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Marathon man’s incredible feats largely uncelebrated

Al Howie ran.

He ran the length of Vancouver Island.

He ran around a paved, mile-long loop for 20 hours a day for seven days.

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He ran from Winnipeg to Ottawa to compete in a 24-hour endurance race. He won.

He ran across America.

For him, a marathon was a short jog in the park. He was the ultramarathon man, an unstoppable runner whose distances were so great as to seem fantastic, even comical.

Most famously, he ran across Canada, from St. John's to Victoria, six time zones and 10 provinces, plunging into the waters of Juan de Fuca Strait just 72 days and 10 hours after dipping into the Atlantic Ocean.

At Mile Zero, a plaque honours Mr. Howie for his epic journey, which concluded 20 years ago this week.

Mr. Howie has had little recognition for his spectacular feats. He has not been enshrined in sports halls of fame. It is as if he ran into the record books and then into obscurity. He seems to have been forgotten by all except a small band of dedicated supporters.

These days, Mr. Howie's home is a small room at an assisted-living facility in Duncan. A man once afraid of needles now gets four daily insulin injections to treat Type I diabetes.

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"I'm not so healthy as I was," Mr. Howie, 65, said by telephone earlier this week, the burr of his native Scotland still on his tongue.

To stay in shape, he swims, preferring the breaststroke. "Like getting a massage while you're working out," he said.

These days, he is capable of running only three miles at a time.

"It would be nice to get back out on the road," he admitted.

In his day, the runner styled himself as the Tartan Spartan. He wore running shorts emblazoned with the Union Jack. His long, wild hair fell past his shoulders and he grew a fierce beard on his chin, making him a feral figure. He raced along streets and highways like a mad Rob Roy without a horse.

The sport of distance running offered little in the way of prize money, so Mr. Howie spent many years in near-penury. He depended on modest sponsorships and the charity of friends.

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"I run on resentment, angrily pounding the blacktop," he once wrote. "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."

Born in Saltcoats, a village on the Scottish coast southwest of Glasgow, he came to Canada in 1973 after marrying a Canadian woman, a union that did not last. He took up running to cope with cravings while trying to quit cigarettes, replacing one addiction with another.

He has been a stonemason, a foundry worker and a tree planter. He once operated a crusher at a copper mill mine near Port Hardy, running 20 kilometres each way to work.

A diagnosis of a malignant brain tumour in 1985 failed to end his running career, in which he won notice not only for his victories but for his preference to run between cities to race. One year, he completed the Edmonton marathon before running the 1,500 kilometres to Vancouver Island to compete at the Royal Victoria Marathon.

"I have to admit," he once told The New York Times, "there are days when I wish I was good at something a little easier, like darts or pool."

Sometimes, he drank a beer before a race, a hedonistic stunt all the more frustrating for rivals when he nevertheless ended the day atop the podium.

"Helped put me in the mood," he said of his before-race regimen.

The cross-Canada trek, called Tomorrow Run '91, raised $527,400 for a charity for children with special needs. Mr. Howie ran the equivalent of 2½ Boston Marathons. Every day. For two months.

It is not known if Mr. Howie's health will permit him to come to Victoria for a ceremony on Thursday, the 20th anniversary of the day he dove into the water without removing clothes or running shoes. A plaque and a city proclamation declaring "Tomorrow Run '91 Day" in Victoria might instead be delivered to him at his home in the facility.

Once upon a time, Mr. Howie would have run from Duncan to Victoria to receive the honours.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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