For years my body wouldn’t let me run. It took a farmer in gumboots to bring me back

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The Melbourne Marathon is soon upon us, and I’m planning to run the “half”. Or 21.097 tortuous kilometres. And it’s the image of a 61-year-old Victorian man in a pair of gumboots that I have to thank for helping me believe I’m a chance. The man I think about every time I drag myself out of my house to get enough kilometres in my legs to even make it to the starting line. The man who helped me back from an illness and onto the track.

I watched him with the same awe that the rest of Australia did, back in 1983 when he won the Sydney to Melbourne marathon. An older, vegetarian, potato farmer who trained in a pair of heavy gumboots to win the epic 875 kilometres race in five days and 14 hours and smash the previous record of seven days and a bit of change.

Cliff Young crossing the finishing line in the 1983 Sydney-Melbourne Marathon at 1.35am.Credit: Michael Rayner

As I sat in front of the telly, watching Albert Ernest Clifford Young – or Cliffy as he affectionately came to be known by an entire country – barely lift his legs, his arms limp by his side in a pair of parachute tracksuit pants with holes cut into them for ventilation, my eight-year-old self was shook to the core. The younger runners started off fast and got miles ahead, but bit by bit, hour by hour, he just kept running as they fell behind. And he didn’t stop.

On his last leg, as he made his way through the centre of Melbourne and down Bourke St Mall in front of thousands of people who had come out to scream his name, his face blank with the clarity of a Zen monk, born inside me was the idea that running was somehow the most romantic of human pursuits. Running is such a simple beauty: human against himself. Nothing more. Nothing less.

Before the race, Cliff was just a farmer who no one knew. He was a man who believed he could do it when so many thought he was mad for trying. After the race, a gumboot was erected in his hometown of Beech Forest, in the Otways, to commemorate his hero’s journey. I wonder if people travel to Beech Forest to see the gumboot and pay respect to the man who showed us that you could be a 61-year-old potato farmer and smash world records.

I was never a good runner. But I dreamt about it, like you might do when you’re young and you fall in love with ponies. Or football. Or dancing. My grandad Reggie, who had once been a fine sprinter in his day, taught me how to run on his perfectly manicured buffalo lawn. “You pick ’em up, and God will put them down” he would say and watch on in his suit pants and buttoned up cream shirt, as I tried to impress him with my high knee lifts, robot arms and face, stern with purpose.

Illustration by Matt Davidson

At night I would lie in bed and pretend I was Archy Hamilton: “What are your legs? Steel springs. What are they going to do? Hurl me down the track. How fast can you run? As fast as a leopard.” I hoped that one day I would have my own great moment of drama just before a race starts where you shake out your legs like Cathy Freeman did.

But my running got interrupted. Firstly, by my 20s and pubs and watching bands late into the night. Then, by an illness that meant that my body was sick and didn’t have a chance of doing what I yearned for it to do. I would literally dream about running and about that feeling that you get just after you stop. And that runner’s high that they all talk about. For that long decade when I was too sick to move about, I desperately wanted to feel again my muscles hurt, for my breath to be caught up in my chest and for my face to turn a bright red.

It wasn’t until my 30s, and after a decade or more of thinking I might never run again, that I found my way back to enough health to put my sneakers back on. And it was then, and every run since, that I conjured Cliff.

When he ran that race back in 1983, he told reporters he had imagined he was chasing sheep on his farm who were running from a storm. He had grown up with his family not able to afford a horse or a tractor, so when the storm rolled in he would run across the 2000 acres to round them up, sometimes for days at a time.

And so when I started back, I would think about Cliffy Young. Legs barely lifting off the ground. Arms limp by my side and slow. So slow. Each time I would find it hard, I would slow my pace further and quietly tell him that he was with me, whether he liked it or not.

Bit by bit, kilometre by kilometre, just like he must have done on that enormous run, I edged my way back to life. I found my way back to feeling my body again in a way that wasn’t related to illness or surgeries or pain or lost time living. It was in my body, slow and awkward, that I got to again feel my muscles hurt, my breath caught in my chest and my face turn a bright red.

Now as I prepare for this ridiculous race and increase the length of my runs every week, wondering why I spend so much time training for something that has no chance of getting me a gumboot erected in my name, I feel that feeling. Running has brought me back to a place that for a long time I didn’t believe I would ever be again.

The place where I can feel a body move through the world. But slowly. Oh, so slowly. For so many of us lining up to run or walk through this city in October, just making it to the starting line is the win. Running is about many things, but mostly it is the magic of a human against herself. Nothing more. Nothing less.

And if I make it to the starting line in October, he’ll be coming with me. I will imagine I am Cliff Young, chasing sheep in a storm.

Jacinta Parsons is a Melbourne writer and co-host of The Friday Review on the ABC.

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