A marathon is 42.2 kilometres in length. Runs longer than that are known as ultramarathons. In 1983 Westfield decided to sponsor a run between the two biggest Westfields, those in Sydney and Melbourne, a distance of 875 kilometres. This made it one of the world’s longest and toughest ultramarathons. People who had run between the two cities in the past had done so in 7 days at best.
The run attracted a large number of entrants, 150 of the world’s best runners. On the morning of the race as they registered at a table, an old man wearing overalls and galoshes over his work boots (because he thought it might rain) slowly walked to the table. Most people paid him little mind in that they thought he was a spectator. The man was named Cliff Young and he was aged 61, a potato farmer from Colac outside Melbourne. He had never run a race before, had never had a coach or a trainer and said that he would like to give the race a try because it fit into his farming schedule.
He told sceptical and bemused reporters:
“.. 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.”
As the run began, Cliff in his galoshes was quickly left behind, all the more so because he didn’t run, he just shuffled. The race was being televised live and sympathy quickly developed for the crazy old man who ran without his false teeth because they rattled when he ran, shuffling slowly at the back. Many hoped he would retire from the race before he died of a heart attack.
Cliff didn’t retire, nor did he stop. He shuffled to Mittagong and, like the Energizer bunny, he kept on going. When others slept, he shuffled. Traditional thinking was to run for 18 hours and sleep for 6. Asked his tactics for the race, he said that he would just keep running. And he did, 24 hours each day, getting a little closer to the leading pack each night. During the last night he passed them, winning the race in a record time of 5 days, 15 hours and 4 minutes, beating the world’s best distance runners in the process. Asked what he thought about when on the road those long hours, he said that he imagined that he was chasing sheep and trying to outrun a storm.
When he was awarded the $10,000 prize he said that he had not been aware that there was a prize and that he had not entered for the money. Declaring that “there’re five other runners still out there doing it tougher than me,” he gave each $2,000.
Running the race again the following year, he was unable to repeat his win after suffering a number of medical problems, including his hip popping out of its socket, knee problems and shin splints. Nonetheless he finished and came 7th. He won a car as the winner of the most courageous runner award but 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.
In 1997, aged 76, he attempted to become the oldest man to run around Australia and raise money for homeless children. Forced to pull out after his only permanent crew member became ill, he managed to complete 6,520km of the 16,000km run.
Cliff Young died in 2003 aged 81.
In what is perhaps a fitting epitaph and tribute, the Cliff Young Shuffle has been adopted by ultra-marathon runners as expending the least energy and as being more aerodynamic. At least 3 winners of the Westfield run in later years used the Cliff Young Shuffle. Runners is later tears in the Westfield run also adopted Cliff’s technique of running without sleeping.
See and hear Cliff Young at: