Thursday, April 24, 2008

Inspiring People: Cliff Young

Every now and then a story touches me deeply and fills me with joy, hope, and optimism. This is one of those stories that shows you that nothing is impossible:

In 1983 a 61-year-old toothless Australian potato farmer decided to try running the first Sydney to Melbourne Ultra Marathon, an ultra-tough 544 mile race. He would be competing against world-class athletes. All over Australia, people who watched the live TV updates kept hoping that someone would stop this crazy old man from running because everyone believed he'd die before getting even halfway to Melbourne! It all started on the day of the race when a guy named Cliff Young showed up. At first everybody thought he was there to watch the event as a spectator as they were. He looked like anyone's grandfather.He was 61 years old and wore overalls and rain covers over his work boots. As he walked up to the table to register, it soon became obvious to everybody he was going to enter. He was going to join a group of 150 world-class athletes! His trainer? His 81-year-old mother.

Before the race started everybody thought that it was a crazy publicity stunt. But the press were curious, so as he took his number 64 and moved into the pack of runners in their special, expensive racing outfits.The camera focused on him in his overalls and Wellington gum boots and the reporter asked:

"Who are you and what are you doing?"

"I'm Cliff Young. I'm from a large ranch where we run sheep outside of Melbourne."

They said, "You're really going to run in this race?"

"Yeah," Cliff nodded.

"Got any managers or trainers?"


"Then you can't run."

"Yeah I can." Cliff said. "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."

Every professional runner in the race knew the accepted race pattern. They had trained knowing it took about 6 days to finish this race, and that in order to complete the course, you would need to run 18 hours and sleep 6 hours. But nobody had told Cliff Young, didn't know that, nobody had thought to tell him you had to sleep, so old Cliff just kept on running!

When the marathon started, the pros left Cliff behind in his galoshes. The crowds smiled because he didn't even run correctly. Instead of running, he appeared to move leisurely, shuffling like an amateur.

Just as he would chase the sheep on his farm in the storms, Cliff ran without thought of sleeping. It came natural to him. When the next mornings news of the race was aired, people were in for another big surprise. Cliff was still in the race and had jogged all night down to a city called Mittagong. Apparently, Cliff did not stop after the first day. He was still far behind the world-class athletes, but he kept on running. Waving to the spectators who watched the event by the highways. When he got to a town called Albury he was asked about his tactics for the rest of the race. He said he would run through to the finish, and he did. He kept running, and running, and running! Every night he got just a little bit closer to the leading pack. By the last night, he passed all of the world-class athletes. By the last day, he was way in front of them. Not only did he run the Melbourne to Sydney race at age 61, without dying; he won first place, breaking the race record by 9 hours and became a national hero!

The Australian nation fell in love with the 61-year-old potato farmer who came out of nowhere to defeat the world's best long distance runners. He finished the 875-kilometre race in 5 days, 15 hours and 4 minutes. When Cliff was awarded the first prize of $10,000, he said he did not know there was a prize and insisted that he had not entered for the money. He said, "There're five other runners still out there doing it tougher than me," and he gave them $2,000 each. He kept none of the prize money for himself at all! Cliff was a humble man, achieved the impossible and became a national hero in Australia.

Cliff died 2nd November 2003. He was 81. But Cliff lives on, certainly in the memories of those who witnessed this incredible event. Cliff also left his legacy in what is now called the "Cliff Shuffle." The pro marathon runners found that Cliff's Wellie boot running style was an energy efficient method of running, and adopted it. What a way to be remembered!


Jay Boaz said...

Wow, that guy is my new hero! After Joel of course.


Mark said...

Yes, Joel is quite impressive. The thing that is so interesting about this old guy was that although he is a famous Australian there doesn't seem to be much info out there on him. You'd think there would be a movie or book! If I was a writer, I would spend a year investigating his life and then I'd write an inspiring book about this guy. And really, would a movie be so hard? Come on Australia, step up to the plate!

Stacey said...

So then who's Nick Young? (the title of your post) I'm going to guess that was a typo?

This is an awesome story. I have to show it to my boyfriend who has also run an ultra marathon. Maybe if there's a next time he'll have to incorporate the "Cliff Shuffle". Or I'll buy him a pair of Wellie boots :)

Thanks for the post.

Mark said...

Oops, yah, that was a typo. I need to hire someone to proofread my posts!