Interview with ultrarunner Charlie EngleJune 26, 2013
This spring I finally got around to watching the movie Running the Sahara, which has been out since 2007.
Having been exposed to many extreme ultrarunning challenges, I wasn’t as riveted as some people by the trans-Sahara quest per se. However, I was captivated by the on-screen charisma, eloquence, and humor of expedition ringleader Charlie Engle. He seemed like a complex guy who would be really interesting to go for a (non-trans-desert) run with.
Since that’s unlikely to happen anytime soon, I did the next best thing: I asked him for an interview.
GC: Hi Charlie! Thanks for agreeing to do this interview. It will be interesting for me, though I’m not sure what (if anything) you’ll get out of it. I guess that’s my first question: given that you’re a busy guy, why agree to this? I’m just a guy with a blog who watched “Running the Sahara” and wanted to delve into a few things more deeply.
CE: Greg, in all my years, I’ve never turned anyone down who asked to speak with me. I don’t pretend to know where this path will lead. I just go with the flow.
GC: Fair enough! OK, next question… The movie “Running the Sahara” devotes a lot of attention to the medical and political logistics of covering the entire Sahara desert, but not much is said about the sponsorship side of things. Can you tell us more about how you raised the money for such an unusual undertaking, and how long that took?
CE: I take your question as a great compliment. I was adamant that this documentary not turn into an ad for sponsors. If a product couldn’t be represented organically, then it didn’t belong. That’s why the crew is driving Toyotas but we are not wearing Toyota logos. The same is true for Magellan GPS and Gatorade and Champion and Mission Skincare and Nike and others. Magellan GPS was the first to sign on. That was through a direct contact of mine. Then when LivePlanet, Matt Damon’s production company, signed on, they took over the sponsor acquisitions. LivePlanet also brought in investors to cover the bulk of the cost. It took about 9 months to put the financing together if i remember right. This was an expensive project but every single dollar came through investors and sponsors. In the end it was a very successful project. “Running the Sahara” is selling better than ever today.
GC: Many viewers of “Running the Sahara” see it mostly as a film about the immense physical and psychological challenge of running across the desert. Personally, I know lots of ultramarathoners, thru-hikers, and assorted other endurance-oriented oddballs, so I assumed all along that a traverse was physically possible, and that the logistical challenges (financial and diplomatic) would be even more formidable than the obvious physical ones. To what extent do you agree with that assessment?
CE: The logistical challenges involved in “Running the Sahara” were overwhelming. The entire project was on life support more than few times during the year leading up to the expedition. Raising money, finding sponsors, arranging support in Africa and managing the politics of the expedition itself were all far more difficult than actually running. The best times are the ones that involve physical suffering. That’s the part that makes all the stress worthwhile. Running is true escape. All the other stuff is just necessary noise.
GC: That certainly makes sense to me. Have your post-Sahara adventures reflected conscious choices to simplify the logistics? For example, I believe you subsequently tried to run across the United States in record time. That obviously requires significant planning, but it must be much more straightforward than arranging safe passage through six African countries.
CE: You give me too much credit for being conscious. Running America was inherently easier to plan for the obvious reasons of language and logistics. The AT [Appalachian Trail] and PCT [Pacific Crest Trail] are tough physically but one can be home safe in bed within a day if things go wrong. The same was true for “Running America.” The hardest part was planning the budget and making the film. The physical suffering was to be expected, there was no stopping that. And actually, the physical suffering was part of the goal, trying to scrape away the crap of daily existence and replace it with something better….hopefully.
GC: You’re saying that the physical suffering is not a simply a necessary hardship on the way to your goals; it is a goal in and of itself. That must seem perverse to some people. How does that work for you? Is there a spiritual dimension to this?
CE: I do genuinely believe that many of life’s most useful lessons come through hardship, usually situations that we don’t choose. Years ago, I decided to actively seek hardship with the hope of achieving the same life altering results that often come with surviving unexpected challenges. So I view my adventures as voluntary suffering that will lead to a greater understanding of what drives me. The trick I haven’t mastered is finding balance. I am trying to learn how to pursue and appreciate happiness as much as I crave the need to suffer. For me there is a great spiritual aspect to what I do. I am not a believer in any traditional religion but I do feel a strong attraction to certain people and to powerful places so this confirms for me that there is most definitely a power greater than myself. My personal suffering brings me closer in line with my higher power and that is important to me. In every long run, I want to push myself to that point where all seems hopeless because that is the exact place where I get to discover new things about myself.
