A book to be published in October tells the story of legendary Scottish-Canadian ultrarunner Al Howie, whose 1991 cross-Canada speed record of 72 days and 10 hours still stands, 28 years later. Howie died in Duncan, BC in 2016 at the age of 70, and though those old enough to remember his running feats still marvel at them, Howie’s full story will be revealed for the first time.
The book, In Search of Al Howie, by the American writer, actor and director Jared Beasley, will chronicle not only Howie’s long list of near-unbelievable stats, but also his previous life (he only started running at age 30) and what drove him to run, frequently for days on end. If there was a race in another city, he invariably ran there, won the race, and ran home again, often covering hundreds of kilometres on foot. And for years he somehow avoided injury, despite running vast distances in racing flats.
(It was Howie’s record that ultrarunner Dave Proctor was targeting with his own trans-Canada run attempt in 2018, which started in Victoria and ended in Manitoba with Proctor in debilitating pain from a back injury.)
Beasley had never heard of Howie when he befriended an eccentric neighbour in New York City in 2003, who wouldn’t reveal his last name. The Pirate, as Beasley refers to him, was a runner and adventurer whose stories seemed unbelievable, but were documented in photographs. Beasley was suffering from severe anxiety at the time, and The Pirate introduced him to running, which helped a great deal, and they ran together for years.
Beasley didn’t learn about Howie until 2014, when he accidentally discovered The Pirate’s true identity (revealed later in the book) while researching multi-day races of the past. He wanted to write about him, but The Pirate told him about Howie, and said he should write about him instead. Howie, The Pirate explained, was the real legend. And as Beasley soon discovered, his running exploits were considerably greater.
“I was flabbergasted by this guy, that he could take that kind of punishment, and I wondered what kind of psyche would want to,” Beasley told us. “I asked him if he wanted me to write about him, and he said yes.”
Beasley had long weekly conversations with Howie for the next two years, until Howie’s death in 2016. Even among those familiar with Howie’s cross-Canada run, few know that the idea for the run was born at Howie’s first race, the 1979 Prince George to Boston Marathon, where Howie raced alongside Rick Hansen and Terry Fox the year before Fox’s Marathon of Hope. Or that during his successful run, he raised $750,000 for children with special needs. Or that only two weeks after completing it, at age 46, he raced the 1,300-mile Sri Chinmoy race in New York City and broke his own world record, finishing in 16 days, 19 hours. Beasley still marvels at Howie’s mind-boggling accomplishment: “That year he ran 9,387 km in 103 days, in a pair of 8-ounce Brooks Kona racing flats.”
Sadly, Howie lived on the margins for the last 10 years of his life, in poor physical and mental health.
In Search of Al Howie will be published in October by Victoria’s Rocky Mountain Books.