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He has run across the Sahara Desert. He has run to overcome drug and alcohol addiction, and to help others. Most recently, he ran smack into the law. In 2011, Charlie Engle faces his toughest challenge yet.
Photo by Rod Mclean
This article appeared in our May 2011 issue.
It sounded like a fun weekend in Greensboro, North Carolina, with a 5K or 10-mile run through a greenbelt park, but there was one strange twist. The e-vite promised a Saturday-evening presentation by the renowned adventure racer and ultrarunner Charlie Engle, known for his astounding 111-day, 4500-mile run across the Sahara. For the “Main Event,” however, attendees were invited to caravan to Engle’s Monday-afternoon sentencing, in Norfolk, Virginia, for a recent felony conviction.
On a crisp Saturday morning in January, I arrive at Engle’s Greensboro residence (clued in that I was probably at the right place by the “XTREMIST” license plate on an older-model Suburban in the driveway), where Engle lounged, watching a classic John Wayne western Fort Apache, awaiting the arrival of weekend guests from across the country.
“I have to get my weekly dose of the Duke,” says Engle, as we sit on the white L-seat couches of the nicely appointed suburban house in which he lives with its owner, Chip Pitts, a fellow runner and close friend.
Within 10 minutes of watching, I begin to realize Engle, 48, possesses a commanding, penetrating voice not unlike Wayne’s. And, I would discover, he has a similar likeable swagger and arresting presence.
Between frequent incoming cell calls, texts and e-mails, Engle is open and talkative, cracking jokes and flashing a ready smile. He is self-deprecating, and friendly. While his gregarious nature rides easily on the surface, when a couple of friends show up, an uneasiness drifts into the air.
One is Jack Fierstadt, a real-estate attorney in Pasadena, California, who has come to support Engle, whom he met in a tent in a multi-day stage race in the Gobi Desert in 2006. “This case is bullshit,” he tells me. “I’ve never seen anyone prosecuted criminally for this kind of thing.”
As Charlie’s ex-wife, Pam Engle, housemate Chip and friend Elaine Daniels filter into the house, Engle enthusiastically gives Fierstadt and another visitor beta on running the tree-lined trail visible across the street.
“People are treating me like I have a terminal disease,” he says, turning to me as the two are about to bolt out the door for a run. “I am not a gentle person or known for my subtlety or shyness, so I can joke about it”—his impending sentence—“but my friends are afraid to.”
Indeed, Engle tells prison jokes unabashedly, about not taking many showers, about at least not planning to have sex for the next year or so, about his “federal vacation,” where he will be learning “about a whole new culture.” While Engle’s humor lightens the mood, he becomes serious about one thing, two actually—his sons Brett, 18, a freshman at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro, and Kevin, 16, a sophomore at the Early College at Guilford—whom he sees daily when not traveling.
“People have to listen to me talk incessantly about my kids,” says Engle. “The worst thought [about prison] would be something happening to them, from an emotional standpoint, and not being around to help them.”
LAW AND DISORDER
At the time I visit, Engle’s legal woes have been recently highlighted in a January 3 blog post entitled “Charlie Engle’s Fraud-Funded Sahara Run—Will He Get 111 Days in the Slammer?” by a prominent California trail runner, Scott Dunlap, who writes runtrails.blogspot.com.
Some commenters on the post jumped on Engle’s case. “Be mad all you want at Scott for his tone, but it is his blog and his point of view,” wrote one poster, identified by the screen name of Anthony Brantley. “Regardless, Charlie is a thief, Google what occured and read the articles, the guy’s a thief. Who you are or what you did does not absolve you of your bad deeds. The statement he made ‘everybody was doing it’ is pretty telling of his character, IMHO.
As far as his family and sons go, maybe he should have thought of them before he did what he did. … The guy did these crimes to do and live the way he wanted. I don’t care what his reason or cause was, it was wrong. …For whatever reason [the investigator] checked up on Charlie and found out he was a crook.”
It is public record that Engle, on October 6, 2010, was convicted of 12 counts of bank, mail and wire fraud related to two real-estate loans. But Engle, along with friends, family and acquaintances familiar with the case, are shocked that it existed in the first place, and by its premises. And they mourn the fact that someone who does so much for others will be taken out of circulation.
