Men of steelThey are the Andy McNabs of running, the Mike Tysons of endurance events. They have looked the impossible in the face and poked it in the eye, from the veteran shepherd to the one-armed, one-legged former hostage and the runner who skipped scorpions and scared off a bear
Running used to be straightforward. All you had to do was put on a pair of running shoes, tie up your shorts, and you were good to go and pound the pavement for a couple of miles. If that felt OK, the next step was competing in a fun run, then maybe a 10K race, perhaps progress to a half marathon and, finally, if you were any good and your body allowed you to, completing a marathon was a runner’s ultimate goal. But that isn’t enough for some men. While marathon running has become one of the world’s most popular and fastest-growing sports, for a select band of runners a simple 26-mile 285-yard race isn’t nearly enough. These hard-core masochists demand something more stimulating and challenging. They go in search of races that will push their bodies and minds to inconceivable limits – across deserts, polar ice caps, over mountains and some of the planet’s most gruelling and inhospitable terrain.Welcome to the world of ultra-distance running, where athletes will run races exceeding 100 miles for days on end. To become a champion ultra-distance runner, an athlete must push himself to breaking point and beyond, both mentally and physically. He must overcome many trials and hardships and endure unbearable pain. And in every case, it is never about the glory, financial gain or trophies. It’s about the pursuit of self-achievement, of continually pushing back the boundaries of human sporting endeavour. Single-minded? Undoubtedly. Crazy? Maybe. But one fact is undeniable. These are running’s hardest men.
Take the incredible story of Cliff Young, an Australian runner who, in 1983, ensured his place in running folklore and won the hearts of a nation with an astonishing display of endurance and bravery. Young embodied the never-say-die attitude and sheer force of will that many aspire to but few achieve.‘Cliffy’ was an unknown 61-year-old farmer who turned up to compete in the inaugural Westfield Sydney to Melbourne Ultramarathon. The race was to be run between what were then Australia’s two largest shopping centres – Westfield Paramatta in Sydney and Westfield Doncaster in Melbourne, 543 miles (875K) away. The distance had previously taken almost seven days to complete and was only attempted by world-class athletes who had spent time training specially for the event. When Young turned up in work overalls and galoshes over his gum boots, it was understandable that the other athletes and the crowd took no notice of him, since everybody thought he was there to watch the event. It was only when he walked up to the table to take his number, 64, and joined the other athletes at the starting line that it became apparent he was going to run. Many thought it was a crazy publicity stunt and as the cameras focused on him, the press questioned him about the wisdom of running the race. Young informed them that for decades he had been running more than 20 miles a day every day in his trademark gum boots, sploshing through the puddles across the undulating paddocks of his 2,000-acre family farm whenever the storms rolled in, rounding up 2,000 sheep and cattle. “Sometimes I would have to run those sheep for two or sometimes three days,” explained Young. “It took a long time, but I’d always catch them. I believe I can run this race. It’s only two more days. I’ve run sheep for three.”When the race started, people watching all over Australia on the live broadcast feared for the safety of this crazy old man, who ran without his false teeth because he didn’t like the way they rattled. He didn’t even seem to run properly, instead relying on a strange, slow, shuffling style which saw him immediately left behind by the other runners. What unfolded was the classic story of the tortoise and the hare. Every professional runner on the course knew that it took roughly seven days to finish the race and in order to achieve that, they would need to run for 18 hours and sleep for six. It was on the first night that Young and his support crew accidentally made one of the greatest decisions in the history of the sport and, in doing so, rewrote the rule book of multi-day, ultra-distance running. Young’s team put him to sleep in his van and set the alarm for 5am, some six hours later. When they woke him and he shuffled off down the Hume Highway, the farmer commented on the darkness, and the crew quickly realised they had made a mistake and woken him early. It was only 2am. By the time the other runners set out at first light, Young was already four hours down the road and flying. The tortoise was so far ahead of the hare, they were never in the hunt.By late morning, Young was the lead story on the national news. Radio stations were broadcasting regular bulletins about him, motorists honked their horns at the old man and schoolchildren lined roads as he passed through towns. To everyone’s disbelief, when he was interviewed on the side of the road, he announced he would run straight through to the finish without sleeping. And incredibly, he was true to his word. He simply kept on running. And running. By the time he shuffled through the Melbourne streets in front of crowds in their thousands on the sixth day, on his way to the finish at 1.36am on May 3, the eccentric country bumpkin from Beech Forest was a national treasure. Young won the race in five days, 15 hours and four minutes, breaking the previous record for the course by nine hours.His indifference