An Unlikely Hero
This true story is about one of the unlikeliest of heroes – the kind of man you’d pass in the street and probably wouldn’t even look at twice. He was the sort of man, you couldn’t imagine was special in any way. That’s what I love about this story – that just an everyday, unassuming, man, could make the world sit up and take notice, even though at first, people mocked and ridiculed him.
This remarkable tale is about a 61 year old Australian sheep and potato farmer called Cliff Young who stunned the world back in 1983 simply by doing something he’d done all of his life: shuffling.
He wasn’t a well-educated man and had always been a farm worker. Back in 1983, even with six decades under his belt, Cliff was still rounding up sheep on their 800 hectare property – on foot! It was in that year that Cliff decided to run the Sydney to Melbourne endurance race, one of the toughest and longest marathons in the world.
At 875km in length, the marathon takes about a week for the world’s best athletes to run it. Most athletes are less than thirty years of age and are sponsored by well-known organisations in sports. The athletes wear the best training outfits and shoes for the event. Cliff Young though, had no financial backers and was a complete unknown when he decided to enter.
As you can imagine, everyone thought he was simply too old, and they were stunned when they saw his racing outfit which consisted of overalls instead of sports-gear and a pair of galoshes over his work-boots. His clothing were items that he was used to wearing every day, so he thought there was nothing unusual in his decision to continue wearing them.
The media thought it was some kind of publicity stunt, and one of the reporters asked him, “Who are you and what are you doing?”
The farmer replied, “I’m Cliff Young. I’m from a large ranch where we run sheep outside of Melbourne.”
“You’re really going to run in this race?” the reporter asked incredulously.
“Yeah,” Cliff nodded.
“Got any backers?”
“Then you can’t run,” the reporter stated.
“Yeah I can.” Cliff replied. “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.”
Cliff had never undertaken any formal training for his running, and prior to the race, had only undertaken some training with his eighty-one year old mother. His support team for the marathon were a small group of family and friends who were to follow behind him with their caravan. He didn’t even have a spare pair of running shoes, let alone enough socks.
As the race began, the majority of the competitors took off and left Cliff behind as he shuffled along in his galoshes. That evening it became apparent that nobody had advised Cliff that most of the athletes ran for eighteen hours and slept for six. Throughout the race, he slept only when necessary, and on that first night he reached a town called Mittagong.
Although he was still behind the professional runners, Cliff often kept on going while the other competitors rested.
Race organisers, reporters and people across Australia who had been following the event, became concerned that he would keel over from stress and exhaustion or worse, but Cliff did not stop running after the first day. He even had enough energy to wave at the spectators as he shuffled along.
The media spoke to him when he reached the town of Albury, about the tactics he was going to use. Cliff simply replied, that he would “run through to the finish.”
Each day he shuffled on, inching closer to the leading group of athletes a little more with each hour. On the final night, Cliff passed the leading group of world-class runners, and by the final day, he was out in front, by a good margin.
In 1983, Cliff Young a 61 year old potato and sheep farmer came first in the Melbourne to Sydney race – the most gruelling race in the world. He completed the 875km race in five days, fifteen hours and four minutes, beating the old record by nine hours.
Later he said that when he was running, he “imagined that he was chasing sheep and trying to outrun a storm.”
Cliff Young became an Australian hero by winning the race, but he showed to the world that there was more to him than an old farmer who liked to run, after he divided the $10,000 prize between the first five runners behind him.
Cliff hadn’t even been unaware there was a prize for winning the race and when he heard about the reward, he showed no interest in keeping any of it for himself.
The following year, he was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia ‘for long distance running.’
While Cliff continued to run, he didn’t win first place in the marathon the next year because his hip popped of its joint socket. He did manage to finish in seventh position though and was given the award for the most courageous runner. His prize was a new car.
After the race Cliff said, “I didn’t do it near as tough as old Bob McIlwaine. Here, Bob, you have the car,” and he passed the keys over to his competitor.
He made other running attempts such as running around Australia when he was seventy-six, to raise money for homeless children, but had to pull out after 6,500 km because one of his crew members became seriously ill. In 2000, Cliff Young completed 921km of a 1600km race, but withdrew. A week later, he collapsed in his home from a mild stroke. Three years later, in 2003, Cliff Young, died at the age of eighty-one after a long illness.
In all of his racing, Cliff never kept a single prize that was given to him.
His legend and his style live on though. The “Young-shuffle” as it is now known, was adopted by many long-distance runners throughout the world because it was found to be more aerodynamic and used less energy than other running gaits.
No name, undated, Wikipedia: Cliff Young (Athlete), available: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cliff_Young_(athlete), accessed 2015
Chris Bennett, Western FarmPress: Cliff Young — the farmer who outran the field, available: www.farmprogress.com/blog/cliff-young-farmer-who-outran-field, accessed 2015
No name, undated, Elite Feet: The Legend of Cliff Young: The 61 Year Old Farmer Who Won the World’s Toughest Race, available: www.elitefeet.com/the-legend-of-cliff-young, accessed 2015