Motivation Lessons from the Man Who Ran for 5 Days (with No Sleep)

Road in Australian outback with kangaroo warning sign

Image by Andreas Fischer via BigStock

Cliff Young is the most famous runner you have never heard of.

Cliff is a legend among endurance athletes. He made his mark in 1983 when – a sheep farmer by trade – he showed up in overalls and work boots to compete in the Westfield Sydney to Melbourne Ultra Marathon.

Yes, you heard me right. Overalls and work boots.

The Westfield is an 875 km (544 m) running race from Sydney to Melbourne. In 1983 most professional endurance athletes were finishing in about 8 days.

The typical technique for this race was to run 17 hours a day and then sleep for 7 hours. Sort of a ‘big leap then rest’ approach. Cliff’s technique was a little different.

He just ran straight – with no sleep – all the way to Melbourne.

His technique allowed him to not only win but set a new course record of 5 days, 15 hours, and 4 minutes – smashing the existing record by 2 days. These days, almost all ultra-distance runners use Cliff’s ‘no sleep’ method and his unique running style – called the ‘Young Shuffle’.

Cliff’s success was based on the incremental – pushing yourself along, one small step at a time – not fleeting leaps like his competitors.

Now, you may not plan to run 875 km in your work clothes, but when you commit to achieving big things with your life, there will be plenty of times when you need a little extra motivation to keep going – and Cliff is the perfect example to draw on for inspiration.

Here are seven powerful lessons from Cliff’s story, which will keep you going when you need a boost of motivation:

1. Start already

Admit it, you all have a hard time starting a new project. I know I do. It’s a common problem that can be dealt with by literally just starting.

Don’t worry about the idea being half-baked, not perfect.

Simply start.

By starting, you get your creative juices flowing. Even if you throw this initial work away, it’s well worth it.

That’s how Cliff ran his race. He did not worry about training or whether he could do it. He showed up and just started.

Do you want a couple of ways to get started? See below for some of my favorites:

  • Start small: Do something simple and quick to get over your fear of starting.
  • Take the plunge: Throw caution to the wind and go for it. You will never know unless you try.
  • Wake up early: Don’t have enough time? Try waking up early to start your next project or life goal. 15 minutes is all you really need to get going.

2. Make any kind of progress

You started. Great. Now it’s time to put the excuses aside, break through the barriers and make some progress.

Cliff’s progress was slow and steady. He even ran ‘funny’ – but his famous shuffle meant he made progress while others slept. For him, progress meant putting one foot in front of the other.

Here are some simple ways to make incremental progress:

  • Be flexible: Flexibility is essential to deal with obstacles. The more flexible you are, the more options you have. Flexibility also allows you to zig and zag towards your goals and make steady progress.
  • Be positive but realistic: Being too positive has its downsides, especially if that positivity leads to overambitious actions that actually make a net negative. By being realistic, you can make the right kind of progress – lasting and meaningful.
  • Reward the little things: If you want to encourage an incremental approach, then you need to reward it. It’s fine to also reward the huge leaps but don’t leave out the small steps that got you the big leaps.

3. Keep it simple silly

Complexity has killed many a great idea. Simple solutions are almost always better. Don’t over-complicate a project. Break it into simple, manageable pieces.

Cliff kept it simple by relying on what he knew. He wore work overalls and boots. He used hot chocolate and water to nourish himself. Nothing fancy – just simple things that worked for him in the past.

Do you still tend to make things complex? Take a look at these ways to make things simpler:

  • Do, then think: Over-thinking can sap your energy. “Do, then think” can break you out of the bad habit of analysis paralysis.
  • Slow down: It’s perfectly fine to adjust your pace if you hit an overwhelming barrier or something that seems too complex. A brief respite might be all that is needed to see the simple path forward.
  • Explain in a tweet: There is nothing like limiting yourself to 140 characters to explain a concept simply and clearly. The same goes with any goal or project.

4. Recruit allies

Nothing will move you along faster than encouragement from others. And the best way to get encouragement is to recruit allies and collaborators to your cause or project.

Cliff had few allies to begin with. He had to rely on himself but as he competed, people naturally flocked around him. In fact, he was known for actually splitting the prize money with fellow competitors because he felt bad that they worked so hard.

Want to recruit allies but don’t know how? Consider these ways to bring people to your effort or project:

  • Lend a hand: Whatever you can do to help someone, just do it. Every little thing helps (and will encourage them to help you in return).
  • Perform directed acts of kindness: Be kind to those that are kind to others so that they know that their efforts are appreciated. This will also give you allies in which to tap into.
  • Share your struggles: Don’t be afraid to share the struggles you face. It shows that you are just like everyone else and will create empathy for your situation. It might also inspire someone to help you past them.

5. Be disciplined, not disappointed

Disappointment is an inevitable part of creation. Heck, I don’t think you can create anything significant without being disappointed by some aspect of it.

Disappointment can be used as motivation to do better only if it is immediately counteracted with the discipline to try again or continue.

