Charlie Engle is an endurance athlete, a father and a husband. He has completed several extreme endurance adventures, including a run across the Sahara Desert in Africa, 2 marathons a day for 111 days straight in extreme temperatures.
In this episode of The Extramilest Show we discuss:
- ways to overcome mental and physical challenges in training, racing and life
- breaking the Sub 3 Hour Marathon barrier
- his next adventure run and much more
Charlie and I have a lot of passions in common from Running to Storm Chasing and many areas in between. His excitement for life is contagious and I hope you enjoy our conversation!
- Listen to it on iTunes, Libsyn or Soundcloud
- Stream by clicking here
- Download as an MP3 by right-clicking here and choosing “save as.”
You can win a copy of Charlie’s book The Running Man. What is one thing you are struggling with in Training, Racing or Life and what are you doing to overcome this? Please let me know in the comments and 1 winner will receive a copy of the book.
See below for show notes, links, people mentioned and full transcript.
- Charlie does a lot of cross training to limit risk of injury. He focuses on overall fitness and health (3:12).
- How Charlie was able to run across the Sahara, 4500 miles in extreme temperatures (4:15)
- Words said to us by a stranger can be the thing that changes our life, if you really pay attention (5:38)
- The worst pitch that convinced Matt Damon to make the documentary Running The Sahara (6:30)
- The first few days of the Sahara run were a slow descent into hell, dealing with unbelievable amount of problems (9:10)
- The mantra “one day at the time” works for sobriety and massive projects (11:00)
- Overcoming tough spots in a race by breaking down the distance in smaller parts (11:45)
- How Charlie trains for long ultra runs, both mentally and physically (16:00)
- Importance of training enough miles in race condition, with your race gear in the same terrain (20:35)
- Perceived risk vs. actual risk. Your mind limiting you and how you can overwrite this. (23:05)
- The type of person Charlie wants on his crew during his races (24:20)
- Charlie’s failed attempt to break the record to run across the United States. (24:50)
- Important role of the mind and the right mentality. Lessons learned from the Barkley Marathon (27:12)
- Charlie’s Mantra and tattoo for when things get tough: “No Big Deal” (29:47)
- How Charlie has overcome his lows, such as addiction and going to jail (33:22)
- It doesn’t matters what happens to you in life, all that matters is what you do about it. (37:10)
- Attraction vs promotion in jail. How Charlie’s daily runs and yoga sessions inspired others in jail to start working out. (39:55)
- Your happiness and fulfillment is completely up to you and not up to anybody else no matter what the situation is (43:45)
- What Charlie is up to these days (46:50)
- His upcoming adventure run of 5000 miles from the lowest point on earth, the Dead Sea, to the highest point on earth Mt Everest (48:50)
- Matt Damon and Charlie founded H2oAfrica and raised $6 million, then it became Water.org (53:35)
- How Charlie broke the Sub 3 Hour Marathon barrier after many failed attempts (58:00)
- Importance of slowing down, rest days and having fun to progress in running. (1:01:00)
- Dr Phil Maffetone’s approach to listen to your body, focus on the right nutrition, and reducing stress (1:03:15)
- Charlie’s book The Running Man and a giveaway for a chance to win a copy of the book (1:04:30)
- Documentary Running the Sahara
- Documentary Running Across America
- Charlie in the Media
- Barkley Marathon
- Floris 100 mile run
- Running Man Book
- Charlie’s website
- Dr Phil Maffetone interview
- H2oAfrica / Water.org
- Joe de Sena, Founder Spartan Races
- James Moll, Oscar Winning Director
- Matt Damon, Actor and Film Producer
- Andy Walshe, Director of High Performance, Red Bull
- Ray Zahab, team mate Sahara Run
- Kevin Lin, team mate Sahara Run
- Jeff Peterson, Medical Specialist
- Ryan Immegart, Volcom
- Gary White, Water.org
- Phil Maffetone, Endurance Coach
Flo: Hi guys. It’s Floris Gierman from The Extramilest Show. Today we have a very exciting guest on the show. His name is Charlie Engle. He is ultra endurance athlete, a father and a husband. His life has had many highs and lows. He had a long addiction to alcohol and crack cocaine. Eventually, he turned to running as an outlet. He started with marathon running. Eventually, after doing many different marathons, he was looking for more and he ended up finding Ultra Races. He placed high at the Badwater 135 mile race, one of the toughest Ultra Races on the planet. He has placed in the top five several times over there.
Charlie and two of his friends also ran across the Sahara Desert in Africa. This is 4,500 miles in total, 111 days straight, and two marathons a day. Absolutely unbelievable. Matt Damon, he actually produced a documentary about this. Talking about going the extra mile, this is absolutely a whole another level of that. This movie actually gave him quite a bit of fame and put him on the radar of one IRS officer and with very bad luck, actually he ended up in jail for what he calls a 16 month Federal holiday.
He kept running in jail and he actually turned a lot of the different inmates over there into runners. Charlie is now a successful public speaker and an author. We’re going to dive into a variety of different subjects. We’re going to talk about how to overcome mental challenges in training, racing, and in life. We’re going to talk about some of the highs and the lows in Charlie’s life, and his mantra when things really get tough. Charlie also ended up breaking the sub-three-hour marathon.
This was not easy. He tried many times and failed many times. But then he changed a few things around, so we’re going to dive in to what it took for him to go from failing to do the sub-three-hour marathon to eventually running almost every marathon in sub-three-hours. Without further ado, let’s dive right in to my conversation with Charlie Engle. Hope you enjoy it.
Charlie Engle: Hey.
Flo: Hey Charlie, how are you?
Charlie: I’m doing fine.
Flo: Nice. Last week was a fun one over at the WORLDZ Conference.
Charlie: It was.
Flo: That work out that we did with Joe Di Sena from the Spartan races,that was definitely a heavy one. I was sore for probably about five days after, seriously.
Charlie: Me too. Yes, I was sore also. If you don’t do burpees and you don’t do those things, then you’re going to get sore.
Flo: That’s the thing. I think we totally did like 500 burpees and push ups combined. Yes, the whole like chest and the shoulders and everything.
Charlie: Well, I just challenged you of course, we need to do more of that.
Flo: Yes. No offense. But then again, how much cross training versus running do you do? It’s always one of those. If you have that many hours in the day like I tend to typically just go out and run as much as I can. What about you? Do you end up doing a lot of cross training or is it mostly running?
