RUNNING MAN: A MEMOIR OF ULTRA-ENDURANCE
By Charlie Engle
304 pp. Scribner. $17.00.
Generally, “Running Man” can be broken into thirds. The first being Charlie Engle’s upbringing and early adulthood. Engle’s adolescent years aren’t easy. His parents divorced when he’s 3. His father joins the Army and Engle doesn’t see him for 4 years. Residing with his mother in North Carolina, she’s active in theater work and social causes. Her involvement in the theater is accompanied by frequent cast parties at the Engle home. These parties expose Engle to drugs and alcohol. It’s in these early years that “…alcohol planted a little flag…” in his brain. His mother’s ventures briefly moves them to Attica, New York. Then, before the start of eighth grade, more instability as Engle goes to California to be with his father. It’s here Engle first finds success in organized sport (football, basketball, track, and cross country). Next, his father’s work requires a return to North Carolina living. While Engle’s athletic star continues to rise there, so too would instances of youthful rebellion. Once a candidate for a University of North Carolina (UNC) scholarship, his dalliances with poor decision making ends that potential. Sans scholarship, Engle still attends UNC. It’s in his early college years that substance abuse dominates (alcohol, cocaine). Engle drops out of UNC. He tries working for his father but fails. Enter: UNC student Pam Smith. Sans enrollment, Engle casually returns to UNC, they meet, and a brief courtship becomes an enduring relationship. Juggling different jobs amid continued substance abuse, Pam’s patience and love is a constant. Engle’s work takes him on the road. He rewards himself for a hard day’s work with further drug binges. Crack becomes another of Engle’s demons. Similar to the darkest times detailed by Catra Corbett in “Reborn On The Run” and of Dick Beardsley in “Duel In The Sun“, Engle bottoms out. Shady motels and drug deals. His car’s stolen, then found, then fired upon, decorated with bullet holes. There’s no shortage of ugly characters and circumstances in these pages. Engle turns to hope and prayer and, finally, feels the “…prison gate of addiction swing open.”.
Previously, in a half-hearted attempt to reach wellness, Engle’s flirted with running. He now goes all in. True, the many miles he runs assists him in keeping his substance abuse in check. However, his running greatness becomes fully exposed. Marathons give way to Ironman races and ultras. The running portion of “Running Man” focuses on a never before accomplished, coast-to-coast run across the Sahara desert. Also, multiple Badwater 135-mile top 3 finishes and dominate worldly race results are chronicled. My compact summary here isn’t intended to minimize Engle’s running achievements. Rather, consider it a reflection of the power of the book’s other, unrelated content. For Engle, once again, he’s on the cusp of turbulent times.
Have you ever taken out a mortgage? To accept Engle’s explanation, this act, so commonly associated with adulthood, responsibility, and potential for prosperity, is at the root of Engle’s next round of hardship. At the height of the mid-2000 mortgage loan scandals in the United States, Engle purchased multiple properties. Undoubtedly, like many, he rubber stamped the countless forms of related legal documents, or appointed someone to do it on his behalf. His downfall being, the income earned by Engle that those forms claimed existed (that Engle never actually declared but was inflated by predatory brokers), was not reflective of realty. For this, the IRS brought a fifteen-count federal indictment against Engle. Ultimately, he’s found guilty of 12 counts of bank, wire, and mail fraud, and sentenced to 21 months in federal prison. Engle’s prison recounts are a fascinating read. He must not only navigate jail life among white collar criminals but murderers and rapists as well. This period’s highlighted by a jailhouse “Badwater” run, taking place on the same date as the famous race. However, the incarcerated version would take place over 540 laps on a gravel track at a West Virginia lockup.
Constructive criticism? The title. Engle declares in the Acknowledgements, “…I did not want to write a book about running, but rather how running has shaped and changed me.” You succeeded, Mr. Engle. This book’s about so much more than just a “Running Man”.
#DidYouKnow courtesy “Running Man: A Memoir of Ultra-Endurance”: On the eve of his first marathon attempt (1989 Big Sur), well into the pre-race early morning hours, Engle ingested large quantities of alcohol and cocaine. A few hours later he still ran Big Sur, finishing in 3:30.
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