An Ultrarunner's Long Road Back

Charlie Engle was a crack addict who saved himself through ultrarunning, becoming an adventure-film star known around the world. Then he was convicted of mortgage fraud and sent to prison. [Oops.] He's out now, with an audacious new goal: to rebuild his life and run 5,000 miles, from the Dead Sea to the top of Mount Everest.

    Photo: Jeremy Lange

Engle (left) with Ray Zahab, running the Sahara

The prison workout group, May 2012

"I just keep talking," Charlie says. "It's what I did with Sahara. The thought of Sahara actually happening? I mean, really actually happening, never crossed my mind."

IT'S THE WELCOME BASKET that overwhelms him. Not the idyllic grounds or gardens or the fact that—for the first time in two years—Charlie Engle has his own room, with his own bath. Long deprived of fresh fruit, he beelines toward the bamboo bowl brimming with organic apples and Asian pears, just plucked from the surrounding orchards. Then, gazing out the sunlit window (a window!), he polishes off every piece. “I didn’t even know what I was eating! I just grabbed these weird brown things!” he says, laughing. “In prison I never ate something I couldn’t identify.”

I meet Charlie on a chilly morning last September at a manicured farm in Mendocino County, just a few weeks into his newfound freedom from West Virginia’s Beckley Federal Correctional Institute. He has been flown out to Northern California for the Do Lectures (think TED with olive oil and wine tastings), where he’ll lead morning runs through the grapevines and give an inspirational talk to a barn full of people in Patagonia puffies. It’s a chance to tell his new story, to see if the audience will accept him. Plus, it’s his 50th birthday, and wine country isn’t a bad place to spend it.

At seven this morning, he led a dozen of us on a six-mile run, but it’s not until he later hops up on the small Do Lecture stage that we learn the full extent of Charlie’s ultra-running, Hollywood-worthy past. For once, he kept his life’s details close to his dry-wick tee. “I thought my talk would be more impactful that way,” he says.

He was right. Turns out, as he tells the 100-person crowd in a 25-minute presentation, it was running that helped Charlie overcome a decade-long addiction to alcohol and drugs in his twenties. He went from doing crack and doing marathons—often days, sometimes mere minutes, apart—to getting sober and winning elite ultrarunning endurance races around the world, including a 155-mile run across China’s Gobi Desert in 2003 and a 135-mile jaunt through the Amazon jungle in 2004. In 2007, he and two other ultrarunners covered 45 miles a day, for 111 consecutive days, to cross the Sahara.

Charlie, who had previously freelanced as a cameraman and producer for Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, dreamed up the idea for the expedition with ultrarunner Ray Zahab and approached Academy Award–winning director James Moll about making a documentary called Running the Sahara. Moll brought on Matt Damon as narrator and executive producer, and Damon’s production company secured the film’s sponsors, including Magellan Navigation, Toyota, and Gatorade. The project raised $6 million for the charity Damon cofounded with Charlie and others, H2O Africa, which brings clean water to communities in Africa.

The film, both gritty and moving, earned Charlie a new level of recognition, and sponsorships poured in, from Newton Running, Balega socks, and AXA Equitable. He signed on with an agent at William Morris, who secured corporate speaking engagements with fees as high as fifteen grand. Suddenly, Charlie had turned his two legs into a full-time, income-generating career.

The second film he appeared in, Running America, about his attempt to set a new cross-country speed record with ultrarunner Marshall Ulrich, premiered in May 2010, in his hometown of Greensboro, North Carolina, to a packed theater. “Best day of my life,” Charlie says. Less than 24 hours later, he was arrested for mortgage fraud.

In the spring of 2009, Greensboro IRS special agent Robert Nordlander became aware of Engle after reading about Running the Sahara in the local papers and wondered how he had time to make a living with all that training. He opened an investigation after noticing that Charlie hadn’t filed taxes for two years. When Nordlander found no wrongdoing on the returns he persisted, ultimately sending in an undercover female agent. While wearing a wire over lunch, she recorded Charlie saying: “I had a couple of good liar loans out there, you know, which my mortgage broker didn’t mind writing down, you know, that I was making $400,000 a year when he knew I wasn’t.”

The case went to trial in September 2010 in a federal court in Virginia, where Charlie owned a couple of properties. The jury eventually found him guilty of mortgage fraud (broadly defined as intentionally falsifying or omitting information on a mortgage application to obtain a loan). The prosecution pushed for four years’ imprisonment, but Judge Jerome Friedman considered Charlie’s clean record, his charity work, and the 120 letters of support he received and gave him 21 months instead.

