Australia’s 543 mile race from Sydney to Melbourne is considered to be one of the toughest ultra-marathons. World-class athletes typically took about 7 days to complete a race of that length by running for 18 hours per day and sleeping for 6 hours. These athletes, usually in their twenties or thirties, were backed by sporting goods manufacturers and equipped with the latest and greatest gear.
In 1983, a non-traditional entrant decided to race. A 61-year-old farmer, Cliff Young, came dressed in overalls and work boots. At first, most suspected he had come to watch the race. When he picked up his racing number, it created a bit of a stir.
A reporter asked him, “Who are you and what are you doing?”
He replied, “I’m Cliff Young. I’ from a large ranch where we run sheep outside of Melbourne.”
He went on to say, “…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 4 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 sheep on 2,000 acres. Sometimes I’d 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 race began, the professionals quickly jumped out to an early lead. Young’s gait was more of a shuffle than a pure running style, as he appeared to move leisurely without expending much energy. When other runners stopped for the night to sleep and rest, Cliff continued to move. Although he was still far behind, he continued to make his path for the finish line.
Every night he pulled a little closer to the lead pack. By the last night, he had moved into first place. In a fable-like fashion, the tortoise had passed all of the hares. The 61 year-old, with no teeth, won first place breaking the race record time by 9 hours! After the race, Cliff said that he imagined he was chasing after sheep and trying to outrun a storm. His finishing time was 5 days, 15 hours and 4 minutes.
When awarded the $10,000 first place award, Cliff indicated that he was unaware of any prize before signing up for the race. “They’re five other runners still out there doing it tougher than me,” said Cliff, who ended up giving each of those runners $2,000 and not keeping a penny of the award. Cliff Young became a national hero.
Cliff Young died of cancer at the age of 81. The “Young-Shuffle” style of movement that Cliff pioneered was used by at least three winners of the Sydney to Melbourne race and is used by some ultra-marathoners today. Considered energy-efficient, the style works well for extreme distances.