Running In Place

It’s never easy to watch a friend go to prison – but that’s exactly what we experienced last month with a training partner named Charlie Engle, a former Salinas resident who began his running career as a member of the famous Big Sur Marathon “centipede” team in 1991 before becoming one of the most admired and accomplished adventure racers in the world.

Last month, Charlie was sentenced to a 21-month prison term after being found guilty on 12 counts of bank and mail fraud, and using that money to help fund his ambitious adventures. The story of how Charlie went from that first marathon to running in place inside a jail cell is a cautionary tale about how our passions can sometimes overwhelm us.

Charlie always had an intense fire burning inside him; his ongoing struggle was how to channel that fire into something constructive rather than destructive. Although he was seemingly healthy during that Big Sur centipede run, he was battling a 10-year addiction to drugs and alcohol that started when he was only 17. He went “cold turkey” on July 23, 1992 and has been clean ever since – he simply found a more legitimate outlet for his energy and compulsive behavior. He traded in his drug use for excessive adventure running.

He eventually moved to North Carolina and immersed himself in the world of ultrarunning, continually looking for harder and harder challenges. He did the Badwater race, 135 miles from Death Valley to Mount Whitney, where it’s common for the soles of your running shoes to melt from the heat. He ran the 130-mile Amazon Jungle Marathon in Brazil, and won the 155-mile Gobi Desert Marathon in 2006. He competed in several Eco-Challenges, involving running, hiking, canoeing, swimming, climbing, and lots of all-around suffering, and became a charismatic star when those events were regularly televised.

Along the way, Charlie also became a very sought-after public speaker, using his life as an example of overcoming challenges and living life to its fullest potential. Anyone who’s heard him will tell you that Charlie lights up a room: he’s charismatic, funny, entertaining, self-deprecating, and above all else, inspiring to listen to.

Charlie’s next ambition was to be the first person to run across the Sahara Desert. He dreamed of the run serving a humanitarian mission to raise awareness and money for the clean water crisis in Africa. Part of his outreach effort was creating a movie called Running the Sahara, which documented the journey of Charlie and two other adventurers as they successfully ran for 111 days across 4,300 miles of the African continent in 2007. Although it was an extremely noble accomplishment, this is also where Charlie’s ambition apparently began to get the best of him.

According to federal prosecutors, Charlie partially financed his movie by money obtained by real estate loans and mortgage fraud involving properties in Virginia, as well as exaggerating his income to become eligible for these loans. When the financial downturn hit, no matter how far he ran, Charlie could no longer stay one step ahead of his collectors and prosecutors.

Charlie tells his version of the events and about his life in prison on his personal website at – a blog fittingly called “Running in Place”. He views his situation as just another physical and psychological challenge to overcome, and vows to get through it and back to serving the public as he did before. For everyone’s sake, we hope he’s able to succeed.

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