The prosecutors maintain that the case was quite clear. “Mr. Engle was convicted by a jury of fraudulently obtaining more than $1 million in four mortgage loans on two properties, pulling out nearly $150,000 in equity, and then allowing the properties to go into foreclosure,” says Neil MacBride, the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia.

Still, hundreds of thousands of borrowers and brokers used liar loans—otherwise known as stated-income loans, which did not require a lender to verify a borrower’s annual income—during the housing boom, and Charlie remains baffled as to why he was targeted. “Twenty-one months for allegedly over-stating your income on a loan application?” he says. “It’s frigging ridiculous! What sort of prison tattoo am I supposed to get? A fountain pen?”

Indeed, several prominent journalists took up the case while he was in prison, pointing out the lack of prosecutions aimed at big-fish bankers who were driving forces in the housing bubble and crash. “It’s not just that Mr. Engle is the smallest of small fry that is bothersome. It is also the way the government went about building its case,” wrote New York Times columnist Joe Nocera in one of two columns he devoted to Charlie. “The more I looked into it, the more I came to believe that the case against him was seriously weak. As for that ‘confession’ … It really isn’t a confession at all. Mr. Engle is confessing to his mortgage broker’s sins, not his own.”

Charlie has always said that he didn’t fill out the loan document, and he maintains his innocence. Though motions for a new trial were denied in late January, he says he will persevere and intends to appeal until the felony is cleared from his record.

Meanwhile, whatever the merits of the case, Charlie served his time, and now he’s out. He’s back to dreaming big, planning another epic adventure: to run, bike, and kayak from the lowest point on earth, the Dead Sea, to the highest, the Himalayas, where he’ll climb to the top of Mount Everest.

He’s also jobless, facing five years of probation, and staring at a $262,500 court-ordered debt to the bank. “Which basically guarantees real poverty,” he says. “I just want my life back. The one they took from me. My biggest fear—my only fear— is that I won’t be able to live my life the way I want to.

BACK IN THE BARN, the Do crowd is riveted, including fellow speaker Cheryl Strayed, author of Wild, one of the 153 books Charlie read in prison. “You ran 4,400 miles across the Sahara?” she exclaims. “I only walked 1,100!” Charlie, who is writing a memoir, later says to me, only half-joking, “I was like, if she can write a bestseller about a hike...” The weekend was the jump-start he needed. Not every just-sprung ex-con gets a standing ovation.

But two months later, when Charlie returns to California from his home in Greensboro, post-prison reality has set in. We meet up in San Francisco. He looks older, paler, more human than superhero. He’s doing contract work for Hawkeye, a company that sets up urban obstacle-race courses and has 72 rainy hours of hard manual labor and sleepless nights ahead. Still, he’s grateful for the temporary gig. He’ll make about $2,000, plus get a shared room at the Radisson and free pizza.

At six feet tall and 175 pounds, Charlie is bigger than most distance runners. With blue eyes and a goofy grin, veiny temples, and graying, thinning hair, he looks a little like Don Knotts, but with more muscle tone. “From the neck down, he could be 18 years old,” says his friend Greg Clark, who has known him since he actually was. He says “aww” when he drives past road kill and taught his two sons (now 18 and 21) to greet people with hugs, not handshakes.

Sipping a triple-shot mocha, Charlie starts in on his life story. He got married in 1987, the day before his 25th birthday, to Pam Smith, a woman he’d spent a total of ten days with. They bounced around, from California to Georgia, where their first son, Brett, was born, in 1992, and settled in Greensboro, where their second son, Kevin, was born, in 1994. Pam and Charlie divorced in 2002 but remain close. They live minutes from each other in Greensboro, the sons with their mother.

On February 14, 2011, when Charlie entered Beckley, a fence-free minimum-security facility, guards ripped his sons from his arms, stripped the clothes off his back, and tossed him regulation greens and steel-toed leather boots. He got good advice early on, from an inmate named Block. “ ‘Do your time,’ he said, ‘don’t let your time do you,’ ” Charlie recalls.

He took it to heart. What he accomplished with a pair of Nike castoffs from the commissary and a quarter-mile gravel track is pretty impressive.

For starters: 135 miles. If he couldn’t make it to Badwater that year, he’d bring the famed Death Valley ultramarathon to him.

So at 6 a.m. on July 11, 2011, on his own, Charlie ran. Around and around the basketball courts on the quarter-mile path. There was no cheering on the sidelines. No support crew, save the guy he asked to toss him a Snickers.

