. I wouldn’t have been able to get out of the house. It gave me the motivation to start exercising and to get healthy again,” she said.
Cooper said that Gillis has a great desire and capacity for fun and wants to share it, but he is very happy that Gillis has taken up the mantle of outreach through refurbishing bikes.
“We have a very similar mindset - the way we enjoy bikes and enjoy the community and want to spread the joy of cycling – it was almost an instant kinship,” said Cooper, adding that Gillis has become a real advocate in the community.
He said that building a vibrant community like this takes effort to make it happen, and Gillis has put himself out there.
“You have to be out there in it. You have to be involved, and Mark has definitely done that. He wants to put the cycling community ahead of himself and ahead of his desires,” he said. “For Mark, it’s about him growing as a person and a rider.”
Pee Dee Bicycle Company manager Dave Aguilar said he met Gillis on a group social ride.
“Mark is a big, friendly guy who is just absolutely passionate about cycling. He brings a big bag of happiness wherever he shows up,” he said.
Aguilar said he and others jokingly compare Gillis to a Clydesdale.
“He has no interest in being a super-fast race guy,” he said. “He likes to go out and just have an adventure and a good time on a bike. For him – and I think he represents a lot of us – it’s a way to clear his head and be calm inside, like Zen cycling.”
Gillis first got involved with Pee Dee Bicycle Company through leading some of their Thursday night social rides, then came on as a part-timer and pursued his certifications from Trek University.
“He’s super excited about it and brings a lot of happiness to the shop. I think that’s a really big deal because he connects with people,” he said. “He wants to give other people the gift that he has gotten from cycling – and it that means getting his hands dirty, that’s what he wants to do.”