61 year-old potato farmer who won the world's most grueling endurance race.
Let me start with this: I hate running. Like, I really fucking hate it. I know some people out there can't get enough of that shit, and they dream of nothing more than chugging organic free-range veggie smoothies and talking about their ultra-rigid interval-training regimens while stair-stepping their way up around the outside of Sauron's Tower in Mordor, but as far as I'm concerned intense cardiovascular exercise is a torturous labor on par with the cruelest deviltries this side of some sadistic Spanish Inquisition asshole burning your eyes out with red-hot pokers and then spitting lemonade into the sockets to disinfect the wound. I mean, seriously, unless I'm stretching out a double in beer league softball or fleeing the crushtastic knobby tires of that self-propelled Mack Truck from Maximum Overdrive I'd just as soon strangle myself unconscious with a jump rope than put in the obligatory hour a day on the treadmill I need to ensure that I don't lose the ongoing World War I'm waging with my burgeoning love handles.
Despite my own aversion to the whole "one foot in front the other as rapidly as possible until your lungs shrivel into raisins which then subsequently catch on fire, your legs feel like they're made out of cheap post-consumer recycled rubber, and you wish nothing more than the sweet release of a swift death" thing, I have nothing but respect for those psychotic lunatics who pursue the sport (is that the right word for it? Runners seem to think so…) of Ultramarathoning. Ultramarathoning, for those of you who lack the ability to process compound words, are like regular marathons, only FUCKING ULTRA. In its purest form, Ultramarathoning is basically just a bunch of human-looking robots running as fast as they can forever. Races don’t go around a track, they span ZIP codes, and they aren't measured in meters, they're measured in how many DAYS it takes you to finish the course.
Arguably the toughest ultramarathon ever conceived in the black recesses of some running-obsessed sadist's disturbed mind is the Westfield Sydney to Melbourne Ultra Marathon – a 566-mile foot race that started in a mall parking lot in Sydney, Australia, and ended in another mall parking lot in Melbourne, a good 875 kilometers away.
Here's a map of the course, or, as it was most likely captioned in the pamphlets handed out before the race, WELCOME TO HELL:
Google seems to believe that, barring any sort of sleep or exhaustion or Australian wildlife-related horrible death along the way, your average jackass should be able to walk this brain-crushingly obscene 566-mile course in 185 hours – about 8 days. Now, around the time of the 1983 edition of this yearly race, your average world-class uber-android athlete could complete this course by running the equivalent 21.6 marathons back-to-back-to-back over the course of 7 days, with a daily regimen of sprinting for 17 hours straight, sleeping for 7, then getting back up and doing it again the next morning. It's a race so fucking excruciating that you couldn't have it as an Olympic sport because if you were going to host the Games in London you'd have to start at the base of Big Ben, run all the way to the Eiffel Tower by way of the Chunnel, turn around, come all the way back, touch the base of Big Ben again, then make a left and sprint to the finish line at Stonehenge before both Bob Costas and Dan Patrick completely lose their shit from lack of sleep and start devouring each others' brains on national television. It's the Boston Marathon if the Boston Marathon ended in Richmond, Virginia. It's a foot race so goddamned intense that the purple line representing the course is still clearly visible when you zoom all the way out on Google Maps. Fuck, I get tired after playing NHL hockey on the Xbox for five or six hours in a row, and that rarely involves any physical activity more strenuous than repeatedly moving one or both of my thumbs a fraction of an inch.
As you can probably imagine, the grand prize drew elite athletes from across the world, each seeking not only the cash, but the pride associated with winning the most intense physical test of physical endurance human civilization has ever offered. Tough, dedicated guys in their 20s and early-30s, in the prime of their lives, hardened by years of training into perfect physical specimens, most of them decked out in top-of-the-line aerodynamic racing gear and $400 running shoes provided by wealthy global corporate sponsors like Nike, Reebok, Adidas, and New Balance (just kidding, nobody wears New Balance haha).
And there, standing amid the greatest runners the world had to offer in 1983, was this guy:
Cliff Young was a toothless 61 year-old potato farmer from Beech Forest, Victoria, who'd lived in a one-room bark hut with six brothers and sisters during the Great Depression and showed up to the starting line of the race in overalls and rain boots. The assembled media took one look at him, shoved a microphone in his face, and asked him what it was going to be like when he keeled over and died of a massive heart attack a hundred and fifty meters in to the 875-kilometer race.
He told them, "I grew up on a farm where we couldn’t afford horses or four wheel drives… 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."
Ok, whatever, old man, good luck with that.
It also didn't help his case when the starter's pistol went off and this guy started running like this:
The field blew him off the line like an '87 Camaro drag racing against the Amish. The pack traveled dozens of miles in the first day alone, pounding their pavement with the ergonomic soles of their cross-trainers while this old geezer shuffled along like a dumbass in his Wellington gumboots, his pace nowhere near that of the elite ultramarathoners who by this point were tens of miles down the road away from him.
Then night came. Exhausted from 17 hours of pushing their bodies to the limit, the racers all made camp by the side of the road and went to sleep.
All of them, that is, except Cliff Young.
You see, it turned out that when Cliff Young said he chased sheeps around his farm for three days, he meant he'd single-handedly manually herded a flock of frightened ruminants across 2,000 acres of farmland for three days straight without stopping or sleeping.
When the rest of the field woke up the one morning and saw the tiny shadow of a 61 year-old man shuffling along a few dozen miles down the road ahead of them, they realized they were in trouble. Cliff Young, an overalls-clad sexagenarian potato farmer who had previously been diagnosed with arthritis in most of his leg joints (he claimed he'd "ran it out… like running the rust off an old car") was beating the best athletes in the world – men more than half his age – in a sport that was exclusively dependent upon pushing the human body to the limits of its physical ability.
Surviving in hot chocolate and cups of water, Cliff Young shuffled down the highway for five days, fifteen hours, and four minutes straight. The media hype surrounding his ridiculous tortoise-and-the-hare bullshit was so intense that when Young jogged to the finish line in Melbourne he was greeted by TV cameras and a screaming horde of cheering fans.
He'd broken the all-time record for the Westfield Sydney to Melbourne Ultra Marathon. By two days. When he got the check for ten thousand dollars, he told the organizers he wasn't actually aware there was a prize for winning. Then he said he felt bad that he should get the prize money when everyone else worked just as hard as him, so he divided the ten grand equally among all the participants in the race.
Cliff Young became a celebrity in Australia overnight. Six-Day races were named after him. He married a 23 year-old Aussie babe with daddy issues (they divorced five years later… shocking, I know). Athletic trainers started studying his running style, eventually deciding that while it looked ridiculous, the "Young Shuffle" was actually one of the most efficient ways to travel while conserving the most energy – three other athletes used the technique to win the race in subsequent years.
Young continued running, setting six outdoor world endurance records despite the notable handicap of being basically old as hell. At the age of 63 he ran 150 miles in a 24 hour period. In 1997 he tried to circumnavigate Australia to raise money for disadvantaged homeless orphans, but the 76 year-old had to drop out after just 6250 kilometers (3,800 miles, or roughly the distance from Key West, FL to Whistler, BC) when his only crew member (a trainer who, by the way, was making this trip in a car) passed out from illness. In 2000, at age 79, he became the oldest man to finish a six-day Ultramarathon, and he did it while he was dying of cancer. He passed away in November 2003, at the age of 81, still running his family farm. He had run over 20,000 kilometers during his racing career. It is said that never kept any of his prize money, instead donating it to charities or giving it to friends as gifts.
"He was an ordinary guy who achieved extraordinary things."