He marked each mile with a stone: 81 the first day, 54 the next. He was back in his cell by the 4 p.m. count. A prisoner still—but 540 laps later, the length of the race done.

When he wasn’t running or cleaning the pool hall, his assigned prison job, he’d devour old copies of Vanity Fair or respond to the hundreds of letters he received—from recovering addicts, inspired runners, supporters he’d never met. Or he’d be in the library, poring over a world atlas, charting his route from the Dead Sea to Everest.

At first, no one was quite sure what to make of him, the guy running in the rec yard every day, doing downward dog, trading cafeteria meat for fruit, corralling signatures to get almonds onto the commissary list. “These guys call me crazy and maybe I really am,” he wrote in his journal. “It’s a label I can live with in here … my crazy label has drawn a lot of guys to me.”

One by one, inmates began approaching Charlie, tentatively jogging beside him and asking fitness advice (“If I jiggle my fat on purpose while I’m running, will that help me burn it off faster?”) and nutrition questions (“How many laps around the track equals a doughnut?”). Soon he amassed a ragtag workout group: Block, Butter Bean, Bootsy, Dave the pot dealer, Casey the meth manufacturer, Howell, in for a white-collar crime, and Adam, a six-foot-five 430-pounder who huffed and puffed his way to the cafeteria.

They met every afternoon. They’d run, do speed intervals, and lift rocks. Charlie’s coaching style was more lead-by-example than Jillian Michaels. “I’m not really a you-can-do-it type of guy,” he says. “I’m more like: if what I do inspires you, if you see something in that, then good for you.”

This unlikely crew saw something. “It was the darnedest thing,” recalls Casey by phone after his release, describing how he lost 20 pounds and worked his way up to five miles a day. “Charlie’d tell you entire stories while you ran. He’d just carry you around the track, know what I mean?”

Fifty-nine-year-old Howell got down to 7:30 miles and started running half-marathon lengths at Beckley. But it was Adam who had the most impressive turnaround. By December, he’d lost 180 pounds and went from a 46-inch waist to a 36. In a six-page letter to me from prison, Adam shares his first impression of Charlie. “I’d started walking and was complaining about blisters,” he writes, explaining how he thought he’d never be able to get size 14EEEE sneakers from the commissary. But “that afternoon, Charlie shows up in my cell. He went through the trouble of finding shoes for the morbidly obese guy he didn’t know.”

On August 8, 2012, Adam ran ten miles for the first time. “This is for Charlie,” he said of his friend, who’d left prison for the halfway house in June.

CHARLIE ACTUALLY started off on the right path in high school, in Southern Pines, North Carolina. He was at the top of his class, student-body president, a star at every sport he tried, including track—like his grand-father, who coached at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for 40 years. But when Charlie got to UNC himself in 1980, he realized that he wasn’t exceptional at anything but alcohol. It was the early eighties, and cocaine was as common as kegs; by his junior year, he’d lost control of his addiction. His father, who divorced his mother in 1964, pulled him out of school and got him a job flipping burgers at a Wendy’s in Seattle, where he lived at the time.

Charlie spent the next decade moving around, going from cocaine to crack, and waffling between bingeing and achieving. One day he was the best salesman at Bally Fitness in Atlanta, Georgia; the next he was borrowing drug money from the Baskin-Robbins register he manned in Monterey, California. He became a top Toyota salesman, until he got fired for not showing up. He found a new niche in the auto industry, paintless dent repair, and started a company that chased hailstorms around the U.S. Suddenly, he was earning more money than he’d ever made. And spending it on more crack than he’d ever smoked.

His binges lasted anywhere from two days to two months and typically involved motel rooms, random women, and thousands of dollars of crack, which he’d smoke in three hours. Then repeat. His lowest moments came when he’d wake up strung out on some sidewalk—and see joggers’ legs going by.

So he did what he presumed no drug addict could possibly do: he laced up and started running marathons. His first was at age 26, in Big Sur, California, in 1989. The next year he ran Napa (March 10), then Boston (April 15), then Big Sur (April 21) again. He’d binge, then race, binge, then race. “I could say, ‘I just ran a 3:07. What’d you do this weekend?’ ” he recalls. He found sobriety in 1992, two months after the birth of his first son, Brett, when a weeklong crack spree in Wichita ended with a narrow escape and three bullet holes in his 4Runner. He went to three AA meetings that day, and the day after, and he attended a meeting at least once every single day for the following year. After ten years of addiction, what changed in Wichita? “All I can say is, I had a son, and I finally decided to choose life over death,” Charlie says.

