What You Don’t Know Might Help You
Every year, Australia hosts an extreme marathon extending from Sydney to Melbourne (875 kilometer / 544 miles) and considered by many as the world’s most grueling endurance race. This challenge generally requires a week of effort and typically only world-class athletes who train specifically for the event participate. With major corporate sponsorships supporting them, these runners are young, extremely well-conditioned and among the elite athletes in the world.
What occurred in 1983 baffled all who watched this race as a 61 year-old farmer strode to the entry line in overalls and work boots. Many considered him a spectator at this event and expressed surprise when he stood in for his race number. Cliff Young, a farmer from Melbourne, joined 150 world-class endurance runners in competing for the endurance marathon title.
Many of the onlookers expressed dismay in concern of his welfare, but the Australian press remained curious and, as Cliff moved into the pack of participants, he placed the number 64 upon his overalls. Stunned by the seeming ignorance of this farmer, many warned of the folly of his participation in such a demanding run.
Cliff patiently explained his perspective. He discussed the poverty of his youth when his family, unable to afford horses – asked him to corral sheep, particularly when scattered by a storm. The family owned 2,000 head spread across 2,000 acres of ranchland. He conveyed to those listening that he would frequently run after sheep for two or three days in returning strays to the fold. Ultimately, he felt his chance at winning as good as any other contestant. “I believe I can finish this race; it’s only two more days than I’m used to. I’ve run after sheep for three.”
Following the start of the endurance race, the professional runners pulled rapidly away from Cliff Young. Onlookers smiled queerly or laughed derisively as, instead of running, he appeared to shuffle leisurely. Something unusual occurred though as, across Australia, people watched for status on Cliff’s progress; some praying that someone would intervene to prevent this man from perishing on a fool’s quest.
Slow But Steady Wins This Race
Professional endurance runners in 1983 knew without question that this race required seven days to complete and demanded running 18 hours while resting the other six. Interestingly, Cliff Young was never told of this expectation. The morning following the first day of the race, many Australians gasped in amazement. When the morning news of the race was aired, people were in for another big surprise – Cliff not only still ran in the race, he had shuffled throughout the night without rest.
Although still lagging well behind the world-class athletes, he continued his progress without respite. Cheerful in all weathers, he smiled frequently and waved to onlookers as he passed by. When asked about his strategy to finish the race, he simply replied that he intended to run through to the finish.
Every night, Cliff Young gained on the leaders and, during the final evening, he passed the world-class athletes – each asleep in their bedrolls. During the final day of the race, this aged farmer from Melbourne led all participants and won the race – eclipsing the race record by more than nine hours. This man won the most challenging endurance race in the world at the age of 61. For his exploits, Cliff earned international fame in beating the world’s greatest long distance runners against the longest of odds.
For the record, Cliff Young finished this race in 5 days, 15 hours and 4 minutes. Not understanding that he was expected to sleep, he maintained focus by imagining himself outrunning a storm.
Humility in All Things
Awarded the first prize of $10,000, Cliff insisted that he had not entered the event for personal fame or fortune and gave the final five runners – each still trying to finish the race – $2,000 each. This act of generosity endeared him to a nation. This ordinary man personified humility in accomplishing a feat requiring extraordinary endurance.
The following year, he entered this same race and earned 7th place, still well ahead of many of the professional endurance runners. What you might not expect is that he finished this race despite tremendous adversity. During the race, his hip popped out of its socket, his knee became exceedingly sore and suffered through lower leg pain presenting from shin splints. These obstacles did not dissuade him from his objective. When awarded a car as for completing the race as “most courageous runner” he gave the prize to another runner he felt more deserving.
Cliff Young never kept a single prize earned. Sponsors, supporters and fans frequently gave him gifts, each accepted with a smile, but generally given to first child he saw.
Cliff rose again to prominence in Australia in 1997, age 76, when attempting to become the oldest man to run around the continent in raising money and awareness for homeless children. He completed 6,520 kilometers (4,050 miles) of the 16,000 kilometer (9,942 mile) run before withdrawing after his only permanent crew member fell ill.
Sadly, Cliff Young passed away on November 2, 2003, at the age of 81, two years after completing his last race of 921 miles at the age of 79. His memory lives on as his style of running has been adopted by endurance runners due to its extreme efficiency in stride. Also, during the Sydney to Melbourne race, few racers sleep. To win, you must run as Cliff did – without respite.
Lessons in Leadership
Cliff Young personified a Level 5 Leader – one who builds greatness through a blend of personal humility and iron will. We may glean many lessons from this story, but conviction of beliefs, the strength of humility, a willingness to challenge paradigms and perseverance through adversity rank highest among them.
As you seek to differentiate yourself or your organization from competition, seek to internalize these traits as unconscious knowledge. Innovation, creativity and exceptional leadership come from the well-spring of dedication to a purpose worth pursuing. You may never participate in an endurance marathon, but we each run the length of our lives toward something. Do we race with humility? What is the value of our contributions to something beyond ourselves? We should periodically ask ourselves, What are we running from? What are we running to? and Why?
Give more than you get. Leave behind more than you take. Be cheerful in all weathers. Humility in all things. Lead by example.
Remember that success in our endeavors is measured as much by how we run the race as in where we finish.
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