Adventure inspires us to overcome adversity—but sometimes, adversity inspires us to seek adventure. This paradigm bespeaks the life of Charlie Engle, who transformed a perilous path of drug addiction into a quest to run across the Sahara desert—along the way raising millions of dollars for charity, breaking a world record, becoming an inspirational speaker, best-selling author and the subject of a biopic narrated by Matt Damon.
In his new memoir Running Man, Charlie chronicles with emotional tenor, the depths of adversity and the peaks of adventure which strengthened his character and became his extraordinary story. The lessons transcend circumstance and communicate an empowering wisdom—that every experience has the potential to propel us in new directions.
Charlie joined us to chat about the book, why running became his path to freedom and the mindset necessary to run a record-breaking 4,500-miles across the Sahara Desert.
How does the book expand on the documentary?
Running Man is a true memoir, so of course the story is told from my point of view. The film, Running the Sahara, was about this massive undertaking of crossing the Sahara. In my book, I tell the entire story of the adventure, but I try to focus on the details and feelings that weren’t part of the film.
What experiences or people had the greatest influence on your journey?
Before I went to the Sahara, I understood that there was a severe water crisis in the region. But seeing it for myself was devastating. I felt very guilty that we had all the water we could drink while the communities we passed through were dying of thirst. This humbling circumstance pushed me to keep fighting my way forward. Ultimately, we raised over 6 million dollars for clean water and I consider that the true legacy of the expedition.
What were the hardest lessons to learn?
In almost any circumstance, (ie work or athletic teams or families) there will be personality conflicts and disagreements. This has certainly been true for any expedition I have been involved in. The hardest lesson I have learned from this is that getting angry is not a big deal, but staying angry is. Through the years, I think I have gotten better at not getting to upset in the first place, but when I do, I am much more willing to apologize and just let it go. Staying angry really only hurts me.
How do you cultivate courage and fortitude for the long haul?
I think the best way to cultivate courage is to set aside the fear of failing at something difficult. Also, for me, having an adventurous streak allows me to override the fear factor most of the time. In the Sahara, I tried not to think about how hard it would be to run 4500 miles. Instead, I focused on one day at a time, sometimes one hour at a time. Finally, I think it’s important to acknowledge that, in any extensive project, many things will go wrong. That fact is actually strangely comforting. I don’t worry about what will go wrong. Instead, I try to adapt to the changing circumstances. If I do that, there is really nothing to be afraid of.
Why running—how has this discipline empowered and enhanced your life?
Early in my life, I found that running made me feel like a free spirit. Then I spent years as a drug addict and I forgot what freedom felt like. Once I got sober, running really saved my life and then it gave me a life. I like the simplicity of running and I love the way it clears my head, scrapes away the detritus of the day and allows me to hit the reset button.
Best advice to those seeking the unpaved path of an Ultra runner?
Don’t be afraid of ultra distance running. It’s really just a puzzle, means of figuring out what works for you physically, nutritionally and emotionally. Don’t spend years waiting to find “the right time.” Instead, find an event in a place you want to visit and just enter the race. There is incredible power in commitment, so the act of hitting the “enter” button will push you to figure out how to do it successfully. And if none of that works, then just call me! I will convince you.
How much of the equation is physical versus mindset?
As I love to say, ultra running is 50% mental, and the rest is all in your head. Of course you should try to be in decent physical shape before the big event, but the body will do what the mind wills it to do.
What are your tools for combating limiting thoughts and physical boundaries?
First, I try very hard to be committed to completing any event. If I start by saying “I will finish no matter what”, then I don’t really have to deal with the thought of quitting just because I’m having a lousy race. I also focus on being grateful for the opportunity to suffer. Sounds strange, I know, but all the best lessons come from hardship. Finally, I remind myself that I will absolutely hit some low points in any long event, so don’t be surprised when it happens. And when I hit a bottom, I know that my body needs calories (fruit, nuts, electrolytes, energy bars, chocolate almond milk) For recovery, I use hot yoga and ice cream…not at the same time though because that’s a bit messy.
What do you hope readers will take away from Running Man?
More than anything, I would like for readers to understand that anything can be overcome by continuous forward movement. Good and difficult things happen to everyone. What matters most is what we do with what happens to us.
Charlie Engle is a world-renowned ultra-marathon runner, having won or placed in several of the planet’s most punishing long-distance footraces. In 2007, Matt Damon produced and narrated Running the Sahara, a film about Engle and his successful bid to become the first person to run 4,500 miles across the Sahara Desert, which helped raise millions of dollars for charity. Engle has featured in Men’s Journal, Outside, National Geographic Weekend, Oxford American, Runner’s World, The Huffington Post, PBS’s Need to Know, NBC’s Rock Center with Brian Williams, The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, and NPR’s All Things Considered. He lives in North Carolina.