Four years later, he’d done 30 marathons—and won his first ultra, a 100-miler in Australia. By the turn of the century he was on top of the world, competing all over it.

LAST DECEMBER, I visited Charlie in Greensboro. He’s living rent-free in a house in the suburbs with a friend who has an extra bedroom. Strewn with AA and Buddhist books, his old polyester greens and tattered Nikes, it looks like he’s barely unpacked from prison.

He’s wearing a gray shirt printed with the words BELIEVE+ACHIEVE in white. “I almost called to say don’t come,” he says. “I’m not in a good place. I’m too depressed. I hate it. It’s not me.”

We head outside to Greensboro’s network of wooded trails and he vents: “No one cares. No one gives a shit about me unless I’m doing something interesting.”

His cell phone rings midrun. It’s his 18-year-old son, Kevin. Doesn’t matter who it is—kids, potential job leads, probation officer, former girlfriends—he always picks up. They make dinner plans. “Bye, love you buddy,” he says.

“I’d love to do Badwater with my boys someday,” he says. Though Dead Sea to Everest is his top priority right now, Charlie has a zillion big ideas brewing. “Iceland would be really cool.” He also wants to take another shot at running across America. He wasn’t able to complete the first run due to a staph infection. (Marshall Ulrich pulled off the third-fastest crossing, completing it in 52 days.) “The women’s time is actually pretty soft,” he says. “I could find someone to do it with me. We’d go after both records.” And, of course, film it.

Eight miles later, his mood has mildly improved.

But he’s got a long way to go before recovering financially. He has no savings and is scraping together a living by working for a friend’s paintless dent repair business and with various freelance projects, like the contract work for Hawkeye. All of his sponsors dropped him after his conviction, as did H2O Africa (now known as Water.org), where he was a board member. Though he has given rousing free talks at his old UNC fraternity and the local Kiwanis club, he’s waiting to reenter the speaking circuit until he has something more positive to say. “People want a comeback story,” he says. “I haven’t come back from shit yet.”

Still, he’s constantly working all kinds of deals from his de facto office, the sofa. iPad propped on his knees and iPhone at the ready, he fields phone calls, e-mails, texts. Ding! A producer potentially interested in a reality-TV series he’s pitching called Time Served, about helping former inmates find their footing. Bark! A warden from a women’s prison in Tennessee inviting him to come speak. Ring! An AP reporter asking to film him at the Krispie Kreme Challenge, in Raleigh—which requires running 2.5 miles, eating a dozen doughnuts, then running back—for French television. Sure, agrees Charlie. He’s up for anything right now. As Kevin says over dinner at a local Mexican restaurant, “We wish he was a normal dad, but he’s not.”

To get fit, Charlie runs “as much as is humanly possible” and works out at his gym. He occasionally goes to Bikram yoga and sees his chiropractor (who never makes him pay). He admits that his body isn’t in shape for the Brazil 135, which his probation officer just green-lighted and is coming up in four weeks. “Prison, the stress, it all took a real toll,” he says. But his physical state seems to be the last thing he’s worried about. Ready or not, he’ll always run.

Ring! “Naaaaaate Smith… So nice to see your name,” says Charlie over a bowl of black bean soup at Panera Bread. The old friends, who met in the nineties when Nate was Charlie’s instructor at the San Francisco–based Presidio Adventure Racing Academy, catch up. Turns out Nate is now a manager at Oakley. I listen to Charlie’s end of the call:

“I have a new expedition planned. It goes from the Dead Sea to the top of Everest … I know … I just had to change my route again after I realized—what was I thinking?—I can’t cross Syria right now! So I’m gonna run through Jordan into Saudi Arabia, then Oman. I’ll paddle across the Arabian Sea and then bike across India to Everest. And climb it. Yeah, it’ll be another film.” He takes a sip of his soup.

It’s Christmastime, and at this point he has nothing more than a loose plan and a PDF of his pitch. Still, his tone is done-deal matter-of-fact. (Subtext: How about a sponsorship?)

Self-propelled, multi-country expeditions have been completed before. Last year, a 49-year-old Australian named Pat Farmer successfully ran from the North Pole to the South Pole in nine months. And Turkish-American adventurer Erden Eruc spent five years cycling, rowing, and climbing around the globe, finally completing his journey last summer. But very few have ever gone from the lowest point on earth to the highest. Which, of course, is why Charlie wants to.

