Unknown Victoria

Victoria: The Unknown City is a guidebook to an eccentric town on the southern tip of Vancouver Island. This is the author's blog. Look here for Victoria lore, updates and additions to the book, and hate mail.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Loneliness of The Long-Distance Runner

Al Howie’s thick mustache and Scots brogue remain intact. He’s still lean and sinewy, not far off the 135 pounds he weighed in his prime 15 years ago, when he was the greatest ultramarathoner on Earth. But he’s 61 now and wears thick glasses, his vision hampered by diabetes, and his hands quiver. “I’m sorry I’m not in better shape,” he says quietly, in the Duncan group home where he lives today. “But I guess we all have our problems.”

Meeting him under these circumstances, it’s hard to believe he once held several Guinness world records – but then again, so many things about Al Howie’s life have been unlikely. Born in a tough port town near Glasgow, he spent all of his 20s as a vagabond hippie, got married twice, fathered two children, and didn’t start running until he was nearly 30 and living in Toronto, trying to work off the aggression from a quitting a three-pack-a-day smoking habit. After he moved to Vancouver Island with his son in 1978, his hobby became an obsession. He started entering races, and though he did well in marathons, he found that if he ran in even longer contests, he was always way out in front.

To finance his races, he worked as a tree planter; for a while he had a job at copper mine near Port Hardy and ran to and from work, 12 miles each way. On the racing circuit, he became famous as much for his unusual style as his victories. Wearing a “Tartan Spartan” T-shirt, he lived on a steady diet of beer and fish and chips – sometimes even during a race. “It drove people crazy. They’d see me knocking back a beer while they were stretching, and the next time they’d see me would be up on the podium.” On top of that, to keep expenses down, he’d often run to races in other cities, putting his bags on the bus to a distant town, catching up to them and changing clothes, then sending them on to the next stop. He ran from a marathon in Edmonton to one in Victoria. He ran from B.C. to California for a race, and from England to Italy. And when he reached his destinations, he often won.

But after Howie was diagnosed with a brain tumor in 1985 – which he claimed to cure by switching to a macrobiotic diet – he got serious, and set a series of astonishing long-distance records. At UVic in 1987 he jogged 580 km nonstop in 104.5 hours, the world’s longest continuous run. In 1988 he ran the 1,400-km length of Britain in 11 days. In 1989 he became the first person to finish the Sri Chinmoy 1,300-mile race in New York, beating its 18-day time limit. (That's Howie with the Bengali guru behind the race in the photo at top.) And on September 1, 1991, he arrived in Victoria, finishing the fastest-ever run across Canada, in 72 days – averaging 103 km, the equivalent of two-and-a-half marathons, every single day.

Why do it? “People walk long distances, and running’s more entertaining,” he replies bluntly. “You see more.” Plus there’s the satisfaction of setting a seemingly impossible goal, planning, focusing, and then achieving it. Howie’s never talked much about the zen of running, but he did once say his sport was a way of escaping from the materialism of everyday life, from “earning or spending, buying or selling.” “I’m in my element when I’m doing it,” he told a reporter in 1998. “All that matters is that you cover ground, eat right. You stop worrying about Saddam Hussein, or that the rent’s due back home.”

But the material world caught up with him. Though he loved talking to people while running, he never cashed in as a motivational speaker. Though he raised thousands of dollars for charities, he often lived in bitter poverty. As he wrote in a letter to Monday in 1987, during a round-trip run to the Queen Charlotte Islands for the United Way, “Sometimes I run on adrenalin .... more often, I run on resentment, angrily pounding the blacktop. Why must I run on empty? Why do I get no support from my hometown? Mostly, I plod on because I have committed myself to this asphalt insanity and I simply don’t know how to quit.”

His personal life has suffered too. He’s no longer with his third wife. He's lost contact with his daughter, who runs an NGO for disabled kids in Peru, and his son, who was deported back to Scotland after a marijuana arrest. In 1992 Howie realized he had Type 1 diabetes, and though he managed it carefully, in 2001 he suddenly lost his motivation to compete and started being treated for depression, a common condition for insulin-dependent diabetics. “The talent’s still there,” he says. “But I didn’t deserve quite that amount of bad luck.”

Near the end of this weekend’s Royal Victoria Marathon, runners will pass the statue of Terry Fox, and the sign for Fonyo Beach. But they’ll actually have to stop and look closely at Mile Zero to see the small plaque there commemorating Al Howie’s own incredible run across Canada. His other records have since been surpassed, but at least he gets some satisfaction knowing that one is literally set in stone. “I don’t think anyone’ll ever beat it,” he says, and he’s probably right.

UPDATE (December 4, 2007): Last night the City of Duncan presented Al with its annual Sports award, in recognition of his achievements. More than 100 people attended the ceremony. Congratulations, Al!


At 1:55 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Glad to see an update on a valuable part of our living history. It's a shame Howie got the "Emily Carr" treatment from his hometown during his lifetime. He deserved better.