GC: In many parts of “Running the Sahara,” you come across as humble, kind, and generous; in other parts, less so. Extreme suffering will cause almost anyone to say and do selfish things. Do you view your behaviors in your darkest moments as aberrations brought on by the circumstances, OR as a genuine part of you (even if they’re not the prettiest part)? I’m thinking about the possible parallels with drunkenness. Intoxication could be said to cause someone to abandon his/her true self; alternatively, it could be said to reveal a side that is normally hidden but has been there all along.
CE: It’s interesting that you characterize some of the things I appear to have done in “Running the Sahara” as selfish. I have learned the obvious lesson that everyone who watches the film brings their own life experiences to the mix. Some see me as a pushy jerk while many others see me as driven and passionate. I think that says as much about the viewers’ background as it does about me. I think the movie portrays me as 80% decent guy and 20% asshole. Much of what was in the film is not in context (500 hours of footage boiled down to a 100 minute film by a creative editor) but the fact is that in real life that ratio is probably accurate. I can say one thing for certain. The likelihood of three runners making it all the way across the Sahara is really small. My teammates have told me directly that without the urgency I put forth every single day, we would not have been successful. I can live with that.
The scene near the end of the film is the most perplexing to me. It makes it look like I might try to finish without my teammates. I have always found that fascinating. First, it begs the question; why would I do that? What would be gained? Had I actually finished before them, I would have looked like the biggest jerk ever. I may be a hardass sometimes but I’m not stupid. We started as a team and I always wanted us to finish as a team. Ray [Zahab] and Kevin [Lin] became scared that I would somehow finish before them and this made for great film drama. I had no idea what was happening behind me. I couldn’t have possibly run any slower. I was doing 15 minute miles. A pack of turtles could have caught me.
All that is to say that running reveals true character, amplifies all that I am, good and bad. Drugs simply acted as a mask for any feelings, a false and deceptive coping mechanism that only makes any situation worse. Running (adventure in general) is cleansing and enlightening. Drugs are debilitating, soul crushing substances. Drugs only destroy and never give back. Running makes everything clear, softens all the hard edges.
GC: You’ve written a lot about running in prison on your blog, Running in Place. In short, you were able to keep running, but without a lot of the amenities and variety that most of us take for granted. Did prison change your relationship with running?
CE: Prison changed my relationship with running in several ways. The most apparent change to me is that I learned to appreciate the purity of running again….or maybe for the first time. When I was young, I ran for pure joy, just to go play with friends. It always seemed so easy, I never got tired. Or at least that’s how I remember it. But my time in prison was just the opposite. Every step seemed burdened somehow, weighed down by stress. That’s how it started anyway. But I quickly realized all I needed to do was to find the joy again and that could only come from letting running do what it does best; cleansing the negativity and opening up the possibilities that are always there when I run.
GC: Finally, I’m wondering about the extent to which you’ve experienced a stigma attached to your conviction for mortgage fraud. On the one hand, you’re an engaging speaker who can win audiences over when you have a chance to tell your story. I imagine that serving your sentence has even made you more fascinating and more marketable in some ways. (“Charlie Engle: He survived Badwater, the Sahara, AND a Federal penitentiary!”) On the other hand, the phrase “mortgage fraud” will always sound terrible to many ears. Until I read the March 25, 2011 New York Times column by Joe Nocera, I had assumed that you had done something that was unequivocally reprehensible.
CE: Certainly my arrest and incarceration didn’t help my short term speaking career…..or much of anything else. But ironically I have gotten so much support that I have way more opportunities now than I did before this mess started. Speaking, writing and planning new adventures are all things I worried I might never do again. But just the opposite is true. I’m sure there will always be a stigma of sorts. I probably won’t be asked to help anyone fill out their mortgage application. (I didn’t fill out the ones I was accused of signing either.) I know I didn’t do anything wrong and that’s mostly enough for me. I have pretty thick skin. For a runner.
GC: Indeed — all that running through the desert must have created some impressive calluses! Anyway, thanks for sharing your thoughts so freely, and good luck with your next adventures!
[Related: Utrarunner Podcast interviews Charlie Engle]