Running In Place - Page 4
"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 head first, 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 Engle learned fast, and says, "Adventure racing is where I learned to suffer properly physically." 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 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 surviving 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. Then, 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 built larger than most 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—the brutal 135-mile run from Death Valley to Mount Whitney in July, with temps often tipping 130 degrees—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 (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 his 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."