British Columbia

B.C. long-distance runner Al Howie's eccentric story captured in new biography

Al Howie was a 3 packs a day smoker running from Interpol. Then he took up running and his career is the stuff of legends.

He was a 3-packs-a-day smoker running from Interpol. Then he took up running and no one could catch him

Al Howie, running in red on the left, ran across Canada in 72 days and 10 hours, a record that has remained unbeaten for almost 30 years. (Facebook/The Al Howie)

Al Howie came to Canada in the early 1970s on the run from Interpol, with a three-packs-a-day cigarette habit, a thirst for drugs and booze, and a son he brought across the Atlantic during a custody dispute.

The Scottish-born Howie, who settled in Duncan, B.C., would go on to become one of the greatest long-distance runners in Canadian history — and his story so fascinated New York author Jared Beasley, who stumbled upon it by accident, that he put it all down in his new book, In Search of Al Howie.

Beasley was researching long-distance runners when he learned about Howie and tracked him down in Duncan. The two men met before Howie died in 2016, and the mysterious marathoner opened up to the American author.

Howie had left an ex-wife when he came to B.C. with their son Gabe and was eventually cleared by Interpol for taking the boy. Now a single father, Howie used running to kick his addiction to cigarettes and drugs.

Al Howie with his son Gabe in Turkey in the 1970s. (Facebook/The Real Al Howie)

But this was no casual jog around the block.

The distances he ran grew longer and longer. One of his first races, in 1979, was a marathon in Prince George that included notable B.C. athletes Rick Hansen and Terry Fox, who was running his first marathon with an artificial leg.

Howie ran 820 kilometres from Victoria to Prince George, minus ferry, just to get to the race before placing third in the marathon.

His performances were surprising in part because he didn't quite fit the traditional mould of an athlete.

"He would be downing beers. He didn't look like a runner," Beasley told On The Island host Gregor Craigie."He had long hair and a beard, a real hippy mystique to him.

In 1991, he ran across Canada in 72 days, a record unmatched for almost three decades. Two weeks after his cross-country jaunt, he broke the world record at the Sri Chinmoy marathon in New York City by running the 2,100 kilometre race in 16 days.

Al Howie won the 2,100 kilometre Sri Chinmoy marathon in New York City in 1991, running the race in 16 days, averaging over 100 kilometres a day. (Twitter/Jared Beasley)

"Running was his world," said Beasley. "There just wasn't one [race] that was long enough to satisfy him."

Howie kept to himself in his later years. He battled health problems, including diabetes, but would regularly run the 60 kilometres from Duncan to Victoria to do his errands, and then run back. 

Beasley said when they spoke in Duncan, Howie wasn't enthusiastic to talk about anything but running. 

"There are just some people that are not cut out with the mental makeup to deal with a lot of the things that the world throws at us, and running was his only outlet," said Beasley.

In Search of Al Howie will be published in October by Victoria's Rocky Mountain Books.

 

To hear the complete interview with Jared Beasley on CBC's On The Island, click on the audio link below:

Jared Beasley, author of the new biography, "In Search of Al Howie", on the mysterious Vancouver Island man who became internationally known for running unimaginable distances. 9:01

With files from On The Island

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