Runner's High | How Ultra Runner Charlie Engle Beat Drug Addiction to Run the Sahara
He did his first marathon in under 3 hours 30 minutes then called his dealer…
Words by Sam Haddad
“In my rear view mirror, I spotted the men getting into their car – the very one I had just stripped of its bumper. It was still hanging on from one side, and their car was essentially trying to run it over again and again, like a speed bump that wouldn’t quit. Their car lurched forward, spraying sparks. I cackled the way one can only cackle at the end of a four-day crack binge and sped down the road."
This was Charlie Engle almost at rock bottom. But not quite, his lowest ebb, after a decade-long addiction to alcohol and cocaine, would come a few months later following the birth of his son Brett. He’d emerge from a six-day celebratory bender with the mother of all self-loathing comedowns to find bullet holes in his car and vague memories of being shot at by his dealer.
"After a six-day celebratory bender he found bullet holes in his car and had vague memories of being shot at by his dealer."
He knew he had to stop. And he did but in the most extreme way, switching his heavy drug consumption for ultra marathon running, which culminated in a 4,500 mile run across the Sahara desert. His feat was made into the film Running the Sahara, which was produced by Matt Damon. But his growing fame then led to him being investigated and later imprisoned for mortgage fraud. A charge he contests to this day.
In prison he ran endless laps around the tiny yard to stay sane inspiring the other inmates to take up exercise and earning himself the nickname Running Man, which is now the title of his autobiography. I caught up with Engle on Skype to ask about his amazing story and rollercoaster of a life.
He’s a friendly, likeable guy and about as far removed from the desperate crack addict cliché as you can get. I ask if he was a hellraiser at school?
“No I was your classic overachiever actually," he says. “I played football, basketball, baseball, I ran track. I was always the class president and I made good grades and dated the cheerleaders. That was probably how I stayed out of trouble in high school."
"I’d say I was lovingly neglected. It was by no means any sort of abuse, I just had very young parents who were just doing their thing."
Engle had his first drink around eight years old and immediately liked the way it made him feel. How did he get alcohol at such a young age? “My parents were perpetual grad students, very much hippies. My mum was 19 when I was born. She was a theatre person and there was always a cast party or something like that going on at the house. I was an only child and it was a very adult atmosphere."
“I’d say I was lovingly neglected. It was by no means any sort of abuse, I just had very young parents who were just doing their thing. At this party, there were half drunk beer bottles all over the place and I decided to finish a couple of them. That night alcohol planted a flag in my brain and basically claimed that territory. I didn’t drink all the time after that, I was still just a kid, but when I was a teenager if the opportunity came up I definitely drank."
Things started to get out of hand when Engle went to college. He says: “At 17 years old I went to the University of North Carolina. And because of all these great things I’d done in high school, I thought for sure that I was special. As I say in the book: ‘I arrived half-expecting a WELCOME CHARLIE ENGLE banner…’ But then you see that everyone else has the same credentials that you do. There were 4,000 other shiny freshmen."
"I discovered pretty quickly that I was an outstanding partier."
Engle was there to play football but an injury scuppered that opportunity so he played basketball instead. He says: “I was there at the same time as Michael Jordan (undeniably the most competitive person I’ve ever known) and James Worthy and some other very well known basketball players, so I had some fun with that. But I basically pissed it all away drinking and partying. I discovered pretty quickly that I was an outstanding partier."
At first it was just booze then he got into harder drugs. He says: “I went to college in the 1980s and cocaine was a very ubiquitous drug on campuses then. The first time I tried it I didn’t really get anything out of it and then a couple of weeks later I tried it again and that’s when everything changed. I had a spiritual experience of sorts."
He describes it in the book as: “A klieg light switched on in my brain. I remember the electric tang of the lime… the way ‘Roxanne’ seemed to come out of my ears instead of from the jukebox speakers…and that pitcher of cold beer with its drops of condensation shining like rhinestones…I’d never seen anything so beautiful. I couldn’t have known then that I would spend the next ten years looking for the magical combination of coke and alcohol and friends and vibe that would recreate that life-altering first high."
Engle crashed out of college as his alcohol and cocaine use spiralled. But away from campus he kept it together enough to meet his future wife and have good success as a salesman while still jumping on and off the wagon from time to time.
Did he know he had a serious problem? “Well my behaviour should have made me realise that very early on but with addicts you end up with other people who have the same issues. My wife was a normal person but she grew up in a household with an alcoholic father so it’s not a surprise, she married someone who had some of the same tendencies. She was my caretaker if you will, she would call into my job and tell them I wasn’t feeling well or cover for me in some other way. It was a terrible position for me to have put her in."
“I hated myself for failing at school, for failing as a person. Running was my penance."
Somewhat surprisingly throughout his years of addiction Engle kept running. He says: “In my 20s I did use running as a means to not go so far down the rabbit hole that I could never get out. And also for ego, I didn’t want to be that fat out-of-shape drug addict alcoholic."
He also used running to punish himself. He says: “I hated myself for failing at school, for failing as a person. Running was my penance."
