Imagine standing at the starting line of one of the most grueling races in the world. You are nervously stretching, double-tying your shoes, and sizing up the competition to see who might be the main contenders. Out of the corner of your eye you see a man wearing overalls and large rubber rain boots. He is removing his false teeth and pinning on a bib number. Is this man really going to race? Is he even a real runner?
The true story of Cliff Young would have been rejected by Hollywood as unbelievable. But not only was Cliff Young real, he was the most remarkable runner ever to lace up a pair of…gum boots. He trained by chasing sheep around his 2000 acre farm in Australia. He didn’t have a coach. He didn’t have any name brand running gear. He started racing when he was over 60 years old. Yes, Cliff Young was real and one of the most famous, intriguing, and memorable Australian runners in history. His family didn’t have enough money to buy a four wheeler or a horse so Cliff would sometimes run for 2 or 3 straight days while herding up all the sheep in advance of a storm. This is how he trained. This is how he unknowingly prepared himself for a date with history and a race that would become the stuff of legend.
In 1983 when Cliff stepped to the line ready to run the Westfield Sydney to Melbourne Ultra Marathon no one took him seriously. He didn’t look like he was ready to complete a 5K let alone the 544 mile race from Sidney to Melbourne. He was a side show clown for the media to dramatize; a satirical distraction from the real competitors who took training and racing seriously. When the gun went off, Cliff immediately fell to the very back of the pack. Soon even the back of the pack disappeared ahead of him. But a 61 year old toothless farmer, racing in overalls and galoshes, was still compelling television so the cameras continued to cover his journey. Calls reportedly came into the station begging for race officials to make him stop. Many spectators believed he would certainly die before he made it even half way to Melbourne. After 18 hours of running, the leaders stopped for some rest. The conventional wisdom was that running 18 hours straight and then sleeping for 6 was the best recipe for success over this distance. The first night of the race Cliff did not sleep.
During the six hours his competitors slept, Cliff continued to run in the dark, getting closer and closer to the back of the pack. The second night saw the same strategy. As the world class ultra-marathoners rested, Cliff ran on while imagining he was back home chasing sheep on his farm. By the third night it was apparent that something extraordinary was about to happen. Could Cliff Young keep going with no sleep? He stopped only to eat and for bathroom breaks. He had passed everyone in the race and was starting to build a gigantic lead. The man, who no one took seriously at the start, was about to take the gold medal at the finish! Cliff won the race, after running non-stop and without sleep for over 5 days! He set a new Sydney to Melbourne record and won the hearts of his country and the greater running community. The story could end here and already be an epic tale but Cliff had one more unorthodox surprise up his sleeve. Claiming to be unaware that there was a $10,000 prize for the winner, Cliff proclaimed that the five finishers behind him deserved it more. He promptly gave each of them $2000.
Cliff Young lived another 20 years before he passed away in 2003 at the age of 81. His captivating story reads like a myth, a legend, or perhaps even a fable. If Cliff were a tortoise and the other runners hares, it would play out just as Aesop envisioned. If we look closely, we can even find a moral or two. One possible moral is that you can’t judge the heart of an athlete by their age, racing gear, or if they have all their own teeth. Another moral might be that there are many ways to get to the finish line. Maybe you can think of another moral to the story but one thing is certain. No matter how he looked or how slowly he ran, Cliff Young was one of us. A real runner. A warrior. A legend.
Can you think of a different moral of this story? Share it in the comments below.
Want to read more about Cliff Young? Here are some good links.
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Training Plans by Kara Goucher and Run the Edge