The GSB Interview: Luke Tyburski, Swimming, Cycling and Running for the Planet

It is not going out on a limb to say that Luke Tyburski is made from different stuff than I am. Sure, I play tennis 3-4 times per week, have ridden my bike as much as 100 miles in a day (Once!) (Nine years ago!). Luke runs…across the Sahara Desert. He’s completed an extreme triathlon from Morocco, swimming across the Sea of Gibraltar, cycling through Spain and running through the South of France to Monaco. But we do have one important thing in common. And that is to use the platform of sports to fight for positive environmental action. I spoke recently to Luke about how he came to extremely extreme sports and how he has any time and energy left for the environment.

 

GreenSportsBlog: Luke, I have a feeling yours will be an incredible story, so let’s get right to it. Your journey to extreme triathlons — and beyond — started in Australia, right?

Luke Tyburski: Yeah, Lew. I grew up in a small town, Bathurst, about three hours northwest of Sydney. And my goal was, from a young age, to become a pro soccer player. And, you know what? I got to live the dream. I was a central defender for the Wollongong Wolves in 1999-2000 in the top league in Australia at the time, the NSL. They’re now a second tier league, below the A-League. Then I played for three years in the State League, at the level below the NSL. Thought I’d gone as far as I could in Australia so I went to the US and played college soccer at a small NAIA school, Brescia University in Owensboro, KY and then transferred to another small NAIA school, Southern Nazarene University in Bethany, OK…It was a good stop, soccer-wise, and I got my degree in Exercise Science along the way.

 

Luke Tyburski Fizeek Media

Luke Tyburski (Photo credit: Fizeek Media)

 

GSB: So was that it for you and pro soccer?

LT: Hardly. I still had the bug. Went to England and tried out for a bunch of teams over four months, but without any luck! I just couldn’t stick. Came back to the US and played for the New Orleans Shell Shockers (now the New Orleans Jesters) as for the San Francisco Seals in lower rung leagues. Then I went back to Europe, this time to Liege, Belgium and played one year on a lower league team there. Then I went back to the UK to try again…

GSB: …Holy cow, you really wanted it. I really had no idea about the itinerant world of the lower levels of professional soccer. How old were you at this point?

 

Tyburski Soccer Bakersfield Brigate Soccer Club

Luke Tyburski, while with the San Francisco Seals (Photo credit: Bakersfield Brigade Soccer Club)

 

LT: This was 2008 and I was 25. Like I said, I’d lived my dream. My parents had instilled in me an incredible work ethic — they never pushed me into pro soccer but they let me know that, if I was going to go for it, I’d have to give it 100 percent. That’s what kept me going. From 2008 to 2011 it became much harder. I had a number of injuries and three surgeries over a period of 11 months. I started to break down physically. And that led to mental problems. I sank into a deep depression; had self-harming, suicidal thoughts.

GSB: Oh my God; that’s awful! Did you try to come back again after the surgeries?

LT: Yes. Finally it was a calf injury, minor as they come, that led me to retire. I had just had it.

GSB: Did the depression come back?

LT: You know what? The depression was still there, I’m not gonna lie to you. But I didn’t hit the depths I felt previously. There was a huge wave of relief and satisfaction after I retired. I was content with my soccer career.

GSB: So what did you do next?

LT: Well, that was a problem. I really had no clue. And then a friend — a marathoner — told me about running through the Sahara for a week.

GSB: You mean the Sahara as in the desert? THAT Sahara?

LT: That would be the one, Lew.

GSB: Were you a long-distance runner at all?

LT: Nope; I’d never run more than six miles at any one time. But, just for the hell of it, I Googled it — the Marathon des Sables — a 150 mile race through the Sahara over seven days…

GSB: No problem-o!

LT: Crazy, right?! Thing is, I needed an escape from reality, from what to do next. The race was in six months so I threw myself into it — research, training, etc. The more I looked into it, the more I thought, “not only can I do this race but this could become my thing!” I could become an adventurer.”

GSB: So what happened in the race?

LT: I finished!! It. Was. BRUTAL…I became dehydrated, had a bad stomach virus, lost skin on my toes. But I made it and started doing other extreme events.

