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1983-1991 Westfield Sydney to Melbourne Experiences
by Kevin Cassidy
I will never forget 1983 when an unheard of 61 year old potato farmer named Cliff Young took everyone by surprise to win the inaugural westfield run, I didn't do much running at the time but it was hard not to be inspired by the media hype. I remember walking up to the corner near my home to watch Cliff run through the huge crowds on the Melbourne streets and being so inspired that I went home and got the car and followed the media bandwagon all the way through town. The press loved it all and featured Cliff as an "unheard of eccentric" who stole a race that was designed as a match between Tony Rafferty and the late George Perdon. The press didn't let the facts ruin their stories, fact one was that Cliff had won the last two 100 mile track races in the Sydney suburb of Manly in times of around 14.30 and fact two was that he was a geniune country man who had not been polluted by city life [I have not found Cliff to be eccentric at all]. George Perdon finished second and vowed never to return due to a clash of interests with some race sponsors, he remained true to his word so we can only wonder what sort of stamp he could have made on future westfield runs. George truly was the "Kouros" of his time.
In 1984 the press swooped on the little heard of Geoff Molloy and featured the fact that his job as a full time lawn mowing contractor was a part of his training. As I did the same thing for a living, my mind started wondering "Could this be me?". With the race being run in the opposite direction [Melbourne up to Sydney], I followed the field as the runners negotiated the peak hour traffic under police escort. The big story that year was the presence of Indian runner "Tirtha Phani", he arrived with a reputation that made Yiannis Kouros look like a weekend hacker but trailed the field by so far that he was pulled out of the race in Albury. Tirtha returned later to run the Colac 6 day event and spent more time in his tent than he did on the track, Tirtha Phani was quickly dubbed "Tirtha Phoney". Geoff Molloy was coached and managed by Dennis Moore [coincidently, I bumped into Dennis at a fun run last week], the well known Dot Browne was also in his crew, along with a few of his mates from his cycling days. For 3 days Geoff didn't know he was in the lead [the race management was pretty ordinary back then] and ran all the way to Sydney to defeat Kiwi policeman, John Hughes.
1985 saw the arrival of a greek with a huge reputation, all I can say is that Yiannis Kouros blew the ultrarunning fraternity right off the map, he set a whole new standard that no one would ever get near.
I have already documented my account of 1986, I was an ultrarunner myself by this stage and the westfield run was enjoying saturation media coverage. Coca Cola was even rumoured to have tried to take over the race sponsorship.
By 1987 I was running well in lots of ultras and aiming high, I managed to qualify for the westfield run but you had to finance your own race. I chased sponsorship all over Melbourne and all I got was a reply from the local Tip-Top bakery offering me wholesale rates for bread. With $7-8,000 needed, I could see that I was wasting my time. the 1987 race came and went with another Kouros victory.
In 1988 I made a decision that I have never regretted. Basicly I decided that I would never be foolish enough to gamble with my financial security for the sake of running because I was, at the time, working for myself and paying off a house. I know of many runners who took out bank loans, sold their cars and other possesions whilst some even sold their houses, all for the Sydney-Melbourne obsession. Some of these runners finished and others didn't but they basicly became running bums, I could have followed the same path at the time, so when I look at my finances and possesions today, I am very glad I stuck with my decision.
1988 came and went with another huge Kouros win. I went out to the finish to see a number of runners that I knew as they crossed the finish line and I felt very inspired.
By 1989 I was in the Melbourne Fire Brigade when I was given the opportunity to use some fire brigade vehicles for the race [not fire trucks, unfitted out vans]. I threw myself into training, up to 270km a week. I did many 12 hour runs on my own around the main roads of Melbourne, some were all day and others all night. The 24hour Shell gas station on the Nepean Highway got used to me arriving in shorts at 3am whilst the 7-eleven on the Gippsland highway was always good for a Coke and a Mars bar. One day I ran around the block for 14 hours, a road crew were working in my street and they were left scratching their heads when I ran passed them every 15 minutes for their entire working day.
