The Medibank Melbourne Marathon Festival was saddened this week to learn of the death of Shirley Young, one of the pioneers of female distance running and the face of our race until 2008 when Alzheimers Disease forced her into an aged care facility. Her husband, Ron, himself a fine runner in his day and regular Melbourne Marathoner, lovingly told of how he used to visit her each day and often read her the following excerpt from The Wall.
We extend our condolences to Ron, her daughter Lorraine Jachino and the rest of Shirley’s family and acknowledge what a truly inspiring female distance runner she was.
Vale Shirley Young, 1930 – 2016.
Andrew Lloyd may be the best-known male Melbourne Marathon winner, but there was a female face that became unmistakable and epitomised the marathon spirit.
Shirley Young completed the first 30 Melbourne instalments. She ran the first one at the age of 48 and, as with Cliff Young (no relation), her shuffling style became the stuff of legends as she produced a string of age group records. At 75, she completed the 2005 Melbourne race in 4:36.46.
As her proud husband Ron recalls: “Shirley was an even better ultra runner. She set 21 world age group records. At 70 years of age she covered 176.8km in the Coburg 24-hour race. She had an incredible knack of maintaining the same pace and that’s why she was able to run so many top-class times for her age.”
It wasn’t always easy for Shirley. “Our daughter Lorraine started her running when we were down at Tidal River on our annual summer holiday,” Ron recalled. “I used to go for a run with the kids along the beach and then have a swim and Shirley would be there waiting with dry towels for us. Then one morning, Lorraine said, ‘Forget about the towels, Mum, you’re coming with us’. It took her a fortnight to run along the beach (about 1km), but when we returned home she just kept running. Lorraine (Jachno) was an Australian champion walker, so Shirley would run alongside her sometimes.”
Shirley initially joined Ron, a member of the 1956 Olympic steeplechase squad, down at St Stephen’s Harriers with their daughters before moving to the Victorian Women’s Veterans club.
“When they heard about the Big M, a group of them decided they would train for it that included Anne Callaghan (fellow Spartan),” Ron said. “They’d meet every Wednesday morning and run together.”
Shirley finished the 1978 race in 3:50.31 to be second over-40 female behind Margaret (Peggy) Smith, while Ron, running his first marathon since 1960, clocked 3:11.25.
“In the early days before the Big M, it was only idiots running marathons but then the fun run craze came in and everybody started doing them,” Ron said.
Despite their late start, Ron dropped his Melbourne PB to 2:49.31 in 1981 as a 50-year-old, while Shirley’s best Melbourne time was her 3:19.26 effort as a 55-year-old in 1985. Ron’s career best was his 2:45.41 in the 1981 national championship at Werribee, while Shirley set her best of 3:18.39 when winning gold in the 55-59-year-old category at the World Veterans Games in Melbourne in 1987.
Ron missed his first Melbourne Marathon in 1983, but Shirley just kept on going, gaining more fame every year. At the age of 72, she was one of just 22 Spartans to complete their 25th consecutive race.
Despite being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2002, she continued to run and was one of 13 remaining Legends when the course finish was moved to the MCG in 2007 for the 30th race.
“Eight weeks before that race she had a fall and cracked a couple of ribs and her doctors said she couldn’t run for six weeks,” Ron said.
“All she used to say was, ‘I’m going to run the 30th Melbourne Marathon’. We took her down to the Vets on the Tuesday before the marathon and she ran in a 3km race and couldn’t complete it. But we decided to let her start and follow her in a car and pick her up. Pete Battrick had a bit of a calf injury and volunteered to run with her. I still reckon he put her in a wheelbarrow and pushed her at some stage, but she kept on going.”
The pair were joined by Denise Jordan and Spartan Clarke Whitehand and the MCG kept the gates open to allow them to get home in 6:39.08.
But Shirley faced an even bigger hurdle in 2008.
“Her specialist believed Alzheimer’s was delayed by physical activity and the six weeks break with broken ribs had triggered it more,” Ron said.
“After the 30th she lost the commitment and willpower to run daily. She still wanted to run the 31st so I decided to run with her. We got to near Luna Park (about 33km) and then she started getting cramps in her hamstrings. She was treated by a St John’s Ambulance officer and we were taken to the MCG and into the medical rooms.”
According to Ron, her favourite running moment came in 2003.
“One of the other Spartans, Ken Elcock, had decided it was going to be his last year of travelling down from Yeppoon in Queensland because he had a bad knee and had bought a boat,” he said.
“Every year he had tried to beat Shirley and she had always passed him late in the race. Shirley had a bad back and was struggling that year and he was about eight minutes in front of her at Kerferd Road (41km). But he told me later it just didn’t seem right. So he waited for her and they ran together for the final kilometre, and when they got to the finish line, he grabbed her hand and they crossed the line in triumph. It was a perfect example of what marathon running is all about.”
Extract from The Wall, History of the Melbourne Marathon 1978-2012