 

Luke Tyburski Marathon des Sables Jamie Fricker

Luke Tyburski at the finish of Marathon des Sables in the Sahara (Photo credit: Jamie Fricker)

 

GSB: Such as?

LT: I went to Nepal and took part in the Everest Ultra Marathon

GSB: What is THAT? A race up Everest?

LT: No, it’s a 40 mile race down from Everest Base Camp which is at 17,000 feet elevation. To train for that one, I spent three weeks living and training with elite ultra-marathoners in Nepal. I was ready but three days before, I contracted a stomach parasite…

GSB…So you dropped out?

LT: Oh no — I ran it. The bug did slow me down. It took me more than twice as long as I thought it would. But these events made me an adventurer (in my mind, at least)…And I started to make a living from it: I coached, evangelized through speaking engagements, wrote magazine articles, and more — all about how you can push yourself to amazing heights. I hustled and my business started to grow. But, to really break through, to differentiate myself from other adventurers, I needed to do something BIG…

GSB: You mean running across the Sahara and running down Everest wasn’t BIG enough?

LT: Nope…other adventurers were doing it. So I came up with a route for a triathlon unlike any other. From Northern Morocco to Monaco, 2,000 kilometers (or about 1,242 miles) in 12 days…

GSB: Piece of cake, right?…

LT: And so, in 2015, I swam across the 15 mile Strait of Gibraltar from Morocco to Spain. Then I cycled through Spain to the French border, about 850 miles. And then I ran the remaining 375 miles to Monaco. I did have some health issues along the way…

 

Luke Tyburski Map

 

GSB: How could you not?…

LT:  …I had extreme adrenal fatigue, a quadriceps tear. But I finished. Took the rest of 2015 and the first half of 2016 off to recover due to my extreme adrenal fatigue. But, last month, I did my first event since, a 100 mile ultra-marathon in the UK, which is where I live. I experimented with my training, and if I’m honest, it didn’t go as I hope. You can read why here.

 

Luke Tyburski Running Fizeek Media

Luke Tyburski, running through the South of France in 2015 on his 2,000 km triathlon from Morocco through Spain and France (Photo credit: Fizeek Media)

 

GSB: This is all incredible…and unimaginable. And I can see how your story would motivate athletes and would-be athletes. But where does the passion for the environment come in?

LT: It started for me in 2012 when I was in Nepal for the Everest Ultra Marathon. I was living with people who had no running water, no electricity at all. They lived primitively. Here I am, this westernized guy, thinking I was worldly and open and all the rest, but, in the end, I was humbled. They had no equipment, nothing to make life easier. After the three weeks, it sounds cliché but I felt like a changed man. I went back home to London and thought “I don’t need all these  things…all of the shoes and shorts and other stuff.”

GSB: So what did you do?

LT: A massive clean-out. Gave stuff to friends and charity. Cut back on wants and lived at the “need” level, especially when it came to clothing. I would wear stuff until it would wear out. So I was definitely on the trail to environmentalism. But it wasn’t until I met Graham Ross

GSB: …Of Kusaga Athletic, the Australian company that makes the world’s greenest t-shirt out of bamboo, eucalyptus, etc.? We interviewed Graham for GSB awhile back. Kusaga is a great story, and Graham is an even greater fellow.

LT: Agree. Met him in 2013 at a Friday night swimming squad outing in London. Graham told me about Kusaga Athletic and how sustainable textiles would make a difference on climate change. So that was an immediate click between us. So we would go on five to seven hour bike rides that would become brainstorming sessions and an education for me on sustainable apparel. This led me to live even more sustainably and to educate folks on the textile industry and how it needs to become greener. In fact, I weave…

GSB: …Pun intended…

LT: …Sustainability into at least 50 percent of my talks — about how it takes 3,000 liters of water to make just one cotton t-shirt and how it only takes 22 liters of water to make Kusaga Athletic’s greenest t-shirt.

GSB: Does Kusaga sponsor you?

LT: No. I am an unpaid ambassador, I wear their kits and I tell their story. Now, I don’t talk much about the science of climate change because I’m not well-versed enough yet. I need to be able to talk about it in a substantive manner and I will down the road as I learn more about it. For now I stay in my lane and talk sustainability from apparel and water standpoints. And I’m engaging other athletes on this and on Kusaga. It’s catching on.