He’ll kick off the expedition with a float in Jordan’s Dead Sea, then run 2,000 miles east—through Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Oman (approximately 40 miles a day)—to the Arabian Sea, which he’ll kayak 750 miles across to the coast of India. And then bike 2,350 more miles, for a total of 5,000 miles in six months—in order to reach Everest by May, climbing season. (He’s summited mountains of less stature before: McKinley, Whitney, Rainier, and, during the 1998 Raid Gauloises, Ecuador’s 19,347-foot Cotopaxi, following a five-day run.) His lean crew will consist of a physical therapist, a logistics expert, and a native in each country familiar with the area and local customs. Matt Battiston, a retired Army Ranger and former Eco-Challenge teammate of Charlie’s, has agreed to be his U.S.–based chief coordinator. Unlike Sahara and America, Charlie will run solo this time.

Being a gifted self-promoter is a necessity for anyone seeking to make a living in adventure sports, and Charlie is one of the best. Though some grow tired of his shtick. Ulrich, fellow star of Running America, no longer speaks to him. (Nor did he want to be interviewed for this story.) But in Running on Empty, his book about the 3,063-mile adventure, Ulrich writes: “The guy could work a room, for sure. Charlie’s braggadocio and craving for the limelight had begun to rub me the wrong way.” The index lists six separate instances under the heading “Engle, Charlie, conflicts with,” but Ulrich also credits Charlie for making the project possible. “It had all finally materialized with Charlie’s efforts,” he writes.

“He’s not egotistical,” says Jill Leibowitz, a producer who first met Charlie while researching a potential piece for HBO’s Real Sports about his run across America. “But he does have a very high level of confidence. You have to,” says Leibowitz, who’s now at Chicago-based Intersport, the production company working to secure sponsorships and funding for Dead Sea to Everest in exchange for a cut of what comes in. At least one former sponsor has expressed interest: Newton, the Boulder, Colorado, running company, which is also providing him with shoes. Before Inter-sport signed on, in January, a few colleagues asked Leibowitz if Charlie was credible. Her response: “Completely.”

BUT THE DEAD Sea to the top of Everest? That’s crazy talk. “I just keep talking,” Charlie says. “It’s what I did with Sahara. The thought of Sahara actually happening? I mean, really actually happening, never crossed my mind. Until one day, I bolted up in bed at 3 a.m. and said, ‘Oh, my God, I have to run across the Sahara Desert!’ ”

“I like to experience the world by the soles of my feet,” he says. “I want to suffer. I need the next adventure so I can know that feeling again.”

In late January, he gets a taste of it, after finishing the Brazil 135 in 45 hours. To further test himself, he tacked on 133 additional miles beforehand—“to find out where I stood,” he says—to run a total of 268 in four days. We talk the day he gets home. His body is broken, but he’s elated. “I set my own personal reset button,” he says. “Pain is what I need. Somehow, the easy path just doesn’t do it for me.”

Back in Greensboro, post-Brazil, things start to pick up for him. Hawkeye books him for more race-course work; he submits a memoir proposal to his literary agent, who is shopping it around; a DePaul University professor decides to make a documentary about his case; his paintless dent repair work is once again bringing in some money; and Running the Sahara and Running America are being rereleased by DigiNext Films in 18 theaters this spring. He also accepts a job as director of TransOmania, a 170-mile nonstop race across Oman in January 2014, where he’s planning on being at the time for Dead Sea to Everest. Coordinating the event will allow him to make some money midway into his expedition and give him a week to recover from his 2,000-mile run across Jordan before his 750-mile paddle across the Arabian Sea. Meanwhile he’s already jonesing for Badwater, in July. “Let’s say I’m not just looking to finish,” he proclaims.

Charlie plans to leave in December 2014 for Dead Sea to Everest. He will do it, he vows. Can he hold up for 5,000 miles and 29,035 feet? “Oh, absolutely,” says Ian Adamson, a friend and a director of research at Newton, as well as a world-record holder in distance kayaking, who has agreed to accompany Charlie across the Arabian Sea leg of the journey.

But the more pressing question looms: whether Charlie can rebuild his life and put together an expedition of this caliber. It’s almost as if he needs these insane goals to stay sane.

“Going from the lowest place on earth to the highest is perfectly in line with how I feel about my own existence right now,” he says. “Yes, I do need this. But there will always be a next adventure for me.”

He’s also realistic. “I never guarantee success. That’d be foolish,” he says. “Things never go as you expect.” He grins. “The interesting part is what goes wrong along the way. Shit happens. It’s all about what you do when it does.”

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