After chatting to the dogged fellow’s support crew I discovered his name was Cliff Young, a whiskery Aussie ultra runner, who was shuffling around the entire circumference of his country: a trifling 4000-odd miles.
When I asked about Cliff’s secret, how he trained for such a feat, it was simple. He was a dairy farmer, I was told, ‘a little battler,’ who spent his days chasing his cattle up and down hills in Wellington boots. It clearly worked – Cliff looked as fit as a trout - and this was a man nearing his 80th birthday.
Indeed, training like Cliff, or in other unusual ways, often gives athletes an edge.
You only have to remember Rocky IV: Sylvester Stallone, the Italian Stallion, punching out Ivan Drago, a hulky, steroid-pumped Russian badass with fists of tungsten, played by Dolph Lundgren.
How did Sly do it? Forget the gym, comrade, and the drugs too. He headed straight for the Siberian boondocks where he bench-pressed a horse cart (with his chubby boxing coach sitting in it), sprinted through the snow, hefted sacks of rocks, skipped a lot (at times like a 7-year-old girl doing swishy rope tricks) and all accompanied to a pumping soundtrack of splendidly cheesy 80s rock.
Rocky was fictional, of course, and often stretched credibility to breaking point, but to be fair, many athletes indulge in far stranger ways of attempting sporting glory.
Take Frenchman Pierre Brambilla, a fiercely dedicated, Tour de France cyclist of the 1940s. While competing the revved up Frenchman would smash his thighs with a bike pump like a deranged jockey, slap his own face or starve himself of water even if there was plenty left in his bottle.
Despite all this self-punishment Brambilla never achieved his dream of winning the Tour and, legend has it, ended up burying his bike in his garden as a sign he was no longer worthy to ride it.
Like Brambilla, all athletes have their own agenda. Some eat steak, others go vegan. Some undergo blood transfusions (that’s you, Lance Armstrong, one time hero turned prize git), irrigate their colons or become celibate. None of these options appeal much (a juicy sirloin excepted) so I was glad to hear recently that the Cliff Young school of training is still alive and well today.
In the hill town of Dharamshala, high in the Indian Himalayas, a local group of adventure enthusiast friends have clubbed together to champion 23-year-old Ranu, a decidedly speedy shepherd, who, you’ve guessed it, trains by chasing his sheep up and down mountains.
Blazing through the Indian capital’s fuggy streets, a far cry from the Himalayan peaks he was used to, Ranu led the field of 50-odd runners for over half of the 26-mile course. And then, whuff, he vanished, sudden as a djinn. All his supporters, including me, feared he was injured or had hit the wall.
I was alarmed because before the race, stick-thin Ranu told me he ‘only had one pace’ and found it hard to ever slow down. He also revealed he never ate even the smallest quantities of energy food during runs. I respected this but worried he would burn out, especially when he belted off at the start like Buzz Lightyear.
I needn’t have fretted. Ranu ended up coming a triumphant third. I’m sure he would have comfortably won, but get this: he got completely lost on the final stretch and ran an extra three miles! And despite all this extra exertion he still ended up on the winner’s rostrum.
When Ranu breasted the finishing line he did it with ease, no sign of pain or exhaustion. This was a far cry from myself, who completed half the distance he ran, happy as Larry, but as wheezy and jittery as a flogged mule.
The moral of the story: don’t act like Brambilla and bury your trainers because you are not worthy. Sorry, Pierre, mon ami, but spanking your thighs with a bike pump is rum behaviour frankly - even if you’re French. Be more like good old Cliff Young. Be proud of yourself, train in a way that makes you happy and keep doing your best whatever your age.
Oh, and if you get a chance to chase sheep, cattle or any other livestock, go for it. Especially up mountains. Even better in an old pair of Wellington boots.
BY TOM FREMANTLE