to money – he gave away the $10,000 prize money to fellow runners – his devotion to his mum, his simple vegetarian diet and his homespun philosophies made him a national hero. It is hard to comprehend the magnitude of Young’s achievement and the impact it made in Australia. He described his feat afterwards as the greatest moment of his life. “A telegram arrived from Prime Minister Bob Hawke, and as I read it, I realised I had really won,” said Cliffy. “I knew at that moment, life would never be the same again.” It wasn’t. Young seemed to be featured on the cover of every magazine and on every programme in Australia. But he continued with his lifelong obsession of running and continued to do things his way. The following year, he finished seventh in the same race, despite suffering a displaced hip along the course. He sprang to prominence again in 1997, aged 76, when he attempted to raise money for homeless children by running around Australia’s border. He completed 6,520 of the 16,000 kilometre run before having to pull out, but only because his sole crew member became ill.Young passed away in November 2003 at the age of 81, but his running legacy lives on. Today the ‘Young Shuffle’ has been adopted by several ultra-marathon runners because it expends less energy. Furthermore, during many multi-day ultra races, modern competitors don’t sleep. You keep on running. Just like Cliff Young. Young blazed a trail for a generation of men who have subjected themselves to running distances most of us would book a plane ticket to cover.
When it comes to consistently overcoming incredible odds, there are few men who can match the remarkable Chris Moon. A former Army officer and part-time marathon runner from Basingstoke, Moon is one of the few westerners ever to survive being captured by the notorious Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, not only negotiating himself out of his own execution, but also two of his colleagues. In 1995, clearing landmines during a United Nations mission to Mozambique, Moon was blown up walking through a ‘cleared’ area and lost both his lower right leg and right arm.According to the doctors, Moon only survived through his incredible fitness and determination, and within a year of leaving hospital, he had completed the London Marathon. More endurance races were to follow. In 1997, he completed the 250K Great Sahara Run, running six days through the heat and sand of the Sahara Desert, in the process raising £100,000 for a prosthetics charity. In July 1999, he became the first amputee to complete the notorious Badwater Ultramarathon, the self proclaimed ‘toughest footrace on earth’, which pits up to 90 of the world’s toughest athletes against each other and the elements, in 130ºF heat, over a hellish 135-mile course from Badwater, Death Valley, to Mount Whitney, California, within a 60-hour time limit.In July 2000, Moon was back in Death Valley, this time running 300 miles from the lowest point of the USA to the highest point and back again. He repeated the astonishing feat a year later to test false legs, becoming one of only a handful of people in the world to complete the double desert crossing twice. Using a specially made prosthetic leg, Moon, followed by his support car who helped lubricate the false limb every ten miles, completed the race in 53 hours 47 minutes, and the last two miles – the steepest part of the course on Mount Whitney – in under an hour.“I did this to show that disabled people can take up the most demanding challenges in the world,” Moon said. “We’ve no need to sit at home like couch potatoes. Also, it’s the ultimate test for a false leg, which I hope will help me and other amputees who do want to run marathons.”And Moon has not slowed down since then. For the last ten years, he has been inspiring audiences around the world as a motivational speaker, while still finding time to run the length of Cambodia to raise money for charities assisting the disabled and leading parties up Mount Kilimanjaro.
MARSHALL ULRICHNicknamed ‘The Endurance King’, 59-year-old American athlete Marshall Ulrich is the only person in the world to complete the Triple Crown of Extreme Sports: world class ultra-runner, seven summits mountaineer and record-setting adventure racer. His speciality is competing in extreme conditions and the list of his achievements is staggering. Ulrich has gone to extraordinary lengths in pursuit of even greater feats of endurance. In 1992, he had his toenails surgically removed in order to improve his performance. During his 30-year career, Ulrich’s achievements have included: completing 121 ultramarathons, scaling the ‘seven summits’ (the tallest mountain on each continent), including Mount Everest, all at the first attempt, and competing in nine Eco Challenge adventure races – a feat achieved by only two other athletes.He is perhaps best known for his exploits across Death Valley, which he has crossed a record 21 times, winning the Badwater Ultramarathon four times – he still holds the record to the summit. In 2001, not content with simply finishing the race, Ulrich attempted the frankly suicidal Badwater Quad, an unprecedented feat of running 600 miles through Death Valley, back and forth along the ultramarathon course – twice. Incredibly, he completed the challenge in ten days and 13 hours, despite suffering crippling tendonitis in both shins for the second 300 miles. One of his final dreams was to run across America, which he realised in 2008, setting off on an epic 3,063-mile crossing from San Francisco to New York City, averaging 58 miles per day for 52-and-a-half consecutive days – the equivalent of 117 marathons.
