Recently, I reached out to Charlie Engle when I noticed a post on his facebook page that read:
If you’d like to write to Charlie Engle while staying in Beckley Federal Prison Camp in West Virginia then here is the address: PO BOX 350, Beaver, WV 25813. I immediately thought this might be a good opportunity to ask the man a few questions about his amazing endurance career as well as just say hello to a guy that probably would like to hear from a fan.
Charlie is set to be released this summer after serving a 21 month sentence for Mortgage Fraud. He was found guilty of overstating his income on a Home Loan application.
A few years back I first met and saw Charlie speak at an event at the National White Water Center in Gastonia, North Carolina as he gave an eloquent account of his road from addiction to sobriety and thus notoriety as one of the premier Ultra-Marathoners on the planet. He is very well-known for his 2007 movie Running The Sahara where he and 2 others ran across the entire Sahara Dessert in 111 days traveling over 4300 miles in consecutive days until finally reaching the Red Sea.
WM: What is your fondest Marathon Moment?
CE: What’s funny about remembering marathons, or any race for that matter, is that not being able to remember the pain of the moment changes everything. That could also be said about sobriety for me. Consequently, I have to keep entering racesand to keep going to AA meetings so that I be reminded of the misery involved. That said, I did the Big Sur Marathon in 1990 and I remember it as a truly ethereal experience but not because I ran fast. It was the first year I ran Boston, having qualified only weeks before at the Napa Valley Marathon. In those days, you could still qualify for and run Boston in the same month. So I ranBoston on April 15th and then returned to Monterey CA, where I lived. I had agreed to run BIG Sur as a part of a centipede, 13 people tethered together for the entire race. This team effort completely took away the pressure of running fast, or so I thought. As it turned out, we managed to run a 3:25, with several runners actually setting PR’s, despite the strange circumstances. We ran as a group, drank as a group, and most humorously, peed as a group.
For me, it was a transformative run, one that reminded me of the beauty of the camaraderie of friendship and of possibilities. I was still 2 years away from sobriety, struggling to figure out how to stay alive. I am still friends with most of my fellow runners from that race. It made all the difference.
WM: When did you have the realization or ‘aha’ moment that longer was better, in terms of how your engine cooks?
CE: When I was still an active alcoholic and drug addict, I actually used to joke that I have better endurance than anyone. By “anyone”, I meant all of the other drug addicts that I could crush in a drug using competition. In truth, I did know that I built more for endurance than speed. I guess the real moment of realization was after a race that I did in Australia back in the mid 1990′s. I thought I had entered a 10K but in fact I had signed up for a 100K.
After a 3 hour drive and a fair amount of embarrassment. I decided to just go ahead and start the race knowing full well that I planned to drop out after about 20 miles. Along the way, things changed and I kept telling myself “just a little further,” ultimately making it to the finish line. I had planned to run 6.2 miles and had ultimately run 62 miles. Previous to that, I had never run further than 26.2 miles. Why would I?? It seemed improbable and undesirable to run any further. I guess it took an unlikely set of circumstances to force me into challenging myself beyond the marathon. I found myself and my passion. But it wasn’t so much running farther that I loved, rather it was the pain.
The similarity between the pain of running 100 miles and spending a week doing drugs was undeniable. Somehow, running that far helped me to purge the destructive behaviors of my past.
WM: You beat the previous record of the Death Valley Cup by more than an hour in 2009 by placing 4th Overall at Badwater (135 Mile Run) and 4th Overall at the Furnace Creek 508 (508 Mile Bike Ride) thru Death Valley. Which event was more demanding? Tell us a little about that achievement.
CE: For me, there is no doubt that the Furnace Creek 508 is more difficult but not for any obvious reason. Badwater is widely regarded as the World’s Toughest Road Race and I would concur. But for me, it is a pain that I now intimately, somehow making it tolerable even when I am falling apart, which is pretty much every time I do Badwater.
On the other hand, the 508 is still like to a foreign country where I don’t speak the language and can’t stand the food. The discomfort of having my ass on a bike seat for 32 hours is just beyond almost any pain that I can easily recall. There are sections of the road that are so rough that I felt like I needed a mouth guard so I wouldn’t break my teeth. All of that said, I also love the feeling of doing something that is far out of my comfort zone. I have been cycling for years but the 508 is just long stretches of misery dotted with short stretches of floating, flying down at 60 miles per hour, realizing that what was fun just a second ago was now terrifying and stressful. I will be 50 years old later this year and I hope to lower the Death Valley Cup record in 2013, as a senior citizen no less.
WM: What’s the best piece of advice you have ever been given?
CE: Never pull yourself off the course. Make someone else do it. In other words, don’t make the assumption that just because I feel like shit right now, I will continue to feel like shit. In fact, I have found that in almost every instance where physical and emotional breakdown were dogging me, if I just kept moving forward eating and drinking, I would turn some unseen corner to feeling better. If I quit every time I felt lousy in a race, I doubt I would have ever finished one.
WM: What’s next? Have you given any thoughts to your next endurance adventure?
CE: I have some big plans when I get out of prison. The first and most important is to just hang out with my boys. My kids have weathered this pretty well but I’m not sure that I have. I need to feel their hugs and kisses everyday for a while. Then i am sure I will be off and running again (pun intended). For sure I will try again to cross the US on foot, either in record.
WM: Countless folks, including myself, have watched Running The Sahara to get pumped before a race. What thoughts run thru your head when you watch it? How has H2O Africa evolved? Plans for future?
CE: Running The Sahara was such an unexpected experience, especially when one considers the current state of things in the Sahara. Every single country that we ran through, Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Libya, and Egypt, is in the midst of serious political turmoil. I feel incredibly lucky that we were able to see the entire desert. That said, I am heartbroken to know of the suffering that is happening in that part of the world. The indigenous people have struggled for centuries and they still lack clean water and now pretty much all aid has been cut off. H2O Africa is now part of a much bigger organization, Water.org. Unfortunately, one side effect of my conviction is that I will likely not be able to help in the future, at least not for a while. Being a convicted felon, even something as strange as overstating income on a home loan application can make people look at me sideways. What I am absolutely certain of is that if I just keep moving forward, the next opportunity will present itself. Running The Sahara gave me the chance to do some deeply fulfilling work and I look forward to whatever comes next.
WM: What books have you been able to read that have helped you “escape” from your current situation?
CE: I have read some absolutely brilliant books, too many to name here. But a few of my favorites have been The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbaugh, So Much For That Lionel Shriver, Cutting For Stone, Steve Jobs biography. I have read about 125 books so far and am close to finishing my own book. I highly recommend prison for improving ones appreciation for literature. Everything else sucks though. I plan to book my next vacation elsewhere.
WM: Who is/are your inspirations?
CE: I am still deeply appreciative of Ernest Shackleton and the leadership he showed when his ship was crushed in the ice of Antarctica. He said, “Optimism is true moral courage.” For me, he is saying that it’s easy to be an optimist when all is going well, but who are you when things fall apart. This same question haunts me when I run. Who am I when everything falls apart. I am still finding out.
WM: It’s late in the race, legs are heavy, breathing is labored, fatigue sets in… What do you tell yourself to keep going?
CE: You paid good money to punish yourself in this race so just shut up and run.