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!