Charlie Engle is not like most people. For one thing, he’s run across the Sahara Desert — a feat that turned into a documentary narrated by none other than Matt Damon. He’s “summited ice-covered volcanoes, swam with crocodiles, and served a stint in federal prison.” Making the North Carolina-based writer and ultramarathon runner’s story even more improbable is that he’s accomplished everything after overcoming a life-threatening drug and alcohol addiction.
Engle had always been an athlete. After running a five-minute mile in Grade 8, he went on to star in six sports throughout high school. It was only after starting university at North Carolina that he discovered another, more destructive talent.
“I figured out very quickly that I was an absolute brilliant, All-American drinker,” says Engle. “And that became — unfortunately for me — my hobby to begin with, and then my vocation later, and then it became the thing that sort of sustained me.”
What started with alcohol turned to cocaine — which, in the United States of the 1980s, came to define an era of drug use.
“I did a couple of lines, and it was like some super light switched on in my head, and it didn’t really switch off again for ten years,” says Engle. “I had lots of friends in college that could do a little bit, and party and have some fun, and actually go to bed and get up and go to class the next day. I was not that guy.”
“It seemed like there was nothing I couldn’t do. And then of course, twenty minutes later, you need more of it, and then it starts all over again.” – Charlie Engle
No longer attending class, Engle eventually left the University of North Carolina in his junior year and moved in with his father in California. He describes the next ten years as “chasing that first experience and trying to match that initial [high].”
“Addicts are suckers for their inner addict,” says Engle. “That’s the voice that gets listened to, and it’s a very hard voice to resist.”
The tipping point, he says, came in July of 1992 after the birth of his firstborn son. Vowing to get clean, he nonetheless ended up on a lengthy crack cocaine binge in Wichita, Kansas, during which his car ended up littered with bullet holes that were intended for him.
“Nobody else could save me,” says Engle. “I thought my son could actually be my saviour. I thought he could stop me from being a drug addict. And the final dose of reality [was] understanding that there was no one but me that could actually make that happen.”
Newly sober, Engle turned to the one thing that made him feel alive: running. He started entering marathons, and then ultramarathons — running through jungles, over mountains, and in races around the world. One day, a friend — Canadian Ray Zahab — floated the idea of running across the Sahara.
“You know, the why was as simple as no one had ever done it before,” says Engle, “and there are very few firsts in the endurance world that are left anymore. It gave us this incredible opportunity to see if we could do something that had never been done.”
“Seeing the world through the soles of my feet is so much more satisfying and meaningful than seeing it from the passenger seat of a tour bus. That’s what running has done for me. It’s given me a relatable way to see the world.” – Charlie Engle
Joined by Kevin Lin, another ultramarathon runner from Taiwan, the two embarked on the challenge in November of 2006, running through six countries and nearly 7,000 kilometres from Senegal to Egypt. Engle partnered with narrator Damon to create H20 Africa — an initiative which has since become Water.org — with the goal of bringing clean water to communities along the Sahara route.
Now 25 years sober and a motivational speaker, Engle has turned his life’s story into the memoir Running Man. The story captures Engle’s peaks and valleys, from the depths of addiction, to the vastness of the Sahara, to his time behind prison bars.
“I would never want to lose the addict part of me, because it’s all the best parts of me,” says Engle.
“If I’m not drinking and using, it’s the thing that’s made me successful in some things; it’s the thing that’s made me good at some things. And it’s given me drive and determination, and quirkiness and humour. You know, you can only throw up on your shoes so many frickin’ times and not laugh about it.”
Photo from charlieengle.com.