“I need that moment when I think, ‘This sucks,’” is how he put it.
When he first started running, Engle did it as a form of penance — “I was feeling badly about myself and wanted to punish myself,” he said. Then, as he realized he was good at running long distances, ultramarathons — and other, even more extreme events — became a way to test his limits and, to some extent, build his celebrity. Five years ago, running took on another role in his life: It helped keep him sane. Now, Engle runs long distances not only because he loves it but because it is one thing he can do that nobody can take away from him.
To put it another way, running has saved his life.
Liar Loan Troubles
The first time I ever spoke to Engle, he was calling me from a telephone in a minimum-security prison in Beaver, W.Va. This was in the spring of 2011, three years after the financial crisis. In the wake of that crisis, millions of people lost their homes because, during the bubble, they had taken on subprime mortgages they ultimately couldn’t afford. Engle, who had gotten caught up in the housing bubble, was in prison for mortgage fraud.
At the time, I was writing columns in the business section of The New York Times, a number of which focused on the unwillingness of the Justice Department to hold accountable the top executives of the companies that had led the country over the cliff, like Angelo Mozilo of Countrywide. And yet here was this smallest of small fries, who had lost two houses during the subprime crisis, sentenced to 21 months in jail for supposedly committing bank fraud.
The more I looked into it, the sketchier the whole situation seemed. It had begun after an Internal Revenue Service agent watched a documentary, produced by Matt Damon, about an expedition Engle had organized, a grueling 111-day, 4,500-mile run across the Sahara. The agent started wondering how Engle had time to earn a living with all the time he spent running. He opened an investigation — it included Dumpster dives outside Engle’s apartment — that found nothing wrong with his taxes. But an undercover female agent, assigned to befriend Engle, got him to brag about taking a couple of “liar loans” while she secretly had a tape recorder rolling.
Liar loan is the term for loans in which people overstate their incomes to qualify for mortgages they probably shouldn’t have. Millions of people took out liar loans during the housing bubble, just as Engle did. Thousands of brokers encouraged them to do so, just as Engle’s broker did. And as it turns out, the evidence against Engle was so thin that the jury found him innocent of providing false information to the bank — even as it was convicting him of bank fraud. Go figure. The point I made in the column is that there’s something wrong with a system that sends Charlie Engle to prison and lets Angelo Mozilo go free.
It doesn’t often happen this way, but something good came out of my column: It helped Engle get a book contract. Two months ago, the book, titled “Running Man,” was published. The first quarter of it tells the harrowing story of Engle as a young addict who can’t resist either booze or drugs, who drives away people who love him, and who has a number of close calls during late-night cocaine buys. And then, after a binge, he runs to purge his guilt.
Engle’s first marathon takes place the morning after a cocaine binge. When he finally starts taking sobriety seriously, after the birth of his first child, running marathons becomes his focus. In 1996, in Australia, Engle mistakenly enrolls in a 52K — not seeing the 2, he thinks it is a 5K. There comes a point in the race when Engle realizes that he actually craves the pain: “The pain told me to go on,” he writes. “Feel the pain, welcome the pain, use the pain, transcend the pain.” He somehow finishes the race, and his career as a long-distance runner is born.
For the next decade-plus, Engle constantly tries to find ever more difficult challenges. He runs in Eco-Challenges around the globe. He runs Badwater, the 135-mile, Death-Valley-to-Mount-Whitney race that many consider the toughest in the world. The first time he runs it, he comes in eighth. He follows that with two third-place finishes, and two fourth-place finishes. With heat that can go as high as 130 degrees and cold as low as 30 degrees, it is his favorite race.
In 2006, with cameras in tow, Engle runs across the Sahara with two other runners. Two years later, Engle participates in a second documentary, running across America with Marshall Ulrich, a renowned ultramarathoner in his own right. (The race results in a falling-out between the two men.) He has sponsors. He makes motivational speeches. And he dabbles in real estate speculation, buying and selling a dozen homes before the bubble bursts. After which, of course, it all falls apart.
There weren’t any other runners in prison, Engle explains in “Running Man,” but there was a small gravel track. A little at a time, Engle began running on it. Others began to join him, mostly men who were out of shape and for whom he became an exercise coach as well. It wasn’t long before running became his prison therapy. He got the nickname Running Man from his fellow inmates.
But he also needed a goal — something not just to occupy him but to motivate him. So he decided to run 135 miles, the same length as Badwater, and to do it on the same day in July that Badwater was being held on the West Coast. Of course he had to prepare — at one point the prison was in lockdown, and he couldn’t get outdoors to do the 15-miler he had planned that day. So he ran the equivalent of 15 miles in place in his cell.
And although it took him two days — because he had to go back to his cell at night — he pulled it off, running 81 miles the first day and 54 the next.
“Prison officials weren’t too happy about it,” recalled Howell Weltz, a former prison inmate who befriended Engle and confirmed Engle’s account of prison life. “They tried to bust it up by saying he was violating the rules by not wearing a T-shirt,’’ Weltz said. “Charlie calmly walked over to where his T-shirt was, put it on, and then continued running. He has a lot of guts.”
(The warden, William Vest, declined to comment on Engle’s account of his running pursuits in prison, saying, “I don’t even remember him.”)
Engle’s descriptions of that run — the way other inmates sidled up to him to quietly root him on; his dealing with prison rules during the run; the sheer satisfaction and even joy he took from running 540 laps on a rutty track in a West Virginia prison — are the highlight of “Running Man.”
The book ends with Engle getting out of prison, falling in love with a woman named Stacey Hatcher, whom he marries, and preparing to run — what else? — Badwater.