The determination to never give up is embedded in Luke Tyburski’s DNA.
After injuries forced Tyburski to retire from soccer, the sport he dedicated his life to since age 4, he sought physically grueling challenges. And we’re not talking about a road marathon, a tough ultra marathon in the mountains or even an extreme bike ride.
No, Tyburski set out to complete the six-day, 251-kilometer Marathon Des Sables — considered one of the most challenging ultra marathons — and later the Everest Ultra, the world's highest ultra. He was able to persevere through both, even though he faced excruciating physical and mental challenges.
Not satisfied with such extreme endurance events, he created one of his own — the Ultimate Triathlon, a 2,000-kilometer swimming, biking and running adventure in 12 days from Morocco to Monaco.
Tyburski’s riveting story is captured in his book, Chasing Extreme. After reading it, I posed some questions to Tyburski. His answers have been edited for clarity and brevity.
Question: Talk about your first memory of developing your “never give up” attitude. Where did it come from?
Answer: This attitude was demonstrated first by my parents, and I was merely an observer of it. I grew up in a working-class family, and at times money was tight. Although my parents struggled, while trying to hide the struggles from my sister and me, they continually worked harder, adapted, and did whatever was needed to survive through the lean times.
Secondly, it was my Mum and Dad constantly telling me that if I wanted to achieve something in life, you have to constantly work to accomplish it, nothing will be given to you! If you can look at yourself in the mirror at the end of the day and say you’ve given 100 percent, then that’s all you can do. But, if you knew you could have tried harder, then make sure “tomorrow” you give it 100 percent and don’t let anything/or anyone get in your way.
Finally, I’m a Tyburski by name and by nature. My grandparents were Polish immigrants who fled Poland post World War II on a boat with just two other friends and settled in Australia. My grandmother told me stories about her life growing up, and what they endured just getting to Australia, and then being moved around Sydney and beyond in migrant camps with several small children. I think never giving up is simply in my DNA.
Question: When you realized you were done with soccer, it seemed to be a mix of sorrow and relief. Can you explain that?
Answer: Ask 4-, 10-, 12-, 16-, 19-, and 21-year-old Luke, and he would have told you the same answer to the question, “What do you want to do when you grow up?” A professional soccer player. That’s all I ever wanted to do in my life, even when distractions appeared as a teenager.
The sorrow came from losing this dream, which was also a reality, of being a pro soccer player, and knowing that it was time to start a new chapter of my life; this one was over.
I was drawn to this one thing for 24 years of my life, focused on it, never wavered, or persuaded (although many tried) to leave this passion of mine. So to have it removed from my life, I was sad, because soccer was my first true love in life.
Pain is debilitating, whether that’s physically, mentally, or emotionally. I was dealing with all three of these types of pain for years alone. It was draining. Knowing that I was retiring in that moment, it lifted my own personal expectations, released my inner pressure, and allowed me to let go of my dream which I knew was now crippling me; this is where the relief came from.
Question: I like this quote, “In sport and in life you don't always achieve what you set out to.” When did you learn that lesson? And how did it apply to your big triathlon quest later in the book?
Answer: Probably about 13 years of age. I had made the local team for the past three years (and sat on the bench every game) but my work ethic continued. After a couple of years of self-motivated extra training, I tried out for the regional team, but wasn’t picked, although I believed I was better than several players who were. All that extra training and dedication was working, as I was a better player, but I still wasn’t picked.
The same thing happened as a 14-year-old. I worked hard before school, after school, but when regional trials came, I wasn’t picked. My parents highlighted this point, “Just because you work hard, you don’t always achieve what you set out to!”
Question: Your Everest Ultra story is amazing. After being so sick for so long, when you woke up on race morning, did you hesitate at all? If not, was there a bar you had set to decide whether you were going to go through with it?
Answer: When you are up over 5,000 meters above sea level, there are only two ways to get back down the mountain, a helicopter (costing thousands, which is usually used by people who are already unconscious from altitude sickness or worse) or you suck it up and get down the mountain yourself!
For me, I just knew (and told myself) there was NO other way to get down the mountain. When I woke up, I told myself it was “game day” (I still do this for races/adventures) and that means it’s time to “get to work.” Coming down the mountain that day wasn’t pleasant to say the least, but I knew I had no other options, and this is powerful!
I could lay on the side of the path, cry and feel sorry for myself. But in two hours time, I still have the same amount of work ahead of me.
On Everest or in life, if you can literally or even mentally, create scenarios where you have "no other choice” then you simply find a way to literally take one step at a time. Ride the highs, and survive the lows, ultimately it’s up to you how you perceive what is in front of you, and how you are going to achieve it!
Question: You have the Latin word for strength - fortis - on a tattoo on your right arm. Tell me about your decision to get that specifically and what it means to you.
Answer: My Dad was the initial influence. He gave himself a tattoo in science class when he was about 12 years old, using Indian ink, needles, a matchstick and glue. It was just of his initials S-T on his ankle.
So I always wanted to get a tattoo, as Dad had one. Then when I was 21 in America, a friend had a bunch of tattoos and I used to go sit with him and chat for hours while he had them done. I wanted to get one but wanted it to mean something to me, and I liked the idea of a word.
