Running in Place - Page 2
Kevin Lin, Ray Zahab, and Charlie Engle during the 111-day Running the Sahara adventure. Photo by Scott Brewington.
LIFE OF ADVENTURE
Engle grew up an athlete, running a 4:40 mile in high school and playing quarterback on the football team. He has always incorporated running into his life, including through his 20s and a hellish 10 years as an acute drug and alcohol addict. In the late 1990s, in his 30s, he embarked on a fast-track “career” in adventure racing and ultrarunning, swapping his substance addiction for another. After a string of marathons in the early 1990s, Engle one day watched a Discovery Channel documentary on the Eco-Challenge/British Columbia adventure race, and that was it.
“You either watch something like that and say, ‘Those are the biggest idiots I’ve ever seen,’ or ‘I want to do that … and be a complete idiot too,’” says Engle, laughing. “I knew it was for me.”
Typically, he dove in headfirst, in 1997 attending California’s Presidio Adventure Racing School (a 10-year anniversary gift from his then-wife, Pam). The very next year, Engle wetted his feet in the Raid Gauloises/Ecuador, and the following year ticked the Raid/Tibet-Nepal. These non-stop, multi-day, four- or five-person-team adventure races incorporated a huge array of skills and disciplines, from running to orienteering to kayaking to mountain biking, over distances up to 400 miles.
In 2000, admittedly “completely unqualified for the job,” Engle finagled his way onto a team for Eco-Challenge/Borneo, an event created by producer Mark Burnett (now of the television-show Survivor fame) and inspired by the Raid Gauloises events. “It was like playing in the Super Bowl without ever having played peewee football,” says Engle. But he learned fast. “Adventure racing is where I learned to suffer properly, physically,” he says. Following Borneo, he fired off the Raid Gauloises/Vietnam and the Hawaii Ironman within six months.
From 1998 to 2002, Engle devoured every major adventure race in the world, culminating with Eco-Challenge/New Zealand-Fiji. Then, in 2003, he made an important transition, entering his first stage race, the inaugural edition of the Gobi March, a six-day solo foot race across China’s Gobi Desert.
“I had become frustrated with the team aspect of adventure racing. Although I loved my teammates and many are still my best friends, your team is only as strong as the person having their worst day,” says Engle. “I wanted to try some things individually and either succeed or fail because of me.”
His initial experiment was a success—Engle won that Gobi March. Then in 2004 took second in the Atacama Crossing, another six-day event, across Chile’s Atacama Desert. The same year, hitting another extreme, Engle climbed Alaska’s Denali, the highest point in North America, with Aron Ralston (who would later become famous for performing an arm self-amputation in the Utah desert to free himself from beneath a boulder), the storied adventure racer and ultrarunner Marshall Ulrich (with whom, in 2008, Engle would launch an expedition to attempt to break the transcontinental record for running 3063 miles across the United States, documented in the feature-length film Running America, which Engle co-produced) and photographer Tony DiZinno. In 2005 he won Brazil’s 220-kilometer Jungle Marathon, another punishing stage race, seven days through the Amazon rainforest.
“I became good at running and carrying a backpack,” says Engle. “Adventure racing gave me the skills to beat much faster runners. I understood pacing, and wouldn’t go all out on day one or two. I figured out the 50-mile day is the most important.” Certainly, at a solid 6' 1" and 185 pounds, Engle is larger-framed than many elite distance runners, and seems built for endurance over pure speed.
From 2003 to 2009, sans backpack, Engle fed his desert obsession with five Badwater Ultramarathons—completing the brutal 135-mile run from Death Valley to Mount Whitney in July, with temps often tipping 130 degrees, and garnering all top-10 finishes, including two thirds, a fourth and a fifth. In 2009 he tacked on the Furnace Creek 508-Mile Bicycle Race across Death Valley, setting a new record for what is termed the Death Valley Cup (for combined times for Badwater and Furnace Creek in the same year). In 2010 Engle took 10th overall in Hawaii’s slick, rooty HURT 100-Mile Endurance Run.
“Charlie is obviously one of the ‘greats’ of the endurance world,” says Ray Zahab, one of the Sahara runners and Charlie’s trainer. “Every time he competes, he puts his best effort forward, and always blows my mind. I have been creating Charlie’s running and cycling programs since 2005, and have to consciously rein back his volume, or he’ll just keep running, literally.”
Lisa Jhung, an accomplished adventure racer and trail runner from Boulder, Colorado, has raced alongside Engle many times and even teamed up with him once or twice. “Charlie is always keeping you entertained with a funny story. And while he takes racing seriously, he knows how to appreciate every moment—even the awful suffering that often comes with adventure racing,” says Jhung. “He’s a kind, supportive teammate, not the type to yell at you to hurry up, but the kind that asks if you need help. Plus, he’s strong as a horse, and knows how to handle pain. With Charlie, it’s never ‘poor me,’ but more like, ‘This sucks but it’s awesome at the same time.’”
THE THEORY OF CONNECTIVITY
Engle traces his path to the Sahara clear back to 1997 at the Presidio Adventure Racing School, where he met Mike Lucero, his instructor. “Everything in life is connected,” he says, citing an ensuing string of events. Just before Lucero was to compete in the 1998 Raid Gauloises-Ecuador, he was killed in a car accident on his way to an adventure race in Colorado. Lucero’s teammates invited Engle to join them in his place, and he finished the race. In 1999 he began working as an instructor at Presidio.
“Life doesn’t happen in a vacuum. I am truly convinced that from the death of Mike Lucero sprang my life of adventure,” says Engle. “In every event, I still give thanks to Mike.”
