For many people, completing a single marathon already feels like a huge accomplishment, but an ultra marathon takes it to a completely different level.
Each year, Australia hosts arguably one of the world’s toughest endurance races called the Westfield Sydney to Melbourne Ultra Marathon.
The race is run between two of Australia’s largest shopping malls, one in Sydney and the other in Melbourne, takes a staggering 5 days to complete and traverses an astonishing 875 kilometers (544 miles).
In 1983, an unknown 61-year-old potato-farmer named Cliff Young showed up on race day. He was everything the other runners were not. He was older, wore overalls and ran in boots. Much to the surprise of everyone in attendance, Cliff hadn’t come there to watch that day, he came to race.
Because of the advanced training required with a race like this, a majority of the competitors were younger and had experience competing at an elite level. Many of them were professional athletes with good equipment and even sponsored by well known shoe companies.
When the race began, and as some probably anticipated, it didn’t take too long for the elite runners to leave Cliff behind. Many of the spectators and media following the race watched with interest because he had such an unusual and unique running style. Many thought Cliff really wasn’t serious and thought it could all be just a publicity stunt. Because of his advanced age, many even feared for his health and questioned whether or not he could even finish the race.
“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.”
All of the runners taking part in the race knew that it took roughly 5 days to complete the race. The established formula to win the race at the time was run for 18 hours and sleep for 6 hours. Everyone knew this strategy, except for Cliff. He had no idea!
On the morning of the second day, everyone was surprised to learn that Cliff was still in the race. Not only was he still in race, but he had continued to run throughout the entire night without stopping.
When asked what his strategy was for the remainder of the race, he let everyone know his plan was to keep running straight to the finish line without sleeping.
As the race went on, Cliff kept running slowly with his now familiar shuffle. Each night he inched closer and closer to the front runners as they rested their 6 hours. During the final night of the race, Cliff had finally caught up to and eventually passed the pack of professional athletes while they were sleeping. When he crossed the finish line first that day, he had set the new course record and beat his competitors by a large margin.
As the winner of the race, Cliff was awarded a prize of $10,000. He didn’t even know about the prize and insisted that it was not why he chose to race in the first place. In a selfless act, Cliff donated all of his winnings to some of his fellow runners and in so doing won the hearts and minds of many.
Cliff’s unusual running style was dubbed the “Young shuffle” and has been adopted by some ultra-marathon runners because of the fact that it uses less energy. At least three winners of the Westfield Sydney to Melbourne ultra marathon race have been known to use the shuffle during their wins.
Today, it is commonplace for competitors in ultra marathoners to run without sleeping. They might not all know it, but they can probably thank Cliff Young for that.