Charlie: I do. No, I try to do as much cross training as I can. I’m in a point where if I’m just running, I’m risking a lot of injury and just, it’s just too much. I run for too long. Most of the things I do, my fitness matters of course, but it’s more important that I’m just healthy overall. I used to do a lot of paddling there on the back bay in Costa Maca.
Flo: Right here? I ran that this morning. I just ran 12 miles. I saw them paddling actually.
Charlie: Do you ever go paddle there?
Flo: No I haven’t, but it looks like a good work out.
Charlie: A friend of mine actually runs that place. His name is Billy. Billy’s been there forever. My kayak, my old kayak lives there so –
Flo: No way.
Flo: That’s funny. Now, you were last week one of the speakers at the World’s Conference. You shared one of your very impressive stories over there of running across the Sahara in Africa, 4,500 miles from Senegal all the way to Dead Sea. 111 days at extreme temperatures. I couldn’t even believe it when I heard it. I’ve run a few ultras myself. I’ve done some 50 milers, I’ve done a 100 miler. But just thinking about 111 days non stop, running two marathons a day in those temperatures, how in the world did you do it? What possibly, first of all, made you do it, and second of all, how did you do you physically and mentally do this?
Charlie: I think if I’d known it was that far when I started, maybe I would have reconsidered.
The idea, and I always make the joke that the idea came about like most of my bad ideas and that’s in the middle of another hard race. I was running across the Amazon jungle, racing against several friends. It was probably 300 people in this race. It was a stage race, very much like the Tour de France. We had downtime every night. I’m just laying there in the middle of the jungle, in a jungle hammock and a guy I really didn’t know said to me, “Hey, I wonder if anybody’s ever run across the whole Sahara Desert.”
I always say that, words that are said to us by a stranger can be the thing that can change the rest of your life. You’re just paying attention and I actually thought it was a terrible idea at first, but I went home and I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I did some research and I found out that no one had ever run across the entire Sahara Desert. In the adventure world, it’s really hard to find things that nobody has done before.
Charlie: That’s a difficult one. I fell in love with the idea and I began to just tell people, anybody that would listen, I told them that I was going to be the first person to run across the Sahara Desert.
Flo: And then, you ended up getting a whole — you were able to tell that story and several people were very — probably there was a lot of disbelief. Some people hope to see you do it, but not that many people probably believed in it. Yet, still, you convinced Matt Damon and a crew to actually make a documentary out of it, right?
Charlie: Most people that heard the idea — I mean, look, I’ve been doing some pretty crazy runs for a number of years and most people just humored me like, “Okay, that’s nice.” But not really believing. A few of them said it’s just simply impossible. Close friends said, “There’s no — you can’t get re-supplied. The temperatures are just too high and there’s simply no way to run in deep sand for over 4,000 miles.” All of that made me dig in my heels and I felt myself basically taking — I took possession of the possibility and I let them have the impossibility. They could believe that it was impossible and I just kept telling the story. Finally, a friend of mine, who knew a director named James Moll, offered to make an introduction and I met James and he had won the Academy Award for Best Documentary a few years earlier and –
Flo: That helps then, right?
Charlie: Yes, but I didn’t — I mean, it was just a meeting. I thought maybe I would get a student director or somebody. When I go in and I’m late to the meeting and I’m disheveled and sweaty and I come in the door and I’m like, “Hey, Sahara Desert never been done before. Sand, water, all of this-” It was the worst, absolutely the worst pitch I’ve ever made in my life, no doubt about it. At the end of the meeting, he stood up and he stuck out his hand and he said, “I’ll do it.”
Charlie: And a week later, he called me and he said, “Hey, I just talked to Matt Damon and Matt says that he wants to narrate the film and executive produce.” And then he asked me — he was like, “Would that be okay with you?” And I said — I told him. I said I was looking for somebody better, but Matt Damon would be okay.
Charlie: And we started to plan.
Flo: No pressure at that point, right? You basically have those guys lined up. You have two friends with you that are going to do it at the same time and you have a whole crew as well. You have all these really high expectations. You got a lot of people involved and then, eventually, you get to Africa and you have to start running and then — how were those first few days? Were you like, “What in the world did I begin?”
Charlie: First of all, we got there and I really did believe that I had in my gut, I felt sick all the time because I was worried. I had suckered all of these people out to the desert and that this was going to be a joke because — I mean, look, I felt it could be done but I knew we needed to run basically 50 miles every single day for probably more than a hundred days. The first two to three days, we began the slow descent down into hell, and by day seven, we had gone fully into the abyss and the entire team was falling apart.
Ray and Kevin, who were my partners in this thing, were both sick. We were having ground temperatures of 130, 135 degrees everyday. We were behind schedule, like for one week, we were behind schedule by three days. Everyday, we’re just having unbelievable amount of problems. People started to argue. The doctor with our crew began to pull and really express himself about how dangerous he thought what we were doing was, and how irresponsible I was. We tried to make adjustments.
I finally, I’ve been clean and sober for 25 years now. One of the things about sobriety is that everyone’s had the mantra one day at a time. It’s cliché but on day eight, I said to myself, I have to start approaching this expedition the same way that I approach sobriety. Literally, on day nine, I got up in the morning four o’clock, we started running at 5:00. The only thing that I thought about was running a marathon before lunch. It’s all I was worried about. Lunch, I took a nap. I got up and ran another marathon after lunch. That’s all I thought about.
Got finished with the day. I had food and a massage. I lay down on my mat. I looked up at the stars, and there’s not an electric light for a thousand miles. I just watched the stars. I watched the space station going around to the earth. I was just grateful to be alive. Then I got up the next day, and I did it again. I stopped thinking about the finish, because we get fixated on finishing things when what we need to do is focus entirely on what we’re doing right now.
Flo: I think that it’s so interesting you’re saying that because when I ran my 100-miler, I left my house in Long Beach, and I ended up running 17 hours 45 minutes to San Diego to take the train back. Even at the beginning of that, it was like– Although it’s nothing to compare to the amount of miles I do run, this is in one month, one bay, double of what I ever ran before. And even there, sometimes you get that feeling in your gut of like, “Oh, God, what did I start?” Then, even at that point, I said to myself, “Let’s break it up in five miles. Let’s run 20 times five miles. Let’s just get to the next five miles. If I need to, I’ll take a short wild break at that point, but let’s just keep.”
