Charlie Engle Talks Writing, Running, Sobriety, Prison Reform and 5.8
Updated: Jan 6
On a recent late November morning I interviewed ultrarunner and race adventurer Charlie Engle by phone while he was out for a run. I had read his memoir Running Man.
I asked Charlie about the discipline of running and writing, his past alcohol and drug addiction, his words of wisdom for parents and families of children suffering from drug addiction, what it takes to remain sober, his prison reform advocacy, and what's on the horizon.
RUNNING AND WRITING
Charlie grew up surrounded by writers. “I grew up with a writing mother. My father was also a writer. They were artists and theater people. I grew up around writers.” He has written for magazines. But it wasn’t until his time in Beckley federal prison in West Virginia that Charlie began to put pen to paper.
Had he not served time in prison, he may not have honed his writing skills and the discipline of writing. “Ironically going to prison put me in a position where I had a lot of time on my hands.” A self-described undisciplined person who "was never a slave to a training schedule where running was concerned," it was in prison where he recognized writing requires discipline.
"I realized being an undisciplined runner did not translate into being an undisciplined writer in prison. I've always found success in flexibility in my training. I did not find success and flexibility with writing. I had to force myself to actually sit down and practice and write basically. It began quite simply in prison with journaling. I found myself taking 2 hours every single day to sit down and write.”
For Charlie the the act of running and writing are two different things. "Running is a physical thing with action and recovery, action and recovery. My assumption with writing was always that the words and the wisdom are already in my head. I just have to sit down and get them out. And it turned out not to be true. What I found out was, the more I did it, the more hours I put in to just writing, and it didn’t matter what the subject was, but just writing, the more comfortable I became with the flow.”
Writing in prison and writing Running Man was “a way to purge all of the crap that I was still carrying from my addiction days.”
RUNNING AND ADDICTION
Running helped Charlie overcome a decade of addiction. In Running Man, he writes about running and the pain of addiction. I asked Charlie if the pain of addiction is different from the pain that comes with ultrarunning. "It took me a while to figure out. Addiction is all about hiding and being invisible and having absolutely no feeling whatsoever. As an addict, if I had a feeling, I'd drink it away or did a drug. I was not equipped to handle it. Running, as every runner will attest, is the exact opposite. There is no hiding."
"When you're in a marathon, or a 100 miler or whatever the heck it is, you are fully exposed. That's the moment that I really want to get to in this self-imposed struggle of running." Charlie makes the distinction between drug addiction and running. "I didn't have a choice in being an addict. It took me a long time to sort that out."
"With running I now have the choice to put myself in a really uncomfortable position, psychologically and physically, and know that the end result would be that I would get some new lesson out of it. That would never happen in addiction because I would be numb to whatever I was feeling. And I've never ended up in jail after a run," chuckles Charlie.
ADVICE FOR PARENTS AND FAMILIES
Twenty-six years ago Charlie began his journey on the road to sobriety. This past summer he ran 26 hours to celebrate 26 years of sobriety. Twenty-six years ago, he also became a father. Today his first born son, Brett, is in recovery. "Brett is a year and a half clean. He's doing amazingly well."
As a former addict and the father to a son in recovery, Charlie offers the following advice to parents and families. "First, be patient. Don't assume that you can actually do anything to change your kid's path. It's like bowling. You see those bumpers for people who do not bowl well. Your job as a parent is to try to keep the kid between the bumpers totally out of the gutter. But this doesn't guarantee good results. Focus on loving support rather than interfering and enabling."
Parents and family can't be safety nets and should not be there to save them. "It's very difficult. For them to recover, they have to find their own path. Trying to find the balance between enabling and saving your kid is a natural instinct. Unfortunately, the saving or enabling leads to a tragic end result. The same is true for adult [addicts]."
It hasn't been easy for Charlie to witness his son's drug addiction. "As a father it's incredibly difficult to watch him struggle. I've actually had to look at him in some ways as I look at any other young addicts. I had to separate myself as his father and accept the fact that he might not survive it and there is nothing I can do about it. I have to just love him and support him and let him know that I couldn't enable the addiction but that I would absolutely support his recovery."
How has Charlie stayed sober? "As cliché as it is," says Charlie, "it's not just one day at a time. It's often one moment at a time. I have one rule for myself. Never make a big decision in a down moment because that's the time we're most vulnerable to make a poor choice. The thing that has made me sober is the knowledge that no down turn is going to last and neither, just as important, is the high times. Neither is that time when everything is going your way. That's also going to pass."
Charlie offers recovering addicts, who are struggling to stay sober, the the same advice he gives an AA sponsee who is having a difficult time and is thinking about having a drink. "You should drink if that's what you want to do. But do me a favor. Don't do it today. Go to bed. Get yourself a good night sleep. And wake up tomorrow and if you still want to drink, I'll get the six-pack and come over. And not once, of course, in all those years has that ever happened because the person wakes up the next day, and it's like 'Holy shit! I feel amazing. Thank goodness I didn't do that."
His time in Beckley federal prison exposed Charlie to the serious issue of drug addicted inmates and racial injustice. "I was in a cell next to a black man who got a 25 year sentence for basically the same thing I was doing in my 20s. The difference is I was a clean-cut middle class white kid driving in the hood in a decent car and nobody every stopped me."
Charlie learned the injustice of the three strikes rule."The guy next to me had two shoplifting charges early on and then he got arrested for crack cocaine. He was an addict. Because of the three strikes rule he ended up getting a 22 year sentence for a minor drug possession. He didn't have money to defend himself. And his entire life was taken away from him."
His experience as a white inmate, the injustice fellow black inmates endured, and the lack of drug treatment programs at Beckley propelled Charlie to become involved in prison reform and the Innocence Project. "The experience changed my view. There is no drug treatment in prison. How can you have prisons filled with over 85% of the people there with drug issues and no drug treatment. It's crazy. I've always been a a liberal guy the way I grew up. [Prison] gave me first hand knowledge. If people understand who it is we're putting in prison, why we're doing it and the social and monetary cost, everything would change."
Running with his wife Astacianna in Ponce, Puerto Rico
Charlie served 16 months in prison for bank fraud, overstating his income on a home loan, and other charges. He was released in 2013. In 2014 he remarried. Running Man was published in 2016. Now, he has his sights on a new project, a new adventure he calls 5.8. 5.8 refers to the distance from the Dead Sea to Mt. Everest. The distance is about 4500 miles or 5.8 vertical miles from the lowest point on earth - the Dead Sea - to the highest point - Mt. Everest.
"I'm going to swim out into the Dead Sea from the shore of Jordan. I'm going to do a free dive to the lowest place that I can reach. I'm going to come back up, I hope, and swim back to shore and start running," says an enthusiastic Charlie. He'll be running across the Arabian desert, kayaking and paddling across the Indian Ocean, cycling through Everest base camp, and then climbing to the top. In the meantime, to get ready for 5.8, in 2019 he'll be doing a series of expeditions from the lowest to the highest point on other continents and other states. 5.8 goes into motion on Jan 1, 2020.
Charlie Engle has survived a decade long alcohol and drug addiction. He has survived prison time. He's an advocate for justice and prison reform. Charlie is always ready for the next challenge and adversity that comes his way. Charlie's work is not yet done.
"Running and recovery made me capable of letting go. Now I get the opportunity to tell the story through my book and other ways that will allow and help to change things. That's my job. To reman bitter and angry and to go through life saying how badly I got screwed is so counter productive."
My review of Running Man
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