Cliff Young

It’s unlikely that a humble potato farmer in gumboots would rise from obscurity to become a hero of an entire nation, but that’s exactly what Cliff Young did by winning one of the most gruelling marathons the world has known. And he accomplished this in the evening of his life, at the age of 61 when most of us would have trouble getting through a 1km light jog. This was in April 1983, Australia, the year that the Westfield Sydney to Melbourne Ultra Marathon was first held.

Beating the odds

When Young shuffled into the start line at 10:30 a.m. on that morning of April 27th, no one would have thought that he would last the test of strength and endurance that the ultra marathon demanded. After all, the odds were piled up against him: he was 61-year-old who had started competitive racing on a whim 4 years ago, the course was 875km long and took more than 5 days to complete and the rolling countryside was dotted with undulating hills that tested the resilience of the youngest of men.

Yet in many ways, Cliff Young had been preparing for this event his whole life, “See, I grew up on a farm where we couldn’t afford horses or four wheel drives, and the whole time I was growing up– until about four years ago when we finally made some money and got a four wheeler– whenever the storms would roll in, I’d have to go out and round up the sheep. We had 2,000 head, and we have 2,000 acres. Sometimes I would have to run those sheep for two or three days. It took a long time, but I’d catch them. I believe I can run this race; it’s only two more days. Five days. I’ve run sheep for three,” he said. His diet for the race was a high carbohydrate intake of ice cream, pumpkin, potatoes, pears, oatmeal, honey and beans.

Dressed in gumboots and overalls, he cut an unusual figure next to the seasoned marathoners that lined up for the race. And when the race began, he continued to pique the interests of spectators and reporters alike with his curious style of running, which was more of a shuffle than a proper jog. By the end of the first day, as everyone expected, he was left behind by his fellow participants. What happened that evening, however, changed the course of ultra marathon racing forever. While the other runners ate supper and settled in for the expected 6 hours of sleep, old Cliff Young kept going through the night, sleeping for little more than 2 hours. Not even a shoulder injury around 2 in the morning deterred him from his course.

The Tortoise vs. the Hare

When morning arose on Day 2, Young was going strong. “I’m just an old tortoise, I have to keep going to stay in front,” he said. Upon hearing this, fellow world renowned marathoner Joe Record remarked, “He says he is a tortoise but I think [he] is a hare in disguise." By the start of the third day, Young had an unprecedented 35km lead.

When Joe Record, holding second position until then finally caught up with him, Young, who had been sleeping for an hour and a half, woke up to the following worlds, “Hello Old Buddy. I’ve caught you. Sleep tight.”

In other accounts of this moment, Young is reported as saying, “Joe Record, who was running second, jumped into my caravan late one night while I was catching 40 winks. Joe asked me if I had any ice for his sore shins. I said ‘No’, sent him back up the road to a garage, jumped out of bed, took off and never saw him again.”

And the Tortoise Wins

By now, Cliff Young’s indomitable spirit had captured the imagination of all Australia. Each day of the race had spread news of his story further through the country and newspapers called him a hero for young and old. By fifth and final day, as he shuffled into Melbourne, an estimated 5000 people had gathered to cheer on their folk hero. Cliff’s comment on all this attention was characteristically humble, “I’d hate to be royalty.”

Around 1:30 in the morning, Cliff shuffled into the finish line, completing the race in 5 days, 15 hours and 4 minutes. He had run for over 135 hours and slept for only 12. His nearest competitor was around 40 km behind him. He had crushed the previous race record. And he had done it all without his false teeth, because they rattled when he ran.

What endeared him all the more to the nation, if that were possible, is that he shared his prize money, saying “I worked out I’d be left with about $5.” He felt that his new found publicity would wear off soon, when newspapers found someone else to write about, “…and I’ll go back and relax in the bush among the birds.”

The day after the race, when he tucked into a breakfast of eggs and toast, it is possible Cliff was unaware of the fact that he had changed the course of ultra marathon history. Today the ‘Young shuffle’ is used by ultra marathon competitors because it is said to save energy; at least 3 winners of the Sydney to Melbourne race have been reported to use and go on to win the marathon. While in the years before Young, ultra marathoners had the luxury of a 6 hour sleep, now, they must meet the standards Cliff set, and run through the night on minimal sleep.