Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

To call 'Cliffy' a character doesn't do him justice

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BRISBANE -- In 1983, a 61-year-old Australian farmer won the Sydney to Melbourne ultra-marathon and the nation fell in love with its own Forrest Gump.

Long before baby boomers began warbling about re-defining the aging process, Cliff Young, who spent much of his working life as a sheep dog, demonstrated age can be nothing more than a state of a gloriously unsound mind.

This Sunday, national broadcaster ABC will screen Cliffy, a long-awaited TV movie reminding Australians that heroism is not easily defined, and it's the most ordinary who often do the most extraordinary.

Whether Canada has a version of Cliffy is difficult to determine from this distance, but to describe him (as we often do when trying to capture the essence of an original personality) as a "character" doesn't do him justice.

Even a comparison with the relatively worldly Gump falls short of capturing the essence of the rustic and wonderfully eccentric Cliffy.

He grew up on his dad's sheep farm outside the small town of Colac in Victoria, 150 kilometres from the capital, Melbourne, and decided to sack the sheep dogs early in his farming career.

Instead, he bounded around the farm in long pants rounding up the startled sheep with all the skill and enthusiasm of a collie.

A vegetarian and non-drinker who lived with his mum, he turned up at the first Westfield Sydney to Melbourne ultra-marathon with a few holes ripped in his pants for ventilation, and minus his teeth. (He explained to organizers that his false teeth rattled when he ran.)

Cliffy innocently lined up with the under 30s with their electrolyte-replacing sports drinks and designer running shoes and quickly became a figure of fun.

It took Susan Boyle's appearance in front of a smug judging panel at Britain's Got Talent two decades later to match the condescension Cliffy received at the hands of a mean-spirited public.

But not since Boyle gave us her version of I Dreamed a Dream, and not since the tortoise beat the hare, have the cocky been put so firmly put back in their place.

As the starting gun fired, Cliff loped off in his trademark shuffle while half the nation giggled and the other half expressed genuine concern for this elderly and clearly eccentric man's health.

But at night when the professional runners took four- to six-hour naps Cliffy, just like Forrest, kept on running.

He didn't just win the 875-kilometre race. His five days, 15 hours and four minutes time sliced many hours off the record for any previous run between Sydney and Melbourne.

Quizzed by reporters on the secret of his success, Cliffy willingly revealed his psychological game plan. While running he visualized himself rounding up sheep while simultaneously trying to outrun an approaching storm.

When he was a boy, it was not uncommon for him to round up sheep over 2,000 acres. Sometimes it would take him three days. He figured the race was five days, so what was two more days of running?

"Specialized training regime?" they asked. Certainly, he replied. For two weeks before the race, he wore galoshes while running at high speed after sheep.

National acclaim followed his victory along with romance and marriage to a female admirer one-third his age and thousands of aging followers inspired by his bravery took to the road with their own version of the Cliffy shuffle.

Now Colac audiences will have the first glimpse of ABC TV's movie two days before the rest of the country gets its screening on Sunday.

Cliffy's brother Sid said he looks forward to the premiere and how the movie portrayed him and "a great brother."

"I'm hoping that it'll have good parts in it," Young said with an echo of his brother's enviable capacity for plain-speaking.

Cliff died at his home in Queensland in 2003 aged 81 after a long illness.

Colac Otway Shire Council Mayor Jim Ryan gave him the finest of eulogies:

"He will be remembered very fondly because he was friendly towards everyone and everyone admired him."

 

Michael Madigan is the Winnipeg Free Press correspondent in Australia. He writes mostly about politics for the Brisbane-based Courier Mail.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 24, 2013 A13

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