How a 61-year-old Australian potato farmer changed how we think about running long distances — and taking on challenges at any age
Yesterday afternoon, I was listening to a podcast interview with Candice Millard, the author of the amazing book The River of Doubt we talked about in last week’s Wednesday issue.
Near the end of the interview, the host asked Millard how she comes up with her story ideas for her books. What she finds most interesting, she said — she’s also written books on Winston Churchill and the American president James Garfield — are stories of struggle, especially by people we already know well, or think we do.
Their exploits, their accomplishments, their achievements — those things impress us, she explained, but they also make it hard for us to relate to them. It’s in their struggles, in their moments of private agony and doubt, that we can connect with them, because we all experience those.
“Nothing’s unique, no human experience is unique,” she added. “And that’s a good thing. Because that’s how we understand each other, that’s how we connect, and that’s how we don’t feel alone.”
When the host asked her if she was casting about for new story ideas, he offered up one I’d never heard of, but once I did some digging on, I realized I had to write about: Cliff Young.
Never heard of him? That’s okay. Almost a generation has passed since he died back in 2003 at the age of 81 at his home in Queensland, Australia. It was what he did twenty years earlier, at the comparably younger age of 61, that stunned the running world.
Nobody knew who he was when he showed up to request a participant’s bib at 1983’s inaugural running of the Sydney to Melbourne Ultramarathon, a nearly 544-mile, week-long race designed to test the mettle of the world’s toughest runners.
All they knew is what they could see: more than 100 other young marathoners, several of whom wore their corporate sponsors emblazoned on their running gear, ready to run the race — and one 61-year-old potato farmer wearing a cheap pair of sneakers and some old ratty pants he’d cut holes in for a kind of do-it-yourself ventilation.
Suffice it to say, he wasn’t taken seriously. The people behind the registration desk were shocked when he told them he was there to run the race, not simply watch it. Snicker though they did, they gave him a bib.
When he lined up at the starting line alongside the other runners, the reaction was the same. Some laughed, others were incredulous. And when the starting gun went off, they all left him in the dust. Young simply shuffled along at his slow pace, letting them sprint ahead.
They didn’t know the training that had gone into Young’s 61 years on his farm, where he still lived with his mother. Since he was a young boy, he had herded sheep in his overalls and gumboots, a task that might take him days to complete, he told reporters back then:
“See, I grew up on a farm where we couldn’t afford horses or tractors, and the whole time I was growing up, 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 would have to run those sheep for two or three days. It took a long time, but I’d always catch them. I believe I can run this race.”
His ability to go without sleep, honed all those years on the farm, turned out to be his secret weapon.
At the time, it was accepted that runners in ultra events would run for about 18 hours and sleep for the other six, to give themselves enough rest. But Young only needed a couple hours of sleep each night. So by the time the rest of the field had woken up each morning of the race, he was a long, long way down the road.
His competitors were sure they could catch him. But their need for sleep proved too strong to resist. By the time Young reached the finish line in first place, he wasn’t just a little ahead; he finished nearly 10 hours ahead of the runner in second place.
Young was as humble and magnanimous in victory as he was in life; he shared most of his $10,000 in winnings with his fellow competitors. After the race, the man who’d lived his whole life with his mother (and was then still a virgin) married a woman nearly 40 years his junior and began running more ultras, including an attempt to run the entire 8,316 miles of the Australian continent.
His marriage didn’t last, unfortunately (though Young told reporters in later years they had remained friends). But he still kept running, competing in events into his seventies — he even set an age record in a six-day race when he was 78 years old.
I find his story so fascinating. He really had nothing beyond his own mental and emotional resources, and just kept going for the joy of it. He had almost none of the material wealth we enjoy today — he didn’t even have teeth, and had to take his dentures out when he ran, because he said they rattled too much.
But through it all, he just kept going, running as much as 20 to 30 kilometers a day in addition to working on his farm:
“The doctors once told me I had arthritis in my joints and to take it easy, so I said ‘I’ll fix that up, I’ll run it out.’ So I kept running and it disappeared… It is like rust that gets into a vehicle. Well, I think it was like rust in me. I reckon you have to keep your joints moving. Absolutely. No matter what you do, you have to keep moving. If you don’t wear out, you rust out, and you rust out quicker than you wear out.”
While I don’t know if I’m ready to push myself to the lengths Young pushed himself — I’m not up for running 544 miles just yet! — I must admit I’m taken with his dedication, to his ability to stick with his purpose and not let anything shake him in his pursuit of his goal.
And the way he did it — just by shuffling along, slowly getting there, putting one foot in front of the other. (In Australia, his running style earned its own nickname: the “Young shuffle.”)
The quotation I’m sharing below, from the famed Olympic runner Michael Johnson, gets at the heart of what I think Young was about — finding just how far you think you can go.
So, I’d love to ask you: how far do you think you can go? I’d love to know, either in the comments or a reply back.
As always, my friends, I hope you got a great run in today — let me know how your running is going, and keep in touch 😀
Words to run by
“It is clearly not the journey for everyone. People succeed in as many ways as there are people. Some can be completely fulfilled with destinations that are much closer to home and more comfortable. But if you long to keep going, then I hope you are able to follow my lead to the places I have gone. To within a whisper of your own personal perfection. To places that are sweeter because you worked so hard to arrive there. To places at the very edge of your dreams.”
— Michael Johnson