A Presidio student, Josh Gelman, happened to work for CBS on the show 48 Hours, which was later to produce a film on the Eco-Challenge/Borneo. In 2000 Engle and his teammates applied for a spot in the race. On his application Engle listed his professions as “documentary filmmaker, semi-pro badminton player and amateur comedian.” At the time Gelman was looking for a cameraman. He gave Engle a shot.
“I wasn’t afraid to put the camera in people’s faces,” says Engle. “48 Hours ended up using 10 minutes of the footage, which is unheard-of.” He was invited to a showing of the film in New York City, where he met its other producer, Tom Forman. Two years later Forman created Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. Engle received a call from Forman, asking him to work as a cameraman and producer, even though at the same time, as Engle recalls it, Forman said he was “completely unqualified for the job.” Such was Engle’s segue from his automobile “dentless paint repair” business into the incongruent world of television production.
Engle had chased hailstorms around the world for 15 years and, in 1990, started his own company, Universal Hail Repair, which at one time had 100 employees. While he made less money in the television business, says Engle, “It was getting me closer to combining my passions: running, speaking, recovery and writing. When the show first started shooting, of course, we had no idea that it would be a hit. But I knew for sure that we were helping some families that really needed it and deserved a break.”
Then at the 2004 Jungle Marathon, he befriended the Taiwanese racer Kevin Lin and the Canadian racer Ray Zahab. A month later, Zahab called Engle with the crazy idea of running across the Sahara Desert, and Engle bit. The two recruited Lin, and they all decided to run the 2006 Jungle Marathon as a team to test their compatibility. They clicked, and they also won.
A television connection, Tim Beggy, who was also an adventure racer, saw potential in the RTS project, for which Engle was seeking sponsorship support. He introduced Engle to James Moll, who agreed to take on the film project. Ten days later Moll called and rhetorically asked if it would be all right if Matt Damon’s company LivePlanet produced the film.
Life was good, says Engle, until he woke up at 3:00 one morning in a cold sweat, six months before the runners were to begin RTS. “Oh, my god, I have to run across the Sahara Desert,” he thought. The heat was on, and, aside from the camera crew, he recruited a small support team that included a doctor, a logistics coordinator, a massage therapist and a local guide. And trained, hard.
Although his peak training weeks topped 125 miles, says Engle, “There was no real way to prepare my body for 4500 miles, and weekly mileage of twice , so I just tried to stay healthy and trusted that my body would adjust. I also had to learn to eat 10,000 calories per day, which was not as much fun as it might sound.” He also incorporated core work and weight lifting four days a week.
On November 2, 2006, Engle, Zahab and Lin ceremoniously dipped their hands in the Atlantic Ocean off Senegal and began running. Their goal was to run the 4500 miles in 90 days (including 10 rest days) through Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Libya and Egypt to the Red Sea. That’s about 55 miles a day—farther and faster than anyone had ever gone, facing tortuous terrain and conditions and complex logistics. That first day, they ran 22 miles.
The inauspicious start planted seeds of doubt, but the three slogged on through 120-degree daytime temperatures, a three-week sandstorm and constant headwinds, battling stomach issues, blisters, snakes, locusts, scorpions, energy-sucking sand, sleep deprivation, bad food and attacking wild boars. They eventually settled into a routine, though, rising at 4 a.m. and running until noon, napping till about 3 p.m., and then running until 9 at night. Over 40 miles a day, every day.
Watch Running the Sahara, and you sense the tension within the team, and Engle’s intensity. The physical torture was monumental, but the psychological torment was off the charts. Engle actually thrived on it.
“I wanted us to suffer,” he says. “To find a whole new level of self-discovery.”
Engle was the undisputed leader and a relentless taskmaster. He deems Ray Zahab “the morale officer, the king of happyland.” Continues Engle, “Kevin was a good soldier, a great guy, but he had his down moments. I could yell at Ray, but yelling at Kevin was like yelling at a puppy, who would cower and not come out from under the couch all day.”
Says Zahab, now 42, of Chelsea, Quebec, a professional adventurer and founder of the not-for-profit organization Impossible2Possible, “I had quit a pack-a-day smoking habit in 1999, and took up running in 2003. By the time we started running across the Sahara, I had competed in ultramarathons all over the world, but nothing could really prepare me for the Running the Sahara project—and what it would teach me.
“It taught me without doubt that dreams are achievable. Period. Charlie definitely was the driving force. I always felt like I could lean on him, and he was always there for his teammates.
“One of the glues that kept us together was Charlie’s ability to crack a joke and make you laugh in the most stressful situations. Sometimes on an expedition now, I think back to those moments, and no matter how sore or tired I am, I break out into insane laughter.”
One hundred and nine days, 4350 miles, countless blisters and couscous servings, two showers—and no rest days—after starting, the three were poised for a final 150-mile push. Over 48 sleepless hours, in which Engle battled severe blisters, they pushed past the pyramids of Giza and through the chaos of Cairo and, finally, stumbled into the waters of the Red Sea.
“It was so humbling, and I was almost embarrassed to be running through Giza. The history was so intimidating, and made me feel small and insignificant,” says Engle. “The thing that I am most proud of is that we all three finished together—the odds of all three of us making it are incalculable.”
Engle says he is also proud to be a co-founder of H20 Africa, an organization founded to address the water crisis on the continent. Running the Sahara raised over $6 million for the cause, and resulted in hundreds of life-saving wells being built in remote areas.
Ironically, Engle’s crowning achievement of running across the Sahara Desert is what triggered his labyrinthine legal battle.