The reason why it's not all over the media today is because it happened in 1983, but it's a remarkable story you really ought to know about.
In 1983, runners gathered at the starting line of the first annual Sydney to Melbourne Ultramarathon race in southeast Australia. As they prepared to run, many people noticed an older gentleman wearing work boots, farming attire, and no teeth (he later said his dentures rattled when he ran) mixed in with the crowd of elite world-class runners decked out in modern athletic gear.
Many people initially thought it was a joke, but when the starting pistol fired, 61-year-old Cliff Young settled in with the multitudes of runners trying to complete the 875 km (544 mile) race.
It wasn’t long before Cliff started to lag behind and, as the day wore on, the gap between him and the front runners of the race grew to a pretty significant margin. But as the first day ended and the top runners stopped to sleep for the night, Cliff pressed on with his unconventional loping running style.
The next day, the professional runners awoke refreshed and ready to hit the road again when the astonishing news came in: the slow, toothless potato farmer in rubber boots and work clothes never stopped running and was now hours ahead of everyone.
His longest break was mid-way through the race when he caught “a couple of hours’ snooze,” reported The Sydney Morning Herald at the time. He suffers from skin cancer, so instead of shorts, he wore long plastic trousers with holes punched in them for ventilation. Cold potatoes, oatmeal and honey were his diet, and he drank a potion based on pumpkin juice.
It wasn’t speed or groundbreaking athletic prowess that brought Cliff the lead - it was his relentless endurance, resilience, and a mind unyielding to the physical demands of non-stop, exhaustive motion.
No one knew that Cliff had been doing something like this ultramarathon for most of his life. Growing up on a 2,000 acre sheep farm, his family couldn’t afford horses to do the job of rounding up the livestock, so he was forced to chase every animal down on foot. He said that sometimes it would take 2 or 3 days, but he’d always round them up.
After years of conditioning, Cliff was able to complete the race in a record-breaking five days and fifteen hours. His unorthodox way of running was even given a name, “the Young shuffle,” which many athletes adopted because of its energy-saving efficiency.
Cliff won the race, beating the second-place winner by ten hours. When the race was complete, Cliff was unaware of the $10,000 prize to the first winner, which, true to the nature of a person with such a humble running style, he split with the other top winners, stating that they had worked as hard as he had.
Cliff’s Sydney-Melbourne footrace success has been described as a classic tortoise versus hare confrontation. His tactics were simple. Like the tortoise who beat the hare, he avoided burning himself out and just kept going.
Cliff Young’s story is a testament to the monumental power of endurance, not just in racing but as a life lesson. In our daily lives, we may not face physical ultramarathons, but we do encounter personal, professional, and emotional challenges that demand the same kind of persistence and resilience.
By embracing the spirit of endurance, we can overcome tremendous obstacles and achieve our goals, no matter how insurmountable they seem. Cliff didn’t just teach us how to run a race; he showed us how to face life: keep shuffling forward, no matter the odds, even if your gait is a little lopsided, and you might just find yourself doing the impossible.