Updated: Jul 17, 2019
If the difference between running a mile and running a marathon equates to burning yourself with a match or roasting yourself slowly over hot coals, then putting together a book on the elusive character known as Al Howie would fall in the latter category. After researching it for three years and writing it for two, "In Search of Al Howie" is set to hit book stores October 8th, with pre-orders available online.
While I knew he was a somewhat unknown figure, it has been surprising just how little is known of him by runners today and those who write about those runners. 1991 may seem like ancient history to millennials, but for many, it's the not too distant past and a well-spring of memories and figures that are slowly disappearing into oblivion. The information age, powered by almighty search engines and the need for clicks, favors the present and resurrecting one of these ghosts of times past is an uphill battle fought mostly on screens and with little numbers on social media posts. But, Howie's is a fight worth taking up.
One statistic has kept Howie on the fringe of running conversation: The Trans-Canada speed record - 7,295 kilometers in 72 days 10 hours. The fastest man to ever run across Canada. But even a plaque on the "Mile Zero" marker in Victoria can't keep his memory alive forever. People need a bigger picture. A figure they can try and relate to. A legend, yet something they can grasp.
If we zoom out from that one statistic, we see another. Two weeks after finishing that record-breaking run, Howie was at the starting line of the longest race in the world at that time: the Sri Chinmoy 1,300 mile race. Unlike other Sri Chinmoy races with generous cut-offs, this race had a brutal 18-day limit. A runner would have to average three marathons a day to do it.
For two years the race went unfinished, an ogre in Flushing Meadow Queens that chewed up the best ultrarunners of its day. Frank Shorter declared it "physically impossible."
Then Al Howie did it. It was 1989, two years before his Trans-Canada. He'd done the distance in three and half-ounce racing flats, Ron Hill 2.07's, called "ballet slippers" by most runners. Now, it was 1991 and Howie had just run over 4,500 miles in record time - across Canada - in eight-ounce Brooks Kona. He strapped them on once more - and 1,300 miles later, he shattered his own world record. In sixteen days and 19 hours, Howie had run the equivalent of a race from New York to Miami and had beaten his previous best by 14 hours.
In total, Arthur "Al" Howie ran 5,800 miles in 103 days - as the crow flies from Vancouver to Bolivia.
To bring his story to life - to try and grasp the essence of not only how, but why a person would devote themselves to this "asphalt insanity" we then have to zoom in. Into the life of a man who refused to conform... to anything - to any idea of who he should be, how he should live, or what it means to be a runner. These are big questions and not easily answered. But evidence is there, scattered in all corners of the globe: a life in Scotland, in Germany, in Turkey and in Greece, all before landing in Canada. There are people who loved him, missed him, and watched him run himself into history and into obscurity.
But why should we care? What can we learn from a man who never sued "Forrest Gump" for stealing his life story and who was never worth more than the shirt on his back?
Many of us don't have the thick skin to fend off the pangs of pressures that the modern world hits us with. Some are like open wounds, who shelter behind meds, drugs, or a bottle. Screens can just as easily cover up who you are as help you connect, and a new toy pops up every day to keep us looking away and numbing us with overwhelming stimulation. But if you have trouble plodding along in this world, and you feel you may be a square peg in a round hole, and if you feel life has to be an amazing journey or it's nothing, then you may find you have more in common with this mega-distance running alien than you'd imagine. But you won't find him, nor answers, or yourself, if you don't search.
Canadian Running article on upcoming book
Interview with iRun Radio