GSB: Amen to that, Luke! So what’s in store for 2018?

LT: Well I have a book coming out about my story from a journeyman soccer player, to ultra endurance athlete and everything in between. My ups, and very deep downs will all be shared. Physically, I’m looking to complete a self-developed challenge that will create two Guinness World Records, but it’s top secret at the moment…

GSB: Good luck! Please let us know when the secret can be revealed.

LT: Will do. And I will keep reminding folks to take care of themselves, conserve water and care for the planet.


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The GSB Interview: Graham Ross, CEO and Co-Founder, Kusaga Athletic

Graham Ross, the CEO and Co-Founder of Australia-based Kusaga Athletic, wants to disrupt the way apparel is produced around the world. His quest has taken him across the globe, from Brisbane to Sydney to Singapore, to running a marathon on the Great Wall of China, to London, and more. We talked with Ross about how Kusaga came to be, the “World’s Greenest T-shirt,” and much more.

 

GreenSportsBlog: First of all, before we get into your background and how Kusaga Athletic came into existence, I have to ask you, what does Kusaga mean?

Graham Ross: Well, Lew, my business partner and I were looking for a word that meant recycle but not in English. So Kusaga means “recycle” in Swahili. We thought it sounded good and that Swahili is spoken in a part of Africa where running is religion. So there you have it.

GSB: Love it! OK, now how did you come to launch Kusaga? Have you been in the apparel business?

GR: Not originally. I’m from Maryborough, a small, inland country town, about three hours’ drive north from Brisbane in Queensland in the Northeast of Australia.

GSB: Sounds pretty remote.

GR: But I always wanted to be in television production so I needed to get myself towards a city. I got my start at two stations, one in my hometown and then a larger station on the Sunshine Coast in Queensland. In both cases, I was the guy who did everything: from news to on-air, to commercial production and directing for sports like soccer…Also music festivals.

GSB: What a great start to a career in TV production! This was after college, I presume. Where did you go?

GR: Oh, I didn’t go to university at all. I had these jobs from ages 17 to 24 so I guess you can say I went to the “University of TV.”

GSB: Sounds like you got an advanced degree!

GR: Indeed! So the next step for me was to go to a station in Brisbane, the third largest city in Australia and on to the politics beat. But I wanted to get to the biggest market, Sydney. Turns out, only 18 months into my tenure in Brisbane, an editor was needed for a primetime show in Sydney. I flew down there for a trial run one morning, got offered a job at lunch and moved there two weeks later. I worked on a ton of programs…primetime, lifestyle and sports shows, you name it. Now, this was in 1995, when the TV production world was changing from videotape to digital. At that time, no one really knew what the opportunities of the new digital editing equipment would be, so I got training and quickly became schooled in it, in particular on a system called AVID, which worked like a tricked out Mac w/ specialized software. In the early days, it was somewhat complex and buggy and not many people were expert in it. Yet it was in demand. So I saw an opportunity to start an AVID-based business. I was newly married at the time yet spent $AUS160,000 — more than my house was worth — on an AVID system. It took awhile before I got my first piece of business, editing a corporate video for a nail salon of all things. From there we built up to handle post-production for many prime time shows in Australia.

GSB: Sounds like that $160,000 was a great investment…

GR: Oh yeah. And we grew rapidly, especially as cable TV started to explode in Australia. But, after a time, I got sick of making programs for networks without having any ownership so I formed a company with two former clients. We started in one room, grew to having a staff of 50. We produced our own shows and documentaries that aired on National Geographic Channel, Animal Planet and many others.

GSB: So you’d hit the big time…

GR: Yeah, it was great but it nearly killed me. It was very stressful, I was working seven days a week, dealing with lawyers more than producing, my weight was up to 90 kilograms (almost 200 lbs.)

GSB: So what did you do?

GR: Closed the business and moved to Singapore and followed my wife Jane and her job there with MSN for Asia-Pacific. This was 2008. Jane is a former journalist and she ran content for them. So I became a house dad for my kids, then 14 and 9. And I built up a new network of friends, including those in the triathlon world. I started doing them and really got into it. At a dinner party I met Matthew Ashcroft, who would become my business partner. He said he was going to run the Great Wall Marathon

GSB: There’s a marathon run on the Great Wall of China?

