Cliff Young is hardly known outside of Australia. His remarkable story is worth knowing. All of Australia thought he was a crazy old man to undertake an almost impossible feat. Most feared that he would die trying.
Every year, Australia hosted an 875 kilometer endurance race from Sydney to Melbourne – considered at the time to be the world’s longest and toughest ultra-marathon. The few highly-trained world-class athletes that participated averaged around 30 years old, were sponsored by major brands and thus competed with the latest and finest running gear. The race usually took a week to complete.
In 1983, everyone was in for a surprise. On the day of the race, a guy named Cliff Young showed up. At first, no one cared about him since everybody thought he was there to watch the event. After all, he was 61 years old, and was wearing overalls and gumboots.
As Cliff walked up to the table to take his number, it became obvious to everybody he was a participant. He was going to join a group of 150 world-class athletes and run! They all thought that it was a crazy publicity stunt. Curiosity was raised as he took his number 64, tore it off the vest, pinned it to his overalls, and moved into the pack of runners kitted in their special, expensive racing outfits. The camera focused on him and reporters started to ask:
“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.”
“Are you really going to run in this race?”
“Yeah,” Cliff nodded.
“Got any backers?”
“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.”
When the marathon started, the pros left Cliff behind. The crowds smiled because he set off in his gumboots, and his technique was “incorrect”. Instead of running, he traipsed along with a leisurely shuffle.
All over Australia, people who watched the live telecast kept on praying that someone would stop this crazy 61 year old farmer, concerned that he would die before getting even halfway across Sydney.
Every professional athlete knew for certain that it took about 7 days to finish this race, and that in order to compete, you would need to run 18 hours and sleep 6 hours. The thing is 61 year old Cliff Young did not know that!
When the morning news of the race was aired, people were in for another big surprise. Cliff was still in the race and rather than stopping to sleep, had jogged all night down to a city called Mittagong.
When asked about his race tactics, he said it was “to run to the finish line.”
And so he kept 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, while they were sleeping. He remained ahead until the finish line. 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!
Sixty-one year old Cliff Young finished the 875 kilometre race in 5 days, 15 hours and 4 minutes. He didn’t sleep because he didn’t know that he was supposed to; he just kept imagining that he was chasing sheep and trying to outrun a storm.
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 5 other runners still out there doing it tougher than me,” and he gave them $2 000 each.
In the following year, Cliff Young entered the same race and achieved 7th place. While running, his hip popped out of the joint socket, his knee played up and he endured shin splints. But those didn’t deter him from finishing the race. When he was announced as the winner for most courageous runner and presented with a Mitsubishi Colt, he said, “I didn’t do it near as tough as old Bob McIlwaine. Here, Bob, you have the car,” and gave the keys to him.
Cliff never kept his race winnings or any of the numerous gifts he received, he rather gave it away to someone who seemed to need it more.
Cliff came to prominence again in 1997, aged 76, when he attempted to become the oldest man to run around Australia and raise money for homeless children. He managed to complete 6 520km of the 16 000km run before he had to pull out after his only permanent crew member became ill.
In Cliff’s last race he completed the full 921 km, not bad, considering that he was 78 years old!
It’s remarkable how often unremarkable people feature in the most remarkable stories. It’s also inspiring, because there’s probably a Cliff Young in each one of us.