On June 21, 2016, the ultrarunning community lost a great runner and beloved friend, Al Howie. Al competed in many of our ultra races, and at his prime he was a formidable foe that cut a dashing figure with his beard and accent. In 1989, Al became first person to ever run 1300 miles in a certified race when he won the Sri Chinmoy 1300 Mile Race. In 1991 he returned after running across Canada that summer in 72 days (averaging 63 miles a day over mountains and prairies), breaking his own 1300 mile record by several hours. In the following article, Arpan De Angelo reminisces about his long-time friend:
One night as I sat eating in Annam Brahma Restaurant in Queens, New York, a familiar figure walked in. It was Al Howie, bags in tow, looking like he was travel-weary and hungry. I had not seen Al since we ran in a Sri Chinmoy 24 hour race in Ottawa six years ago. Now he was here to run 1,300 miles in the Ultra Trio. I greeted Al and invited him to sit down and eat.
During dinner, I was inspired by his friendly manner and courage. He had just travelled four days by bus from Vancouver Island to get here and was determined to become the first runner in history to complete 1,300 miles in a certified race. His enthusiasm was contagious, and I decided to help Al in any way I could. I invited him to stay at my place for the three days before the race was to start. This gave me an opportunity to get to know one of the greatest ultra runners of all time.
Photo: Al Howie (l) became the first runner to complete the 1,300 mile distance. Stefan Schlett (r) also completed the distance.
The following day I participated in the Sri Chinmoy 24 Hour TAC/USA National Championship in Flushing Meadows Corona Park. Al offered to be my handler. This was probably the first 24 hour race that Al attended as a volunteer instead of a runner. He had run in about 20 such races, winning most of them, usually with 140-150 miles. At the time, he also held the current 24 hour record (150.2 miles) for both Scottish citizens and Canadian residents. Although I had placed second in this race last year with 130 miles, I had to drop out at 92 miles because of an unexplainable dizziness and leg cramps. Anyway, Al stayed on, assisting throughout the night in whatever capacity he was needed. He was inspired by the intensity of Ann Trason’s great performance – a woman’s world record for 100 miles (13:55:02) and winning the race overall with 143 miles. Helping around the clock in the 24 hour primed him for the incredible challenge he was about to undertake.
Al was no stranger to the flat, fast one mile loop in Flushing Meadows Corona Park. He won the Sri Chinmoy Seven Day here last May in his first multi-day race. In fact, Al won every race he ran this year, including a 12 hour August 13 in Victoria, B.C. (82+ miles), a 50 mile June 10 on Vancouver Island in a ‘slow’ 6 hours and 30 minutes, and finally the seven day in May here in New York City.
Besides those performances, he told me how he had intensified his training, averaging 160 miles or more per week for most of the year in preparation for the 1,300 mile. Also, he started weight training for both upper body and legs, about one and a half hours every other day. On those days he would only run 15 miles; on the days between he would run 30 miles.
At age 44, he was in the best physical condition of his life.
On September 18th Al and ten other intrepid runners, including one woman, started their first steps on the long 1,300 mile journey. Al ran 113 miles the first day comfortably, but had a more conservative strategy for the remainder of the race. His schedule would be to average just over 70 miles a day after that. He soon discovered that walking some sections of every loop helped him to maintain his energy and strength through the long days and nights. He took meal breaks three times a day, usually for a half hour or less, but enjoying big meals with plenty of high carbohydrate and nutritional foods. He would also take small snacks regularly throughout the day and night. Water was his main drink but he also had electrolyte replacement drinks and an occasional coffee. He slept three hours every night, usually from around 11 p.m. to 2 a.m. In the daytime he would put his feet up or even lie down for a short time when feeling a bit road weary.
Al was a self-sufficient runner who never complained or demanded too much from anyone. It impressed me the way he maintained a positive mental attitude no matter how tired. He was friendly to the other runners and seemed to draw positive energy from them. I thought this was a great factor in his favor along with the awesome physical condition that he was in. Day by day he kept faithfully to his schedule. He completed 573 miles in the first week, 62 miles more than his winning effort in the seven day race in May.
Although Al ran just as intensely the second week as the first, he still took time to be civil and friendly. He was working hard in this race, leading from the first mile to the last, yet like the legendary baseball player Joe DiMaggio, he made it look so easy. He seemed to have the knack of keeping his energy level high throughout the long days and even longer nights.
At 13 days +00:27:37 he completed 1,000 miles, making him the fourth fastest in the world at the distance. Prior to this, Al’s longest distance had been 876 miles in 11 days +03:18:00 on a solo journey run the length of Britain, the best time for that course. Another mark that he held that that time was nonstop running – 361 miles (580 km) with only five minutes rest allowed per hour. But now he was on his way to an uninhabited realm. After 13 days of hard running, he still had 300 more miles to cover before the 18 day cut-off.
Al approached the third and final week cautiously. Realizing he was becoming tired much earlier in the day than before, he increased his sleep time to four hours per night. He took more short breaks during the day, but still maintained around 70 miles per day. He was now paying closer attention to the condition of his feet, which had developed a few small blisters. On the fifteenth day, with less than 150 miles to go, he discovered that his right calf was much larger than his left. The medical staff determined that it was just a strange case of fluid retention, as there was no pain or injury related to the swelling. Keeping it wrapped, icing it occasionally, and being very cautious about any other unexpected surprises that could stop him dead in his tracks, Al carried on his mission cheerfully and courageously. The swelling went down.
Finally, to the cheers and hurrahs of the assembled crowd, carrying the Canadian flag and the Scottish lion-rampant battle flag, with his beard and long golden hair flowing – Al finished the 1,300 miles in 17 days +08:25:34, becoming the first person ever to go that distance under certified race conditions.
Three years ago, when Sri Chinmoy stipulated an 18 day cutoff for 1,300 miles, some of us felt that it was not enough time, that no one except perhaps Yiannis Kouros would be able to do it. Sri Chinmoy felt the challenge would inspire runners to transcend themselves. This year three did. At the awards ceremony Al paid tribute to a man with the vision, concern and inspiration to put on such races. He said: ‘Finishing this race was the greatest moment of my life. I’m not a disciple of his, but I am dedicating this race to Sri Chinmoy.’
These results are incredible and may stand for some time. But the most amazing thing for me and many other people who supported Al in his victory was the fact that this friendly, keen-witted Scotsman accomplished a previously impossible endurance feat with considerable grace and poise. This was testimony to the true stature of Al Howie, who has established himself as one of the greatest ultra distance runners of all time.
Excerpted from the article in Ultrarunning, December 1989 “Canadian Al Howie – A Multi-Day Ultra Champion.” Ultrarunning. December 1989. Reprinted with permission from the publisher.