Cliff Young, The Elderly Ultramarathon Runner From Australia Who Conquered Age


All our lives, we work hard, so that our golden years are expended in peace and comfort. It is the time when we are supposed to rest and relax, and enjoy the house and savings and health benefits. We are conditioned to believe that we are too old and feeble to behave otherwise, and even have age limits for our activities – at 60, we retire from our day jobs, and the retirement strikes even earlier in case of other physically demanding activities, like sports.

But, one old man resolved to break all age-related stereotypes and the restrictions thus imposed. He did something that made him a remarkable name in the world of sports. This man’s name is Albert Ernest Clifford “Cliff” Young, and he was an ultra-marathon runner who got awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia for his extraordinary performance at the Sydney to Melbourne Ultramarathon.

The Sydney to Melbourne Ultramarathon, held between 1983 and 1991, was an endurance race of 875 km, and was considered the toughest in the world. It used to be a five-day race and was hence one of the most demanding ultra-marathons, with only the world-class athletes daring to attempt running in it. They underwent rigorous training to participate in the event. Most athletes who partook in this ultramarathon were under 30 years of age, and were sponsored by big brand names like Nike.

The almost unknown Cliff Young first participated in the Sydney to Melbourne Ultramarathon in its inaugural year, i.e. 1983. Cliff was a potato farmer from Australia. When he partook in the race, he was unlike the other participants, because, he was 61 years old at that time. He had no specialized sportswear. Instead, he wore galoshes overalls and work boots. When he appeared at the venue, the onlookers thought that he was probably there as a spectator. But, to their consternation, Cliff picked up a race number.

Cliff had come to the race, having been trained by his mother who was 81 then, and his informal training regime once comprised chasing sheep as a child. Having grown up on a farm, he had to go out to round up the sheep every time there was a storm churning up, mainly because his family could not afford horses or tractors. Two thousand sheep scattered across two thousand acres of land – it took him as long as three days of chasing the animals, but he always succeeded in completing the ordeal.

Since only well-trained professional athletes were expected to run in such races, Cliff’s decision made everyone fear that he might collapse midway during the race due to fatigue and heat. But, since he could run after sheep for several days at a stretch, Cliff was veritably confident that he could also compete with humans. His only previous brush with a professional race was in 1982 when he had trained around the Otway Ranges to break Siegfried Bauer’s record for 1600 km in 11 days and 23 hours, but he had to opt out of the race after 805 km, because they were inexperienced and under-prepared.


The race began, and the stout and young pro racers started leaving Cliff behind. The live audience, as well as the television viewers, was amused by his performance, as he appeared to be shuffling strangely. The racers had a strategy. They would be running hours each for the five days of the race, and sleep for the remaining 6 hours. Nonetheless,, Cliff’s strategy was different – he had no such strategy! Being an untrained, amateur athlete, he was not familiar with any such game plan. So, he just ran on and on, and the next morning, when the other athletes woke up, they were astounded as they found that just like the slow and steady tortoise, the old man had caught up with the others, by jogging all night, while the ‘hares’ had slept.

When Cliff was asked about his tactics for the rest of the race, he shocked everyone when he said that he would run through the entire distance straight to the end, with no plan to sleep. He did continue running, non-stop. And, by the final night of the race, he had surpassed the other competitors, even though they were half his age, and were equipped with twice his training and ability. He was the first competitor to cross the finishing line. He had completed the race in a surprising time of 5 days, 15 hours and four minutes. This was a new record for any other race between Sydney and Melbourne.

Cliff was pleasantly taken aback when he was awarded a whopping $10,000 as the winning prize. He was unaware that there was such a substantial prize waiting for him, and had not entered the race for money. Finally, he did something that was absolutely unexpected – he gave the entire sum of money to several of his competitors. Thus, once again, Cliff Young surprised everyone, and won several hearts.


The following hear, Cliff entered the race again, but this time, he was only able to secure the seventh place. This was quite a few places behind the successful previous run’s result, but he still did a commendable job, because this time, he ran with a displaced hip. Just like he had ignored his age and lack of formal training, the first time around, it was his physical condition that he beat. He entered the Sydney to Melbourne Ultramarathon numerous times after that, but he never managed to repeat his glorious performance.

The next time Cliff caught attention again was several years later. It was 1997, and he was a man of 76. But he still had his indomitable spirit alive inside him. He took up the challenge of running along Australia’s border, across a distance of 16,000 km. And there was an amazing reason for him to take up this herculean task – he wanted to raise money for homeless children. Unfortunately, his crew member fell ill, and Cliff had to pull out of the race, after running for 6520 km. Later, Cliff achieved a world age record in a six-day race in Victoria in 2000.

After the 1983 race, Cliff, who had remained single all his life, got married to 23 year old Mary Howell, with Westfield, the race sponsor, organizing the wedding to entertain the shoppers. The two got separated five years later. In 2003, at the age of 81, Cliff passed away, after suffering from illness for a prolonged period of 5 years. Posthumously, he was honoured with the construction of a gumboot-shaped memorial in Beech Forest. Later, in 2013, a telefilm named Cliffy was made by ABC1, about his fabled 1983 ultramarathon.


Cliff had run 20,000 km in his short racing career. His unique style of racing came to be referred as the Young Shuffle, which was adopted by ultramarathon racers in the later years, since it was considered as an energy-efficient style. At least three Sydney-Melbourne champions have been noted to shuffle. Besides, they also made it a strategy to not sleep at night during the long race, to follow Cliff’s footsteps.

Cliff Young, a simple farmer, created a one-of-a-kind history. He set records that athletes look up to even today. He left a legacy, and created new standards in the field of endurance race. And, he did it all at the age of 61. Instead of withering away, he started his life anew, and showed the world that it’s never too late to start following the heart and pursuing dreams. His story is that of will and courage, and a man’s positive attitude that led him to embrace all that came his way, in pursuit of his desires.

In life, we often hesitate to take a step forward, because we ourselves impose certain limits on ourselves, and condition ourselves that we are not cut out to cross such hurdles. We hold back, in fear of starting anew, too nervous to give life another shot due to a lack of a proper plan and formal training. Nevertheless, there is never a bad time to take a leap of faith. Cliff Young never let his dotage become an excuse to stop him from becoming the elderly ultramarathon runner from Australia who clinched the gold medal. He competed against time, and that is where he emerged as the ultimate winner.


Source: Wikipedia, Self Growth, Elite Feet

Images: Change Minds, Herald Sun, AntonK, Sporteology,Brains and Careers