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Yassine Diboun’s journey to overcome racism

Yassine Diboun’s life path has brought him from a small Pennsylvania town to Colorado and back again to the East Coast and finally to the West Coast where he now helps to raise a family in Oregon.

Along his journey, sports have played a significant part. So, too, has racism.

“It’s been a crazy path of self-discovery and finding something that I truly am passionate about,” says Diboun, who finished second overall at the Sean O’Brien 50-miler in February. “I used to think the drugs and alcohol made me feel alive, but it was all synthetic. I feel like this was an authentic experience of feeling alive. Not all of our runs are even the runners high, there's something that happens to us when we go running, especially in the forest, you feel more connected and you feel you process things.”

Growing up, Diboun was active. Name a sport and he most likely played it.

“I was always extremely active. I played lots of soccer, baseball, actually played ice hockey, many team sports and of course, running around the neighborhoods and everything, was a big part of my childhood. I definitely remember my mom coming out to find us in the neighborhoods, saying, ‘You guys have to come home and eat. You guys haven't eaten anything and you've been playing all day.’"

It was in the ice hockey rinks of Erie, Pa., where Diboun first encountered racism.

“There were really no people of color that played ice hockey for whatever reason,” he recalls. “I definitely stuck out like a sore thumb on the ice rink. It was the first time I experienced racism, looking back in hindsight. At the time I just thought kids are mean.”

His mom moved the family moved from the city of Erie to a rural town in Pennsylvania where it was 99.5 percent white, Diboun says, adding that he and his siblings made up the other 0.5 percent.

“That was the first time when I really experienced blatant racist behaviors and remarks toward me,” he says. “And those came in the form of slurs. In sixth grade, somebody touched my arm or I touched their arm and they wiped it off, like, ‘Ooh, gross, get it off me.’”

Sinking deeper

Diboun realizes now that the racism affected him greatly. He coped by acting out. He stole things, started smoking and eventually turned to alcohol.

“The first time I drank, I was about 12 years old,” he says. “A lot of people who deal with the oppression, turn to substance abuse to numb the pain. That was definitely my experience. I started using alcohol mostly in a very abnormal way at a very young age. Then when I went to high school in Florida, I started using marijuana and then toward the end of my high school, harder drugs.”

After high school, Diboun sunk deeper. He played basketball mostly in high school, then tried for a year at a small Division III college in Pennsylvania.

“I just realized that I was not much of a college athlete, I was more of an intramural-type player,” he says. “I had some other issues in my life that were just getting in the way of me being productive in many different ways.”

After moving to Colorado in his early 20s, he took up outdoor sports like snowboarding and hiking before finding endurance sports. Still his demons pursued him.

“When I moved to Colorado or wherever, I always blamed the geographic region, ‘Oh, it's just this town that I'm living in, or this school that I'm attending or this job, these people, are ass backwards or whatever.’ And then I would just move and pack up and leave to another new place, but then the same things would happen. I look at it as a blessing in disguise because I was 25 years old and I hit rock bottom in terms of emotional bankruptcy as well, spiritual bankruptcy. And I didn't really have anywhere to go but up because I was so low.”

Journey to sobriety

Diboun needed help from family or friends. But he had burned too many bridges.

“Nobody would help me anymore. You could talk to many people that have struggled with addiction and that's usually the case, is that they have burnt their trust with people and people won't help them anymore, even parents. It's heart wrenching, especially now that I'm a parent, to think about that. But so when I was 25, my mom said that she would not help me anymore, so I got professional help. And so that is the first time I really took a look in the mirror and decided I need to change my life."

He turned his life around, moving back to Pennsylvania and entering a rehab facility for a 28-day stay.

“That's where my journey began in terms of recovery and being sober,” he says. “Before I was always trying to change the external things in my life and I never looked at the internal things, but through this process of rehabilitation, I started to rewire my brain and started to look at why I acted the way I acted. And that really thrusted me onto this transformation.”

Diboun attended some 12-step groups and made friends with some people across the border in Ithaca, N.Y. Even though he still smoked, he started working out and lifting weights. Then a friend suggested he do a triathlon.

“It gave me really something to focus on and go to the pool a couple times a week, go ride the bike, go for runs, lift weights. That’s where I caught the bug and stopped smoking cigarettes. I knew I needed to do something cardio to prevent me from wanting to smoke, so I started running and it lit this fire inside of me.”

Never looking back

Diboun categorizes himself as an average swimmer and cyclist. “I would just catch everybody on the run,” he recalls. “So people said, ‘Well man, once you get your swimming and your biking dialed in, you're going to be unstoppable.’ And I said, ‘Or I could just go run.’ So I just did that.”

Clearly he made the right choice.

After winning his first ultra, the Finger Lakes 50K in Hector, N.Y., Diboun has claimed podium finishes at races such as Western States, the Hurt 100, the San Diego 100 and Miwok 100K.

But before he was able to ascend to such heights, there was another challenge he had to overcome.