“I am so angry,” says his ex-wife, Pam, with whom he maintains a close relationship. “It’s upsetting that the banks get bailed out and they are coming after the consumer.”
“This case is bogus, and it is not over,” says his father, Richard Engle of La Quinta, California, a longtime real-estate broker, who attended every minute of the six-day trial and is intimate with every detail of the case. “We are protesting to the Department of Justice, to anybody who will listen.”
Engle was initially investigated for tax evasion. When I ask him what he was actually convicted of, he says, “Basically, I’m going to prison for allegedly overstating my income on a loan application.”
Dunlap and other sources, including Greensboro newspapers, have suggested that Engle may have used the loans to help fund the feature-length film Running the Sahara, which was produced and directed by the Academy Award winner James Moll and executive co-produced by the actor Matt Damon (who also narrated the film) and Jim Van Eerden, who led the project’s investor group.
Engle emphatically says that not a single penny of his own money went into financing RTS, which had a final budget of over $3 million. The net equity of the loans, he says, was around $140,000. “We couldn’t have gotten past day two of the Sahara expedition on that,” he says. “It’s hurtful that Running the Sahara is tainted at all, because of all the great people involved.”
“There is a rumor circulating that Charlie helped fund the expedition and film with his money,” says Van Eerden of the Helixx Group, when contacted. “That is simply not true. We funded Running the Sahara with third-party investment. Charlie was paid a fee as expedition leader along with the other runners.”
So, it was in skepticism, confusion and anticipation that I had traveled to Greensboro to meet the enigmatic Engle.
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.
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.”
Engle hugs Brett just before his January 10, 2011, sentencing, with Kevin and Engle’s wife , Pam Engle, in the background. Photo by Tamara Lackey.
A KNOCK ON THE DOOR
Engle’s troubles began in April 2009 with a knock on his door, or rather a ring of the security buzzer at the apartment complex in which he lived. The person calling was a stocky man named Robert W. Nordlander, who produced a badge identifying himself as an IRS Criminal Investigator. Nordlander informed Engle that he was under investigation for tax evasion.
According to Nordlander’s trial testimony, he had been following Engle’s career in local newspapers, and began to wonder how Engle financed running all over the world, and what Nordlander called a “lavish lifestyle.” Nordlander takes his job seriously—before the grand jury, say Richard Engle and others who attended the trial, Nordlander testified that if he sees someone driving a Ferrari who doesn’t look like he should be, he will “run” his license plate and pull his tax return.
After over 600 hours of investigation, which included examining Engle’s trash for discarded mail and other documents, recording a conversation between Engle and an undercover agent and impounding his mail (compliments of the Patriot Act), Nordlander evidently had no case for tax-code violations or failure to report income. He turned to investigating loans obtained by Engle on two properties he owned in Cape Charles, Virginia, using information obtained from the tax-evasion investigation.
“This whole sordid affair started as a tax-evasion investigation by Robert Nordlander, whom we consider to be a rogue IRS agent, but the United States government was not able to find any tax-code violations,” says a livid Richard Engle in an open letter (in which he accuses Nordlander of lying under oath) to friends, the Department of Justice and others. “They used what they called a ‘confession’ by Charlie [to the undercover agent] to start an investigation into bank fraud. The ‘confession’ was not a confession. It was a statement regarding two stated-income loans which Charlie obtained. Charlie was never advised by any lender that he was getting a stated-income loan.”
The loan trail is complex. The first property, a condo, involved a $200,000 loan against a purchase price of $250,000, on which Engle made a down payment of $50,000. Then on a refinance/cash-out transaction of $300,000 against an appraisal of $400,000, Engle netted $80,000 in equity. That property subsequently sold at foreclosure for $312,000, with no loss to the lender/investor.
The other property, a house, involved an initial loan of $444,000 and a second mortgage of $111,000. Both were “purchase money,” meaning the funds were used for the purchase of the subject real estate. The purchase was made possible by proceeds coming out of another property, which Engle had owned for seven years, known as a 1031 exchange, and in which he netted equity of $66,000. After Engle eventually defaulted on that loan, the property sold in foreclosure for $292,000, generating a “loss” to the lender (Countrywide Mortgage) of approximately $262,000. So, in total, Engle netted about $146,000 in equity on his investments.
