Jaryd Clifford never expected to run more than 20 km this past Sunday (25 April).
The star 1500 and 5000-metre runner was lining up at Athletics Australia’s so-called Tokyo Qualification marathon in western Sydney, not as a competitor, but as a pacer for his teammate and hero, Michael Roeger.
Roeger — the marathon world record holder for the T-46 Paralympic classification — was looking to better his personal best (2:19:33, Houston, 2020) and get a practice marathon in before the Tokyo games.
With loads of middle-distance racing but virtually no marathon-specific training to his name in the six months before the marathon, Clifford told RunCreature he was nervous pre-race.
He wasn’t certain he’d make the halfway point, but he was determined to “bury” himself for his friend.
When the race got underway, Roeger tucked-in behind Clifford and their coach, Philo Saunders.
At around the 16 km mark, Saunders slowed down. Clifford would hopefully keep his pal company for another 4 km. That was the plan.
Going further than planned
But 20 km came and went. They went through halfway in about 69 minutes, right on target. And still, Clifford didn’t stop running.
The 21-year-old track star and Paralympic athlete was feeling better than expected, and so he pushed on, keen to help his training partner for as long as possible.
Around the 28 km mark, just as Clifford was about to throw in the towel, Roeger told him his hamstrings were beginning to cramp-up.
Digging-in for a friend
“My thought process was, why would I pull out after pacing him so far, at the exact moment when he probably needs someone the most,” Clifford says.
“He was starting to struggle. And I wasn’t struggling yet, so I figured I would just go until I started to hurt a lot.”
So Clifford kept on running; he kept on coaching his friend. Supporting him. Encouraging him. Pacing him.
At 36 km, with his legs well and truly feeling the hurt, Clifford thought his job was finally done. He slowed to a walk, and watched as Roeger carried on down the course. He eventually sat down on the ground, and for a moment, even lay flat on his back.
It’s not over until 42.2 km
But before he could catch his breath, his coach — who had run over to him — was hollering: “What are you doing? You have to finish this now.”
And so, without a second thought, he was back on his feet, pounding the pavement, in hot pursuit of Roeger.
When the proverbial dust settled, something truly remarkable had happened. Two of Australia’s finest athletes — and certainly two of its most accomplished Paralympians — had set new world records.
One race, two remarkable records
Roeger ran 2:18:53, taking 40 seconds off his previous mark — a very impressive display after a prolonged injury in the latter half of 2020.
And Clifford’s time of 2:19:08 will — once ratified — be a T-12 (vision impairment) marathon world record.
The main difference: Roeger’s record was anticipated; a stated goal. Clifford’s result was a complete surprise. It’s further evidence (if any was needed) that Clifford, at just 21 years old, is one of Australia’s brightest stars in athletics.
RunCreature spoke with Jarryd Clifford about his accidental marathon debut in Sydney, what made this race extra special, and what the unexpected result could mean for his future in the sport. Read the Q&A below.
Q&A: An accidental marathon world record on debut
RunCreature: First of all, how are you feeling?
Jaryd Clifford: I’m sore. (laughs) But I’m good. I’m up and about.
RC: Congratulations on the marathon debut. It was a phenomenal performance, especially coming on the back of the incredible racing you’ve been doing on the track all season long.
Jaryd Clifford: Thank you. I’m sincerely in shock. I just can’t believe it.
RC: I think a few people in the Australian running community are shocked, in a good way, but maybe not surprised by the effort. You’ve been lining up in 1500 metre races seemingly every week for the past couple months, and then all of a sudden you’re out pacing a marathon. When did you know you would be on pacing duties for Michael Roeger?
Jaryd Clifford: I didn’t do any sessions with Roegs leading up because I was focused on my running. My guide slash training partner, Tim Logan, and another one of our training partners, Luke Simpson, were originally the pacers who would go the furthest, but both picked up some injuries. So Philo and I had to step-up as the main pacers.
It was probably 2 weeks ago I found out I might have to go somewhere between 15 and 20 km. I figured I could probably make it that far without doing any specific work. We did one practice session after nationals last week, which was 3 x 2km at 3:15/km average pace. That was the longest workout I did leading up.
RC: That doesn’t seem like a very long workout at all.
Jaryd Clifford: No (laughs). On Strava, my weekly mileage has been so low for so long. That’s the other thing that’s confusing me.
Stepping-up and finding inspiration
RC: You’re training as a miler and a 5000-metre runner for the most part. What do your typical weeks look like from a mileage standpoint?
Jaryd Clifford: In winter last year, I ran a weekly average of between 140 and 150 km. But because I’ve raced so much — I think I’ve raced 23 times since September — honestly, the last time I’ve probably strung together two weeks of more than 100 km would have been in November when [our squad] went to Perisher.
In January, I would have done one, maybe two, 30 km runs. But that’s probably the last significant long run I did. I have had some 20km tempo runs at around marathon pace.
My weekly mileage recently has been probably on average between 80 to 100 km. I also went through a tough patch a few days after I ran 3:41. My Pa [maternal grandfather] who I was quite close with, and who loves my running; he passed away. So I had a few weeks where I was down around 45 km.
