The Incredible Story Of Cliff Young, The Potato Farmer Who Miraculously Won A 544-Mile Marathon At Age 61

Published July 2, 2023
Updated February 23, 2024

At the start of the 1983 Sydney to Melbourne Ultramarathon, Cliff Young quickly fell behind and seemed on track to finish last. But while the others stopped to sleep, Young kept running at his tortoise pace for five days straight — and won.

Cliff Young

The Age ArchivesCliff Young waving at the crowds during his ultramarathon.

In 1983, a 61-year-old Australian potato farmer entered the first ultramarathon between Sydney and Melbourne. Few bet on the farmer winning the race.

Not only did Cliff Young have a strange, slow running stride resembling a shuffle, but he’s said to have shown up to the race wearing work boots and overalls. During the event itself, rather than wearing sleek running clothes like the other competitors, Young donned a cotton t-shirt and long trousers, explaining that it was important to reduce his risks of skin cancer.

But Young had a secret weapon.

“I grew up on a farm where we couldn’t afford horses or tractors,” Young said in an interview, according to Adventure Journal. “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.”

Rounding up sheep gave Young a taste for long-distance running.

“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.”

In less than six days, Cliff Young ran 544 miles and won the ultramarathon — and broke the previous record by two whole days. His unorthodox style and surprising victory shocked the world. How did a 61-year-old farmer win one of the most challenging races in history?

Cliff Young’s Real-Life Tortoise And The Hare Story

From the starting gun, it looked like Cliff Young would be at the back of the pack.

When the ultramarathoners left Sydney, Young quickly fell behind. With his slow signature shuffle, Young could barely match the pace of the other racers. But everything changed the first night of the race.

Although he’d fallen far behind the other runners at the end of the first day, by dawn on the second day Young had a massive lead. The Sydney Morning Herald reports that that was thanks to Young’s trainer, Wally Zeuschner. Known for his tough tactics, Zeuschner reportedly told one athlete that he could take a break when his eyes started bleeding.

In fact, Zeuschner’s eyes helped Cliff Young win the ultramarathon. Young turned in to sleep the first night and Zeuschner set the alarm. But because of his poor eyesight, Young’s trainer set the alarm for 2 a.m., several hours earlier than the planned wakeup call.

When the alarm rang, Young leaped up and began running. It took the groggy racer some time to realize that it was still dark.

Cliff Young Running

The Age ArchivesOn the final day of the ultramarathon, Cliff Young maintained a healthy lead over the competition.

Those hours of early morning running put Cliff Young at the head of the pack. And Young turned that accidental advantage into a strategy. Instead of stopping to sleep at night, he kept running.

“I’m just an old tortoise,” Young told reporters during the race, according to The Age. “I have to keep going to stay in front.”

How Cliff Young’s Shuffle Helped Him Win The Race

Cliff Young also had an unusual running style. The press dubbed it the “Young-Shuffle,” because Young seemed to shuffle rather than run.

But the shuffle-step gave Young a significant advantage during an ultramarathon. By conserving his energy, Young was able to run longer without rest. His shuffle was also more aerodynamic than other running styles, according to the Sydney Morning Herald.

Not long after the ultramarathon, other runners adopted Young’s signature style. In fact, three subsequent winners of the Sydney to Melbourne ultramarathon took first place using the Young-Shuffle, according to Elite Feet.

Running On The Road

The Age ArchivesAs Cliff Young explained to curious reporters, he wore long pants to prevent skin cancer.

Fans and reporters tracked Cliff Young as he inched closer and closer to Melbourne. During days and nights of running, someone asked Young what he planned to do first when he reached the finish line.

“I’m going to the toilet first,” Young declared.

As the days passed, Young remained at the head of the pack. At dawn on the sixth day, Melbourne was in sight. But it would take Young several more hours of running to officially win the race.

When he reached Melbourne, Young barely stopped for the cameras — they had to wait outside while he went to the toilet.

Sharing The Prize Money

In the final leg of the ultramarathon, runner Joe Record thought he might catch Young. As reported by The Age, Record, 41 years old, boasted, “I think I can catch old Cliff. He says he’s a tortoise but I think the old bastard is a hare in disguise.”

Cliff Young After The Race

The Age ArchivesAfter the race, Cliff Young walked away with only a fraction of the prize money. Still, Young said, “that’s a helluva lot of potatoes.”

But Cliff Young carried the day, reaching Melbourne in the record time of 5 days, 15 hours.

At the end of the race, Cliff Young walked away with $10,000 in prize money. Instead of keeping it for himself, he gave away most of the money to his competitors.

“Joe Record and I had a pact before we ran that if either of us won we would split the prize money between us,” Young told the New Vegetarian and Natural Health magazine in a 1997 interview. “I forgot about Joe and started giving it away left, right and center. I gave $4,000 away to the other runners.”

Luckily, Record didn’t mind when Young handed him $3,000.

Later, when asked about the highlight of the ultramarathon, Young said, “The prize money of ten thousand dollars! Now that’s a helluva lot of potatoes.”

The Legacy Of Cliff Young

When he won the first Sydney to Melbourne ultramarathon, Cliff Young became a hero in Australia. Suddenly, everyone wanted to know about the potato farmer who ran 544 miles.

Reporters pestered Young to learn more about his diet. An avid vegetarian, Young explained how eating grains and fruit powered his runs. “The secret to a long life is preserved pears and jogging,” Young told the Sydney Morning Herald. “It sure beats having a drink in the pub.”

Young also had advice for fellow older runners.

“Get out of your wheelchairs and start doing a few laps, if you can,” he told the New Vegetarian and Natural Health magazine. “If you don’t get any exercise your joints start seizing up like a rusty engine.”

Cliff Young Memorial Plaque

Wikimedia CommonsA plaque in Australia remembers Cliff Young and his contributions to distance running.

Young never retired from running. He returned to the Sydney to Melbourne ultramarathon the next year, 1984, and came in 7th. In his 70s, Young attempted to run around all of Australia. He only stopped when his support crew member fell ill. In 2003, Cliff Young died at the age of 81.

Cliff Young inspired generations of runners. So did Kathrine Switzer, the first woman to run the Boston Marathon. And don’t forget to check out more uplifting stories from history.

Genevieve Carlton
Genevieve Carlton earned a Ph.D in history from Northwestern University with a focus on early modern Europe and the history of science and medicine before becoming a history professor at the University of Louisville. In addition to scholarly publications with top presses, she has written for Atlas Obscura and Ranker.
Maggie Donahue
Maggie Donahue is an assistant editor at All That's Interesting. She has a Master's degree in journalism from Columbia University and a Bachelor's degree in creative writing and film studies from Johns Hopkins University. Before landing at ATI, she covered arts and culture at The A.V. Club and Colorado Public Radio and also wrote for Longreads. She is interested in stories about scientific discoveries, pop culture, the weird corners of history, unexplained phenomena, nature, and the outdoors.
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Carlton, Genevieve. "The Incredible Story Of Cliff Young, The Potato Farmer Who Miraculously Won A 544-Mile Marathon At Age 61.", July 2, 2023, Accessed June 16, 2024.