GR: A good chunk of it is run on the wall itself, yes. Anyway he asked, I said no, he called back, I said I’d do a half marathon. He called back and wouldn’t take no for an answer. So, we bonded as we were training for the race. Talked about business—Matthew was in TV but is 10 years younger than I so has a slightly different perspective. He wanted to be in a business with purpose. We started to explore what that looked like. Meanwhile, I did a bunch more triathlons, including an Ironman, and running races. After a time, I looked in my closet and saw that I had a million “finishers’ shirts” (t-shirts included in goodie bags by race organizers) that I never wore. The sponsors got nothing out of ’em because I’m sure I wasn’t unique in stuffing them in a closet. I also had no idea what fabrics were in those shirts. So I started to do research. Found out they were, not surprisingly, made of polyester, nylon, spandex and cotton. Was shocked when I learned about the horrific environmental impacts of polyester and cotton on water quality and greenhouse gas emissions. I was convinced we needed to do it better. I did some more research and found there were a bunch of fibers in labs that were not toxic, but were not commercially available at the time.

 

Graham & Matt GWM_Great Wall

Graham Ross (l) and Matthew Ashcroft, co-founders of Kusaga Athletic, finishing the Great Wall Marathon (Photo credit: Kusaga Athletic)

 

GSB: So you and Matthew, a couple of TV guys, researched your way into the athletic apparel business? Did you have any knowledge, beyond internet research, of fabrics, of materials?

GR: Not really. But we said to ourselves that we need to fundamentally reimagine the textile industry. You see, textiles hadn’t evolved. It was a lethargic business with a tremendous amount of waste. And we were stupid enough, I guess, to think we could make fabrics that were better for the environment and offered superior performance. So we put up our own money to start up Kusaga Athletic.

GSB: What did you do first?

GR: Serious R & D. Went to a factory in Korea; told them we have a bunch of natural fibers—bamboo, eucalypt and cellulose (waste wood) —and would like you to make them into yarn and then fabric. These fabrics would be compostable and biodegradable.

GSB: What did you want the fabrics to ultimately become?

GR: We started out with shirts for running, yoga, sportswear, gym and the outdoors, targeting the environmentally-focused, active person. Went to market late in 2015. Our first efforts were t-shirts for corporate events. Earth Hour became an early customer. We did a Kickstarter campaign in 2016 that raised $16,000, garnered 200 pledges and orders for hundreds of shirts. But there were significant challenges…We’d moved our manufacturing to Malaysia but the factory shut down. So we wrote our supporters a letter, telling them what happened. They wrote back saying, in effect, ‘we want our t-shirts but believe in your mission, so keep the money, and do what you have to do. We believe in you.’ That gave us the spring in our step that we needed. We looked to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, and found the child of Vietnamese immigrants to the USA who had come back to be a seamstress. We showed her our fabrics; she had to learn how to work with them and did so in record time. That allowed us to get our shirts out to the pledgers who were really happy. So we had achieved one of our dreams to make a environmentally friendly t-shirt that performed at a super high level. But we still needed to upgrade our design and feel for our sportswear shirts.

GSB: How did you do that?

GR: We found a designer, Anna, originally from Bulgaria, now based in Sydney. Had run factories before, very direct. She played around with a bunch of designs. I was the model! We found that the sleeves were too long, didn’t feel good. So we went with a cycling-style sleeve, which felt much better.

 

Graham Overseeing Design

Graham Ross and the Kusaga Athletic design team. (Photo credit: Kusaga Athletic)

 

GSB: As a sometimes road cyclist, I get that…Talk a bit about the performance…

GR: Sure…They’re super lightweight and they wick moisture off the body.

GSB: …A la Underarmour…

GR: Exactly. In fact; we kind of look at ourselves as a sort of a sustainable Underarmour. Or better still, as a fusion of Underarmour and Patagonia. Our Greenest Tee, is made out of all biodegradable, compostable ingredients called ECOLITE® which is super for everyday wear or getting active like yoga.

