The Legend of the ‘Young-Shuffle’

When my partner introduced me to running he gave me a piece of advice: ‘when you get tired don’t stop, just shuffle’. Little did I know that this technique had an epic backstory and originated on the other side of the world back in the early 1980s.

Cliff young, one of the most unknown yet influential ultramarathon runners coined this technique and it has since been named, rather appropriately, the ‘Young Shuffle’. It is essentially what it says on the tin – a shuffle. By shuffling your feet you can reduce energy expenditure on a longer run and is a technique that’s been adopted by a multitude of ultra runners over the years.

Back in 1983 Aussie potato farmer, Cliff Young, won everyone’s heart when he came out of nowhere and miraculously broke the record for the Australian Westfield ultramarathon. This grueling 544 mile (875km) endurance race is, to this day, considered one of the hardest long-distance runs which begins in Sydney and ends in Melbourne.

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Cliff appeared on the ultramarathon scene at the ripe old age of 61 having never competed before after spending his life working on isolated farm in the outback of Australia. After being challenged by a lot of journalists on his capability to run the Westfield route alongside some of the world renowned ultra runners he simply shrugged it off and joined the other athletes at the starting line. Quite a character, Cliff ran in overalls and wellies, he ran without his false teeth as they rattled and he cut holes in his trousers for ventilation.

As everyone leaped off the starting line Cliff was quickly left behind. He slowly shuffled along behind the others and people were sure he’d drop out of the race in no time. As the days went on, Cliff got closer and closer to the winning pack but nobody was quite sure how. The other runners, all of whom were professional athletes, planned a schedule of 18 hours running and 6 hours sleeping. Cliff had a slightly different tactic and decided he didn’t need any sleep! When asked why, he said:

“See, I grew up on a farm where we couldn’t afford horses or four wheel drives, and the whole time I was growing up– until about four years ago when we finally made some money and got a four wheeler– 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.”

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By the fourth day Cliff had overtaken all the other runners and amazingly not only did he win but he set a new course record of 5 days, 15 hours and 4 minutes – breaking the record by over 2 days! At the finish line a sleep deprived Cliff waited for all the other runners to come through, determined to congratulate each one that did and he really meant it. Once everyone had finished they asked Cliff to take the podium to collect his medal and present him with his prize money ($10,000). Cliff refused to take the prize money for himself and insisted he didn’t know about it when he entered the race. He told the race organisers that everyone should get a share of the $10,000 and so they divided the ten grand equally among all the athletes.

Cliff Young shall always be remembered fondly in the running community. His kind heart, determination and of course his shuffle. I find great comfort in Cliff’s story, especially when I’m struggling on a run. His success wasn’t down to skill – and I mean no offense by that – but it was down to mental agility and determination. His story demonstrates the importance and power of mental agility, of pushing yourself and not giving up in the face of physical pain.

While you might not be planning to run 544 miles in the outback any time soon, Cliff is a great role model and I invite you to use him as a source for your inspiration to draw on for any distance.

I’d love to know who you draw on for inspiration during your runs. Let me know in the comment section below!

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