Charlie Engle, by his own admission, is an addictive personality. His new memoir, Running Man, is a brutally honest and compulsively readable account of his years as an alcoholic and crack addict and how he managed to finally put that life behind him in exchange for a new addiction: running.
This likely would have made for a satisfying read without any additional drama, but in the midst of turning his life around, Engle managed to turn into an adventure racer, make two films, get indicted for a “Liar Loan” during the 2008 financial crisis and go on to serve 16 months in federal prison. There are more twists and turns in the book than in most thrillers.
The book begins with Engle planning to run his own personal Badwater 135 concurrent with the race in Death Valley. His event, however, would take place around a quarter-mile dirt track at Beckley Federal Correctional Institute in West Virginia.
He flashes back from there to his early life in North Carolina and how he had his first taste of alcohol as a fourth grader: “On that humid late-summer night, with Janis Joplin wailing on the stereo, alcohol planted a little flag in my brain and claimed that territory as its own.” He graduated to cocaine, then to crack, and his spiral into devastating addiction was complete. Many descriptions of harrowing drug abuse and life-threatening situations follow. It’s hard to believe that Engle was able to pull himself out of the hellhole he found himself in. But he did.
He had a loving family, a wife and a son – many reasons to seek recovery – but it was a six-day crack binge and near-death experience that finally forced him to confront his problem head-on. One morning he got out of bed, started running and had an epiphany: “Drugs had been my way out. Running would be my way through.”
One evening while watching TV, he stumbled upon the Discovery Channel’s Eco Challenge and became obsessed with doing an adventure race. He completed several adventure races. Then he had the idea to run across the Sahara Desert. He was put in touch with a producer of adventure films, and Running the Sahara was born. The story of Engle, Ray Zahab and Kevin Lin crossing that desert is terrifically compelling. But it is at this point in the book that the dark side of Engle’s personality starts to crystalize again. Little things begin to add up, and I began to notice that Charlie does what Charlie wants, despite the fact that many of these choices place a terrible burden on his friends and his family.
To make the film, he left behind his ex-wife, two children, a new girlfriend and a mother suffering from early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. He pushed Zahab and Lin across the Sahara with merciless determination, even when they were sick or clearly unable to perform. He had an intense desire to excel, but at what cost?
Following the Sahara run, Engle decided to run across the U.S. and make a film called Running America. He enlisted his friend Marshall Ulrich to do the run with him. At some point, Engle became too injured to run and decided to bike much of the rest of the way. He took his inability to run out on Ulrich in a highly destructive fashion.
Then Engle explains that a rogue IRS Special Agent took on what can only be described as a personal vendetta against Engle, who was eventually convicted of fraud. I won’t elaborate on this, as this is the part of the book that reads like a thriller and is well worth discovering on your own. I can say, with a fair amount of certainty, that he should never have done prison time. This is so patently clear that Joe Nocera at the New York Times took up his cause, writing two scathing articles about his unfair conviction.
Engle is an excellent athlete and a talented writer. He is a complicated character – you will have to come to your own conclusions about him as a person. Whatever your conclusion, Running Man is a rollercoaster ride of events and emotions and a very compelling read.