I think that is one really good way to come through it, but for you –
Charlie: It translates to any distance.
Flo: Yes, exactly.
Charlie: I tell people all the time because everyone thinks there’s always somebody that runs farther or faster or [cross talk]
Flo: Even though I doubt that. At this part I do, you must be out there. You came out of miles.
Charlie: Well, maybe for some hard ideas, but a 100-miler, I’ve done dozens of 100-milers, and not one of them ever has been easy. Every single one of them at some point of the race or the run, I wanted to quit. Actually, in a way, I want that. People ask me why all the time. I love getting to the place where I want to quit, where I can’t take anymore, and then, try to find a way to continue, to keep going farther.
Charlie: What you said translates to anybody. If you’re running your first half marathon, all you should think about is one mile at a time. You get to six-mile. You get to the half-way mark, and then, just focus on small goals, and the big goal will happen.
Flo: Then, it’s like focus on the next aid station. Yes, it’s really like running aid station to aid station at that point as you got very often in the half-marathon or in the marathons as well. That’s definitely –
Charlie: Yes. It’s the only way to do it. To me, it’s the only way. If you’re thinking about the finish when you’re starting, you’re getting the crown, or the medal, or the hug, a kind of food, or whatever it is at the very, or the sex, whatever it is at the very end, if you’re lucky enough. It’s so self-defeating, because then the moment you hit the first problem — And like you with your run, I’m wondering, did you experience some low times?
Charlie: Absolutely, because the farthest I’d ever gone was 50 miles. As soon as I got past 50, you’re in that zone of unknown territory.
Flo: That is the exciting part, you don’t know what’s going to happen after that. At about 62 miles, I was at a stretch for 20 miles where there was no water, and about 50 miles in, I run out of water and I ended up bonking and really getting to a negative place that I was walking and I was really trying to find out how do I overcome this. Then eventually you run into a convenience store, find a coke or find a water, you drink it and you have that rebirth, you’re like a second person. I think a lot of marathon runners can relate as well, once you almost hit that wall, you hit that wall around 18 of 20, and you take some food and eventually you overcome it again.
That’s where their passion really comes through, and I feel that’s a very exciting part in a race.
Charlie: Well, if you’re properly trained, and I always tell people most of the time if you’ve done some decent training, and for a hundred miler, I don’t even know what that means, it’s so different for everybody. For me, most of my training is about time on my feet, it’s not about distance. If I know I’m trying to run a hundred miler in less than 24 hours or 20 hours or whatever it is, I focus my training on, “Okay, how am I going to run for 20 hours? How is that going to happen?” Usually, maybe every single time when I have a problems, it’s almost always nutrition and hydration.
When you feel, and if it’s a marathon or a hundred miler, when you feel the wheels coming off and everything is going to hell, if you can just force yourself to eat and drink a thousand calories like that, as much as you can cram into your body. 30 minutes later usually you will start to feel better. I think that a lot of people quit, after that they make the bad decision to quit right then and instead of taking in the nutrition, you can always quit later, that’s what I always say.
Flo: Yes. Absolutely. Well, the interesting part is that on one of the shorter races, you’re going to be okay if you have not enough calories for a little bit, like quite a bit of reserves. When you run across the Sahara, anything that you miss in nutrition today it’s just going to come back at you tenfold tomorrow and the day after. You have to constantly keep refueling there.
Charlie: Well, that’s just it with multi-day events, and I’ve probably done 25 multi-day events so obviously the Sahara that was 111 days and we didn’t take one single day off, not one, partly because we were behind schedule, it was budgetary. I just never could justify taking a day. I’ve done a lot of the seven-days stage races also and the hardest thing to do, most of it I won a lot of those races but I don’t usually win any stages or maybe I’ll win one stage or maybe two, but a lot of times I’ll when the race and it’s because obviously I’m consistent.
A lot of people, because a lot of people can beat me on one day, the question is, can you get up the next day and do it again, and can you get up the day after that and do it again. Day one and two of those races are pretty easy, they’re hard but your body is in good shape, you feel good, by day three and four, everything hurts, you’re really in bad shape. If it’s a hot race, you’re more dehydrated than you know even if it seems you’re drinking enough. They’re like puzzles, I love trying to figure it out.
Flo: Absolutely. How in the world do you train for something like this?
Charlie: Well, for Sahara, I always make the joke although it’s not a joke, I always say that life was the training for Sahara because it’s really just all mental. Yes you have to have basic physical fitness, but in this era, I ran 350 miles a week for 11 weeks, that’s a lot of 350 mile weeks. It’s not like before the event started I was running 350 miles a week, because that would have been destructive. What I did do and what we did in that first week in general, we did have a few lower mileage days early. We did 25 miles on day one and 30 on day two.
Flo: To get your body adjusted to some extent to the heat.
Charlie: Yes. Then we had logistical problem. We have one day where we couldn’t cross the border from Senegal into Mauritania. We were stuck there for almost 12 hours and being eaten by mosquitoes and it was terrible. We weren’t arriving at a high enough number, finally had to get to the right number before they would let us cross. Even though we had all the paperwork. The training though for a regular multi day event like a seven day stage race, once again, those races almost all of them you have to carry all of your equipment. People also make the mistake of doing a lot miles but not enough miles carrying a backpack.
Flo: With the backpack, yes.
Charlie: Because if you’re training and then all of sudden you start with a 20 pound backpack on day one. You haven’t been training very much with it, yes, it’s hard on your body but more than anything, I guarantee 100% you’ll get blisters because your body –
Flo: It’s all different.
Charlie: Yes. It’s not used to it. Everything’s different and it feels different. My training is very much based always, as I was saying, on time. I know that most of the stages are between 18 miles. Then there’s always a long day, a 50 mile day. I know the stages are going to be between three hours and 10 hours, depending on the terrain and on a lot of things. When I’m doing my training, especially in the months before the race, I’ll take a week where I run. I don’t worry about distance.
But I’ll put on the backpack and I’ll run three hours on day one, then four hours on day two, then five and then six and I will work myself up. But I’ll do a lot of walking. My goal is not to cover the mileage. My goal is to see what it feels like to be on my feet for that amount of time, every single day. This is the most fascinating thing to me about the human body when it comes to this kind of training. That is that just like the Sahara, day two, day three, day four, you’re just like down, down, down, down.