RC: I’m very sorry to hear about your grandfather.
Jaryd Clifford: It’s one of the reasons I was so emotional after the race [marathon]. All I wanted to do was tell him what had just happened, because I know how proud he would have been. That was something that was definitely driving me in those last few kilometres.
He died a few days after I ran 3:41, and I haven’t really felt right standing on a start line, until Sunday [at the Athletics Australia marathon]. It was an emotional release.
RC: Finishing a marathon can be a pretty emotional event at the best of times. And I imagine having something like that weighing on your mind and affecting you so personally would have intensified that emotion. Can you elaborate on why this marathon is so much more special because of your grandfather?
Jaryd Clifford: PA would always be one of the first people to ring me after a race. The day before he passed away, he emailed me asking how I’d gone and congratulating me on 3:41 [1500-metre] world record. He was always the guy who was most passionate about my running. He went overseas for the first time in 2017 to watch me race at the London World Championships. He came to as many races as possible, and I always told him that one day I wanted to run a marathon.
When I finished, I was just sad, because the first thing I wanted to do was tell him, and talk to him about it. Not being able to is quite hard, but knowing how proud he would have been — I don’t know.
But I know, it was the first time since he passed away that I felt Like I enjoyed running again. And I think that’s because it was the marathon. He knew how special that would be to me, one day.
A mid-race change of plans
RC: Standing on the start line of the marathon, wearing the pacer bib, was the game plan still the same? Were you thinking, I’m going to help get Roeger through 20 km, and that’s my job done?
Jaryd Clifford: Yeah. I woke up that morning and I was super nervous because I wasn’t sure if I would make it to halfway. I hadn’t done anything that would indicate that I could go through halfway in 69 minutes. Even 10km in I was feeling okay, but I was still nervous. I got to 20 km and Roegs asked me how many [5km] laps I had left, and I said at least one. I got to 25 km, and I said, I think I can do another one.
RC: But you kept running? What happened?
Jaryd Clifford: Around the 28 km mark, Roegs said he was starting to feel some cramps in his hamstrings.
My thought process was, why would I pull out after pacing him so far at the exact moment when he probably needs someone the most, when he was starting to struggle. And I wasn’t struggling yet, so I figured I would just go until I started to hurt a lot.
RC: When did it start to hurt?
Jaryd Clifford: At 31 km my legs were starting to hurt. I told Roegs I only had one more lap in me. At 35 km, I said ‘This is my last km. I’m going to stop when I get to Philo on the sideline.’ But I started to feel good again, probably because I realised I only had one K left. So I started trying to pump Roegs up. ‘Mate this is a gold medal winning run, you’ve got this, just got to manage those cramps and get to the finish line, you’ll break the world record and all you have to do is repeat this in Tokyo and the gold medal is yours.’
“You have to finish this now!”
RC: And then, from what I’ve heard, you stopped at 36 km. What happened next?
Jaryd Clifford: Yeah. I was still on the course but I sat down. Philo ran up to the side and yelled, ‘What are you doing? You have to finish this now.” And I said, “Oh, do you want me to?” It was kind of like I needed — I wanted my coach’s permission to finish the marathon. I was on the ground for about 28 seconds, which is why the time on Strava is different [than the official result]. So I just got up and started running.
RC: How did that last section of the race feel?
Jaryd Clifford: I think stopping made it a bit harder. I started dry retching in the last 5km. I knew I needed to just hold it together and I somehow managed to.
RC: So you fully stopped. Did you have a sit down?
Jaryd Clifford: Yeah. I actually laid down on my back for probably 10 seconds, then got on my haunches. And then Philo ran over. He kept his distance because he didn’t want to interfere. I don’t think I was on the ground long enough to seize-up or cramp. I actually never got any cramping.
Does this result change your focus?
RC: You’re a world class 1500 metre and 5K runner. and on virtually no marathon-specific training, you’ve gone out and made 2:19 look like a piece of cake. It’s unreal. Is the marathon something that’s now in your athletic future?
Jaryd Clifford: Yeah, I kind of need to reassess Tokyo now. I’ve proven I can run a decent marathon off 1500-metre training and the marathon is the last event in Tokyo. So I can still focus all my training on my main events [1500 and 5000 metres] and potentially do the marathon as a bonus. That way, if I blow-up it doesn’t really matter.
So there’s a chance I could do the marathon in Tokyo. And definitely down the track, I’ve always wanted to be a marathon runner.
But when I started going better over the 1500, and I had a few hiccups over 10k, I thought I was better suited to middle distance events.
Another thing that’s notable is the fuelling. I had two sips of Maurten at three points in the race: the 5, 10 and 15 km marks, because Philo was picking up bottles. But after Philo dropped out I didn’t have any sips of anything. I had one gel 20 minutes before the race, not much for breakfast, and that was basically my only nutrition.
It’s one of those things, maybe the marathon is definitely something I should look at doing, and not waiting until I’m 30. Maybe it’s something I turn my focus to after Tokyo. But I think I need to wait for [all the excitement] to die down before making any decisions.