Known variously as the ‘Running God’, ‘Golden Greek’ and ‘Pheidippides’ Successor’, Yiannis Kouros has almost as many nicknames as world records to his name. The 54-year-old Greek-Australian is widely regarded as the king of ultra-distance running, thanks to his incredible feats of endurance, which have taken on near legendary status during four decades at the pinnacle of his sport. Undefeated in any world-class ultramarathon beyond 100 miles and the holder of more than 150 distance-running world records, Kouros, who emigrated to Melbourne, Australia, in 1990, at one time held every record from 100 to 1,000 miles, including the longest distances covered for timed races lasting 12, 24 and 48 hours, and six days.Kouros first came to prominence in 1983, when he won the world-famous Spartathlon in record time, a race he was to win on a further three occasions (he holds the four fastest times in the race’s history). In 1985, he won the Sydney to Melbourne Ultramarathon in a time of five days, five hours, seven minutes and six seconds, eclipsing the previous record set by Cliff Young. In 2000, one magazine proclaimed Kouros the seventh best runner of the Millennium and the best ultra-runner of all time.
THE TARAHUMARA INDIANSOne of the world’s best-kept secrets in human endurance, the ancient and secretive tribe from Copper Canyons in Northern Mexico were chronicled in the acclaimed 2009 book Born To Run by Christopher McDougall for their astonishing long-distance running ability. The Tarahumaras or Raramuri – The Running People – are unique in many ways. They’ve had little contact with modern civilisation over the centuries, and their main method of transportation has stayed the same throughout their existence. To get anywhere, they run. And run. And run. In fact, they run for days at a time through seemingly impenetrable mountainous terrain, covering distances of up to 250 miles at altitudes of 2,000 metres and more.And they achieve all this running barefoot or in rudimentary leather sandals, on a diet of ground corn, barbecued mouse and corn beer! It clearly works for them. In 1993, they grabbed the world’s attention when a small team of Tarahumaras was entered in the arduous Leadville 100. Their leader, a 55-year-old grandfather named Victoriano Churro , became the oldest winner in the race’s history and Team Tarahumara became the only squad ever to grab three of the top five spots, even though its top two finishers had a combined age of nearly a hundred.
The 38-year-old physiotherapist from Seattle has been one of the most dominant endurance runners in the world, winning many of the sport’s most prestigious races. A seven-time record-breaking winner of the Western State 100-Mile Endurance Run, Jurek also boasts a hat-trick of Spartathlon titles, and two Badwater victories in 2005 and 2006. In 2007, Jurek started the Hardrock Hundred with a sprained and badly swollen ankle, sustained playing football just three days before the race. It’s a gruelling trek through the Colorado Mountains that forces runners to dodge frequent lightning storms while running up nearly impossibly angled slopes. Jurek described the first 25 miles as the most painful stretch of running he had ever done. Incredibly, not only did Jurek complete the race, he won it in record time.A specialist in trail running, Jurek has also had to contend with more than just extreme injury and fatigue. Many of the biggest ultra trail races cover long stretches on hiking trails, winding through deep woods and into the wilderness of unforgiving terrain. Runners have reported having to hurdle rattlesnakes and scorpions during some of the more arduous desert races. Running the Western States through the Sierra Nevada mountains five years ago, Jurek was forced to contend with a brown bear standing 20 yards in front of him on a remote trail. The runner raised his arms, started yelling and began to pray that he wouldn’t get mauled. Fortunately the bear slunk away. “That was scary, but it’s also part of why I prefer trail running,” Jurek said. “Nature reminds us that there’s a greater force out there and you have to respect that. It makes you feel pretty small.”