April 06, 2005 News & Features » Cover Story


The Scientist 

So in effect, running is 80 percent flying. Or at least consistent falling in one direction.

Howell's physical therapy practice in Midlothian has become well-known to local runners. At 55, he has the quiet thoughtful manner of a doctor and the leanness and beard of an old-school runner. He's been running since high school in Washington, D.C., where he practiced for track meets by sprinting down alleys early in the morning, "because I didn't want people to see me," he says. The quizzical looks he got as a youth vanished after the late '70s running boom. Years later, Howell could be seen running to and from work every day for 17 years.

As a former chairman of the Sports Medicine Committee for both the U.S. Track & Field Association and the Road Runners Club of America, as a runner of marathons in 38 states and 11 months (September marathons are tough because it's back-to-school time), as a runner of ultras, Howell is seeing more than just people flying in slo-mo on his videos.

"Some areas of running are slowly evolving to the better," he says. Science is catching up to the craze, so we know more about two major sources of injury: overstriding (when your foot extends farther than your knee) and the related heel-striking (which puts a lot of shock through the foot and leg).

The image of the "lonely long-distance runner," the introvert, he says, is fading. "Used to be there wasn't the option of it being an extrovert activity," he says. The soft-spoken therapist invites me to think of him, this member of the old school, running amidst a gaggle of chattering tourists. His wife is an extrovert, he laughs, it's perfect for her.

Perhaps the biggest evolution is the increasing number of women participating in the sport. "I think it's tremendous to have the sport open up to that segment of the population," he says. As the demographics change, wild trends evolve in a sport that seems to have limitless potential. Howell sees these extremes, too. Maybe especially. From people running 100-mile ultra marathons to people ditching the shoes in favor of barefoot running, there's a new idea lurking behind every twisted ankle.

Working within this field that seems able to grow forever, Howell reflects on his own competitive years, culminating in his early 30s. He was running faster and farther, and once he'd reached his peak, his viewpoint shifted to running for enjoyment. That stopwatch was retired. But, he says, "It took me eight years to accept it."

So now, when he runs, he sees his adulthood reflected in puddles and is reminded of something his mother said: The difference between a boy and a man is that a boy will go through the puddle and a man will go around. And it's true: When he starts on a run, he avoids puddles.

"But by the end of the run, I'm a boy," he says. "I run right through them."

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