Charlie: Yes. I always say your body finally says okay, you jerk. I see you’re trying to kill me. I’m going to adjust to this. Suddenly on day four, or five, you begin to feel better, not great because you’re beaten up, but you adjust. You feel better. If you can survive like day three, usually you’re going to be okay.
Flo: There’s this one part as well, we were just at the WORLDZ Conference up in LA and Andy Walshe from Red Bull High Performance Group was speaking over there. He was talking about the perceived risk and actual risk, right? Where at some point your mind is going to tell you, “All right, this is not good. You cannot go further.” Like it’s saying if you go run a 10k, if you go run a half marathon, a marathon or whatever, at some point your body says this is not good. Yet you can override that.
You can do a lot more than what you think you’re capable of. Like, you’re only at 40% or something like that when you hit that initial wall, right?
Flo: I’m sure that you, over the years, have been able to get that higher and higher. But at some point, you’re going to get to a point where it becomes dangerous. That’s where I’m sure you have to listen as well to some of the doctors on staff, or some of these other scenarios.
Charlie: I think that’s all and you just said a really important thing. I always try to make sure that there’s somebody along with me that I really trust their judgement. Because normal people, even your family or just regular friends, when you all of sudden when you’re throwing up for the 10th time or you’re limping because your foot hurts and you’ve got blisters, they’re going to say, “Hey. Do you want to stop? Because it’s okay. You’ve done so well.” I make sure that I don’t have anybody like that on my crew. [laughs]
Flo: Yes, exactly. Because they would stop right away.
Charlie: Yes. I don’t want somebody telling me that. I don’t necessarily want them yelling in my ear like a drill Sargent either. But what I want is someone there that I trust, that can give me a honest opinion and say — This happened to me once. I have a good example. Several years back, I tried to break the record for the fastest runner across the United States. I failed miserably.
I made it like 17-18 days running 70 miles everyday. By day two, I was already a disaster. I had MRSA, which was a –
Flo: You’d already started with the MRSA, right?
Charlie: I did.
Flo: Yes, you already had it a few days prior.
Charlie: Yes, three days before the event began. We had sponsor money, we had camera crews. At that point, there was no not going. I was going, there was no way out. I wasn’t going to use it as an excuse not to go. The point is, really the point is, if you saw that film, Running America, I had people around me that I trusted and there came a point where they had to come to me and say, “Look, you have a foot drop, you have — I had numbness in all my toes. I had some serious stuff going on with tendinitis in my right leg especially.
They were like, “There is a genuine chance you’re going to screw yourself to a point where maybe you won’t run again”. If I was 2,500 miles into it and I only had one week to go, then maybe I would’ve said, “Okay, I’m going to risk it”. I was two weeks into it. I was an absolute disaster. It just simply wasn’t going to be safe. I needed though, I needed someone else to tell me to stop.
It was Chuck actually, Chuck was my crew chief in the Sahara. I trusted him because he is a tough son of a bitch. He’s not the guy that’s ever going to say, “I think you should stop”.
Flo: Yes. Well, that’s really good to have someone like that around, so at least you can blame him. You can’t blame yourself for it, right?
Charlie: I didn’t want to stop. The other thing about it too, I’ll give you another great example of the mind and what a role it plays. I’ve seen it so often myself. You have a lot of people that you talk to that talk about coaching. I’m not a coach really, but I understand me pretty well. I went to run on The Barkley several years back, most people know The Barkley in this world. It’s like an impossible race in Tennessee. Only 15 people have ever finished. I wrote an article for Runner’s World, a feature article after I ran the race. I didn’t finish, but I interviewed a lot of people before the run. I interviewed them on my little camera and on audio. JD, the guy who did actually finish that year, there was one finisher.
Flo: There was a finisher that year, that doesn’t happen every year [laughs].
Charlie: Yes. It doesn’t happen every year, for sure. He said to me– I said, “Why are you here?”. I tried to just keep it very simple, I asked a bunch of questions, but I said, “Why are you here?”. His answer was so perfect it gives me goose bumps. He said, “I’m here to run five loops”. That was his mentality. I realized when he said that to me, that what I was there for was to do my best.
That’s what I was telling myself because I was afraid of this event because so many people who were better runners than me had failed at this run. It was crazy and my mind was messed up. I think the point is, so often we start events with this goal of doing our best. Sure, I get that, it’s a good safe thing to tell ourselves, but once that even slightly negative thought enters the mind or the “I got this injury, so if I feel badly, I’m going to quit”. Those thoughts at the start of a race, essentially are –
Flo: Yes, absolutely, it’s all mental at that point.
Charlie: They doom.
Flo: That’s the thing, besides the Sahara and Barkley marathon, you’ve run many different Badwater events. You’ve placed into top five several times. Do you have some type of mantra or something that you go back to once things really get tough? Is there anything that you keep repeating to yourself?
Charlie: I do, I do. In fact, check it out. It’s right there, I don’t know if you can read it. It says no big deal.
Flo: No big deal [laughs].
Charlie: Actually there’s a more personal note to that. My wife has had lymphoma three times in her life, once as a little girl, and as a teenager, and then again in her 20s. This was her mantra that I borrowed and it actually gets me choked up. The odds of me ever meeting her, because we’ve only been together for a year, were almost less than zero because she shouldn’t have survived the first time at seven years old. She shouldn’t have survived the next time at 17 years old, and her mantra though as a teenager became, she just told herself every time, “No big deal,” not as the disease as a whole so much but on a daily basis she was in so much pain and discomfort and with chemo and radiation and all the things that we all know about with cancer, and her perspective – the things that I do are for fun.
Nobody is forcing me to go to the Sahara or to run 100 miles. My life doesn’t depend on it. I remind myself of that, that I got this opportunity to do something very personal for me. It’s a challenge and I say I don’t need it, I do need it. My body needs it, my mind needs it –
Flo: It’s your outlet, it’s your –
Charlie: Right, it keeps me sane moderately, it keeps me motivated. Believe me, it’s better for everybody around me because I’m a nicer person. All of these things it does for me and it also feeds that part of me that needs to know whether or not I can do something. I want to know, I want to get to that place where I want to quit and my wife tells me that I’m far too comfortable with suffering that maybe I like it too much because it’s – but it is something that I understand suffering, unlike most people. A lot of my suffering has been self-imposed, some of it has been put upon me by other people or other circumstances, or just bad luck. It happens.
