Jaryd Clifford after his 1500m heat at the IAAF World U20 Championships Tampere 2018 (© Dan Vernon)
In a sport obsessed with winners, sometimes it pays to look further down the field.
Because for all the deserved plaudits that await the champions, sometimes the best story is lurking elsewhere, like, for example, in seventh and eighth place of a men’s 1500m heat.
At the IAAF World U20 Championships Tampere 2018 on Tuesday (10), there didn’t appear anything that unusual about the second of three heats, except for the fact that shortly after the 12 athletes crossed the line, an official emerged on to the track and handed Jaryd Clifford, who had just finished eighth in 3:47.77, a white cane.
With furious fatigue enveloping his limbs, Clifford walked gingerly from the track alongside New Zealand’s Samuel Tanner, who finished a few metres in front of him, a result that was not entirely coincidental.
Clifford is a partially-sighted athlete who was diagnosed with juvenile macular degeneration at the age of three.
“It affects my central vision so I can’t see facial features or definition on the track,” he said. “I can only see the person in front of me.”
In his training, Clifford typically runs either around a one-kilometre grass loop he knows like the back of his hand or else with a guide runner, such is the risk to his safety of running alone in unfamiliar surroundings.
Coming to Tampere, his first taste of a global able-bodied championships, there was an obvious danger given the helter-skelter nature of 1500m heats.
In the days before the meeting, though, Clifford got to know New Zealand’s Samuel Tanner, who, it turned out, was drawn alongside him on Tuesday.
Warm-up tracks can be congested chaotic places at the best of times, so before the race Tanner offered to do his strides directly in front of Clifford, ensuring the Australian had a secure setting to get his muscles firing.
“We were in the same heat and being Aussies and Kiwis, we’re good buddies even though we have a rivalry,” said Tanner. “When we’re on the world stage we’re nearly on the same team.”
In the race, Clifford followed the same approach, tracking Tanner and navigating a safe passage to the finish just behind the New Zealander, both athletes narrowly missing out on qualification.
“If I’m totally honest, I was *****ing myself for four minutes,” said Clifford. “It’s bloody scary but if you’re scared of falling over, then you’re never going to get the best out of yourself. You’ve really just got to go hard at it and try and survive. I got through it without falling and I’m stoked about that.”
While he was inevitably disappointed to miss out – coming up just two seconds short of the final – the overwhelming emotion was pride, along with gratitude to Tanner and those back home in Melbourne who helped him be here.
“We only met last week but Australia and New Zealand, we stick together,” said Clifford. “He was such a great help today.”
Back home, Clifford is known as a rising star of middle-distance running, an athlete who at the age of 18 hacked his PB down to 3:45.18 earlier this year.
He raced at the Paralympic Games in Rio in 2016, and as the countdown begins to the Tokyo Games in 2020, Clifford has double gold on his mind in both the 1500m and 5000m.
There is one issue, however. The longer the race, the worse his vision deteriorates as fatigue takes hold, so Clifford is currently working with guide Matt Clarke for the longer distance, though he still hopes to continue racing the 1500m alone.
“I adapt so many strategies to work out how to race,” he said. “Right then I had no clue where I finished in the race. I did my first guided 5000m on the track before coming here and when I do that, I don’t have to worry about running into things, I don’t have to stress about things most runners take for granted. It’s definitely the future for me so then I can rest my eyes and I don’t get the extra fatigue.”
In training, trail running is a no-go unless Clifford slows to a near-walking pace, and he says he is “eternally in debt” to those who have helped him get to this level by guiding him in training.
In the early years, he dreamed of sporting success in the Australian Football League, but as his vision worsened that became an impossible dream – not the case for running.
“I decided running could be a sport where I didn’t have to focus on a ball,” he said. “It’s cliche, but I generally feel free when I run.”
A few years back, Clifford took part in a talent search which first sent him in the direction of running, his physiological numbers suggesting he had an innate ability for the sport. Ever since, he’s made steady improvements under the guidance of coach Phil Saunders.
Given his condition, it’s unknown how long he’ll be able to continue racing able-bodied athletes, so he’s revelling in the experience while it lasts.
“I just live life by the day,” he said. “If my vision gets worse in the future, so be it, but I’m a runner so I’m going to put myself in every race I can physically do.”
He hopes his achievements in being here, in mixing it with the world’s best, sends a message to other athletes with disabilities.
“No matter what race you’re in, just go for it,” he says. “Run as quick as you can and wherever it takes you, it’ll take you. Never be intimidated by someone just because they’re able-bodied. I’ve embraced my vision as a part of me, it’s made me who I am, and everyone should be proud of their disability.
“When I’m on the start line, yeah I’m a Paralympian, but at the end of the day we’re all runners and I was fighting as hard as everyone.”
On Tuesday, he didn’t quite have the finishing speed to snatch a place in the World U20 Championships 1500m final, but later this week he’ll go back home, get back studying, get back training, and prepare to come back even stronger next time.
“I just didn’t have those extra gears today, but one day,” he says, “one day I’ll be able to mix it with those guys.”
Cathal Dennehy for the IAAF