I recently spoke to an assembly of pupils at two of the country’s leading schools, and in preparation, wondered what message I could share that would be appropriate for the beginning of a new year. One that would relatable to the ‘majority’, rather than tell stories about what the best in the world did to become the best. After-all there are only a few exceptionally talented individuals in any team, school, business, state and even country, whilst the large majority are born with comparatively ‘average’ talent. In pondering how this majority could compete against and even beat the best in the business, I was reminded of the fascinating story of Cliff Young. It’s a story really worth knowing.
Be Cliff Young
Beginning in the early 1980’s, Australia hosted an 875km endurance running race from Sydney to Melbourne, which at the time was the world’s longest and toughest ultra-marathon. Only the best-trained athletes participated, most of whom were around 30 years old, professionally equipped and had back-up support for the race that usually took seven days 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 experienced runners. The cameras focussed on him and a reporters asked who he was and what he was doing there.
Cliff told them he was a sheep farmer from just outside of Melbourne, and that he had no back-up crew, and yes, that he would be running in his overalls and gumboots.
When the interviewer said that he couldn’t run like that, Cliff answered, “Yeah I can. 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 pack soon left Cliff far 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. He also run without his dentures because he said they rattled when he ran.
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 he got to the outskirts of Sydney, never mind all the way Melbourne.
Everyone knew it took about 7 days to finish this race, and competitors had worked out the best way to do this was to run for 18 hours and sleep for six. The thing is, 61 year old Cliff Young did not know that!
Although way behind the rest of the runners, Cliff kept on shuffling. For five days Cliff kept running, never stopping to sleep, whilst all others did. When asked his plan, he said it was simply, ‘to run to the finish line”. While they were sleeping, Cliff slowly passed all other runners. Not only did he run the Melbourne to Sydney race at age 61, without sleeping, or dying, he ended up winning the race by 10 hours, beating the record for that distance by a full 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; saying that 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.
Cliff suffered a series of injuries during the same the race the following year, including dislocating his hip, and meant he was only able to finish in 7th place. He was won the prize for the ‘most courageous runner’ and was presented with a Mitsubishi Colt. He received the car saying, “I didn’t do it near as tough as old Bob McIlwaine. Here, Bob, you have the car,” and proceeded to give him the keys.
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.
He did not stop there. In 1997, aged 76, Cliff 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, and had to pull out because 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!
I guess Cliff showed that to win, you do not have to be the fastest, the richest, the best equipped, should not listen to the critics and do not have to follow the wisdom of the masses. Set your sights on the goal, and keep plodding towards it – whilst others are ‘sleeping’, or caught up in whatever excuses or distractions that are keeping them from moving closer to theirs.