Yassine Diboun is a champion ultrarunner, routinely finishing near the top in some of the world’s most demanding and prestigious races. He won and set the course record at the Leona Divide 50K in 2013 and was a member of the silver medal-winning U.S. team at the IAU World Trail Championships in 2015. What people may not know is that he can be found not only running the trails, but manning race aid stations dressed as a cowboy… or an astronaut.
As owner of Wy’east Wolfpack in Portland, Oregon, he connects people to the joys of health and wellness through movement. Today he and Tina talk about his journey to becoming a top ultrarunner, connecting to nature, and why he’s known for the fun that he brings to volunteering.
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“You don’t need to be an ultramarathon runner, you don’t need to be a runner at all, but you need to take the time to get outside and get into nature as a regular part of your life.”
When Yassine was a kid, his mother would take him camping and his soccer coach would organize team trips, where he got to run on trails for the first time. Those excursions instilled “a love and appreciation for the outdoors” in him. “I want to pay that forward to the next generation,” he says, which is why he offers youth programs through Wy’east Wolfpack.
“I’m very grateful that I found this outlet because it’s created this life for me over the last 17 years that I truly never would have imagined.”
He knows how beneficial running and being outdoors can be for the kids in his programs, because they’ve had such an impact on his own life. He was five months sober but still smoking cigarettes when he decided to take up running to try to kick the habit. “It worked,” he says, “but I also found that running and getting into this kind of rhythmic meditative activity, especially running through the forest, really helped me to get centered… and to process my life and work.”
Becoming a part of the running community also gave him “a way to connect with others to create a fellowship.” It was similar to the support that he’d gotten through the recovery process. “The beautiful thing about the fellowship of running and of recovery is that it’s not about me, it’s about we,” he explains. “It’s been the best show on earth between getting sober and finding this community in this sport. It’s been very good for me.”
“I think part of the reason why I have fallen in love with the sport too is because It’s very symbolic and metaphorical for life.”
Yassine recalls that “prior to me getting clean and sober, I was never really having this authentic experience in life because my mind was always altered.” Once he became sober, he began experiencing not only the good times, but also “the rough times, the sad times, the very painful times. You know, all emotions. And I feel like that’s what it’s like in an ultra too, is to embrace those moments, to embrace those low points.”
When he mans an aid station at a race, runners will come through and break down, convinced that they can’t go on. He gives them food, talks them through those low points, and usually they gather themselves and continue on. “So much of it is just embracing all of the emotions and experiencing it authentically,” he says.
“For a lot of people, it’s a lifetime achievement and it’s something to be very proud of.”
Another part of ultrarunning is – or should be, in Yassine’s opinion – celebrating the experience and the accomplishment. When he raced in Europe, he was struck by how “you would come through the aid stations and it would be all this energy, you know, people cheering and it wasn’t just people handing out paper cups of water, right?”
He wanted participants at other trail races to have the same kind of experience, which is where the cowboy and astronaut costumes come in. When he organizes aid stations at races, he sets a theme and goes all out to provide “an experience that they’re always going to remember.” “It adds this element of levity,” he says, “and it’s a reminder that part of this is to have fun too.” He remembers one time when he ran Western States and “there was a guy dressed up in a chicken suit. Like a huge chicken suit. How can you not smile and give a high five to a huge chicken at mile seven, you know?”
“Every day you feed you feed that wolf, whatever wolf you feed is going to get stronger.”
There’s a Native American story that resonates with Yassine both in life and in endurance sports, and is the reason why he named his company “Wy’east Wolfpack.” He explains that in the legend, “an elder is talking to a child and the elder is telling the child that every person inside of them has two wolves that are in constant opposition every day. One is the good wolf, which represents kindness and positivity and love. The other is the bad wolf, which represents negativity, resentment, anger, and the young child asks, “well, which one wins?” and the elder simply states, “the one that you feed.”
In a race, if you’re thinking about how far you have to go, and how much you hurt, you’re feeding the bad wolf. But if you’re appreciating where you get to run, and feeling grateful for the volunteers, and the ability to run, and your family waiting for you at the finish line, you’re feeding the good wolf.
“Feeding the good wolf goes a long way in life, and it goes a long way in endurance sports.”
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“Thank you” to Yassine. We look forward to hearing your thoughts on the show.