Updated: Oct 9, 2019
Years of research - years of writing - one year waiting for a "yes" from a publisher, another year for it to be put out. Five long years in total and now Al Howie's story is out for the taking. But from the word go, there were so many chances to let it go, to not do it - to dismiss it. Equally (thank God) there were just as many moments of serendipity to keep it alive. Here are some:
One: I was sent on a mission by my neighbor to find Howie. My neighbor is not your average Joe. People are often instantly repelled by him. He has a look of danger about him. Even animals sense it. Countless times I've run with him and seen sweet little dogs shake in fear then lurch at his legs, teeth bared. In the book, he is known as the "pirate." He looks and smells like one. I've brought him to restaurants and been asked to leave. I've watched the front desk refuse to give him mail, pester him about his clothes, and threaten to kick him out for nothing. To many, he is one of the unwanted, a vagabond on the skirts of society. It would have been all to easy to dismiss everything he told me about Howie and the search could have never even begun.
Two: Howie could barely talk for more than five minutes. He mumbled and grunted and sometimes seemed to have trouble getting his breath. I often asked myself in the beginning if I should leave this man alone. One saving grace: every time we spoke he thanked me and made it clear that he had a lot more he wanted to tell.
Three: He was estranged (to put it mildly) from his family in Scotland. The first two years, they didn't understand why anyone would want to write about Howie. While their accounts eventually helped round out a sketch of Howie that Kirkus called "fully human―fearful and driven, flawed but likable," it didn't seem so promising early on. Conversely, when I first reached his former wife, she answered the phone as if the inevitable had arrived; she knew one day someone would come to tell his story.
Four: The Running world itself, even ultrarunners were perplexed by Howie's distances. They had no box to put him in, no label for his running, so many dismissed it. If it wasn't the marathon or the Western States, it didn't register in their universe. This point of doubt was a real struggle. Till, I thought of Bob Beamon. If you are over thirty, raise your hand if you've ever heard of Bob Beamon!! Now, raise your hand if you know who holds the record for the longest long jump in history! Chances are, you have no idea who the current record holder is, but it's near impossible to forget "the jump of the century." There is something about the outlier, the one who flies beyond the boundaries of what we think is possible. These moments transcend sport; they are the essence of art. They hit us in the gut and stick with us. Even Beamon collapsed after seeing what he'd just done: he'd jumped beyond the length of the measuring equipment! The day before, he'd barely even qualified.
Five: Thank God for moments of grace - inspiration - and the nudges if you will of the universe. Everything reminds me of a movie. In this case, Howie always reminded me of "The Jericho Mile." Both protagonists ran inside walls of their own making. And the physical resemblance was surreal. Same era, same hair, same mustache, same running shorts, cotton socks and racing flats. In the film, Rain Murphy is played by Peter Strauss. While writing this book, I ran into Strauss outside a coffee shop in Manhattan. We talked running, the movie, and Al Howie.
Full film here.
IN SEARCH OF AL HOWIE is now available. Whether you are into running or not, I hope you take away the notion that to go down the trail that looks too gnarly, too skeptical, may indeed prove to be a blessing. Down that untrodden path may reside the better angels of our nature.