At 11:52 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

Over the last 30 or so years I was fortunate in knowing & running with Al Howie. We became friends and he often stopped by the house to reminesce about some of his tremendous world class runs. I was always in awe of his abilities & became saddened when we lost touch during his move up-island. He has given me many wonderful memories and I have many stories I could tell about Al but space does not permit to do so....Gilles A. St. Denis

At 5:45 PM, Blogger Brad Holmes said...

Hi there Carlos !
This man is a giant in this field ,,running across Canada , I just drove back ,its a long way, thank you for honouring Al, well its off to the coastocoast in Hardy this weekend !
Cheers Brad

At 8:39 PM, Anonymous Leah said...

Always wondered what happened to Al Howie, used to see him running on the highway all the time. I was always in awe! Thanks for the update even if it is old news.

At 7:33 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for this bit of history. A fellow who is involved is advocating for Equal Parenting to be enshrined in Federal Divorce legislation (aka Bill C-422) will attempt to break this Al HOWIE's Cross-Canada record in April 2010. Here is a link: www.crosscanadarun4thechildren.com

At 11:55 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

Well Chris....Your endeavour to surpass Al's run across Canada is quite remarkable. I wish you luck and you will be in my thoughts as you go through the miles. When you get to Mile 0 not far from where we live I'll do a short video for you to record your arrival, best regards, Gilles A. St. Denis
Victoria BC

At 8:21 PM, Anonymous Eugen Bannerman said...

Thanks, Ross, for your story on Al Howie.

I have just returned from a visit with Al in Duncan. He is living at Cairnsmore Place Residential and Transitional care facility where he is receiving insulin treatments for Diabetes.

The illness has knocked the wind out of Al, and he can't understand why fate has dealt him such a debilitating illness. He would love to run again.
I told him he is a gifted writer and that many people would be interested in reading about his running adventures. Today he wrote out some stories.

An enlarged copy of his picture in the Oct 4 issue of Times Colonist was displayed at the Nurses station. I had come to talk to him about updated information on the article I had written about him for Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.
Best regards,
Eugen Bannerman

At 11:16 AM, Blogger Royston Dave said...

Met Al years ago while he was doing one of his many Island runs. Stayed at my place several times and was always an extreme pleasure for myself and my kids. He certainly loved his beers. I,m really hoping that he can find peace whithin himself and receives the acknowledgement that he deserves for the incredible odyysey that he excelled in!

At 4:37 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

In his blog Royston Dave mentions that Al certainly loved his beer which leads me to one of my favourite running stories. Al loved to run very long distances to raise $ for charity. This story is a classic & remembered by hundreds. In the mid eighties he was to run from Cowichan Bay to Victoria and deliver a cheque given to him by the mayor of the town for the annual Easter Seal Telethon taking place at the Macpherson Playhouse. Trouble was, he forgot the cheque and when I met up with him at the highest point of the Malahat I asked him if he wanted a beer or an orange I had brought with me. He chose the liquid, we ran in and at the Welcome to Victoria sign he suggested that we sprint the last mile at a sub 6' pace.Upon arrival we sprinted to the foyer upstairs, had a drink(scotch for Al) then proceeded to the stage where he presented a facsimile of the cheque to the live TV audience. That was Al at his best and I'm still in awe of his abilities. Gilles A. St. Denis

At 6:58 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's funny....I always remembered Al Howie's name ever since one morning in Flushing Meadows Queens NY..My wife and I noticed these tents set up and cones...now we had just finished our 3 mile run around meadow lake...I saw these tired looking bunch spread out in distance around relatively small course...It was sri chimnoy.. race.against the clock...I looked at the leader board and saw that Al Howie had not much more to go int the time left to complete distance in time. I watched Al Howie..it was what appeared a very lonely race...I do remember thinking its such a small course how does he not lose his mind...I figured he must meditate on something as he runs...I never forgot that see I still remember his name..I had used it to many peoples not knowing what the hell I meant when I would say I'm not gonna pull an "Al Howie"...like saying he went postal..it bacame a Name associated with endless task...an AL Howie so I just google his name just wondering if it would produce anything...and it did it gave me hope..as a fellow scottsman. I too have smoked a lot and not knowing what i was even looking for..I think I'm gonna run again. It's in my blood and it will never leave. And the name AL Howie will be in my vocabulary for the rest of my life. Here's to a silent hero...the lonely man I saw...I wish him well and hope he found what he was running to...peace.

At 8:00 AM, Anonymous Charlie said...

I ran multi day races with al.We enjoyed the time I spent with al. Going out in the near future would like to say hello.I need his complete address so I can get in touch. Makes all of us so tiny when health issues come into play.my email is chuck ultra@hotmail.com
Thanks slot. Been trying to find him for a while

At 9:56 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I remember briefly meeting Al in 1986. He had just started a macrobiotic diet and literally ran from Victoria to attend a macrobiotic cooking class in Sooke which I was also attending. He had some great stories which always sounded better in his Scottish brogue.

Someone really needs to make a movie of his life. He's lived through so much. Maybe it should be called Running on Empty.

At 2:29 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I knew Alfie (Al) very well in Saltcoats Scotland in our late teens, used to be out on the town most nights with him and several other regulars, even then, always the eccentric, but great to be with. I remember him fondly, cant remember how our lives drifted apart but wish him all the very best for the future


Post a Comment

<< Home