The story of running legend Cliff Young is fascinating, inspiring, and thought-provoking. If you’re not already familiar with this accomplished athlete, read on to discover this terrific tale.
An Unlikely Competitor
Every year, thousands of runners converge on Australia to run the annual 543.7-mile (875-kilometer) endurance course from Sydney to Melbourne.
This elite event is thought to be one of the world’s toughest ultra-marathons. It can take up to five days to cross the finish line, so only athletes at the top of their game typically dare to take it on. Most of these seasoned runners are young (generally under 30) and have the backing of high-level sports sponsors such as Nike.
But all that changed in 1983 when a 61-year-old competitor by the name of Cliff Young entered the fray. Young strolled to the starting blocks wearing overalls and work boots. He made a strange sight – standing in his everyday clothes with his race number proudly displayed on the back of his shirt.
When questioned by the media, Cliff was optimistic about his chances. He told the curious press that his hard-working background gave him all the skills and endurance he’d need to finish the race, saying:
“I grew up on a farm where we couldn’t afford horses or tractors, and the whole time I was growing up, whenever the storms would roll in, I’d have to go out and round up the sheep. We had 2,000 sheep on 2,000 acres. Sometimes I would have to run those sheep for two or three days. It took a long time, but I’d always catch them. I believe I can run this race.”
They weren’t so sure and, from the moment the runners left the starting blocks, it looked like the skeptics would be proved right. In the first miles of the race, Cliff was quickly left trailing behind his more experienced competitors.
The enthralled crowds watching on the sidelines and around the world were bemused, intrigued, and very entertained. Cliff didn’t even seem to be running properly – he had a slow shuffle that put him in danger of injury, let alone completing the course.
The Tortoise and the Hare
To finish the Australian ultra-marathon, runners generally need to hit 18 hours of running a day. This leaves most participants with only six hours of sleep a night.
As an inexperienced newbie, Cliff had no such targets. That first night, he put his head down and continued his slow shuffle throughout the night and into the early morning. When dawn broke, the other runners were amazed to find him still plodding along.
According to Cliff, it was all part of the plan. He intended to run constantly, completing the marathon without stopping until he made it past the finish line.
By refusing to stop for sleep, Cliff narrowed his gap, edging closer and closer to the front of the pack. By the last night, that signature shuffle wasn’t so funny anymore – it had powered him right through to first position.
And that’s how Cliff Young, a 61-year-old farmer, set a new world record for one of the most grueling marathons in the world.
Cliff was crowned the winner, and the world cheered with him. But when he was handed the $10,000 prize money, Cliff was shocked. He hadn’t realized there was any prize money involved. Instead of pocketing his winnings and heading back to the farm, Cliff decided to give away his prize – sharing it among his fellow runners, much to their delight.
But Cliff wasn’t done. The very next year, he came back to defend his title. This time he took 7th place, but that’s still a remarkable accomplishment given that he was running with a displaced hip.
In 1997, when Cliff was 76, he set out to raise funds for homeless kids by running all 16,000 km of the Australian coastline. The veteran runner made it through 16,000 km before stopping because a crew member was ill.
Cliff Young died in 2003 at the age of 81, but his legend lives on.
The ‘Young-Shuffle’ has earned a place in history all by itself, becoming popular among pro runners as it helps them conserve energy over long distances. You’ve probably seen the shuffle in action – it’s helped at least three champions of the Sydney to Melbourne marathon earn their spot on the top podium.
And marathon runners continue to use Cliff’s tactics. Most now go without sleep, putting their stamina to the test by running all day and all night.
Modern runners owe a lot to this giant of the sport. An Australian treasure loved by fitness fans all over the world, Cliff Young proved that the greatest feats come from testing the limits of your own physical and mental endurance. And that it takes more than trophies and titles to make a true hero.
Image Attribution – Vasilijem113-12 / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)