Life Lessons From an Unlikely Ultramarathoner

As one who has been a recreational runner for well over two decades and has coached runners a little on the side I resonate with the idea of pace. It is why I love the story of Cliff Young so much. Cliff, an Australian potato farmer, entered the inaugural 544 mile Sydney to Melbourne Ultramarathon in 1983 at the age of 61. Each of the other competitors was a professional runner under the age of 30. No one gave Young a chance; many laughed at him, assuming his presence in the race was a joke. The strategy employed by each of the professionals was proven - run 18 hours a day and sleep six for seven consecutive days. Cliff’s strategy was different - keep running at a slow pace as long as possible. As expected, Cliff was left by the other runners and forgotten as soon as the race began, but while they slept the first night Cliff continued to run and passed them. He continued this strategy until he finally shocked the racing world by winning the race in 5 days, 15 hours and 4 minutes, 10 hours ahead of the second place finisher. What a story!

Here are a few life lessons we can learn from this amazing feat.

  • Steady progress over time beats talent every time. This is true in long distance running and it is true in life. Once you know you are doing the right thing, keep at it; don’t give in; show up again tomorrow; trust in the process. This is the Flywheel Principle that Jim Collins writes about in his bestseller, Good to Great. It will produce results if you keep at it. Life is not a sprint.

  • Don’t assume the strategies everyone else is using are the best ones for you. It is wise to learn from proven patterns of success but it is equally important to be true to who you are. Had Cliff Young followed the run 18 hour, sleep six pattern he would have come in last place. Instead he used his strength of stamina to employ a strategy that would only have worked for him. Lean into your strengths.

  • Trust your background. Cliff Young grew up on a 2,000 acre farm where it was his job to round up the family’s 2,000 sheep. He claims to have run for two or three days straight chasing down sheep. During his famous ultramarathon he imagined himself chasing sheep and outrunning an oncoming storm. What is it in your background that has uniquely positioned you for success?

  • Don’t be swayed by the naysayers. If Young had listened to the crowds he never would have made it to the starting line.

  • You can do more than you think, for a season. Conventional wisdom has taught us to work 40 hours a week, take 2 days off on the weekend, take 3-4 weeks of vacation each year and sleep 8 hours a night. This is a good and sustainable pattern that will give you energy and life balance. I try to follow this pattern pretty closely. But the reality is there are seasons where more will be required of you. And you have the ability to give it, for a season. Had Cliff Young continued much longer he surely would have suffered serious physical consequences. When the time comes to give more, reach down and draw from your reservoir. Work harder and longer. Give your best, then take a rest.

Cliff Young’s story reminds me of a much older story of a teenage boy who showed a lot of promise. Like Young, this teenager was asked by his family to herd sheep. During the long days with the sheep he practiced hour after hour using his slingshot and became a marksman. He often used his weapon to fight off predators to keep the sheep alive. Still a teenager, he volunteered to represent his people in a one on one, winner take all battle against a Philistine giant named Goliath. You know the rest of the story. No one gave young David much of a chance. King Saul gave David his armor but it wasn’t a fit for him, literally or figuratively. Instead, David instinctively knew all the lessons listed above. It took only one stone flung with deadly accuracy from his slingshot to accomplish his mission. That day was a turning point for David and for the nation of Israel as he gained popularity and eventually became the greatest earthly king Israel has ever known.

What in your life requires an unconventional strategy? What from your past uniquely positions you to accomplish something great? What lessons from Cliff Young and the shepherd boy David could serve you during this season?