“It took me a long time to figure out that I can not, and should not, kill my addictive nature. Instead, my challenge has been finding a way to use the addict within me for positive, purpose-driven pursuits,” says adventurer and ultrarunner Charlie Engle.
“… Running, and running far, is at the core of my vitality and enduring sobriety. It lays a foundation for goals that keep me focused and it gives me the freedom of movement that I love. It keeps my body and mind sharp, and it refines and smoothes out my most jagged edges.
When I run hundreds of miles through jungles, in deserts, or on the local trails starting from my front doorstep, I learn something new about myself and even about the world,” Charlie says.
At university Charlie Engle was known as a popular, star athlete who served as student body president but inside he felt insecure. Addiction gradually took over his life and finally he dropped out.
Several jobs and a successful dent repair business enabled him to finance his crack cocaine and alcohol addiction for the next decade.
He hit bottom two months after his first son was born in 1992. A near-fatal six-day crack binge in a motel room ended with a robbery attempt in which drug dealers shot at him.
Engle found his way to Alcoholics Anonymous and sometimes went to three meetings a day in that first year of recovery.
He had been running off and on since 1989 and when he got sober running became his lifeline, his pastime, and his salvation.
He began with marathons, and when marathons weren’t far enough, he began to take on ultramarathons, races that went for thirty-five, fifty, and sometimes hundreds of miles, traveling to some of the most unforgiving places on earth to race.
Running the Sahara
On November 1, 2006, Charlie, Ray Zahab (who used to be a heavy smoker with an unhealthy lifestyle) and Kevin Lin started running over 4,300 miles (6,920 kilometers) across the Sahara Desert, while raising millions of dollars for the Clean Water charity H20 Africa. They fought through injury and extreme fatigue to reach their goal, which changed them and the lives of many Africans forever.
The Matt Damon-produced documentary, Running the Sahara, followed the three runners during 111 days through 6 countries: Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Libya, and Egypt.
Turning adversity into positivity
Even during his 16 month “federal holiday” following an unjust conviction for mortgage fraud in 2010, Charlie pounded the small prison track, running in circles. His imprisonment wouldn’t stop him from running the Badwater Ultramarathon. He couldn’t join the race but he could still run the distance on track. So during two days he kept making circles until he covered the 135 miles. Soon his fellow inmates were joining him, struggling to keep their spirits up in dehumanizing circumstances.
He made good use of his time in prison by turning his adventures in the bestseller Running Man: A Memoir.
Although Charlie lost his right to vote after his time in jail he found other effective ways to take a stand and make himself heard.
Taking steps towards mental health
In 2016 Charlie and 5 other runners with a history of mental illness ran the Icebreaker Run to help bridging the gap between mental illness and mental health, especially when it comes to addiction, depression, and PTSD.
In 3,5 weeks they traversed 11 states of North-America to break the ice of talking about a once-taboo subject, to make it easier for other sufferers to find help. As a 6-person relay team they covered over 3,100 miles from Santa Monica, California, to the Mental Health America’s annual conference in Alexandria, Virginia.
Engle used social media to share his message “but that is nothing compared to being with someone face to face and sharing our experiences,” he says. “The more I do that, the greater chance I have to stay sober. If I am not helping myself and improving, I won’t stay sober or be able to help someone else, and that is what this is all about.”
Throughout the challenge not only his two sons joined him, but also complete strangers.
A woman shared her story of alcoholism and drug addiction and what it did to her family.
“It is crazy,” Charlie says. “But I understand. I have been there. I don’t know if it helped her, but it helped me. That is so much one of the reasons behind this. Mental illness affects so many people.”
In 2018, Charlie ran 26 hours for his 26th year of being sober. He wanted to run on a route that might encourage locals to jump in rather than be scared off, so he chose a three-mile loop around the Healing Transitions recovery center.
“… sounds terrible, but the point is I didn’t want people to be intimidated,” Engle says. “In my mind, most anybody can run three miles. I wanted it to be a distance that anybody could see this thing.”
More than 300 people showed up to run with him, cheer on or volunteer. People came who were fighting a variety of issues: addiction, homelessness, PTSD, eating disorders, and more.
“The running community in general is probably the most well-educated community on addiction and recovery,” Engle says. “Lots of people use running or some sort of physical exercise to help them with their recovery.”
My greatest challenge
“For those that know me, hopefully you will attest to the fact that I laugh a lot and that humor plays an enormous role in my life. I try not to take myself too seriously despite the fact that I regularly try some pretty serious challenges. For sure I love adventure and I challenge myself regularly to do things that test my ability, both physically and mentally.
But my greatest challenge is the one I take on a daily basis. I have been clean and sober since July 23rd, 1992. While I don’t fight the daily battle of using drugs anymore, I do struggle with being the generous and compassionate person that I truly want to be. Many people have helped me through the years and I hope that I can do the same for others.
At the core of everything that I believe in the basic right for each person to live a life of self-determination. I try to live my own life by the principal of “Attraction rather than Promotion”. It is never my right to impose my will or even my opinion on another person unless they have specifically asked me to do so. Personally, my greatest role models have been those people that have taught me through action, not words. This has taught me that the best way I can impact others is through my actions.
Finally, I would like to say that running is certainly important to me. It gives me the freedom of movement I love so much and keeps my body and mind sharp. But running is really just my excuse to explore the amazing people and cultures that exist in the world. I have found that even people that are not prone to trusting strangers are very likely to welcome me into their world if I am on foot. Every culture in the world has running as a part of their daily lives. When I run, I always feel connected to others and that is truly what I love about my life.”