At 77 years of age, athlete Albert 'Alby' Clarke will tell you he's the fittest he's ever been. It's no exaggeration - over the past 15 years, he has participated in an impressive list of endurance events, achieving results that defy his age. Identifiable by his bright blue hair and mischievous grin, Alby runs and cycles to raise awareness of everything from diabetes to reconciliation.
An Elder of the Gunditjmara people, Alby was born in Melbourne in 1934. He was 10 years old when his father died of tuberculosis. His mother subsequently moved the family to the Framlingham Aboriginal Reserve near Warrnambool.
Alby was an athletic youth. He discovered cycling thanks to an unreliable old horse. It couldn't make the distance to the store, so Alby would ride a bike whenever supplies were needed. He went on to win several local cycling races in his teenage years. He also took up boxing with Harry Johnson's Port Fairy based troupe and toured agricultural shows as far afield as Wagga Wagga.
While working as a builder in Melbourne in the early 1960s, Alby was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes. Problems with his medication forced him to return to Warrnambool. He went on to have seven children.
By middle age, Alby had gained weight and was in poor health. After the birth of his two youngest sons, a doctor warned Alby that he risked an early death if he didn't improve his health. It was the wake up call he needed. Having lost his father at a young age, Alby was determined to see his children grow up. He immediately cut alcohol out of his life and committed to an exercise regime that would restore his fitness levels to what they had once been.
On day one, Alby attempted a run; a garbage bag wrapped around his stomach to expedite weight loss. When it became painfully apparent his legs could not support him at his current weight, he joined a local cycling club instead. He started riding every day. Within a few years he was riding 150 kilometres a day. In his words, he did 'plenty of it'.
On Australia Day in 1998, Alby competed in and won the Horsham Cycling Classic. He was 64. A year later he completed his first charity ride, realising it to be an effective way to promote good health and an active lifestyle to the Aboriginal community. Equally, he wanted to rally support for the causes he believed in.
He completed the 275 kilometre Melbourne to Warrnambool Classic Bike Race in 2001, becoming the first Indigenous rider to do so. Remarkably, it proved to be just a prelude — Alby already had his eye on an even greater challenge.
Three thousand kilometres is an intimidating distance at any age, but Alby seemed unfazed when he embarked on an epic bike ride from Perth to Warrnambool in 2002. He dubbed it the Ride for Reconciliation. Dressed in an outfit covered in blue sequins, with his hair dyed blue to match, Alby cut an eye-catching figure as he pedalled across the Nullarbor. His support team nicknamed him the 'Blue Budgie'.
Alby's ride attracted significant media attention and an enthusiastic response from the communities he passed through. It was an incredible display of persistence and physical stamina that stimulated discussion about Indigenous issues and made Alby a local hero. In tribute to his record-breaking achievement, his outfit and helmet are permanently exhibited in the National Museum of Australia in Canberra. An exhibition titled A Ride with Alby — featuring photos of his journey — was shown at the Warrnambool Art Gallery.
In 2005, Alby parked his bike and attempted his first ultra marathon – named so because the distance covered is far greater than a traditional marathon. It was the 347 kilometre Colac Cliff Young run. He followed that with the Melbourne to Warrnambool, run to promote 'Closing the Gap'.
Aged 75, he completed two ultra marathons in 2010; the 100 kilometre Portland to Warrnambool, to raise money for Diabetes Australia, and the Portland to Geelong, to promote Koori Youth Education and 'Closing the Gap'. His two youngest sons joined their father, running and riding beside him. The same year, Alby won a special award at the Victorian Senior of the Year Awards. He has 16 grandchildren and 10 great grandchildren.
Alby has long maintained that with good health anything is possible. His larger-than-life personality and inspiring physical achievements have won him many fans and helped raise much needed money and awareness for important causes. He is a role model for people of all ages — proof that age really is no barrier.
Reviewed 29 September 2019