BURNABY — At various points over the summer of 2015, Julia Howley found herself standing in place that looked like it sat on the top of the world.
“I climb the stairs and it feels like I am out in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean,” she begins of the path to the top of Signal Hill in her hometown of St. John’s, Nfld. “It’s painful but worth it. There’s 80-kilometre winds and breathtaking views. You feel like you can take on the world.”
In large part, it was the same kind of feeling that Howley, a senior middle-distance standout at Simon Fraser University, had wanted to put back in her running life. And it was part of the reason she had flown the 7,000 kilometres east back to St. John’s following what she best describes as a forgettable freshman season with the Clan.
“I had more opportunities to socialize than I was used to,” she begins of that 2014-15 season atop Burnaby Mountain, “and I think that as an outgoing person experiencing residence for the first time, I was eager to take on the opportunities. I wasn’t completely focused on track (and cross-country) and my performance reflected that.”
And so Howley, who is quick to describe herself as a bit of a free spirit, let the gusts of wind guide her as she embarked on a journey of re-discovery.
“I specifically remember going home that first summer,” she recalls. “I told myself that I wasn’t going to wear a watch. I wasn’t going to train on the track. I was just going to run. I wanted to figure out how to love running again.”
A TEAM OF HER DREAMS
It’s the morning of Sept. 8 in Monmouth, Ore., and Julia Howley finds herself a wire-to-wire winner, besting a field of 112 others at the Ash Creek Invitational.
“One of the personal goals I had coming into my senior season was to win a race,” Howley said of accomplishing the goal in the team’s first competition of the campaign. “”I took off at the start and didn’t know what was going on, but after I won I turned around and saw a sea of red. The next four finishers were all my teammates (Addy Townsend, Olivia Willett, Miryam Bassett, Chelsea Ribeiro).”
It was, in fact, a perfect finish for SFU, and in every way possible, it’s been a perfect start to the 2017 season for Howley.
Over the next few weeks, against much tougher fields, Howley has led the Clan’s efforts, finishing third in the open division at the University of Washington’s Sundodger Invite, and then this past Saturday, finishing second overall in Minneapolis at the Roy Griak Invite.
The Clan won the overall team title at both of those events, putting their win streak at an amazing three straight, a span in which its NCAA national ranking has risen from No. 14 to No. 7 to No. 5.
“She certainly has started well,” says Clan head coach Brit Townsend. “Julia is a very driven athlete and she has certainly come a long way since that first season.”
Howley has learned to bring a more consistent level of composure to her race-day performances, which have in the past been impacted by her high-emotion style.
Yet the best parts of that high-emotion style is what helps separate her from many of her rivals.
“Julia Howley is different from a lot of runners,” begins Townsend. “She is a grinder. She grinds through races. She grinds through practices. If we can teach her more composure so she doesn’t get over-excited, she can walk that fine line of peaking without going over the edge.”
The best part?
Howley has shown such steady improvement on both the trails and track after her freshman season that the 21-year-old, matriculating within a joint major of Business and Environmental Science, is falling in love with her sport at an entirely different level.
In fact, Townsend will likely red-shirt Howley for the upcoming outdoor track season, letting her exhaust eligibility in cross country and indoor track to close out this season, before bringing her back to finish her Clan career in the spring of 2019.
“I hope she lets me do that because I definitely have a lot more to prove and I am not ready for it to be all done after this year,” states Howley, an NCAA All-American last season in cross-country. “I have a lot of goals including becoming an All-American on the track.”
COINCIDENCE OR FATE?
To set the scene, let’s go back east to St. John’s and join the Howley clan for their daily bread.
“I can remember sitting at the dinner table with my family,” Howley remembers of a day back in 2009 when she was a budding runner, still only 13 years of age. “All of a sudden I hear this name on the radio, and they’re talking about someone who at the time was vying for the Olympics. I jumped up. I said ‘Hey, they’re talking about me.’”
Of course they weren’t.
Yet as Howley’s stature grows this season to the kinds of heights which allow her to be mentioned in the same ballpark collegiately as many of the Clan’s past female middle-distance greats, there is an amazing coincidence unfolding, one which is starting to look more and more like fate.
The athlete being mentioned on the radio that day was none other than Julia Howard, also a St. John’s native, and the first of the great Newfoundland runners channeled to Townsend and the Clan by legendary coach Ray Will.
“It’s all definitely a coincidence,” laughs Townsend, who opened the Newfoundland-to-Burnaby Mountain pipeline just past the turn of the century by bringing Howard into the program. “The first time I heard (Howley’s name) I thought they were talking about (Julia Howard).”
Ray Will coached within the national team program when Townsend was still a member and the two have since developed a friendship based on mutual respect for each others accomplishments in the sport.
“In Julia Howard’s case, Ray believed that the only way she would succeed was if she left Newfoundland,” remembers Townsend, who later coached Howard to the NAIA national cross-country championship title and saw her become a member of the Canadian national team.
“I still remembering hearing the name that day on the radio and a few years later I met her and trained with her,” says Howley of Howard. “I have always been a bit of a free spirit, someone who was never afraid to just take off on their own. Now I hope that I am kind of following in her footsteps. It’s all full circle.”
Over the years, Will recommended both Ryan Brockerville of Marystown and Daniel Kelloway of Mount Pearl, and both of the Newfoundlanders thrived under Townsend’s guidance.
So why not a fourth? Townsend so trusts Will’s word that she took Howley, whose pre-university times were not spectacular, sight unseen.
“I trusts his instincts and I am honoured that he trusts me with those kids,” says Townsend.
“YOU FEEL LIKE YOU CAN TAKE ON THE WORLD”
Howley and Co. have a break from the trails this coming weekend.
On Oct. 7 they are in Bellingham for the Western Washington Invite, and two weeks after that, on Oct. 21, back in the same town for the GNAC championships.
The NCAA Div. 2 West Regionals are Nov. 4 at Monmouth, Ore. and the NCAA championships got Nov. 18 at Evansville, Indiana.
Howley, befitting her senior status, is one of the team’s leaders.
“We just need to stay accountable to each other,” she begins of a program that always has high expectations, especially this season after winning its first three races. “It’s still two months to the Big Dance, so we have to keep showing up mentally for practice.”
Remind Howley how fast it’s all gone by and she chuckles.
“It’s crazy that I am a senior in cross this year because sometimes I still feel like that little kid living in res, going out on Friday nights.
“The big switch for me came in my second year,” she adds. “I realized how mental a sport it is, and how if I wanted to perform the times I was capable of that I just had to let go of my thoughts and my negativity and just run.”
That’s how she became the girl at the top of Signal Hill, standing in the place where she can take on the world.
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