How One Man Conquered Addiction Through the Outdoors
Not only that, the accomplished endurance athlete has logged half a dozen fastest known times (also known as FKTs) throughout his career—including crossing the state of Oregon on foot on the Pacific Crest Trail in 8 days 12 hours.
But it wasn’t always this way. In fact, in the early 2000s, Diboun was about to give up on everything. The Pennsylvania native had been struggling with substance abuse for years, and both his health and relationships were deteriorating.
In 2004, after blacking out at a wedding reception where he says he made an “utter fool of himself,” the 25-year-old found himself shoeless on his mother’s front porch.
He was heavily addicted to cocaine, alcohol, and MDMA, commonly known as ecstasy. His brother, who’d been letting him crash in a spare bedroom, announced that he was “done with him,” and his mother made it clear that she felt pretty much the same way.
Reluctantly, Diboun agreed to attend a 12-step meeting. He expected to hate it, but was surprised how much people’s stories resonated with him.
“I related to them so much that I was speechless,” Diboun recalls. “They told me: ‘You don’t have to be here. None of us have to be here—we want to be here. We're here to help each other out, one day at a time.’
“And that was the moment that the block of ice that had been around my heart finally cracked open.”
In that minute, Diboun decided to start building a new life.
“Some people call it a spiritual awakening,” he continued. “You can call it whatever you want. But something changed in me. I accepted that I was at the end of my rope and I thought, ‘It's time for the next chapter in the book.’”
At the time, he had no idea that meant becoming a professional athlete.
The new chapter unfolds
In an attempt to counteract his restlessness, he signed up for a triathlon, thinking the cardio might also help with his cigarette cravings.
What he actually found was a bonus: training rewarded him with structure.
“Prior to sobriety, I was undisciplined,” he said. “I always lacked a framework. When that happens, you're just a rudderless boat out in the water. That’s when you decide, ‘Maybe I'll drink today.’
“But suddenly I had this structure in my life, and my brain latched onto that.”
He placed well in his first triathlon, and decided to sign up for another one. Soon, he was competing in regular endurance events.
That’s when, out of the blue, he experienced a second life-changing moment: while riding his bike through upstate New York, he collided with a motor vehicle and was nearly killed. He was Life Flighted to the nearest trauma center with the fear of head and neck injuries.
The sudden brush with death only strengthened his resolve to forge a new path.
“I had this amazing moment of clarity where I realized that it could all change so fast,” he says. “I realized that life is so fragile—that I was 27 years old and I had already wasted so many years. I decided that I wasn’t going to waste any more.”
It turned out that when he wasn't consuming drugs and alcohol, Diboun was an exceptional athlete.
He continued racing and placing well in nearly every event he entered. In one surreal moment about 18 months after going sober, he found himself running next to Lance Armstrong at the Boston Marathon. Not only that, he managed to outpace him.
His most poignant moment came in 2006 when he returned to Florida to run a race in Miami, where he’d struggled so hard with addiction. Midway through the event, he realized he was about to pass all the nightclubs where he used to get high.
“I was literally running past the clubs in South Beach that I used to stumble out of at four in the morning. But this time I was running in the top 20 of my race, competing alongside world-class athletes.
“I thought, ‘Oh my God, I think I uncovered something here.’”
The power of being outside
“When I started running on trails, I was in Ithaca, New York,” he recalls. “That’s where I fell in love with trail running. There were these huge waterfalls, these long trails winding through the forest. I felt alive in a way that I'd never felt before.”
It’s the same feeling he gets when he runs today, he says.
“There have been times when I’ve been running in the forest and I’ve started crying because it was so beautiful,” he says. “I cried out of gratitude for how good my life is, for the simple things. I feel so grateful that I've found something I am passionate about.
“So many people don't really have passion for anything. That used to be me. All I wanted to do was party. I didn't really have any interests—I was just kind of dead inside.”
In addition to the passion, running has provided him with a spiritual connection he lacked before. It helps him feel present and mindful, he says.
“When I first started trail running, I felt like I was tapping into some sort of prehistoric human feeling—the feeling of just being.
“I felt connected to something bigger, to a higher power, if you will. In recovery, they say that God doesn't have to come from a religion—it can be whatever you choose it to be. For me, a big part of that was running and being outside.”
Mental health Rx
“Whatever issues I’m having, if I go into the wilderness, I find that when I come out I’ve forgotten what I was stressing out about.”
Now the father of an 11-year-old girl, Diboun recalls an example of this from early on in parenthood.
“When my daughter was a baby, she'd be crying inconsolably and I would walk outside with her into the courtyard,” he says. “There were these big trees and she would look up at them and stop crying. It was the only thing that worked.”
He says that people struggling with substance abuse issues are likely to reap benefits from being outside too, and it’s a good fit because addicts often make excellent distance runners—partly due to their “extreme” nature and partly because they know how to “keep the party going.”
“Back when I drank, I was always the last one still up, still awake,” he says. “I never wanted it to end. People who get sober often end up being really good endurance athletes because they know how to keep going and keep grinding. They tend to have this high tolerance for discomfort and a lot of persistence, which is a great quality to have in this sport.”
Parallels to life
“Before sobriety, when things used to get hard, I would run away or try to drink or numb out the pain,” he says. “But running teaches you that when you encounter a tough spot in life, you work through it and then it gets better.”
Additionally, it can show you how to withstand dull or boring moments, which addicts are often averse to.
“In life, you're gonna go through those times where you’re absolutely stuck, just like on a run,” he says, “where you’re just thinking, ‘Why am I doing this?’ There are mundane parts of life, but you still do them. You still take the trash out, you still empty the cat litter box. It's not enjoyable, but you just have to do it. It’s very similar to running. You're not gonna feel good all the time.”
In his old life, Diboun says he used to have a hard time with dull moments, and also with accepting his own limits. He’d never have been the type of guy, for example, who would climb a mountain and turn around before the summit due to bad weather. Instead, he would have been the reckless one to keep pushing and need to be rescued later, or worse.
Yet only recently, during a 130-mile Lowest to Highest event in California, he and fellow Columbia Sportswear athlete Willie McBride made the difficult decision to cut a 30-mile stretch due to a blizzard that swept in.
“We were on two hours of sleep and it was starting to get dark,” he says. “The temperatures dropped into the 20s and it started snowing. We knew there was a major storm coming and we were supposed to continue higher. In the end, it just wasn’t worth it.”
Prior to recovery, Diboun says he would have probably made a different decision, potentially even a life-threatening one. But these days, he is more measured.
“I’ve learned in recovery how to be less extreme and less self-destructive,” he says. “There have been many times when I've had to drop out of races, where I've fallen short, and those are tough pills to swallow. But I’ve learned to choose self-preservation over an arbitrary accomplishment. I’ve chosen to not ruin my body. I’ve chosen to fulfill the promises I made to my family to not do anything unsafe or stupid.”
Arriving at freedom
“Every Thursday night, we meet at a different location and we go run together, and then we go out to eat after,” he says. “People look forward to it every week.”
At the Alano Club of Portland, Diboun leads group workouts and runs in The Recovery Gym, a space dedicated to people overcoming substance abuse issues. He says he wants to help them find the same healing that he did through exercise and outdoor recreation.
“There's a saying in the 12-step program that people who have recovered are happy, joyous, and free,” he says. “And I still feel that now. Today, 17 years later sober, I am all of those things. I go into bars or breweries to eat lunch and I never feel I want to drink, ever.
“I'm a free man. I'm not a slave anymore.”