Updated: Mar 6
David Blaikie has written about ultrarunning since the early '80s. His contributions are vast and powerful. Parts of his forward for In Search of Al Howie were used. Unfortunately, it couldn't be published in its entirety. So, here it is:
When I think of Al Howie, the image that comes to mind first is the way he looked on a summer evening east of Ottawa during his memorable run across Canada in 1991 – an epic feat in which he averaged 101 kilometres (62.7 miles) a day for 72 and a half days, an accomplishment with no known equal in the annals of documented journey runs. I see him yet in the long late rays of the day, a slight and sinewy man in shorts and singlet, hair flowing over his shoulders, sunglasses shading his eyes, his body hardened by the elements, his feet a weightless lullaby on the endless asphalt. He’d been on the road all day, as he had been every day since departing St. John’s, Newfoundland, yet he was moving as if the run had just begun, eating up the hills and hollows, the curves and straightaways, with an effortless economy of stride. It was a wonderful thing to see, an athlete who could still do that after half a continent of running through the wash of trucks and traffic, through heat and wind and black flies, rain and sunburn.
I recall an elderly woman of eastern spiritual sensibilities, watching Howie in another event at another time in his career, also towards the end of the day. He was trying to break a 24-hour record. “Look at him,” she said as he strode past, hair and beard shining in the dusk. “You just know what he was in the animal kingdom.” I wasn’t sure what she meant. “A lion,” she said. “He has the heart of a lion. He still looks like one.”
I have never known a runner with more heart than Howie. He had a certain look when he ran, one that deepened with the hours and miles. It seemed as though he went to a place that only another ultrarunner might guess, and perhaps few of those, since almost no one could go quite as far into that place as Howie. By his nature he was a man who spent a lot of time alone, whether running or not. Perhaps it was unavoidable. He read a lot, slept a lot. I found him a relaxed man to be with, yet he was not that easy to know. He could also brood and feel sorry for himself, ask too much of friends and acquaintances and complain that he lacked the support he needed as an athlete. For this he paid the price, sometimes alienating family and friends. But he was a man with mission in life, and to that mission he was true.
In his younger years Howie would often begin races at a suicidal pace, making a mockery the slow-and-steady approach taken by more conventional ultra runners. His goal was to build an insurmountable lead, and then settle back, knowing then that he could not be challenged as long as he kept going. It worked. He won many races that way. Pacing rules were not the only ones he broke. The first time I saw him, half an hour before the 8 a.m. start of a race, he turned up with a beer in hand. “It’s nothing,” he shrugged. “Puts me in an evening frame of mind.” Yet at other times, such as when diagnosed with cancer, he put himself on a strict macrobiotic diet and stuck to it as tenaciously as any training regimen. The cancer receded and his career moved, continued.
I was thrilled when my phone rang one day and Jared Beasley informed me from New York that he was planning a book on Howie. He had not yet met Al, but two people had influenced him to undertake the project. One was Emile Laharrague, a man who lived in the same apartment building, and had spent his life pursuing exotic endurance adventures. I met Emile once long ago when he and Al were in town at the same time. They visited my house together and we sat on the porch, talking late into the night. Emile had just returned from a period of living and running with the Tarahumara Indians of Northern Mexico, and Al had already become the best known ultrarunner in Canada. The second person who influenced Jared to write the book was Jesse Dale Riley, an irrepressible runner from Arkansas whose exploits have also taken him to far-flung corners of the earth. Jesse organized “TransCon” races across the United States and Australia and he was also a faithful companion to Al on many occasions, including the Trans-Canada run. I still have the personal diary Jesse kept during that run and gave to me as his personal contribution to its documentation.
No one is more deserving of a book than Al Howie. Yet his story might easily have gone untold. In a culture that will pay millions to watch athletes whack baseballs over a fence, or drive golf balls to slick and distant greens, ultrarunners are usually ignored, their feats unvalued, or misunderstood. Brief moments have occurred in history where long-distance feats were celebrated, such as the pedestrian era of the late 1800s in America, and elsewhere. Or, now and then, a swimmer like Diana Nyad will cross a great body of water, such as the Straits of Florida between Havana and Key West, and the media will take note and sponsors will appear. But it’s rare. Al Howie in his heyday had trouble getting much beyond free shoes, or a few cases of beer.
I never knew, when Al was at the peak of his game, where he was at any given moment. He might call or write from New York, Phoenix, Sacramento, Vancouver, Calgary, or Toronto, wherever an ultra called him. Often though, he was on Vancouver Island, where he would retreat for periods to work as a stone mason, shuck oysters or spend months at a time planting trees in the coastal forests of B.C., saving up for his next adventure.
I spent time with Al and his sponsors in preparation for his run across Canada. To me it was the crowning event of his career. I had no doubt, barring something unforeseen, that he was capable of setting a record that would stand for years. The challenge was to ensure it was documented in such detail that no doubt would linger when it was over. As a result, hundreds and hundreds of pages of records were kept by Al and his crew, everything from his starting and stopping points each day and the precise mileage he covered to his pulse, weight, diet, and sleep records. Countless photographs were taken and the names and signatures of hundreds upon hundreds of witnesses were recorded along the way. This was necessary because even a sport as pure as ultrarunning is not immune to frauds and charlatans. I uncovered more of them than I wish to recall during a quarter century of following and writing about ultrarunners – people who lied about their achievements in return for a little newspaper or television publicity. Not Al Howie. He was always the “The real McCoy” – in every way.
Only Howie knows what it was like to be out there all those days in the wavy wilting heat of the TransCanada Highway. It was an enterprise that put everyone involved under strain, his wife Claudia, his sponsors, and drivers. I remember a moment after he left Ottawa when everyone stopped for a daily afternoon rest break. Al wolfed down some food and fell asleep instantly in his camper. Jesse flaked out under a shade tree. Others dozed in vehicles nearby and Claudia tended to record-keeping and kitchen chores. It was the flip side of all that motion on the road. Even rest was intense, as though everything had to be jammed into place in as little time as possible, so that running could resume. It all worked out, and somehow a small fearless man wrote a shining new chapter in the history of human endurance.
Ottawa, Ontario, Canada