 

 

Greenest Tee on the Planet

Kusaga Athletic’s “Greenest Tees on the Planet” (Photo credit: Kusaga Athletic)

 

 

Kusaga Red Yoga Top
Kusaga Athletic’s “Greenest Yoga Top” (Photo credit: Kusaga Athletic)

 

GSB: What makes it the Greenest Tee?

GR: Remarkably, an average cotton t-shirt uses about 3000 liters of water during the cotton plants’ growth and the garment’s manufacture. If you own 10 cotton shirts, that would be the equivalent of a small swimming pool worth of water. Our Greenest Tee needs less than 1% of that amount of water due to sustainable crops grown with rainwater. Now, for performance sports like running, for the gym and also team sports, we created a degradable polyester, ECODRY®.

GSB: Degradable polyester? That sounds like an oxymoron of sorts. How does that work?

GR: The fabric has been degraded in controlled compost conditions and that process is in continual development. Our plan is to offer our customers a “send back” scheme at the garment’s end of life, redirecting the waste from landfill.

GSB: Wouldn’t shipping those shirts at end-of-life involve incremental carbon emissions that would negate the benefits of the avoided landfill emissions? Have you figured that into the equation?

GR: We already offset our transportation greenhouse gas emissions through investments in climate protection projects across the world, we plan to include this scheme into that portfolio.

GSB: Glad to hear it. So you had the fabrics, you had the t-shirts. Aside from the initial orders and the t-shirts for corporate events, how did you get them to market?

GR: We started by going to long distance events with sustainability in their DNA. The Evergreen Endurance Ironman Triathlon in Chamonix, France was our first as it was trying to be a carbon neutral sports event. The reaction was positive. More races followed, especially in Australia, we got involved with events like the Run Nation Film Festival, a 20 venue festival across the country that features human interest, running-themed films. More positive reaction ensued.

GSB: So you’ve mostly proved the concept of green performance athletic apparel, it seems. How do you scale Kusaga Athletic?

GR: It goes back to reimagining the apparel industry, including athletic apparel. We kind of view things as Red Ocean vs. Blue Ocean.

GSB: What does that mean?

GR: Well, if we go against the Nike’s and the adidas’ of the world—the big guys—we’ll get killed and, metaphorically speaking, the ocean will be filled with our blood. If, on the other hand, Kusaga Athletic becomes the leading sustainable textile company—and a B-Corp at that—to scale, we’ll have the blue ocean largely to ourselves.

GSB: Maybe you should call it the green ocean…So you’re trying to create a new, large-scale category: Sustainable Textiles, with a focus on athletic apparel.

GR: That’s it. But we can see many other uses for our sustainable fabrics; from bedding to construction screening. To help us scale we’re seeking partnerships in R & D and social media.

GSB: What about athlete endorsers?

GR: Yes, we’re on that now. Luke Tyburski — he’s a bit of a nutbag! — is on our team. He’s a former soccer player who turned into this Endurance Adventurer…

GSB: What is an Endurance Adventurer?

GR: Oh, he runs in marathons and extreme long distance races like the Marathon des Sables across the Sahara, the Everest Ultra Marathon, the Morocco to Monaco race…

GSB: I had no idea there were such things, nor that any humans could complete these races.

GR: Oh there are and they do…Also Phil Dernee is an endorser. He just finished a Six Day Ultra Marathon on the Big Island (Hawai’i)…

GSB: Piece of cake!

GR: Not quite…Then we have Philippa Candrick. Her story is incredible. She was never a runner and then had a brain tumor. Lost much of her memory. She almost died on the operating table as they removed it. Finally as she was recovering she decided to start running. Her memory started to come back. And she kept on running—to the point to where she ran the Great Wall Marathon with me last year.

 

Graham and Phillipa_GWM 2016

Philippa Candrick (l) and Graham Ross running the 2016 Great Wall Marathon (Photo credit: Kusaga Athletic)

 

GSB: Incredible indeed! It sounds like Kusaga is poised for the next step in its product life cycle. Does retail play into that? And when will Kusaga establish a beachhead in the U.S.A.?

GR: We are looking to grow sustainably but, with that said, retail partnerships are next. As for the States, I’d say you will be seeing us in the not-too-distant future.

 


 

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