Being disciplined means that you take disappointment for what it is – a focal point for growth.

Cliff was extremely disciplined. He had to be in order run his family farm and look after nearly 2,000 sheep. This discipline naturally lead him to achieve more success without being disappointed if he lost. He was in it for the joy of doing – not necessarily the joy of placing.

Take a look at the techniques below to help you be more disciplined instead of disappointed:

  • Celebrate the effort: Failures will occur but that does not mean you should be disappointed. Celebrate the effort you put in even if the results are not what you wanted. It will demonstrate that you value hard work.
  • There is no try: As master Yoda is fond of saying “Do or do not. There is no try.” Do more and you will get more out of life even if you fail.
  • Acknowledge that every failure is closer to success: Every time you fail, you eliminate a path or approach that did not work. Congratulate yourself for checking that path off the list.

6. Urgency is good, panic is bad

Every once in a while, we hit a point where we panic. It could be a deadline, major setback, creative block or just second-guessing our abilities.

If you feel panic start to set in, you need to turn it into urgency.

Urgency is better than panic because it places the right amount of emphasis on a problem without losing control.

A sense of urgency will help you fully grasp the situation and deal with it.

Cliff perfected his endurance techniques by herding sheep during storms. These herding adventures would last upwards of 2-3 days straight. In those cases, you just can’t panic or you might make a critical mistake.

If you are prone to panic, here’s how to transform it into urgency:

  • What’s the rush: When you rush, you miss important details. Make it a point to take your time and make sure that everything is the way it should be.
  • Take a deep breath: Panic is a reaction to being overwhelmed. If you pause to catch your breath, the panic will probably disappear.
  • Organize: The more organized you are, the more time you will have to think about other approaches or methods. This will also reduce panic.

7. Focus on the finish line

I’m sure you have heard about the fear of success where you dread getting something done because either it will get critiqued or you fear that now you will be held to a higher standard. This fear of success is more common than you think.

Part of this problem stems from the “What’s next?” syndrome. That’s a major point of derailment for people who fear success – they are worried about the their next thing.

By focusing on the finish line and nothing else, you can free yourself from those burdens and take things one step at a time.

That’s exactly what Cliff did – focus on getting to the end without worrying about sleep or what others were doing. By focusing on the goal, he could push himself to achieve more than his competitors.

Do you fear success? Here are some ways to reduce the fear:

  • Be in the moment: When you hit your stride, don’t second-guess your abilities. Don’t think of the past or the future. Be in the now.
  • Embrace the frustration: Frustration tells you you are close to finishing. It always comes out when you are on the verge of success. Embrace it by acknowledging it and then moving on.
  • Embrace the suck: The suck is the bad part of the situation – embracing makes it easier to deal with. Sometimes the journey will be brutal but if you embrace the suck (hat tip to the Goruck Challenge for the great metaphor), you will get through it and finish strong.

How do you keep going

Which aspects of Cliff’s example resonate most strongly with you?

How do you keep going when things get tough?

About the Author: Jarie Bolander is an engineer by training, entrepreneur by nature and leader by endurance. His site combines two of this passions – leadership and endurance athletics. He is also the author of #ENDURANCE tweet – A Little Nudge to Keep You Going. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @EnduranceLeader

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  1. Thank you so much for the fantastic article. This article has acted as a catalyst to move forward in my coming project. I have a deadline coming in pretty fast. Need to write two journL papers during december. Hopefully I can do it. Do you have others suggestions for me to accelerate on my work ?

  2. Nepal-

    Thanks for the comment.

    What works for me is to write a minimum of 15 minutes or 250 words a day. Even if it’s not perfect prose, the discipline and consistency will push you to get it done.

    Good luck and keep enduring


  3. Cliff’s story makes me weep with joy.

    Every time I hear about someone who completely ignores conventional wisdom because it’s not — what else can I do?

    And the biggest lesson I’m working on right now is that success is one foot in front of the other. Every day that I put words on the screen, I win.

    And I’m going down right now to get some overhauls (as they call ’em here in northern Wisconsin) and put on my workboots. Time to shuffle.

  4. Thanks for this. I’d never heard of Cliff Young before, but this post has intrigued me.

  5. Lovelyn-

    I’m glad Cliff inspired you. It’s an amazing story that we can all learn from.

    Keep Enduring


  6. When I dig my heels in, i hit a new level of energetic spirit and attitude. I feel like when we are really engaging with what we are called to, we will come up against the resistance and need for steady endurance. Passion and Purpose keep me going. As a painter, i have incredible passion to paint, as someone who wants to contribute to the earth, i have incredible purpose. This world needs color after all.

  7. James-

    So true. Passion and Purpose is needed to endure through our struggles and hardships to success.

    Keep Enduring!


  8. Inspiring article Jarie. Awesome story about Cliff. I can relate to your motivational advice on many levels. In some aspects, it reminds me of one of my favorite quotes: “The race is long and, in the end, it’s only with yourself.”

    Thanks for sharing.