When a series of physical injuries ended his professional football career, Luke Tyburski began a long and difficult battle with depression.
It was only on the chance mention of the Marathon des Sables by a friend that he realised adventure was the answer. After completing the 156-mile ultra-marathon across the Sahara Desert, Luke continued to fight his depression by pushing himself harder and harder to his limits.
His biggest adventure to date, in 2015 he created and completed the Ultimate Triathlon. A 2000-kilometre swim, cycle and run from Morocco to Monaco over just 12 days, all to raise awareness of mental illness.
I talked to Luke about his adventures and his struggle with depression.
Luke, how does someone go from being a professional footballer to a professional adventurer?
Looking back, it happened really quickly. I’d battled nonstop injuries for about three years. My body kept letting me down. And one day I tore my calf muscle and just decided I was done.
I went home and while icing my leg I remembered a friend had told me about this race in the desert. And I hated running. I thought people who did half marathons were crazy; people who did marathons were insane.
But I got thinking about this race – the Marathon des Sables. I Googled it, and found out it was in six months time. And I thought I’m just going to do it.
What brought on that decision?
Over the previous three years when I was battling with all these injuries, I was struggling to live life. And because I just thought I was a bit down from not being able to play football, I didn’t realise at first that I was actually suffering from depression.
Deciding to run the Marathon des Sables was almost a kneejerk reaction because this was as far away from not living life as I could imagine. I had essentially retired from football half an hour ago, I was 28 years old and I had the rest of my life ahead of me. Everyone was going to ask me what I’ll do next and I had no idea. I decided to run away from this question, into the desert.
And I was running away from life and running away from my depression as well. When I was in the desert I felt alive for the first time. I felt like I could do anything. I was around likeminded people – when you’re in the desert with 850 other people trying to run a marathon every day, they’re all like you. We ran together and at night we’d tell each other war stories of the day. People would help me when I was struggling and I would do the same for them. Everyone was in it together. I was part of a team.
From that point on I decided I was going to be an adventurer. But I knew that to put me on the map I needed to do something massive so people would take me seriously. I had to go all in.
So I created the Ultimate Triathlon. I told myself I was going to do it in four years time and everything between now and then was all about building my brand as an adventurer. Which meant this crazy couple of years doing massive adventures. For the first time in many years I was living life.
What effect do your adventures and challenges have on your mental health?
They make me feel alive. When I first signed up to the desert race, I was running away from my mental health issues. But now I feel like I’m running towards something. I’m running to be a better person.
When I’m out on these adventures I’m testing myself mentally and physically, and I’ve learnt that my mind is so much stronger than my body. When you’re out on the trail running down mountains, you’re present in every moment. If I can stay present while I’m in Nepal running down Mount Everest, surely I can do that at home? So it was helping me to move forward with my mental health.
And because I’m so present when doing these adventures, it gives me time to have clarity in my thinking. It makes me think about what’s important in life and prioritise my time. What is going to help me and my mental health so I can grow and be the best I can possibly be? Do I want to be spending two hours a day on social media? If I’m going through a dark time that’s not going to help me.
Do you find you have to constantly keep moving? That when you’re not doing these adventures anymore you go through a bit of a comedown?
Yeah totally. And from a physiological standpoint as well as psychological. You’ve got that adrenal tiredness because now you’re on the downward slope from not pushing yourself anymore. And when I come back now I know that drop is coming.
So I’m conscious when I’m out there to put things in place to help me when I come back. I make an effort to remember certain things when I’m feeling good – visualise it and observe exactly how I’m feeling. So when I go back home and I’m feeling down, I can go back to it. It’s like dog-earing a page in a book you love. When the book’s over you feel sad but now there are all these amazing parts of the book you can return to and enjoy. You can prolong what you get out of that book so you’re not so disappointed it’s over. It’s these dog-eared pages that help you move along.
With my adventures, it’s all about being mindful and present in every moment. If you can have a residual carry-over from those experiences and memories, it’s very beneficial for your mental health.
I finished the Ultimate Triathlon 15 months ago but I still stop and reflect on it. I go back and look at what I did well, what I did badly and the times when it was tough. Reflection is a big part of my mental health.
For example in August 2015, six weeks before I started my adventure, I went back to therapy because my life was out of control. My mental health was low and I couldn’t get out. If I hadn’t sought help, the Ultimate Triathlon wouldn’t have happened. Throughout this period of time everyone was really excited for me and on the outside it looked like things were going amazingly, but really I was lying on the kitchen floor for hours at a time thinking how the hell am I going to do this?
I reflect on that time a lot. If I’m having a bad time and life seems really tough I just think well it’s not as tough as August 2015. So how did I get out of that?
With reflection comes knowledge. And it’s using that knowledge to help you be present and mindful in between those moments of living. That’s what works for me and because I do it consistently it becomes a habit.
With big challenges like this, often people don’t realise the mental struggle can actually be more difficult than the physical. How do you cope with this?
The important thing when you do big challenges like this is having a reason why. A lot of people say that to be an adventurer you just have to start doing adventures. But I say that’s step two. Step one is knowing why you’re doing it. Because that’s more sustainable. You need your why.
One of my favourite quotes is “clarity is the eternal energy that fuels our dreams.” When you’re in the trenches and it’s hard and horrible and you want to give up, knowing why you’re there is what will give you that next step forward. That why will get you out of that hole.
And if you want to achieve anything in life, you need to have a why. For me it’s raising money and awareness to help others. Even if just three people read my blog every week and it helps just one of them deal with their mental health issues. I would much rather write to one person and make a big difference than to hundreds of thousands that are just reading because they like my photos.
There’s still a lot of stigma around mental health. Did that make it difficult for you to talk about these issues at first?
I didn’t speak about it to anyone for many years. A lot of people knew I was unhappy, but they just thought I was down on my luck a bit and would turn it around soon. It happens to everyone at some stage. We’ve all seen it and we’ve all seen it flip on its head.
But I knew I was more than just down on my luck. I couldn’t leave the house. I couldn’t get out of bed. I was having suicidal thoughts. And I was doing a lot of work on myself, trying to meditate more, trying to be mindful. And for months it wasn’t making any difference.
So I built up my strength to start talking to people about it. I told my family and my closest friends what I was going through. And it’s a bit awkward. I felt ashamed. I felt like I was going to be ridiculed and looked at differently. I thought I was going to be an outcast because there is so much stigma around mental illness.
But of course the complete opposite happened. They embraced me. “What can we do?” “How can we help?” “I wish you’d told me.” And they weren’t trying to walk on eggshells around me. They were open, and I knew they’d be there for me when I needed them. It bridged a gap between us.
Having a community around me and forging relationships really helped me with my mental health. And if building those relationships is the level of help that people with mental health problems need to survive and start living life, that’s great.
But then I started telling a few more people, and I realised my profile was growing with my adventuring. I felt like my internal strength, that had been inside me the entire time, had reached a level where I could be open about things. That’s when I started telling the world. I was doing interviews with national magazines and live TV. Because I felt like I could make a difference.
It’s now a personal mission of mine to help others by telling my story. That’s why I get out of bed every day.
The message I want to share is that you can achieve amazing results, not just in exercise but in life. If you have a reason why and a community around you, then what you can achieve is phenomenal.
You can read more about Luke’s Ultimate Triathlon challenge and his other adventures on his website. Also check out his Ultimate Triathlon documentary and keep an eye out for his upcoming book to be released later this year.