Flo: That is also what really comes through in your book, right? Last year you wrote a book, The Running Man, and it’s really your life story, right?
Charlie: It is.
Flo: Exactly, very fascinating read. I read it last week and it’s incredible how it describes all the different ups and downs and the different moments, the different things that you have gone through. I’m not going to lie, reading that I’m like, “Wow, that’s a heavy life.” That is everything from performing really good in school to getting addicted to alcohol and drugs, to eventually getting all this fame with different running documentaries, to people diving into your personal life and eventually you go to jail and spending time there.
Can you talk a little bit more about some of these highs and lows that you’ve experienced and how you’ve gone through that and actually come out as a stronger person?
Charlie: Yes, it has definitely been a journey and I think that the thing that is most – listening to you describe that it’s always interesting me when someone else has their perspective, it’s — what I tried to be in the book is honest because I am an incredibly flawed person and I have a weird circumstance because – I like to actually just say this out loud, it’s fun for me in a weird sick way. Running the Sahara, the film, anybody who has ever seen that, there are parts of that film that make me look like an asshole. People watch that film, a couple hundred thousand people at least have seen that film and a lot of them are runners, so they’re my peers, they’re people who know me or think they know me.
That’s my point, they see a film about me and they think they know me. So then when something – look, I’m not saying the film – there are parts of the film that are just inaccurate. The end of the film where I supposedly leave my teammates and stuff like that, didn’t happen.
Flo: That’s all Hollywood trying to make it into a movie, yes right?
Charlie: Yes, it made the movie more interesting, whatever. But the point is, people judge me by that. Then, flash forward a few years, Sahara had made me a big fish in a little pond in my small home town in North Carolina, and I became – I have no — I’ll probably never know why. Actually, I’m sure I’ll never know why I became a target of one particular federal agent who decided that he wanted to see how a runner could afford to run across the Sahara. He made it basically his mission to get me and it is a fact in this country if you’re targeted by someone like that, there’s very little chance you’re going to escape.
When I got arrested not even — Forget about being convicted. When I got arrested and it made the papers the next day, so many people — There were plenty of people stood by me but a lot of people said, “See, I told you that guy was an asshole.” It gave people fuel for their fire. The hardest part for me and I can actually say I did a decent job with this. I never reacted to one single person, I never defended myself and I think that that taught me a lot of lessons.
I understood, I put myself in their shoes and I tried to look at me from their point of view. When I did that, I could see how that reaction would happen. I admit I still, once in a while, see a review online, someone will just get around to watching the Sahara. They might give it five stars, “It’s a great movie except for that jerk at the end,” whatever. It still and it does still hurt, it hurts.
To get to this place though, where the question you asked me, ultimately, I became the first person in the United States to be charged and convicted of allegedly overstating my income on a home loan application. I was like, “Go let that sink in for a second.” Look, I’m not here, we’re not here today to talk about any of the nuances of that, read the book. I think you can vouch for the fact that I tried to keep my book very balanced and I try to make it about what I actually believe, my philosophy, which is it just doesn’t matter what happens to you in life, all of that matters is what you do about it.
Good and bad things happen to everybody, fair and unfair happens to everybody. What matters is how you react to it. When it happened to me, I focused on what I was going to do about it. Once I was in prison, which I was there for a year and a half in federal prison in West Virginia. Once I was there, I really did on day two. I just had a talk with myself and I’m like, “Look, I have a choice. I can be bitter and angry and I can make this the whole thing miserable for me and everybody around me or I can look at it as an opportunity to have a weird new experience that I absolutely didn’t want but here I am.”
Flo: There are not many people who can do that. I feel that requires a lot of strength like mental strength in order to see that something — You’re the only person who was convicted for something like this in the US. Even though there were many high top executives who should have been in jail yet they got away with murder. Then some signatures are faked and in a very unfortunate circumstance.
We’re not going to dive into it. Anyone who wants to go into details can read it over here. Then, being in prison and knowing, “I’m going to be in here for at least 16 or 18 months and still making the best out of it. I have a lot of respect for that mindset and I do think that it’s part of the reason why you came out of it stronger again as well, right?
Charlie: Yes. Where I learned it was in recovery. I learned it from AA and NA and programs like that because what you learn there is that bitterness and anger towards the people who ruined your life, it really — They don’t care, they don’t care. The people that went after me and put me in prison, they did not lose not one minute of sleep, they still don’t.
I could either focus this intense anger and energy towards them. It’s cliché but the only person that was going to hurt was me or I could just see what happens. In prison, the craziest thing happened. I tried to live by this idea of, as I call it, attraction rather than promotion.
That’s an AA sort of idea. What that means is we learn early in recovery, like when I first got sober 25 years ago, I thought I have found the answer to life and maybe I did, to my life. I wanted to go in and grab friends, strangers, everybody. I wanted to pull them out of the bar and show them this new way of life. Of course, if I tried that, all they said was, they told me to F off.
What happened? What I learned was if I just continued — My life was so rotten at 29 years old that if I just improved my life and just slowly over the years, I began to do that and other people then saw me. Eventually, those people came to me. They said, “Hey, how did you do it?” Because they were tired of drinking, or drugging, or whatever their problem was. Then, I had permission to try to help them.
Well, the same thing happened in prison. I went to prison and look, you don’t go up to the fat guy in the prison and say, “Hey man, you look like you can lose some weight.”[chuckles] That’s a really bad —
Flo: Yes, that’s not a good intro, right?
Charlie: No, but what I did was just go in there and run. I did yoga, I did crazy stuff that I got made fun of for. Guys, they would razz me. I smiled, and waved, and laughed about it. After two or three months, it’s almost like some switch flipped. Guys every day started to come up to me, big guys, little guys, black, white, everybody, usually on the slide though. They would come up in the food line or privately because they were anxious. They were insecure. A lot of these guys in prison, they were in gangs, or whatever. They never had any chance to learn what it was like to be healthy and to understand.
Talk about a stress reliever. Prison is very, very stressful. That’s it. You’re never alone. Never. For a year and a half, I spent every minute with 450 guys in a prison that was built for about 150. You’re crammed in the space, and the sound, and the smells. It’s just that everything drives you crazy.
Flo: Especially for you. Being a runner, hitting the roads for so many miles. That’s from one extreme to the other again.
