Running in Place - Page 3
Engle with his sons, Kevin, 16, and Brett, 18. Photo by Tamara Lackey
Another irony is that Engle’s distance running and adventure-racing obsession—and ability to exert a positive, motivating influence on others—was borne of his severe addiction to drugs and alcohol. That period began at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he enrolled in 1980 as a 17-year-old freshman.
By the time he was a 20-year-old junior, he had flunked out. Engle says he got hooked partying with his fraternity brothers. In the 1980s cocaine was the ubiquitous campus drug, and he started dealing so he could snort as much as he wanted. Engle quickly developed a classic addict’s pattern that would haunt him for 10 years.
“I had what’s known in addiction as a series of ‘geographicals,’ which means I moved frequently,” he says. “If I moved, I would leave all my problems behind.” He moved to, among other cities, Seattle; Carmel, California; Atlanta; Greensboro; and Monterey, California. Engle had married Pam in 1987 (they would divorce in 2002), and lived a double life.
“I would move, get a job, even become the best at my job,” he says. “I would make money, do all the right things, then I would fuck it up completely. Of course, it was always somebody else’s fault. As a committed addict I always found a way to blame somebody else for my problems.” He often worked in sales, including for Bally Total Fitness and for Toyota, where he became the top salesman in the country.
In the late 1980s, he began his hailstorm car-repair career. “It was the perfect business for an addict,” he says. “I traveled all the time, made good money and had complete freedom.”
Even through regular multi-day binges, Engle says, running remained in his life. “When I would get sick and tired enough of myself and my destructive behavior, I would put on the running shoes again. Running would take the place of my drug addiction.”
Being a competent natural runner, Engle was able to clean up for two or three months, when he would run and lift and obsess on training. “I am blessed with enough of an ego that goes along with my addiction to every once in a while look in a mirror and say, ‘Holy shit, you look terrible.’” In 1989, at 27, Engle ran the Napa Valley Marathon, where he qualified for Boston, running it 30 days later. A week later, he ran the Big Sur Marathon.
“The problem was that I was so spiritually and emotionally empty as a human being that, for example, when I finished Big Sur, I felt nothing, no joy, no satisfaction,” says Engle. “Two days later I was back out on a weeklong binge. No matter what I was doing, all my behavior was as an addict. Everything was all out, all the time, 100 percent. I couldn’t do anything in a healthy way.”
And Engle’s binges were epic. He talks openly, candidly, about them, spilling out stories like a stuck-open faucet. “My kids know all the stories,” he says. “You’re only as sick as your secrets. When I talk about mine, they lose their power. And it can make other people realize their own stuff is not so bad.”
One jaw-dropping episode, in particular, illustrates the depths of Engle’s addiction.
In October 1990, one of the biggest hailstorms in modern history swept through Denver, hammering more than 100,000 cars. “The little frozen golf balls were dollars from heaven for me,” says Engle. “So after two weeks in Denver, I had a pocket full of money and a demon in my brain telling me I deserved a little bit of fun. Despite all evidence to the contrary, I convinced myself that this time things would be different, this time I could handle it, this time I would quit after a few hours, this time I would be at work on time the next day, this time I would be safe, this time I wouldn’t die.”
Although Engle lacked a drug connection in Denver, he had become adept at sussing them out. While he was putting out feelers at a bar in downtown Denver, a bartender told him, whatever he did, to avoid seedy Colfax Avenue, “because that’s where all the bad shit goes down.” Engle drove straight to Colfax.
“I finally spotted what I felt like was an acceptable risk, a young woman dressed in jeans and a T-shirt. By acceptable, I mean to say that it looked like she had showered sometime in the recent past and didn’t appear to be carrying a gun,” he says. “I pulled over and said I was looking for cocaine and somebody to share it with.”
Hopping in Engle’s car, the woman directed him through some poor areas and eventually to pull over behind a dumpster, where a very large man appeared, waving a handgun in Engle’s direction. Once the pair, who turned out to be siblings, interrogated Engle enough to become convinced he was not a cop, Engle purchased an “8-ball” for $250. Engle and his passenger, whom he says “loved to smoke crack,” raged. “Once I started getting high, I was only interested in getting higher,” he says.
Four times in the next 24 hours, Engle would return to purchase drugs from the big man. Still at it four days later, Engle was almost out of money, and his female companion took his last $100 and car keys, promising to return with one more delivery. Five hours later the woman had not returned and, Engle figured, would not.