Nordlander and the Department of Justice claim that Engle had created a scheme to defraud the banks, and had overstated his income on the loan applications. Richard Engle, however, says Charlie was never asked to provide income information and readily complied with lenders’ requests to provide employer information, i.e. IRS Form 4506, which gave them permission to access his tax returns.
Jack Fierstadt, the ultrarunner who met Engle in the Gobi Desert, is a senior partner at a firm that deals in real estate and business litigation. Over the last several years, Fierstadt has represented numerous clients who were subject to predatory practices by some of the biggest lenders in the country. Many of the firm’s cases involve wrongful foreclosure issues related to fraudulent lending.
“The loans on the two properties were clearly of a predatory nature and were known as SIVA—stated-income/verified-assets—loans,” says Fierstadt, who says they are also called “liar’s loans.”
“Following the collapse of the real-estate market these loans were literally outlawed,” he says. When Engle’s interest rates climbed to over nine or 10 percent, he could no longer make the payments.
Fierstadt comments: “I have never heard of anyone being prosecuted by the federal government because they had no other choice but to let their property go into foreclosure. I know lenders, mortgage brokers, appraisers and other real-estate professionals who have been charged with crimes arising out of their practices but never a borrower.”
Richard Engle and Fierstadt also say the banks that foreclosed on Engle’s properties never complained to anyone about these properties being lost to foreclosure, because they made thousands of dollars in junk fees and high interest rates. In addition, following the foreclosure the lenders repossessed the properties. Engle’s loan broker, John Hellman, who was very active in the area at the time, has since pled guilty to various felonies related to his loan practices.
The most contentious part of the case boils down to what Engle was actually convicted of—not tax evasion, not the acts of defaulting on the two loans, but rather the alleged information he originally provided to lenders to acquire the loans, as relayed via fax and mail. (The lenders were: for the condo, Shore Bank, underwriter Decision One, a subsidiary of HSBC; for the house refinance, Priority Financial, underwriter Impac Funding, a division of Countrywide Mortgage.) Did Engle falsify his income on the loan apps?
Engle’s legal team contends that he did not. In fact, they say, the government’s own handwriting expert testified that initials on the applications “were probably made by someone other than Engle,” and that the loan signature might or might not have been Engle’s.
Asked whether he is guilty of the charges for which he was convicted, Engle says, “I absolutely did not falsify income information or any other information on these two loan applications. I did default on the properties, when the real-estate market tanked in late 2006, just as a few million other people have done. And it is estimated that more than half of the 13 million people with stated-income loans have incorrect income figures on their loan apps, either written by them or by the mortgage brokers or the mortgage banker.” He says he followed the instructions of the two mortgage brokers and “signed where they told me to sign.”
Continues Engle, “To my knowledge, I am still the only borrower in the United States who has been charged as a ‘sole conspirator’ in a mortgage fraud. … In fact, I was found not guilty of falsifying information yet still found guilty of bank fraud. The prosecution convinced the jury that I was guilty of something but they weren’t sure what.”
Chris Justice, 40, of Greensboro, another running friend of Engle’s, who has acted as his attorney in the past (not in the case at hand) and who spoke as a character witness at Engle’s sentencing, says, “It is shocking that this case was prosecuted to begin with. There is so much blame to spread around. So many people who did the exact same thing and facilitated the same acts for others won’t ever see the inside of a jail cell.”
In the end, the case presented by United States Attorney/Prosecutor Joe Kosky and the Department of Justice convinced a jury to convict Engle of the 12 fraud counts, with sentencing scheduled for January 10, 2011.
THE MAIN EVENT
The night before the “Main Event”—Engle’s sentencing in federal court—the atmosphere at his residence is that of almost any cozy potluck. Daniels has brought chili, and eight or so other friends and family members sit on the living-room couches, while the Packers-Eagles NFL playoff game provides background noise. Engle sits in the middle, computer on his lap, allegedly writing his sentencing statement amid the banter, with his arm around his son Kevin. Behind him sits Pam Engle, stroking Kevin’s shaggy hair.
Pace and Engle trade pre-sobriety stories, still powerful motivators all these years later. Pace tells one about passing out in his car in front of a Denny’s restaurant with his headlights shining directly into the windows. The blinded patrons happened to be cops, who knew Pace well from numerous previous encounters and gave him a ride home.