Charlie: I was the worst person ever to be locked up. Just from a standpoint of myself. What I did is, there were times I ran in place, in my cell for hours. They thought I was nuts. Nobody ever bothered me because they thought I was just out of my mind. Slowly, guys came up to me. When I got there, there were a handful of guys that were running on our little quarter mile track around the recreation yard. By the time I left, they were saying this isn’t all me, it’s spread. By the time I left, there were more than 50 guys running everyday and 25 guys doing yoga.
Flo: Wow, that is incredible. [chuckles]
Charlie: That’s spread. Some of those people I absolutely was responsible for getting them into it. Then, of course, other people came up to them. It’s spread out and all of a sudden, it was like this cool club. I thoroughly enjoyed. I read 150 books while I was in there. I started writing my own book while I was in there. I just made a decision, “My happiness and my fulfillment was completely up to me and not up to anybody else no matter what the situation was.” That’s how I approached it and no big deal.
Flo: [laughs] What a story that is. Yes, that is really impressive, how you went in there and how you actually came through all of that, that is. Then, you come out back into the real world again. Now, you have a —
Charlie: Sucks out here.
Charlie: No, I’m kidding. On that note, I just had to say this one thing. Recidivism, I don’t want to go off on a prison tangent but recidivism is very high. Meaning guys that get back into prison.
Flo: [crosstalk] Yes, it’s 60%, 70% or something.
Charlie: 70%. It’s not just because, it’s a multitude of reasons. Number one, the government likes to keep its prisons full because it’s basically a business. Setting aside my conspiracy theories there, it’s easier in there than it is out here. A felon who spends five or 10 or 15 years in prison, he gets out. Especially if he’s of any color other than white, if he’s a black guy or Hispanic or something, he has almost a 0% chance of getting a decent job. Consequently, his life is very stressful. He’s lucky if he can get a job as a dishwasher much less than anything else.
I always encourage people, it’s why I’m using this for two seconds to say this, guys need a chance because most of them are just like us. They’re just normal guys who — I knew guys who never bought a single bag of weed. The first one they ever bought in their life and end up in prison for 10 years. Stuff happens to people, but they get out, and they can’t get a job, and they can’t vote, and they can’t do anything.
They actually end up, on purpose, committing another crime that’ll send them back, where you can get three meals a day, you can sleep all you want, you can read books, you can let somebody else take care of you even though you don’t have freedom. It’s crazy that anybody would ever want that and I certainly don’t want it again. We need to divert people who have drug problems into other programs because as taxpayers, it also cost us a fortune. It costs us 10 times more to incarcerate some as to treat them.
Why would we put them in prison and they’re just going to come out worse? Then, we’re going to have to take care of them for the rest of their lives because they’re going to be on welfare or some sort of social program. Instead, send them to treatment a couple of times, give them some sort of diversionary treatment and let them build a life. If they don’t do it, there comes a time when maybe prison is the only option, but it should never be the first option for a non-violent offender. Okay, I’m done. That was it.
Flo: Then you came out of prison and now, you’re a successful public speaker, you’re an author, you’ve spoken at places like Google, you’ve done all sorts of other significant presentations. What is Charlie up to these days? I know your working on the next adventure, can you tell us a little bit more about that?
Charlie: I’m not really good at anything else. In the book you can see — My old business used to be chasing hailstorms. I was a storm chaser for many years. When I got out of prison, I had this skill and I had to humble myself and go back to my roots. I’m talking to you today from Omaha, Nebraska because there was a big storm here and I’m here doing some work.
Flo: By the way, this is side conversation and I think you and I can go into the whole storm chasing for a whole other talk for the hours, because I’ve been really fascinated by storms myself. I’ve been out storm chasing for many years, also, with some of the vehicles out there. When I heard that, Ryan Immegart, one of our mutual friends introduced us and he said, “You’ve got to meet Charlie. He ran across the Sahara,” which I already knew about but then, “He’s also really into storm chasing.” I was like, “All right, I’ve got to connect.”
Charlie: I love it. I love the energy around the storms. It can be a little dangerous but I would say it’s only dangerous if you’re really lucky because most of the time, you’re just a little bit behind. I got out, I started doing that but I did, I got a chance. I’m the lucky one because my job, if you will, is, it’s speaking and it’s writing. These things I’ve been able to do and I’ve been very fortunate.
I needed to find something else though and that something else is coming in shape right now. It’s a new adventure that I think will more than rival Running the Sahara. I’ve been planning this thing for many years. Prison interrupted these plans but that’s life. It’s to go from the lowest place on earth which is the Dead Sea, to the top of the highest place on earth, Mount Everest. To do that —
Flo: How far is that?
Charlie: It’s about 5,000 miles if I don’t get lost too often. It’s a bit of a moving target simply because like with Sahara, what I’m doing is I’m actually swimming across — I’m going from Israel, swimming across the Dead Sea. In the middle of the Dead Sea, I’m going to do a free dive to add a couple 100 feet to the lowest —
Flo: To hit even lower, yes.
Charlie: Exactly. Finish the swim across and when I reach the shore in Jordan, dry off,
and start running. It’ll be about 2,000 miles across Jordan and Saudi Arabia and Oman. Saudi Arabia has this incredible place that many people heard about called, The Empty Quarter, which is like just what it sounds like. It’s like the emptiest place on earth.
When I reach the tip of Oman though, I will then get into a kayak or possibly an indigenous sailing craft, and sail or paddle about 700 miles across the Arabian Sea. There’s a lot of pirates out there and it’s bad weather and it’s all kinds of things that I’m incredibly unqualified to do, also. I have a lot of work to do. Then, when I hit the shore in India, I’ll be going across to India. When I land, I’ll get on a mountain bike and I’ll go about 2,000 miles across rural India, to the base of Mount Everest. Then, it’s just like what? Two miles, two and a half miles to the top? That’s it.
Flo: Who’s counting at that point, right?
Charlie: Piece of cake. No, not a piece of cake. Once again, people always ask, “Are you a climber?” I admit, I’ve been over 20,000 feet, probably, a dozen times but I’m also humble enough to realize how over my head I am with this. I have a lot of training to do between now and then. This expedition will start in January of 2019. I have about a little less than 18 months at this point.
You mentioned Ryan Immegart earlier, and companies like Volcom have come on board to support me. Again, I’m incredibly lucky but I do want to say one thing about the — Look, it’s the lowest place to the highest point. It certainly is a metaphor for my life and I think for the lives of pretty much everybody. We go through life hitting these lows and finding our way to climb out of that.
