Sometimes You Win, Sometimes You Learn

EXACTLY 543.7 MILES. The distance from Sydney, Australia, to Melbourne is dread-inducing enough even to the heartiest of ultra-marathoners— and that’s before you throw in the fact that challenging hills populate the expanse. Hailed by many as “The World’s Most Grueling Athletic Competition,” the Westfield Run is not for the faint of heart, to say the least. On a scale of 1 to 10 for difficulty, this challenge measures “sadist.” One can only imagine the level of athletic prowess and preparation required to compete in such a horrifically grueling event.

So on race day, April 27, 1983, it wasn’t surprising to see a supremely fit-looking group of entrants at the registration table, all decked out in the latest running shoe technology and garb emblazoned with corporate sponsorship from the likes of Nike and Adidas. Each runner was a world-class athlete who had been specifically training for this event; the best of the best ultra-marathoners, twenty-somethings with something to prove to the world, and themselves.

Not surprisingly, no one paid attention to Cliff Young when he nudged his way up to the tent to get his race number, dressed in holey overalls and rubber rain boots. In fact, he passed as a spectator, until he joined the other runners as they congregated at the race’s start point. Suddenly, many did take notice. Surely, this toothless, bedraggled man wasn’t actually going to run? The media approached him, thinking it was a publicity stunt of some sort. Turns out it wasn’t. The scrawny potato and sheep farmer fully intended to race. He told the press he’d finish the race (which very few did) because he was used to corralling, by foot, over 2,000 sheep on a 2,000-acre farm when storms rolled in—a duty necessitated by the fact that his family was too poor to afford a horse or tractor.

As he told the press that day:

“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.”

What a bold statement. Befuddled, the press and onlookers watched with amusement as the race began. It appeared everyone’s skepticism was correct; during the opening day of the race the farmer soon fell dramatically and hopelessly behind the pack, he and his rain boots quickly tens of miles behind the other runners. He drew further cackles with his gait, which was much more of an awkward foot beside-foot shuffle. Think “Forest Gump.”

Five days, fifteen hours, and four minutes later, however, no one was laughing. By then, Cliff Young had won the Westfield Run, finishing more than ten hours ahead of the other runners and obliterating the previous record by more than two days.

Oh, and one other thing—he was 61 years old.

You see, no one told Cliff that ultra-marathoners ran for eighteen hours, then slept for six. What did he know? That first night, after a brief nap of about an hour he simply got up and kept going. No preconceived notions of how it was supposed to be done or what’s been proven to work—just keep running while the others slept. The other runners woke up to find out Cliff Young was now miles and miles ahead of them, shuffling slowly along. And so it went for over five and a half days, with the other runners never so much as catching a whiff of Cliff after that first night.

Cliff Young was deeply inspired to run such a ludicrous distance because, in his own words:

“I like to finish what I start doing. I like to see it through to the end, to the best of my ability.”

And what better challenge than to try to finish something that so few others ever could or have.

The secret to Cliff’s success, you ask? Young’s inspiration to start and finish such a feat was never, dampened by fear—although it had every opportunity to be. He just ran. He didn’t have preexisting norms and self-doubt born from comparing himself to others crippling him from the get-go. In fact, when all was said and done, he pushed the five other finishers of the race to their own individual successes, with each one breaking the previous Westfield record in their attempt to catch Cliff.

To honor their success, Cliff actually gave away much of the $10,000 winner’s pot to the other five finishers, citing that they were tougher then he was. He didn’t even know there was a prize for winning—stating again as he gave away the money. He just wanted to finish what he started, He certainly could have succumbed to the fear of criticism— he wasn’t ignorant of the laughs and looks he got as he started the race.

On that first day, the press and a nation of onlookers now joining in and compelled by his story, feared for Cliff’s life, certain that the old man would collapse and die at the end of the first day of such exertion. Calls came in from around the continent of Australia as the race wore on, begging race officials to make Cliff stop. But still Cliff ran, ignoring the critics, the doubters, and the fears of everyone.

After Cliff’s win, life changed at a blurring and uncomfortable pace for the simple farmer. But he did not bend to the fear of change. He answered the call to serve as a national hero, the furthest thing possible from being a potato and sheep farmer and the last thing on his mind. And so, still, he ran. All the way up to eighteen years after his Westfield win, at the age of 79, he ran—this time deeply inspired by his desire to raise money to help homeless children.

Today, the odd style of running Cliff made famous is called the “Young Shuffle” and has been adopted by ultra-marathoners around the world and hailed as a more energy-efficient means of running great lengths. Three winners of the Westfield since Cliff Young have employed the method. And taking in the absolute bare minimum amount of sleep during the race has become standard practice (among ultra-marathoners and new parents). More important, Cliff Young inspired an entire country along the way and to this day is hailed as a true Australian legend because a country bumpkin refused to let adversity, in any form, dampen his inspiration for doing something that mattered to him.

We all have some of the Cliff Young spirit in us.

One lesson that Cliff teaches us about overcoming adversity is that there are only three ways to fail: when you quit, don’t improve, or never try at all. The solutions to those are simple:

  1. Try –
  2. Once you do try, don’t quit
  3. At a minimum, learn from your mistakes

If those are the only ways to fail, then you never have to fear failure, because those three things are always within your control… that makes failure an event, not a person.

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