“That’s a good one,” says Engle. “I’ve never heard that one.” Engle counters with another of his own, about another stint in Denver, getting busted for driving 110 miles per hour and DUI.
“You’re lucky to be alive,” says Daniels.
“Destiny,” says Pam Engle.
After a big play in the game, Daniels comments that the Eagles quarterback Michael Vick, convicted of animal-cruelty charges related to dog fighting, has really turned his life around.
“He’s doggedly pursuing a title,” Engles chimes in immediately, to groans.
“Hey, he’s had it ‘ruff,’” is Engle’s retort.
“That’s Charlie,” says Daniels, rolling her eyes.
“OK, I’ll ‘paws.’”
The next afternoon, the atmosphere in the United States District Court, Eastern District of Virginia, in Norfolk, however, is somber, with low murmurs and tense faces as about 50 of Engle’s friends and family, including Kevin and Brett, enter the courtroom, filling its long benches. I have seen many of the faces at the 10-miler yesterday.
All rise as Federal Judge Jerome B. Friedman enters the room. “In most cases, I’ll receive two or three letters in support of the defendant,” says Friedman. “In this case I received 120.”
The three-hour proceedings are like a mini-trial, with several witnesses taking the stand, as does Nordlander, and each side giving closing statements.
Claiming a loss to banks of $404,000, Prosecutor Kosksy pushes for a sentence of between four and five years in prison. He maintains that Engle chose the path of being an ultramarathoner and because he was not able to support himself, left the “banks holding the bag,” calling the alleged crimes a “significant offense, a serious offense.”
Engle’s were “not the actions of an honest and forthright person,” says Kosky, “but rather the actions of a fraudster. … The defendant lies when it suits him to get what he wants out of life.”
Paul Sun, Engle’s attorney, pleads with the judge to consider the conviction “an aberration to what Engle really is,” and seeking an “active probation” in which Engle would conduct work for charitable causes.
Engle himself is then called to the podium to read his statement, in which he pleads similarly for leniency. “I have a reputation for turning negatives into positives,” he says. “I have absolutely no doubt I will make the best of this.”
While the judge praises Engle’s eloquence, he says, “Mr. Engle has to be punished for what he did. I believe he knew what he was doing was wrong.”
Citing several mitigating circumstances, though, including Engle’s positive role modeling for substance abusers, work for H20 Africa and other charitable causes and how his absence could negatively affect his sons, Judge Friedman strays from the sentencing guidelines—a very rare occurrence, as Justice later says—which Friedman lowers from Kosky’s recommendation to 37 to 46 months based upon Friedman’s final assessment of the loss to lenders. The sentence: serve 21 months in federal prison, pay restitution to Bank of America of $262,500 and complete 100 hours of community service.
As friends gather outside on the courthouse stairs (after being kicked out of the lobby for being too noisy), discussing the verdict, out pops Engle, dapper in his navy-blue suit and a tie, beaming his white smile. He cracks, “I’ll bet you’re all wondering why I’m here.”
Charlie Engle’s blog is at www.charlieengle.com; it containswritings about his life and, now, his prison experiences.
You can read Richard Engle’s assessment of the case on Norma Bastidas’ blog
Visit www.runningthesahara.com for more about the Sahara expedition and H20 Africa.
Michael Benge is the Editor of Trail Runner.
POSTSCRIPT: On February 14, 2011, Charlie Engle began serving his 21-month sentence at the medium-security Beckley Federal Correctional Institution in Beaver, West Virginia. Contacted in the facility, Engle comments that Beckley is “an awful place, but I’m making friends, adjusting.” Posted by friends to his Facebook page, he relays:
> “Day 15—Beckley Prison—5 times per day I must stand next to my bed to be counted. No excuses. Miss the count, go to the hole.”
> “Good news, I am
flossing every day.”
> “Working out every day. No real weights here, so we lift anything not bolted down. Bleachers, rocks, lockers, pingpong table, logs. Necessity = Invention.”
> Another post: “I did heavy curls today using a mesh laundry bag and a giant bag of water and a broomstick stuck thru the mesh. Also walked 10 miles in steel-toed boots. Excellent workout!”
> “Day 15—Beckley Prison—I am in prison, completely deprived of free will physically but I will remain free mentally. Some people think I should be miserable but that is up to me. I choose to be positive.”