Charlie Engle: ‘Running saved my life, then running gave me a life’

He has done time in a US prison, kicked drink and drug addictions, and run right across the Sahara desert. Next stop: Dublin. Then maybe Mount Everest

Charlie Engle is not the first person to confess that running is a sort of addiction. Or that it has brought him salvation and redemption. Only in his case he is talking on the back of particularly extreme experiences.

Such as running some 7,200km across the Sahara desert, over 111 days, the sandiest part of his journey of recovery from a previous addiction to class A drugs and alcohol throughout most of his 20s. Or later, how running helped get him through a 16-month stint in US federal prison for a charge of mortgage fraud.

“Some people say ‘well, it looks like you just switched addiction’, and it might look like that,” he says. “But I can assure you I’ve never sold my car to enter a marathon. And I damn sure did sell my car to get booze and dope. So I’m pretty sure this addiction is better than any other addiction I had in my past.”

That is just part of the message the 61-year-old Engle is bringing to this week’s Pendulum Summit, the two-day leadership and self-empowerment event at Dublin’s Convention Centre. Engle is the first speaker up on Wednesday morning (followed by the likes of Harry Redknapp and Wim Hof), his running journey a continuum of sorts, including this first trip to Ireland.


We’re talking as Engle is out running somewhere near his home in Durham in North Carolina, never once out of breath. His desert adventure, completed in 2006 along with Canadian Ray Zahab and Kevin Lin from Taiwan, was captured in the documentary Running the Sahara, produced and narrated by Matt Damon, and nearly two decades on he’s still setting himself fresh challenges.

Chief among them is his desire to run from the lowest place on earth, the Dead Sea, to the highest, Mount Everest, a mere 5.8 vertical miles, but thousands of miles apart.

“I’ve done a lot of other stupid things since the Sahara run,” he says, “and that was the one which got a lot of attention, is still part of my story on stage. But I’m 61 years old now, and if I gave you the reasons why I used to run across deserts and jungles and all that, there were mixed reasons, and being honest, ego played a big role. And in a way I almost justified my existence by completing really hard things.

“I’m also 31 years sober now, so in the early years, when I was running so much, I was still searching for my own identity. What’s different now is the desire to embrace more vulnerability.

“The fact is I am getting older, am certainly facing my own athletic mortality, so when I take on a challenge now, the message is that making the decision to try the hard thing is way more important than the outcome. It’s not what happens to us, in any situation, it’s what we do about it, how we respond.”

In 2019, he ran and cycled from the lowest point in Africa, in Djibouti, to the highest point, on Mount Kilimanjaro, and by now reckons he’s clocked around 193,000 running kilometres, effectively five times around the earth. It does beg the inevitable: why such extremes?

“For sure, running a marathon at your absolute fastest is very hard. And if you suddenly decide to run 50 miles, it’s not twice as hard as a marathon. It’s just different. And the need to be constantly monitoring your body’s system, and physical health, you’re much more aware of your needs for hydration and nutrition, and the mental aspects of that kind of running.

“That changes the game completely, and to me it’s so much more interesting to run 100 miles than to run a marathon, because of what you go through. I’ve never run 100 miles without wanting to quit at least five times. And every time it happens, I ask ‘what the f*** is wrong with me?’

“But we have this weird ability to forget pain, and the main reason I run 100 miles is because I want to get to that place where I can’t possibly go any further, at 60 miles, or 80 miles, or wherever it is. And then I find a way to get past it.

“Voluntary physical suffering is the greatest teacher on the planet, because you can take the lessons and can apply them to almost anything, your job, your marriage.”

Engle is similarly candid about his experiences in West Virginia federal prison, starting on Valentine’s Day, 2011, which later formed part of his memoir, The Running Man, published in 2016.

“I am totally cool in categorising what happened to me as totally unfair, shouldn’t have happened. I also keep it in perspective, my life has not been that hard. What I got to witness in jail was a lot of unfairness, for many people their life circumstance had led them to this place.

“It’s very easy to be an optimist in life when things are going along okay. But I went into prison very angry, and came out the happiest person you ever met.

“Nobody is coming to save you. It’s the same with alcohol addiction A lot of people will help you, but you have to find your own way into sobriety.

“Running saved my life, then running gave me a life. I didn’t miss a single run, every day, for three straight years. And the fact is you have to find something to replace that addiction. You can’t just eliminate addiction from your life and not fill that hole with something else. You’re not going to make it.”

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Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan is an Irish Times sports journalist writing on athletics