Sometimes, it takes a goal, something to really shoot for, and sometimes, it just takes clawing, one day at a time, doing the best you can. I’m approaching this with that same philosophy but I’m going to take a little flask of water from the Dead Sea. I’m going to carry it with me the whole way. I’m going to try to hopefully pour it out on top of Mount Everest.
Flo: On the top of Mount Everest? Wow.
Charlie: Right. To bring these two extremes together in one place, just to remind myself that that is this journey for all of us. Not to be too philosophical but that’s what we all go through.
Flo: It really is. For you now, the big part is also, it’s an expensive expedition, right? Right now, one of the things as well is looking for ways to fund a project like this, to find whoever wants to make a documentary or a movie about this. That is probably easy.
Charlie: You mentioned you were writing a check.
Flo: Yes, yes. [chuckles]
Charlie: I hear that at dinner. No, but it is. Look, I’m not a wealthy person. Yes, I don’t have a way. If I had millions of dollars in the bank, I think I would just go do it. I would still try to do it in conjunction with something because I do have really strong feelings. I’ve thought about doing this, calling it “The Run For Everything” because I’m clean and sober. I have family members that had struggled with sobriety. I have a mother with Alzheimer’s. I have a wife who’s survived cancer. I’ve raised lots of money for clean water. Matt Damon and I started basically what ended up being water.org. We founded H2O Africa and now —
Flo: You guys started that right before you ran across the Sahara, right?
Flo: How much money —
Charlie: We had no idea. It was basically just, look, Matt had never been to Africa. He was incredibly supportive. He had yet to — This is 10 years ago and at that point, he was still already Matt Damon. He’s very famous and seen as a really good guy, which he is. He hadn’t quite found his thing, his cause. He wanted to use his celebrity to help people. We discussed this idea of clean water and really, it just was like, “Okay. Well, let’s just start a clean water foundation, H2O Africa and let’s see what happens.”
What happened was we raised about $6 million. We were smart enough to know that we weren’t administrators. Neither of us was. Nobody wanted to run. Now, granted, I would’ve
gone over there maybe, and started digging wells for physical labor but I don’t know how to make all that work. We joined with a guy, Gary White, who back then his non-profit was called WaterPartners. Basically, WaterPartners and H2O Africa morphed into water.org. Now today, thanks to Matt and Gary, and tiniest part, this crazy idea to run across the Sahara Desert, where it all started.
Flo: It all tied in together.
Charlie: Yes, we’re helping millions of people with clean water solutions, and permanent clean water solutions. Not just temporary, that’s the important part of it. They do an amazing job.
Flo: Just watching your documentary, Running Sahara. That was the name of it, right? Running Sahara. Yes.
Charlie: Yes. Very inventive name
Flo: [laughs] I want to make sure I got it right. Over there, there’s one scene where you guys are running through the middle of nowhere. All of a sudden, you see a seven-year-old boy sitting on the ground, waiting for his dad to return with clean drinking water. He had to wait for two days. That was so touching to see that scene. I can really see that tie in with the clean drinking water project. Just seeing that was very incredible.
Charlie: That’s what the world faces. That’s what so much of the “third world” faces. The irony in that scene is that he was way more terrified of us than he was of his parents being away. That was his life for him, he was accustomed to it. He stayed behind while they’d be gone for two or three days to get water and they’d come back. He would tend to the goats or whatever they had. Just imagine instead, you see this group of mostly white people which he’d never seen before-
Flo: Yes, probably. He’d probably never seen a white person before.
Charlie: – just coming out of the desert. Right. He was far more afraid of us than he was of being by himself but it was very poignant for me. The hardest part about it — We encountered other things. I think wrote about a couple of them in the book, where we encountered people in serious physical distress. We had a doctor with us, Dr. Jeff Peterson, he helped where he could. In a couple cases though, we’re leaving, seven-year-old boy, there was a baby who got burned by scalding water.
The odds of survival were very small. We had no way up to this day, I have no idea what happened to those people, because it’s not like I could call and check up on them. Because we had to do what we could and then move on. That’s the way it is in those countries. You try to do what you can, but very often, it’s a helpless feeling.
Flo: Yes, but at least you were able to bring attention to it in the movie and you’re also able to raise money, which is a very good thing that way. I do want to change subject here for a little bit because one part that I found very interesting in your book is you were training for a while to run a Sub-3-Hour Marathon. In our group, there’s a lot of people aiming for that, the Sub-3-Hour barrier, right? You tried several times and you kept just missing it, even up to a 301. One minute off your goal.
Charlie: San Diego.
Flo: Then, all of a sudden, you changed a few different things. Can you describe what happened beforehand, and how you came out of that, and how it did happen?
Charlie: Yes. Very briefly, I got sober at 29 years old. I immediately began to run, because I knew from being a runner in high school and all of that. I knew it had been something, even through my years of addiction that while we clean up for short periods of time and I would go out to run. When I finally got sober, I started running. I ran 30 marathons in the first few years. It was just this crazy thing. It was addictive in a way, the way —
Flo: That’s a lot of marathons in a short period of time. Yes.
Charlie: It is. During that time, and this is what you’re describing, I became fixated on running a three-hour marathon. Quite frankly, it took all the joy out of running because I would be out there in Honolulu, and San Diego, and LA, and all these places. These great places to go run. I was so focused on trying to break the three hours, it’s like I didn’t see anything, I barely talked to anybody. That’s all I cared about. I’d run a 301 or a 302. I ran a couple of those, 305. Almost all these races
I would be, everybody who’s a runner understands this, I would be a 1:22, 1:25, 1:27 for the half, right?
Flo: Yes. You knew you had it in you.
Charlie: Right. I’m doing what we do, I’m doing that math. I’m calculating. I get to 15 miles, I get to 18, I get to 21. I’m thinking, “Okay, all I got to do is, whatever, per mile, for the rest of the way.” Then, the frigging wheels fall off again. I end up practically crawling to the finish line and just missing it. Finally, what I did was use once again the lessons of AA, really, of sobriety, of just stopping focusing on that. I got back to just enjoying being a runner, and being out there and noticing people, and noticing sounds, and how I felt, actually enjoying my training again. Because I was making myself miserable. I was taking all the joy out of it.