RC: Can you talk me through the moment you crossed the finish line? What emotions were going through your mind at that point?
Jaryd Clifford: Coming across the finish line was genuinely one of the most insane feelings. I collapsed on the ground and my stomach — my whole body — was shaking and convulsing. It was a mammoth effort just getting there in the last 5km to finish, and then to hear I’d run under 2:20. It was just shock and disbelief. It wasn’t euphoria, it was more like, What just happened? What did I just do?
High expectations and new horizons
RC: It’s interesting that you said you felt like you needed permission from Philo to finish. If you had stopped at 20km, he would have said, Job well done, let’s go cheer Roegs. But at 35 km the calculus is a bit different and he’s telling you to keep running. What were your conversations like with Philo after the run? Were there some discussions about what this means in terms of your strategy moving forward?
Jaryd Clifford: He told me, had I stopped at 31 that would have been it. But I went to 36, and it’s kind of like, your body’s going to be pretty messed up anyway, so you might as well finish. And as far as our discussions afterwards, it’s kind of scary.
Philo’s now putting quite a high-ceiling on what my potential is in the marathon. He’s saying, ‘If you can run 2:19 with no prep, barely any proper nutrition, by accident almost, then how fast can we go if we do it properly, It’s such an unknown.
I always thought my debut would be something along these lines, where I wasn’t aiming for a proper goal. Just running one to see how it felt, but I thought, in doing that, I’d run 2:30, which would have been amazing and I would have been stoked with. I didn’t think that scenario would play out and I’d also run under 2:20, which is a pretty special barrier, and one that some people train their whole lives to run. I don’t underestimate the significance of that mark.
I know how hard people work to run that, and I’ve just done it randomly. I’m sure that must frustrate people, and I actually feel a little bit embarrassed about it.
RC: Don’t. That run was remarkable. You’re a special talent, Jaryd, and people knew that, but to see this kind of range, and this performance at your age, is very impressive. Philo is right to have high expectations for you in the marathon. Do you feel those expectations as pressure? Or does the prospect of attacking this event with more purpose and intent excite you?
Jaryd Clifford: I’ve always been in awe of marathon runners. And the fact that it could be something on my horizon earlier than I anticipated is something I’m excited about.
A special bond with Roegs and Philo
RC: I want to ask you about your teammate, Michael Roeger. A world record holder and another very talented runner, and I know, someone you have a very close relationship with. You’ve called him your hero. Can you talk to me about your relationship with Roeger? What does he mean to you as a teammate and a role model?
Jaryd Clifford: I still remember the day Roegs picked me up, when I was 13, from the AIS for a training session.
I remember sitting in the car thinking, ‘Jeez, I gotta act cool here. He’s my hero.’ And then I was doing a session with him, and he was giving me massive head starts. We were running 2 x 3k, and he was reeling me in and dropping me. And I was just in awe of this Paralympian guy who was tearing it up around Stromlo. To have trained with him, to have been there for some of his best moments, it’s been very special.
I got goose bumps at the halfway point when I realised he was going to break his world record, because to be a part of that was so special. I know Roegs is going to win his first Paralympic gold medal in Tokyo, and then run an insanely fast marathon afterwards. He’s just one of the toughest people you’ll ever meet.
RC: I’d also like to ask you about the Saunders Squad. You’ve been working with Philo now for several years, and you’ve built something very impressive in Canberra with your group. Can you talk to me about the group, the culture, and how it’s helped your development and success?
Jaryd Clifford: It all comes from Philo. I was messaging him last night [after the race] and he was saying that we [his athletes] are all family to him. And I said, the whole squad is family to everyone. We’re all just a big family. We have Paralympians and Olympians in our squad, and athletes who are vying to make national teams and run their own personal goals. And whenever one athlete runs well, it’s like everyone has been successful.
What makes running so special, and what makes our training group so special, is that genuine feeling of getting around each other’s performances and bringing each other up, and being supportive. That’s why I wanted to bury myself for Roegs in that pacing job, because him breaking the world record, was me breaking the world record, even if I hadn’t finished.
I want him to win gold in Tokyo as badly as I want to win gold. We would do anything for each other and the squad. That’s what makes it special.
Facing the future, relishing the present
RC: Tokyo is still an unknown. How does that affect you over the next few months in your training and preparation?
Jaryd Clifford: I’m definitely more hopeful the Paralympics will go ahead. I was extremely pessimistic even earlier this year. As it gets closer, I’ve started to think, surely it has to go ahead.
But also, the constant speculation for 12 months has been quite exhausting. The only thing we can do is keep having fun, keep training hard, and keep acting like it is going ahead. If there is a start line, we’ll be ready. And if not, we just keep riding this out. That’s my mentality. Fingers crossed it happens.
RC: What did you do to celebrate?
Jaryd Clifford: Yeah, we came back to my apartment, had a few beers, chips and pizza. It was good. Just reminiscing and reflecting, going: how crazy was that day!
Our coverage of the Athletics Australia marathon will continue later this week with a Q&A with Michael Roeger.