Charlie Engle is one of the most well-traveled ultra-marathoners and our next athlete of April. He’s run in far-flung places like the Sahara desert and the rainforests of Ecuador. He is also the author of the Running Man (Spoiler alert… our next Book of the Month.) He tells the story of how running saved his life. We sat down with Charlie to get to know him a little better.
July 23, 1992, you chose sobriety over addiction. How has running changed you and the way you view yourself and the world?
“Running has always been a part of my life, even during my worst years as an addict. Occasionally, I would clean up for a couple of months and I always used running to help keep me grounded, at least temporarily. But it wasn’t until the birth of my first son that I really understood I needed to make a change or I might not be around to see him grow up. I realized that nobody, including my son, could save me if I wasn’t willing to save myself. On July 23, 1992, I went to a recovery meeting and the next day I laced up my shoes for a couple of painful, ugly miles. I did those two things every day for 3 straight years without missing a day. My running got stronger, my life got better and I stopped being such a pain in the ass for those around me. Running saved my life….and then it gave me a life.”
As one of the most well-traveled ultra-marathoners in the world, what’s the one destination you find yourself thinking about running in, whether it’s somewhere you’ve been or would like to go?
“It’s usually during a run that I imagine running my next run. My mind travels to distant corners of the world – some places I know well and others that I’ve yet to see. Ecuador is a place to which my mind often returns and I definitely want to run there again. I did my first big adventure race in Ecuador back in 1998. However, my most impactful time there was with my wife, just a few years back. She lived in Ecuador for many years, so I got to see the country through the eyes of someone who knows the best footfalls and hands holds (not to mention all the best places for Locro & Pan de Yuca!) We ran a volcanic crater lake called Laguna de Cuichoa and it was a remarkable and unique experience for me. The trail had gorgeous views of the lake from almost every vantage point. We ran the highest points on the crater’s rim with volcanic rock underfoot and blooming cacti all around us, then ran some long descents that seemed to plunge us into the Amazon rainforest, surrounded by bright green plants and tropical birds. Nonetheless, every part of it is above 14,000 feet. Ecuador is full of volcanic crater lakes. I counted 15, then stopped counting, counted 20 another time, then stopped counting… I now know of around 25 but Ecuador is full of hidden gems, so I’m sure there are some more crater lakes way off the grid, exactly where I like to be! My vision is to return to Ecuador and run all of its volcanic crater lakes, called lagunas volcánicas ecuatorianas in Spanish.”
You know what it’s like to run the Sahara Desert…and you filmed it with Matt Damon. What was that experience like, aside from well, being sandy?
“My best and most vivid memories of the Sahara are the dozens of times that we ran into some small (village), completely surprising the locals. The kids would appear in doorways and then just sprint out and start running with us. I loved their freedom of spirit and lack of fear. All they knew was that this was something different and they weren’t going to miss it. There weren’t many (or any) tourists in most of the places we passed through so the locals were not really accustomed to seeing outsiders. But because we were running and not arriving in a car (something most of them didn’t have), we were welcomed and cheered and treated very kindly.
As for the sand, there was plenty of that. But what most people don’t realize is how much the sand changes as you pass over it. It’s almost like it’s alive. As the sun moves across the sky, the colors change and those colors are reflected off the sand. When the wind was calm after a day of running, there was nothing better than laying on the sand, staring at a star-filled sky with no light pollution spoiling the view. I think it’s the most ‘at peace’ I’ve ever felt.
And yes, for months after I returned home, I found sand in every nook and cranny of my luggage and my body. But my skin looked great! Natural exfoliation!”
We have to ask…who is on your dream Ragnar team?
“First of all, it’s in my nature to have less people on the team so I would always choose to have a 6 member team. That’s partly because I want to run more, but it’s also about my desire to share hardship and suffering in a way that brings me super close to the people I’m with. Six people just feels right to me.”
Here they are:
Dale Ranson- My grandfather was an all American in track and then the head coach at UNC-Chapel Hill. He died when I was young so we never got to run together. (a shaman once told me that my grandfather runs with me every day).
Dave Wottle-I watched the ’72 Olympics in Munich when I was 10. Wottle was not a favorite but ran maybe the greatest come from behind victory ever in the 800 meters. He was goofy and wore a golf cap while running. I’ve never cheered so hard. He made me want to be a runner.
Haile Gebrselassie-easily the greatest all-around distance runner of all time. I have run across Ethiopia and have always wanted to ask him some questions.
Flea (from Red Hot Chili Peppers) because he is a fascinating dude and a pretty good runner.
Astacianna Hatcher- my wife. We bonded over shared suffering and I would never leave her out of something fun and painful.