Flo: You were training hard, hard, hard, right? At that point.
Charlie: Always. If I was sick, I trained. If it was, whatever, I trained. That’s not the way to go about it. Having good instincts about training is the way to be successful. Sometimes, that means recognizing today’s not the day for me to go out, pound a 20 mile —
Flo: The whole rest and recovery is such an important underestimated part of training. That’s really where the recovery happens, that’s where the progress happens.
Charlie: You can’t be a slave to the schedule. I don’t care, even if you have a coach, and you’ve had some great coaches on here but hopefully, even they would say, “Okay, yeah. This is a guideline to what you’re supposed to be doing. If you feel great, then yes, I expect you to be following this plan but be smart, be instinctive. Make good decisions.” When I did that and finally let go — Of course, a year later or whatever it was, I finally broke three hours and then I broke three hours every time. Once I got that barrier out of the way — I never broke 250 but I never obsessed about that. I wanted that three-hour mark. I was not an elite marathoner.
Although, I do like telling this one little story. When my son, Brad, was six years old, I ran the Boston Marathon. I’ve run it many times through the years, but that year, he was six, and he’s finally understanding, “Daddy’s going off to a race.” I go run and I come back. He asked the question that all six-year-olds would ask, “Did you win?” I’m like, “Yes, I did.” I had a medal to prove it and I had all that. He’s 12 years old, years later, and he’s like, “You know what? Dad, you didn’t win the Boston Marathon.”
Charlie: It took him that long.
Flo: Finally clicked. [chuckles]
Charlie: It finally clicked. He’s like, “You suck.”
Flo: That’s incredible.
Charlie: Very funny, but he wanted to hear that I won, so I of course gave him that. It’s a journey, man, it is. All of this is just — It’s learning experiences and —
Flo: Giving your permission — The whole part what you just said there, having fun with the running. I think a lot of people indeed get so fixated, “You’re not the only one, I’ve done it myself, and I see it around me all the time.” I think that’s where once I came across Dr. Phil Maffetone as well, the part of like, “All right, let’s actually listen to your body. Let’s actually, not only focused on the busting out the miles, but also what you eat and how you mentally get your stress under control and everything.”
Charlie: He’s amazing.
Flo: He’s incredible.
Charlie: I think I told you that my wife ended up playing professional beach volleyball, and Phil was actually her coach for a while.
Flo: I didn’t realize that.
Charlie: Yes, not just online. He was her coach. This is many years ago. She’s a big fan of Phil’s. I’ve not met him before, but I’m pretty sure we’re going to cross paths sometime soon. Maybe you’ll make the connection and we’ll —
Flo: I’ll definitely introduce you guys.
Charlie: Tell him to coach me for Dead Sea to Everest.
Charlie: I like having a coach, because I like accountability. I want somebody to ask me how I’m doing, what I’m doing, and be accountable to somebody. Maybe someone like him, of course, would have an opinion about what to do but it’s important to have accountability.
Flo: Yes, absolutely, absolutely. This was a really good talk. I absolutely appreciate it. I wanted to do a little book giveaway. I read the book. I have to say it is very well written. It is not easy to write a book, and I know it’s a monster. You really put everything in there, all the different stories. It’s really well put
together so I can highly recommend people keep on getting a copy of the book. I want to give a copy away as well for anyone who wants to leave a comment on the blog. I want to basically just ask to leave a comment for if anyone is struggling with anything, what that is, and what you’re doing to overcome it?
Charlie has overcome several different struggles in his life, and hopefully some of the lessons that you have heard here as well, will help overcome some of your struggles. I’m curious to hear about that, and we’ll pick a winner from the comments over there.
Charlie: Thanks for doing that, thanks for doing it. I appreciate what you said about the book. The New York Times actually reviewed, and the guy that did the review of the book — It was the greatest compliment I ever got, because I knew him a bit. It was a backhanded compliment. He said, “You know I knew you would have good stories, I just didn’t expect the book to be so well written.” [laughs]
Flo: It was, it really was.
Charlie: As if a runner isn’t capable. Runners aren’t supposed to write. The paperback comes out September 13. For those people that might want one but don’t want to drop the full amount for a hard cover, the paperback will be out in a little over a month.
Flo: It’s available at the major bookstores right? Amazon, Barnes & Noble’s.
Charlie: Simon & Schuster is the publisher. You can get it obviously on Amazon, Barnes & Noble or Books-A-Million or any of those, and independent bookstores too.
Flo: Where can people find out more information about you? How do people follow along? Especially now your next adventure, I’m sure people want to see how this is all going to come together.
Charlie: Yes, simple, just my website. I’ve a pretty cool website that’s just charlieengle.com. You flash the book up there. Now, hopefully people can figure out how to spell the name, but it’s just charlieengle.com. That will have a lot of historical information and a lot of photos and videos. I’ve been slack about writing a blog, but I vowed that that’s going to start happening as I lead up to Dead Sea to Everest.
Flo: I noticed in the media section, several different blogs. I saw you did the Rich Roll Podcast. You’ve been on the podcast with several other people.
Charlie: Yes. It’s fun, as you can tell, I like to talk. I think people find comfort, I hope in how — I don’t know if I’m normal or not, but I’m not some elite superstar. I wasn’t genetically gifted as a great runner, but I don’t think that matters. It’s about how you approach it, and everybody’s success is relative to themselves. What’s important is to go out and give it a try. Especially if you run a half or you run a marathon and you’re thinking about an ultra, just enter it, just find a race. Find a 50 miler, whatever, just pay your money and enter the race. What you’ll learn out there, whether it’s an incredible success or failure, what you’ll learn will change your life.
Flo: Absolutely. One foot in front of the other, just slow down the pace. The longer the distance, just slow down the pace a bit more. Eventually, you’ll get into that new territory. That’s the exciting part right?
Flo: Constantly discovering what new territory to get into.
Charlie: It is, yes. Thank you. Thanks for having me.
Flo: All right, thank you very much Charlie. We’ll be in touch very soon, and hopefully at some point we can do a follow-up conversation as well, as you get closer to your project over here.
Charlie: I have a feeling you may end up coming out there and you may have to run across the desert with me.
Flo: I would love to find a way to be involved and help you out in whatever way I can.
Charlie: Yes, same here.
Flo: Thank you, Charlie. Have a good day.
Charlie: Take care. See you later.