The Secret that Helped an Untrained Runner Win an Ultramarathon

ben kirchner
ben kirchner / ben kirchner

This story originally appeared in print in the August 2014 issue of mental_floss magazine. Subscribe to our print edition here, and our iPad edition here.

Cliff Young was not your typical marathon runner. A scrawny, 61-year-old Australian potato farmer who still lived with his mom, Young didn’t even own a pair of running shoes. So in 1983, when he signed up to compete in one of the world’s most grueling ultramarathons—a weeklong 544-mile footrace from Sydney to Melbourne—people just laughed. Young, after all, was a running punchline. He trained by chasing cows around his farm. He jogged in rubber boots and went without teeth because his dentures rattled too much. When race day came, he lined up with 10 young, world-class marathoners—many of whom had corporate sponsors emblazoned across their chest. Sponsorless, Young wore a cheap pair of sneakers—his first—and ratty wind pants with holes cut in them for ventilation.

When the starting gun fired, the pack left the old man in the dust. He shuffled at a turtle’s pace and his hands drooped awkwardly by his hips. Onlookers were afraid he would collapse. But Young had a secret—he didn’t need to sleep. Decades of herding sheep by foot had not only given him insane running endurance, but it had also conditioned him to stay awake for nights on end. When Young’s competitors caught a few winks that night, the slow and steady farmer napped for a measly two hours before quietly shuffling to the top of the leaderboard—and he never looked back.

In two days, Young slept just three hours and ran 200 miles. When he crossed the finish line, he had beaten the course record by about two days. The closest runner lagged 10 hours behind him. The sexagenarian was awarded a $10,000 cash prize, but he was never in it for the money. Instead, he gave every penny to the next five competitors to cross the line.