Al Howie was, without a doubt, the most accomplished ultrarunner Canada has ever seen, and certainly one of the best in the world. A troubled and sometimes difficult character who drank almost as much as he ran in the early days, he is best known as the holder of the cross-Canada speed record (set in 1991) of 72 days, 10 hours and 23 minutes, which Dave Proctor plans to contest again next year. Howie died in 2016 at age 70, plagued by personal and health problems, but he is still revered among ultrarunners, especially those who remember his heyday. In In Search of Al Howie, New York-based author Jared Beasley shares Howie’s full story for the first time.
Trishul Cherns, another highly accomplished Canadian ultra and multi-day runner who now lives in New York, remembers Howie with great fondness. (Cherns holds scores of Canadian records, including both the Open and M40 records for distances of 700 miles, 1,000K, 1,000 miles, 1,300 miles, seven days and 10 days, and the M40 age-group records for 72 hours, and for 6 days.) “Al Howie was a legitimate talent,” he observed. “He ran a sub 2:30 marathon, his half marathon was 1:12 and he parlayed this into longer distances… What’s crazy is how Al Howie made ultra running races appear effortless when you know how intense the race actually is.”
Howie, who was raised in Scotland and never became a Canadian citizen, was also fiercely competitive. “He was absolutely fearless as a front runner,” says Cherns. “If you were going to compete against him he would make you hurt for it. Al was all about the win.” Beasley describes numerous situations where runners who weren’t familiar with his resumé would scoff at the brutal paces he set, predicting he would soon collapse. He never did. He used this tactic to put significant distance between himself and the rest of the pack, before settling into a more human pace, which he could hold more or less forever.
Here’s a small selection of the mind-blowing feats of ultrarunning that Howie made look easy. They are all documented in the book.
Al Howie’s top 10
1978 – Howie runs the length of Vancouver Island (360 miles, or 579.6K) in five days, eight hours.
1979 – Howie runs from Victoria to Prince George (820K) to enter the Prince George to Boston Marathon, where he finishes third, and where he meets Terry Fox and Rick Hansen.
1980 – Howie runs from Edmonton to Victoria (916 miles, or 1,475K) in 11 days, to enter the inaugural Royal Victoria Marathon, where he finishes in the top 10.
1981 – Howie runs the Sri Chinmoy 24-hour race in Ottawa, finishing first, with 149 miles (240K), a North American record.
1982 – Howie runs from Calgary to Slave Lake, Alta. (470K) to enter the Slave Lake Riverboat Daze Marathon, which he wins. Then he runs the 470K back to Calgary.
1983 – Howie runs from Winnipeg to Ottawa (2,225K) to enter the Sri Chinmoy 24-hour race, which he wins, with 121 miles (195K). Then he runs the 2,225K back to Winnipeg.
1987 – Howie runs a world record 1,422 laps for 580K non-stop at Victoria’s Centennial Stadium.
1988 – Howie runs the British End to End (John o’ Groats to Land’s End), 1,400K in 11 days for a world record.
1989 – Howie wins the Sri Chinmoy 1,300-mile race in 17 days, nine hours, for a world record, as well as the 2,000K world record
1991 – Howie runs across Canada, from St. John’s to Victoria (7,295K), in 72 days, 10 hours and 23 minutes, a record that has not yet been surpassed, though Calgary ultrarunner Dave Proctor made an attempt last year and plans another attempt in 2020. Two weeks after completing the run, Howie breaks his own world record at the Sri Chinmoy 1,300-mile race in New York, finishing in 16 days, 19 hours.