After writing down a page full of words which meant something to me, I found Fortis –strength and power.
I knew this was the winner. I knew if I wanted to achieve my goals in life I needed to have physical, mental and emotional strength. Power for me was more to do with a force which could push past anything which got in its way. I knew that whenever I saw or thought about this tattoo, that it would remind me to stay strong and be powerful in everything that I do!
Question: Talk about the thought of self-harm and suicide after your breakup. What inside you kept you from turning thoughts into action?
Answer: Self harm was a way to punish myself initially. I felt I hadn’t given the relationship everything I had, which I didn’t due to my mental state and unwillingness to get help.
My heart was broken. To cover up this pain, I created a more intense pain through endurance sports. I trained longer, harder and more constantly. Being physically exhausted all the time, you don’t have much energy to feel the pain of a broken heart, or care about it. I would drain all energy, so I had no energy to produce pain in my body through my broken heart.
I thought of suicide on a weekly basis, and only truly did anything about these thoughts twice, both very late at night.
I stood on tops of bridges twice, months apart from one another, wanting to end it all. When I walked to these bridges I was in a zombie-like comatose state. I had intention. It was like the world around me didn’t exist.
Standing on tops of the bridges looking down, I felt nothing. No fear. No what-ifs. No pain. Nothing.
I just stood there. I could have been standing there for one minute, or it could have been one hour. I have no idea. Life and the world around me dissolved as I just stood there looking down, without being able to move, not in a restricted way. I was almost at ease as I was completely thoughtless.
Then after some period of time, I thought, “What about Mum and Dad? If you jump this will bring excruciating pain to them.”
Life around me came back to life, and after another minute or so of internal conversations about my family, I stepped down, was engulfed with pain once more, and continued on with “life."
Question: Vanda, your girlfriend and now wife, had a quote in the book about physical pain healing psychological pain on the day you were forced to take a rest due to exhaustion during the Ultimate Triathlon (UT). Do you agree with her assessment?
Answer: Agree 100 percent. I believed (not just thought) that if I punish myself enough with physical pain that this will almost tire out the mental pain.
Obviously this is a delusion, and life is more complicated than that. I still had a lot of self-work to understand WHY I was still feeling pain. But during the Ultimate Triathlon, Vanda knew I needed to “exhaust” myself, to complete this challenge and give myself an opportunity to draw a line in the sand of my life for that period, to give me a chance to start rebuilding it!
Question: After completing the UT, how were you able to emerge from the feeling of emptiness afterward?
Answer: Initially I didn’t. I battled with the fact that I thought it was a big failure, due to not completing it how I initially planned. This was hard. I continued therapy after the UT, for several months. One day I stopped because I didn’t want to talk about things anymore. I was tired of it.
Then I tried to train again (old habits of self-punishment) until my body brain/started to shut down. It wasn’t until my physical health plummeted that I started to allow myself to heal mentally; because I had slowed down completely and stopped.
Not being able to do any exercise, struggling to walk more than 100 meters, and being in a constant fog of fatigue and with headaches lasting half the day allowed me to show myself some compassion, self-love, and simply take care of my mind and body.
It was only when I started doing this that I began to take the small steps forward to being more content with my life, and having a much better relationship with exercise, food, and the conversations within my head regarding my self-worth, and how I felt about myself.
Question: You experienced some physical setbacks after the UT as well as the mental hurdles. How are you doing now?
Answer: I’m in a much better place these days. My mindset has shifted in how I view the world not as something to be accomplished but to be enjoyed. How I think daily, aim for positive but less negative is always a positive result! And act, if I can help others, progress in my own life, or spend time to recover then it’s been a great day!
I still have tough days when I question myself, my direction, my meaning, and what I’m doing in life; but I now have better support systems in place like my wife, journaling, and being open with how I feel to friends and family. I’m not immune to the pressure of life, I just ignore the forces I cannot control these days, and the ones I can, I do something about them.
Question: You also mentioned taking on some more unique endurance challenges. Have you formulated those ideas yet?
Answer: I have plans for some big challenges over the next few months, one potentially in October, and several real big challenges over the next two years. Stay tuned for those.
Since the Ultimate Triathlon I’ve completed several ultra marathons, and a couple of big adventures. But last year I went to Ireland to run the length of it in nine days solo. I came home after three days.
I was ridiculed, shamed, trolled, and all that stuff online for not finishing. I’m disappointed I didn’t complete it, I don’t lose any sleep over it.
Alongside these “haters” who went out of their way to tell me their negative thoughts, I’ve had a lot of negative feedback and comments about the Ultimate Triathlon. Just go read the Amazon reviews of the documentary. The one-star reviews make me laugh!
They make me laugh for this simple reason, they are judging me based on what they see in an edited documentary. They don’t know me, don’t know what I’ve been through, or even why I was doing the Ultimate Triathlon.
If people read my book, they get an understanding of why the Ultimate Triathlon happened how it did, and where I was at in my life. The Ultimate Triathlon educated me in ways I’ll continue to learn from, and always refer to as one of the turning points in my life.
It nearly killed me, but it also saved my life!