He could not pay his $15-per-day motel bill, and found himself out on the street, without even a jacket, in a snowstorm. He had consumed gallons of alcohol but had not eaten in five days. Delirious and starving, he wandered into a Wendy’s and filled up someone’s used plate at the salad bar, but was booted by the manager before he could take a bite.
“That moment was powerfully humiliating for me,” says Engle. “Even after all of my drugs and bad behavior, I was embarrassed to be a vagrant, a loiterer, a crackhead.”
Despondent, crying, frozen, Engle stumbled down the street, and “thought about just falling over in the deep snow and letting my body freeze. I would be well preserved, and at least I wouldn’t stink.”
Then, amazingly, he spotted what looked like his Toyota 4Runner a couple of blocks off Colfax in a decrepit neighborhood. Drawing closer, he could see exhaust smoke—the vehicle was running!—and his North Carolina license plates. With his heart racing, he jumped in and took off, tires squealing, in his rearview mirror spotting a woman screaming in the yard.
As he turned away from Colfax onto a highway, Engle heard a cry, “like a meowing kitten,” in the back seat. Turning around, he looked into the wide eyes of a young boy of, he guessed, 18 months. Engle’s vehicle had probably been “rented out,” a common practice with stolen cars in downtrodden areas. His brain spinning worst-case scenarios, he decided to find his way back to that neighborhood, where the apparent mother stood yelling in the middle of the street. As he pulled up, the woman simply reached in, pulled out the child and hurried back to the house.
As heinous as that binge was, though, says Engle in addiction speak, “I still had not hit my bottom.” It’s not that he didn’t want to quit. “Quitting is easy—I’ve done it 100 times,” he says with a laugh. Engle thought the simple act of his first son’s birth, in May 1992, would be enough to make him quit.
His bottom would come two months later on July 23, 1992, on a curb on the notoriously crime-ridden Broadway Avenue in Wichita, Kansas. On the tail end of a six-day bender that ended with drug dealers shooting holes in his car—with him in it—and stealing the last of his money, Engle said a prayer for the first time in his life, asking for the suffering and craving to be taken away. “It seemed like a good time to quit,” he says. “It was that simple.”
That day, with “no one watching” (for him a key point, he says), Engle attended an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting (not his first)—in fact, three of them. The next day he went for his first run, a mile, of what he hoped would be a new life, “almost dying after having smoked crack for six days in a row.” He would attend daily AA meetings for a year. Still sober 18 years later, he continues to attend them.
A NEW LIFE
“Twelve-step recovery groups provide the backbone to the desire to stop being an addict,” he says. “AA taught me how to start managing my life, not how to quit drugs.”
During his first three years of sobriety, Engle channeled his addictive tendencies into running, clocking 30 marathons. “The spirituality of running and recovery from drug addiction go hand in hand,” he says. “The fear and frustration that I felt with drug addiction needed that outlet. I was finally able to get many of the same euphoric feelings that I got from drugs.”
Near the end of that marathon spree, Engle experienced trail and ultrarunning for the first time—the latter quite unintentionally. That first foray into ultrarunning came while he was “working” a massive hailstorm in Brisbane, Australia, in 1996. On a whim, he had signed up for a “10K,” but was shocked at the start line when two locals struck up a conversation and asked, “So, have you ever done a 100K before?” Not ever having run more than 26.2 miles, Engle wanted to sneak to his car and escape, but pride, and the fact that his keys sat in his gym bag near the announcer/race director’s feet, wouldn’t allow it.
Completing the first of the race’s three laps, Engle, not surprisingly, felt reasonably strong, but lap two of the hilly course had him suffering, wondering if he could survive another. Yet he did—and won the race. Engle says, “I had finally found a sport so obscure that I was good at it.” It was in fall of that year that Engle watched the Discovery Channel Eco-Challenge show, and his life of endurance began.
Outside the visible lights of race finishes and Hollywood films, though, Engle’s most enduring legacy may be the least known. Among those in attendance that Saturday night in Greensboro before his sentencing is Lester Pace, 52, of Burlington, North Carolina, a fraternity brother of Engle’s at Chapel Hill, where he says they were always “going 110 miles an hour.” Pace was at Engle’s side during some of his darkest addiction days, and Engle subsequently influenced Pace to pursue sobriety as well. “Charlie spoke at my one-year [sobriety] anniversary, and again at my nine-year anniversary,” says Pace. “I give him a lot of credit for how my life turned out.