“I quit [drugs and alcohol] 100 times. I’d wake up the next day and feel like shit and think I’m never going to be doing that again. I’d put on my running shoes and get healthy and spend a few days or even a week really determined to turn this around. But then you magically feel better and think I’ve been really good this week I can have a couple of beers and then the whole cycle starts over again."
But running would save him in the end. In a bid to get sober, he’d entered his first marathon but the night before he ended up out on a heavy night out and barely slept. During the race he craved a drink the whole way round and somehow found a bar serving beer at the 21st mile. He was sick at the 23rd mile yet still managed to finish in under 3 hours 30. Engle clearly had talent. When he got home he celebrated by calling his drug dealer.
Towards the end of his addiction he’d moved on from cocaine to crack. He writes in the book: “Until then fear and ego had kept me away from crack. Low lifes did crack. I was a marathon runner for god’s sake…then it was: ‘Maybe just a little one’…then all I could think about was doing more."
"He was sick at the 23rd mile yet still managed to finish in under 3 hours 30…When he got home he called his drug dealer."
“My beautiful son could not keep me clean. Nor could my wife or my father or my business or my ego. I was 29 years old, and I was sitting in a gutter, in filthy clothes, my fingers black and blistered."
The near-death shooting incident gave Engle the final push he needed to get clean. He says: “I made the decision that I wanted to be alive and the only way that was going to happen was to stop doing what I was doing. I went to an AA meeting every day for next three years and I ran everyday."
“In my first three years of sobriety I ran 30 marathons." He laughs: “I clearly had the whole addiction thing under control!"
But he doesn’t think it’s as simple as switching addictions really: “Drugs and alcohol mask everything, they were all about not feeling anything, where as running is all about feeling everything. Every single 100 miler I’ve ever done I get halfway through and I’m like: ‘What the hell am I doing here? Why did I think this was a good idea!?’ But it’s about continuous forward movement."
100-mile races take Engle between 16-24 hours depending on how tough the terrain is. I ask him what on earth made him want to run across the Sahara desert? He says: “I love the heat. North Carolina where I live is very hot and humid. And I think it’s a self fulfilling prophecy, I’ve always told myself that I run well in the heat, I’m a better runner in the heat than someone else, whether that’s true doesn’t really matter as it’s what I believe."
“And certainly ego played a role as firsts are hard to come by, especially in the adventure world. There aren’t many things where you can say: ‘Ok there aren’t many people who have done this’ and that happened to be running across the Sahara."
How did he get Matt Damon involved? “I was trying to make it into a film. I’m a good salesman and I had a couple of connections that got me to the eventual director James Moll. And suddenly Matt Damon was involved too and Hans Zimmer was doing the score. So there were three academy award winners attached to a running film and I had no idea if I could even run it!"
What attracted Matt Damon to the project does he think? “At the time he’d never been to Africa, and he wanted to do some more charitable work and together we ended up raising 6 million dollars for the charity water.org"
Engle thinks his addiction recovering really helped him get through the run. “It was very much like if I focused on the enormity of the entire project I probably wouldn’t have started it. It’s like saying: ‘Ok I have to be sober for the rest of my life, in early sobriety it’s not a good idea, that’s why people say one day at a time.’"
“With the running I reached a point where I could literally not think about the next country or even the next day. We ran nearly 80km every single day for 111 consecutive days in the sand and heat. And we had not much in the way of good food, I never saw an ice cube the whole time, there wasn’t much comfort… but I would say this if you’ve ever been on a camping trip, you know that feeling when you finally get dirty there’s a mentality to it when actually you don’t mind anymore."
How did the local people react to his run? “I think it was humorous to them. I’ve done a lot of racing around the world, and it is occasionally embarrassing to be running through some place that people certainly don’t run in normally, unless it’s for their lives or to get water."
Engle was well off the drugs and forging a great career as an ultra runner and public speaker when a tax official starting digging into his accounts, and he ended up in prison for mortgage fraud. A charge he still protests his innocence over. He served 18 months of a 20-month sentence.
And again it was running that rescued him. “We had a quarter mile track, well dirt path, it was very spartan of course. I went in there and simply did what I do, actually what I needed to do to stay sane. And people came up to me and said: ‘Can you help me run?’ It was my way through, I enjoyed it, and I was able to help guys who grew up in the projects and certainly never had anybody talk to them about health or fitness."
But prison also gave Engle perspective on how lucky it actually was in spite of everything. “It helped me not complain. While I believe firmly what happened to me was a injustice, it’s pretty hard to talk about fairness when you’re in a cell next to a guy who got 20 years for an amount of crack cocaine that I had in my pocket 100 times."
“He’s a black guy of course, US prisons are filled with people who didn’t have proper representation or who were the victim of these inordinately long prison sentences in the US for drug offences. You get caught with pot three times and you might spend 25 years in jail. It’s mind blowing that we would waste that kind of money and energy on destroying a human being’s life."
Engle describes jail as one of those rare times in life where you don’t get to follow up with people once you get out but he hopes that some of the inmates who got into sports through him will keep at it when they get out or come back to it at some point in the future. And that in turn it can help them turn their lives around as it did for him.