A crew was hastily put together but I was starting to feel uneasy, the vans were inadequate, the crew were very inexperienced [but willing] and worst of all, I was seriously doubting my own sanity [I am not joking here]. By the time we arrived in Sydney, I was in a poor mental state and hoping things would work out when we got going. Naturally enough, things did not go well, we were "doing it on the cheap" and the crew were struggling to function, I was worrying so much about these problems that I could not get into the right frame of mind. Eventually, just near Canberra, the whole sorry episode came to an end with me having a badly torn calf muscle.
I have never felt so low and miserable in all my life, we drove into Orbost to get gas for the vans and a one legged man hopped out to serve us with a huge smile and positive disposition. Here I was feeling so miserable with my lot and this one legged guy seemed so happy with himself. I gave myself a huge kick in the bum and I will never forget the guy who helped me to see things in a much different light.
By the time David Standeven and Yiannis Kouros had crossed the finish line [Yiannis was handicapped 24 hrs], I was at home recarpeting the lounge room.
The performance of your crew in such an event is crucial. In the early days it was impossible to get experienced crew because no one had ever done such a thing before, as runners performances improved over the years, I have no doubt that it was a reflection of crew people learning how to do the job better and more efficiently.
Geoff Molloy, David Standeven, Brian Bloomer and Dusan Mravlje have all recorded good finishes but had early DNF's due to troubles with crew and motivation. I spoke to poor Dusan after the 1987 race, He had returned as the defending champion and,as such, was promised a crew by the organisers. Dusan's situation proved to be somewhat farcical and he abandoned the race in disgust on day two [so much for looking after your defending champ]. The amazing Brian Bloomer never recorded a win but he was always in the placings. A merchant seaman, he used to train by running laps of the ships deck for up to 16 hours at a time.
My most vivid memory is of the thick "pea souper" fogs and the nights that dropped to -4 degrees celsius.
As I got over my 1989 disappointment, I started to plan for 1990 but it proved difficult to get a professional team together so I decided to abandon all plans until 1992, I threw myself into a number of home renovation projects and set about paying off the mortgage [I am so glad I did this]. The 1990 race came and went and I paid little attention to it. I have no other memories other than another Kouros win. By this stage the press interest was dropping off at a very quick rate and rumours of the races demise were circling around.
I didn't care whether the media was covering this race much or not, it was just something I wanted to do. Westfield tried a number of gimmicks and handicapping of Yiannis Kouros in an attempt to keep the media interest alive but it was to no avail.
By the time 1991 rolled around I had cleared the mortgage, renovated the house and was in a highly motivated state. I ran some ultra's early in the year and did well in them and then a chance meeting with some appropriate people saw the opportunity for me to run in 1992 with a full and experienced crew. My motivation was at an all time high and I started training straight away. At this stage the 1991 race was underway but, sadly, was recieving virtually no publicity. I went out to greet several runners as they came down the Hume Highway into Melbourne and watched as Brian Smith ran through the deserted streets of Melbourne to take a much deserved victory [the public didn't seem to know that the race was on].
I spent the entire winter of 1991 training like a man possessed, there was no doubting of my sanity this time around, I trained and trained and trained, in fine weather and foul. Late in 1991, it all came to a crashing halt with a few lines in the Herald Newspaper stating that due to increased race costs and decreasing media coverage, Westfield would not continue with its Sydney-Melbourne run. My 1992 run was not to be.
It was the end of an era.
I think we are all still wondering how an event that was so popular could fade away in a few short years, but a chance meeting I had with a freelance reporter seemed to sum it up. "Basicly, Kevin" he told me, "The only thing the major newspapers wanted was the name of the leader and an eccentric public interest story about Cliff Young, regardless of whether it was true or not". When the Cliff Young media bandwagon finally ran out of steam, so did their interest in the race.
These days, my Sydney to Melbourne memories are contained in a large collection of video highlights that I compiled from all the news reports and the features from "Wide World of Sports"