“There is a serenity and comfort in being of use to others, and that is the motivation for the charitable things Charlie has done. All his [post-sobriety] endeavors have had an altruistic bent.”
At dinner at a restaurant across the street before Engle’s Saturday-evening talk, Liz Lindsay of Greensboro, who operates Janes on the Run women’s running schools, says Engle has inspired many area runners to get into ultras. “He has spoken many times to my running classes,” she says. “He often runs with my groups, too, which are typically out-of-shape, middle-aged women.”
Not present at Engle’s gathering is Norma Bastidas, 43, now of Vancouver, Canada, an accomplished ultrarunner, and Engle’s recent ex-fiancée. She had just undergone a third surgery on her hand, badly broken while trail running. She appeared, though, via a video message.
Bastidas, who met Engle through her close friend and trainer Ray Zahab (Engle’s Running the Sahara cohort), says the stress of the court case became too much. “I am a single parent and do events to raise awareness to find a cure for blindness, since I have a son who is losing his sight,” says Bastidas. “I have my two kids full time and a responsibility to the charities I represent, so I had to unfortunately choose between my sons and seeing Charlie. He understands that I am first a mother and that my son deserves a cure.
“Charlie is the most unselfish person I have ever met. He is a world-class athlete but in less than five minutes you forget that and he makes you feel like you are talking to an old friend. He takes the time to listen to everyone’s problems, whether about divorce, addiction, death, anything. He leads by example, and gives people hope that anything can be done.”
Another “ex” (Engle jokes that he may not be the best husband or boyfriend, “but I make a great ex!”) attending the evening event is Lisa Trexler, 39, of Greensboro, who dated Engle for about five years, including during the Sahara adventure.
“I’ve seen firsthand how much he has inspired others, whether his sons, his mother, his friends or a stranger in the airport. People seem to feel an immediate connection with him and a comfort that can’t be explained,” says Trexler.
Chris Roman, 41, a radiologist and ultrarunner from Jacksonville, Florida, had traveled to Greensboro for the event as well. In September 2010, in just over six days, Roman had run the 363-mile length of the Erie Canal to raise money for Lance Armstrong’s LIVESTRONG organization and, in January 2011, he would run Brazil’s 530-kilometer Caminho da Fe, or Path of Faith (see Making Tracks, page 14) to benefit the Challenged Athletes Foundation (CAF).
As one of Engle’s nearly 5000 Facebook friends, Roman (who would be seen at the 10-miler on Sunday pushing a running stroller cradling a disabled youth) contacted Engle last year out of the blue, asking him to come to Florida to speak at a CAF fundraising event. “Charlie’s life is all about overcoming adversity,” he explains. On his own dime, Engle made the trip.
“The best thing about Charlie is that he just commits. He’ll be on board with you till the end,” says Roman. “He is not the guy who needs to be taken out of society. He adds to everyone around him.”
Up on stage, Engle gives props to Elaine Daniels, 50, of Greensboro, who frequently dropped off meals during the trial and its aftermath. Daniels had met him when, as a board member of the Greensboro running club, she booked him to speak at a 2002 gathering.
“Charlie is such a motivator, and one of the most candid, open, honest, compassionate people I know,” says Daniels, a two-time breast-cancer survivor. After her second diagnosis, she signed up to run a marathon but lacked motivation. “He can be brutally honest and cut to the chase,” she continues. “He said, ‘Why don’t you just quit running then?’ He had the instinct to know how to inspire me.” Daniels finished the marathon.
Tonight, Engle stresses that his primary motivation for the gathering is to garner support for his two boys. “I want you all to know and look out for my children,” he says, and, smiling, “and make their lives hell.”
Says Brett, a lanky, friendly teenager with a buzz cut, “I’m proud of the way he’s handled [the conviction]. And he is the most supportive father I could wish for. I’ve screwed up and he’s always there and loves me unconditionally.”
Asked what is Engle’s greatest attribute, Ray Zahab says unhesitantly, “Dad. He has two amazing boys and is such a great father. I hope my children grow up as capable and happy as Charlie’s kids.”
Engle’s downsides? Zahab says, “He spreads himself so thin to accommodate his friends. He really wants to be there for everyone.”