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Al Howie: Book excerpt - "Impossibility"

Updated: Mar 5, 2021

Al Howie #10 takes lead in 1,300-mile race. #14 Emile Laharrague #13 Trishul Cherns

It was day eight when hurricane “Hugo” hit. Most runners opted for sleep or huddled under the shelters. To most, there was no choice but to leave. A brave few climbed out of makeshift tents to run another day. They were greeted with a smack of fierce wind and pelting rains. Pools large enough to skip stones in polka-dotted the course. Emile Laharrague’s socks got so waterlogged he took them off, only to develop monstrous blisters when his feet rubbed directly against the insoles. The cold September rain stung like wasps, and when it finally passed, frigid Arctic winds swept down over the wet runners like a brinicle, freezing their sore, numbed limbs stiff.

Despite all this, Al Howie reached 1,000 miles in the fourth fastest time on record anywhere in the world – as a split. (He would later improve on that) He snapped the Canadian and UK records at that distance and wasn’t stopping. It was as if no one had told him there were 300 more miles to go. Maybe it didn’t matter. He was like Secretariat; once the gates opened, the heart and legs breathed as one and roared louder as the distance grew. At this point in the race, only four runners even remained in the field. Those Sri Chinmoy followers who stuck around watched in awe; they knew Howie was going to do it.

Some knew much earlier. Jesse Riley’s eyes grow childlike when he thinks back on it. “I was completely wrong. I realized he was going to do it after two days. He had done two hundred miles and looked as rested and relaxed as he could be.” Others were amazed at his endurance, but equally so at his positive energy in the storm. Al had a “vibe” that made it easy to run with him. He talked and joked and exuded a calm that made everyone else push for their best. His brogue was thick as his beard, making it hard to understand him, but everyone got the sense he was running with them and not against them. Trishul Cherns remembers it could also be spooky, “He ran quiet, very light on his feet. You would think no one was behind you and then suddenly, there was Al.”

In 17 days, 9 hours, Howie crossed the tape and did the “impossible,” becoming the first ever to complete what was thought to be beyond human capacity: 1,300 miles in less than 18 days. He bounded up the last straight toward the Unisphere, with a large Canadian flag draped over his chest and the Scottish “Lion Rampant” standard raised proudly over his head.

The tartan spartan had come with a bundle of clothes and not a dime to his name. He had no plan of attack, no certain mileage per day or set pace. He came to run and that’s what he did. No injuries. Not even a blister. Add to that the fact that he ran the entire distance in the same super-thin “Ron Hill” racing flats, it’s no wonder why everyone who witnessed the ’89 run believed he was myth born into flesh. Howie had just done 1,300 miles in them in world record time, 15 hours under the cutoff.

Wild man, Al Howie - post race.

When Howie spoke after the run, it was easy to see that for him running was more than just a sport; it meant something deep to the man who had lost his son the very same year. “I’d rather die on my feet than live on my knees,” he said, quoting the old revolutionary theme on the podium. He looked like a ferocious trapper come out of the wilderness; his hair stuck out in all directions, with patches of blond and red tangles that shimmered like fool’s gold. “Finishing this race was the greatest moment of my life,” he mumbled as, draped in the Canadian maple leaf, he raised the Scottish lion standard high in the air.

The question was, “What next?” The only run bigger in his mind than he’d just done was the one that had almost killed him in ’85 – the speed record across Canada.

*** Read the whole story of one ultrarunning's most enigmatic runners here.


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