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March 24, 2011

Charlie Engle: Running In Place

From a journalistic standpoint, this is one of those situations that got a little bit out of control. What’s worse is that I pretty much knew it would happen, but decided to tiptoe through the minefield anyway.

The story of adventure runner Charlie Engle is well documented across the Internet, but full details of the story may not be entirely known for certain yet. My fellow ultra-blogger Scott Dunlap created a bit of a beehive with this topic a few months ago, so when my writing partner Mike suggested an article about Charlie for the Monterey Herald, I was more than a bit reluctant. Mike happened to be a longtime friend of Charlie, and I was concerned that our retelling of the story would come across as overly compassionate for someone we knew personally.

Our version of Charlie’s story follows below as it appeared in the newspaper – but I’m the first to admit that there’s some discrepancy as to what Charlie is guilty of. For our column, we worded the accusation exactly as federal prosecutors did on the record during Charlie’s trial, but the claim that Charlie financed his movie with money that was fraudulently obtained is quite likely false. The documentary was funded by Matt Damon’s production company, which makes you wonder why Charlie would need another $150,000 or so to add to the project. [UPDATED: See end of column for a New York Times article describing the strange circumstances that led to Charlie's imprisonment.]

It turns out that our concern for being overcompassionate was unfounded; in fact, as soon as the article was published on the Herald website, we received an angry e-mail from Charlie’s father, which he’s given me permission to reprint here below the original article. I also told him that I would direct readers to the upcoming article that he mentions (which Charlie also referred to on Scott’s website in January) that promises to clear up some of the facts. Through his father, I reached out to Charlie for direct comment as well, and I’ll include that in this post if and when I receive it.

As for me, I have very mixed feelings about Charlie’s plight. There’s no question that he’s a remarkable athlete and humanitarian who has done far more good for the world than most of us put together. But I’ve also seen firsthand how endurance or adrenaline junkies can be so focused on their next great adventure that they’re tempted to bend the rules to fuel their passion, sometimes with tragic consequences. (I wrote a somewhat meandering three-part series about this very experience a few years ago if you’re interested.) Whether the money in question went to his movie or not, if Charlie acquired it by breaking the laws that the rest of us abide by, he deserves a sentence that’s appropriate to the crime. But I sincerely hope that’s not the end of his story.

Running Life 3/24/11 “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 possibly 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 is 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 ultrarunners 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 from 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 describes his life in prison on his personal website at www.charlieengle.com – a fascinating 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.


Here’s the e-mail we received from the senior Mr Engle in reply:

I am Charlie's father. I am sure you meant well with your article today, however, you have done a great disservice to Charlie and you have become another journalist goon who simply doesn't fact check. Matt Damon's production company put up $3 Million to make the documentary, Running the Sahara. Charlie did not put up one dollar. In fact, he was paid money by the foundation to make the movie. To imply that Charlie lied to get loans to make the movie is totally false and even the federal prosecutors have retreated from that position. You do an injustice to the Foundation that put up the money for the movie in an effort to raise money for water for Africa. So far, they have raised over $6 million. And you do an injustice to Charlie.

Charlie pled not guilty to the fraud charges and he still maintains his innocence. I will not waste my time with you on that front. You know nothing about it. There will be a major article in a major publication in the next two weeks that actually will report his story in an accurate and fact filled manner. You will see it if you are remotely current. You owe Charlie an apology, or please publish your facts relating to any money he used for the making of the movie. Being spoon fed information from federal prosecutors, wouldn't make you much of a reporter anyway. I am sure you had no contact with them either.

[**UPDATED: Here's the New York Times article that makes a strong case for Charlie's innocence]

[**Also check out the May 2011 issue of Trail Runner magazine for a full-length feature on Charlie, and the strange circumstances of his prosecution. Unfortunately, it's not online, so you have to get it from the newsstand.]

I'll continue to post further updates here, including any word from Charlie, as I receive them.

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Jeff 3/25/11, 7:48 AM  

Wow, I just went back and read your "The Dog You Feed" series - really a great read. I recommend everyone goes back and checks that out.

RH Averett, ImaginePolitik 3/25/11, 8:54 AM  

If I had a family member or close friend who was indicted and convicted of these crimes, I hope I could remain objective enough to fight for their rights and for society's right to justice.
Your article seemed overly supportive. I've never met this person, but saw quite a bit of his character in the movie.

Gretchen 3/25/11, 9:01 AM  

Ditto of what Jeff just said. In fact, I recalled that that series was the first thing I ever read on your blog, and that I'd followed a link to it from Olga, so after re-reading your series I also went back and re-read her post that led me here. (I guess this is what one does when the highway is closed yet again so no school.) I have to say, I love those kinds of posts from you (and Olga's too even though it was sad) and the comments you inspired. Thought provoking writing is so very wonderful. Thanks, Donald.

Anonymous,  3/25/11, 4:23 PM  

there is an article about charlie engle in the new york times:


mtnrunner2 3/25/11, 4:49 PM  

Donald - Maybe I'm blind, but I can't find the part where YOU accused Charlie of doing anything specific, vs. simply reporting what prosecutors said and what he was convicted of.

Referring to it as a "cautionary tale" does imply that you think there was behavior that should have been avoided. Maybe that's what the father was reacting to.

But what are people supposed to do, remain in a perpetual state of suspended judgment? No, you simply make the best judgment you have to given the facts, which is that he was convicted of a crime. If it's overturned, then people will have to reevaluate.

Donald 3/25/11, 5:47 PM  

Anon: Thanks for the link. Post is updated to include it.

Everyone else: thanks for the thoughtful comments!

Garrett 3/26/11, 12:57 PM  

Just finished the NY Times piece. Couple of questions surface quickly:
1. Did the Federal investigator running the cases against Charlie understand the difference between prosecute and persecute?
2. Doesn't the interview with the female agent (wearing a wire" border on entrapment?

West Chester, PA

Donald 3/26/11, 10:06 PM  

Garrett: That was my first thought - entrapment - about the female agent as well. That whole part of the story seemed very strange.

Anonymous,  3/27/11, 12:52 PM  

Laws are slippery things. Actually, language is a slippery thing, but it is all we have to work with. As soon as I read "breaking the laws that the rest of us abide by" I thought of something I had just read, although the source is now not at my fingertips, the gist was "What is a law?" The reality is that the Federal Register is quite long, and with the addition of state laws and local laws, the probability of all of us being lawbreakers is quite high. The full stop at a stopsign? So there are laws that exist which are not enforced, or even known - which to be more accurate, there are statutes that exist which are not obeyed or enforced, or even known. So what is a statute? A written enactment by some body of officials. What is the difference between a statute and a law? That is the real question.. what is a law..

To my understanding, the mortgage fraud which Mr. Engle has been convicted of is intended to protect lenders from the consequence of borrowers borrowing money that they either do not intend to pay back (obvious fraud) or do not have the ability to pay back. It is an interesting question if there is a law to protect the reverse relationship, that is, a statute to protect the borrower from over-extending in his ability to pay due to a knowing mis-representation from his lender.

Anyway, I've no argument with the way your article was written, but keep the updates coming.


Knuckles 3/28/11, 11:27 AM  

Mr. Engle needs to learn the difference between "journalist" and "blogger".

Knuckles 3/28/11, 11:44 AM  

I suppose I should also add, since this appeared in the newspaper first, that he needs to learn the difference between "journalist" and "columnist" as well.

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