Oddballs, Aliens, and Enigmas: Exploring the World of Ultra-Ultras

A review of "In Search of Al Howie," a biography of an ultra world record-holder most have never heard of.

One of the best chapters in Jared Beasley’s In Search of Al Howie (Rocky Mountain Books, Victoria, Canada, 2019) is titled “The Misfits,” and introduces us to a selection of the eccentric oddballs who make up most of the tiny community of ultra-ultra runners. Enigmas, vagabonds, aliens, borderline cuckoos, the author calls them, but pays tribute to the way their cult pushes the extremes of body and mind.  The races they run on these pages are as odd as the runners: 7 days, 1,300 miles, 72 hours, 2,000km, coast to coast, north to south, or simply a run to run further at one time than any human before.

Al Howie non-stop run
photo: courtesy Jared Beasley

That last was achieved by Jared Beasley’s troubled hero, Al Howie (real name Arthur, but he was as elusive about his name and address as about immigration papers). On November 2, 1987, Howie circled the Victoria University (Canada) track for four days, 1,442 times, covering 360 miles/580km, never stopping, only slowing down in a dark corner to pee, so Beasley says. “It was a world record. One that has yet to be broken.” That statement of course prompts the question of who would want to try. Howie was a real competitive runner, with PRs of 1:12:28 for the half-marathon, a 2:29:11 marathon. But he found a niche of excellence at the farthest edge of running where very few would care to challenge him.

One of the most helpful passages to understand this extreme fringeland compares Howie with other great ultra runners. Don Ritchie of Scotland, Beasley says, was the supreme champion of 50 and 100 milers. Yiannis Kouros of Greece was undisputed from 100 miles to 1,000. Anything beyond that belongs (the book says) to the Scots-born Canadian Howie.

If few have heard of him, that’s a consequence of choosing a variant of the sport that few engage in and fewer watch. The book credits Howie with world records (2,000km, 1,300 miles) most of us didn’t know exist. He nevertheless achieved more than fringe celebrity. He was inducted into the Victoria Sports Hall of Fame, his death in 2016  brought obituaries in Canada and the UK, and his epic east to west run across Canada in 1991 is commemorated in a brass plaque at Mile Zero in Victoria, next to Terry Fox. In Canada that justifies Beasley’s claim that he was “a mythological figure.”

Beasley’s aim in the book is to explain the mind and motivation of this introverted and socially inept achiever. How could a man who made such a mess of his personal life, who at times teetered on the edge of nicotine, alcohol and drug addictions, who was often exploitative and irresponsible, still possess such extraordinary discipline within the parameters of his chosen form of expression? Hence “In search of” in the title, echoing Ian Hamilton’s classic biography of J. D. Salinger.

Al Howie starting his day King's Hwy, 17, Ontario
photo: courtesy Jared Beasley

Beardsley is commendably forthright in revealing Howie’s evasions and fantasies—his conviction at one time that he had a brain tumor, or later that he had been luckily bumped from a flight that crashed, killing all on board—inventions, Beasley shows, that Howie totally believed. In his sad, almost catatonic last years he was convinced daily that he was going to die that day.

Beasley also quotes sources as well-informed as Dr. Jack Taunton of Vancouver in expressing doubt about the effect of Howie’s obsessive-compulsiveness, impairing his results by running often hundreds of miles to get to each race.

Howie’s tolerant last wife thought he was autistic, and that diagnosis would explain the obsessiveness and the social incapacity. Beasley also astutely relates autism to what was probably the source of Howie’s success in ultra running, the ability to clear his mind, to zone out. How else could you run 1,422 times non-stop around a 400m track?

The book offers good insights into its introspective main subject, although its own style is flamboyant and metaphoric. For example: “Like a dam that had backed up over years of frustration and had recently been beset with epic floods, Al Howie was either going to break or overflow like a torrent of mad, uncontrollable water.”

When he strayed from his main focus, I felt that Beasley should have read and acknowledged more books about running. He cites no sources for his limited glances at the references to the Tarahumara or the running monks of Japan’s Mount Hiei. He misinterprets Fred Lebow, whose genius was in marketing and promotion, not money-making. His short paragraph about Kathrine Switzer’s story is wrong in every detail, apparently not aware of her book Marathon Woman or recent reliable sources like Amby Burfoot’s First Ladies of Running. So for insight into the mind of an ultra runner in action, I will probably still go to Bernd Heinrich’s Why We Run, Bruce Tulloh’s Four Million Footsteps, and Ed Ayres’s The Longest Race.

But Canada was generous to Al Howie, and it’s good that Beasley was able to find publication in his home country for an in-depth exploration of surely their most perplexing sports hero.

Roger Robinson is the author of When Running Made History which has won international acclaim.