A year or two into his sobriety, Diboun was cycling when he was hit by a car.

“It was a near-death experience, where I had to be life-flighted in a helicopter,” he explains. “That was a big turning point for me, too. I just realized that I got this new life, this clean slate, I found this outlet, this passionate outlet and then all of a sudden in a second, a van hits me and my life is almost over. It really just woke me up and I thought, ‘Man, I wasted so much time in my life.’ But at the same time, I'm very lucky.”

After Diboun recovered, he connected with Ian Golden, who turned him on to trail and ultra races. “I just loved it and I just really never looked back.”

Diboun ran and won Golden’s Virgil Crest as his first 100-miler on his 30th birthday in 2008.

Not only did he find success in ultras, he discovered an inclusive community.

“I felt always very welcomed and felt like the community is one of the things that attracted me to the sport, which it still does. That's why I can't understand why it's so lopsided (in terms of few minorities participating) because it really is such a welcoming community and the support, the camaraderie. It's not like you need all this specialized and expensive equipment to partake in these events and these races, whereas if you rewind to when I played ice hockey, now that's something where different socio and economic backgrounds would help you to be able to pay for ice time, pay for gear and equipment and all that. Whereas running, you don't really need a lot. The trail and ultra running community has been and continues to be a family. I use the term tribe like community, where everybody's welcome, you hang out at the end of the races and cheer on till the last person comes in.”

A mentorship role

For his part Diboun is trying to introduce more children who are minorities to the sport.

“We don't see a lot of people of color doing this sport partly because people don't see themselves doing it. They don't see people that look like them doing it. They don't see companies advertising people that look like them doing it.”

In Portland, Diboun works to get kids involved at an early age. “I think race directors could be more proactive about reaching out to certain communities to get them involved, rather than just giving 10 percent discounts to races. I've never noticed a disparity, or I've never felt overt racism within the trail running community.”

Portland has 5,000 easily accessible acres of trails. Diboun puts them to good use with his trail running and forest skills camp for kids.

“I started working at my daughter's school as a movement specialist and once they found out I was a trail runner, they said, ‘Why don't you do an afterschool trail running, extracurricular activity?’ So I did that for a couple of years and then created the summer camp. It sold out and was a great success.”

To stir and maintain kids’ interest in trail running, Dibuon knows the secret: “It needs to be cool.”

And he harkens back to when he was growing up. “I think especially for people who deal with oppression, it's something that can be used as an outlet alternatively to substances.”

‘A complex issue’

While the debate over race has eased since earlier this summer when it approached a boiling point, there are still examples of systematic racism, some of which Diboun experienced. So what needs to happen so that as a society, we don't get bored with this and turn the page and the underlying systematic racism continues to live on?

“It's a great question,” he says. “It's a very complex issue because of the history of our nation. We're starting to see some of that stuff happen now in this day and age. And unfortunately, I feel like sometimes it does take upheavals that are happening now to really grab the attention of people. A lot of people say, ‘I don't understand why people are burning down their own city that they live in.’ Sometimes that needs to happen for stuff to change. Look at our history, sometimes history repeats itself and sometimes peaceful protesting does not work.”

Diboun points to Martin Luther King, Jr.

“He attempted lots of peaceful protests and was somewhat successful at some things,” he says. “But if you look at the history, he was actually starting to lose traction and he was starting to actually potentially move towards Malcolm X and join forces with Malcolm X, which was more action based, violence based. Not to condone that. I think that's why he ended up getting assassinated — because he was starting to really make some changes.”

Progressive changes

The changes in Diboun’s life came from when he embraced running in his 20s. Amid the pandemic, of course, races have been canceled. At the time we talked, Diboun had nothing on the calendar. No races. No FKT attempts.

Still, he has the fire to be competitive and continues to seek out a deeper meaning.

“I’m obviously starting to slow down a little bit, as we all do eventually,” he says. “I always have been competitive, but I've always felt like I've had the balance of just getting out there to soak it all in and to process things and to just not be so focused on how fast or how hard I'm running, but to just experience nature and to use running as a vehicle for depression, anti-depression, spirituality, self-discovery. And so that's what I continue to work on, to go out there and just to go to new places and expand my mind and be grateful, run with gratitude. Running with gratitude has always been such a powerful tool, whether I'm racing or I'm out on adventure runs on my own, it's such a powerful tool, it can take you a long way, literally and figuratively.”

Diboun has come a long way from the cigarette-stealing, adolescent drinker that didn’t understand he was being oppressed. America, too, has progressed but much work needs to occur for lasting change.

“If everybody starts doing the little things and are conscious and aware of these types of issues that are going on, they will accumulate and result in lasting change,” he predicts. “We need to just keep our foot on the gas. I listened to a podcast that Americans have a 10-day memory span, then we're after the next thing that the media is putting in front of us. I remember the Rodney King riots. We didn't have the same social media back then. We need to keep our foot down, keep talking about these things and hope for a better future.”

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