How Charlie Engle ran an ultramarathon in jail

This year, Engle took part in a 5000km relay across the United States.
This year, Engle took part in a 5000km relay across the United States.

After a decade-long addiction to crack cocaine and alcohol, Charlie Engle hit bottom with a near fatal six-day binge that ended in a hail of bullets. As he got sober, he turned to running, which became his lifeline. He began with marathons, then ultra-marathons, including a harrowing, record-breaking 7242km [4500 mile] run across the Sahara Desert, which raised millions for charity. Engle's growing notoriety led to an investigation and subsequent unjust conviction for mortgage fraud. He would spend 16 months in a Federal prison in Beckley, West Virginia. Here, he tells how he decided to run the equivalent of the famous Badwater ultra-marathon: all 217km [135 miles] of it within the prison walls.

I told no one about my plan. This was for me. To keep my sanity, I would do the insane; it had always worked before. Deciding to run Badwater sparked a feeling of purpose in me that I had not felt since I arrived at Beckley. I had been in survival mode. But now I knew I had to do more than simply get through this.

Fair or unfair, I would probably be in Federal prison for at least another year. There was no point in wasting time wishing for a different outcome.

My change in attitude and my commitment to getting stronger and faster did not go unnoticed. Guys started sidling up to me in the yard or in the chow line to ask for advice about running, exercise, and diet.

"How many miles you do today, Running Man?" they'd ask, and I'd tell them 10 or 20 or 30.

Their eyes would get big. "Damn," they'd say. "How do I get started?"

They saw me doing it; they wanted to do it, too. Within a few weeks, I was working out with half a dozen guys every day. Sometimes I ran with them, sometimes I gave them a plan and waited for them to come tell me excitedly about the eight-minute mile they had just run or how far they had gone over the weekend. We used rocks and horseshoes for weights, did dips on the picnic tables and pull-ups under the bleachers.

I also fielded lots of questions about diet and weight loss. Being a vegetarian in prison was like being a whore in church. Everybody looked at you funny, casting some judgment, but they all wanted to ask you questions in private. I didn't try to push guys toward vegetarianism - but I did get some of them to stop eating biscuits and gravy for breakfast every morning.

Not everyone who came out to exercise with me stuck with it. Some wanted results but didn't want to do the work. Some couldn't keep to the schedule and drifted away. Some probably decided I was just too batshit crazy. But the handful of men who stayed were committed, and they understood the importance of working together.

Engle takes time out with locals while filming his 2007 documentary Running the Sahara, narrated by Matt Damon.
Engle takes time out with locals while filming his 2007 documentary Running the Sahara, narrated by Matt Damon.

Our ragtag group got together almost every day. We pushed each other and got stronger - and the guys who needed to lose weight started melting away pounds. And week after week, I ramped up my own mileage and speed. I also started doing yoga, something that had helped me avoid injuries in the past. One afternoon, I decided to risk the smokers' ridicule, and I walked out on to the softball field inside the track. I took off my shoes and socks and started my yoga routine. I started with a standing breathing exercise. From there I went into half-moon, then the eagle pose. It felt good to be stretching and balancing. I made it all the way to triangle pose before I heard Shorty's deep voice behind me.

"You look like a damn pretzel." He laughed. "You better be careful or you're gonna get stuck like that."

"Why don't you come on out here and try it?"

"I'm almost 7ft [2.1m] tall. You look silly, but I would look downright stupid."

When I finished with my routine, I put on my socks and shoes and headed for the unit for 4pm count. That evening, three guys came up at different times to ask me if I would let them know next time I was doing yoga. They wanted to try it.

People asked me why I ran. I wish I could let them feel this way for just a few minutes; then they would know. I loved this feeling of being raw more than anything else. Even in prison; maybe especially in prison.
Charlie Engle

I didn't expect that. Beckley was full of surprises.

I couldn't sleep - not for the usual reasons, the noise and the uncomfortable mattress. I was anxious because in the morning I would run Badwater. How many times had I lain in bed like this watching the clock on the night before a big race? It was a familiar, welcome feeling - one I never expected to have in prison.

My watch alarm went off. Race day. After 5am count, I made myself three peanut butter and jelly sandwiches - one for breakfast and two to take out to the track with me. I packed them into a mesh bag, along with granola bars, almonds, graham crackers, and two of the packets of Gatorade I had won in the three-point shooting contest. I had been acquiring these items and squirrelling them away in the weeks before the run. I filled a small, leaky watercooler I had bought from another inmate for two stamps. I didn't have any moisture-wicking shirts or compression socks, but I did have some awesome cut-off gray sweatpants with a drawstring, a nice white sleeveless undershirt, and a pair of dingy white socks - all cotton. In my vintage Nikes, I looked as if I'd just stepped out of a 70s catalogue. All I needed was a terry-cloth sweatband around my head.

I packed an extra pair of socks and a hat, then slathered my body with sunscreen and Vaseline, both acquired in trades. Now I just had to wait for my unit to be called to breakfast. Finally, the call came over the loudspeaker. The guys in my unit pushed their way outside. The crowd went left toward the cafeteria, and I veered right toward the recreation area. A few guys called out to me that I was going the wrong direction. I just smiled and waved.

It was already warm - nothing like Badwater's Death Valley, but I thought it would probably reach a respectable 90 degrees [32C] by mid-afternoon. I walked to the far end of the track, as far away from the buildings as possible, and set my stuff down at the base of a tall light pole. Then I gathered a handful of small rocks to use as a makeshift abacus. After every fourth lap, I would move a rock into a new pile. I set out my drinks and my food: my aid station was in order.

I studied the track. After the flat section where I was standing, the path dropped about 10ft [3m] over a stretch of 40 yards [37m] and curved to the right. Then it levelled out between the bocce court and the horseshoe pit. Those areas would get busy later in the day, but they were empty now. The next curve took me between the basketball courts and the building that housed the library and the recreation office. The track turned again at the far end of the courts, then skirted the woods, where the post-breakfast smokers would soon be.

My plan was to get in as many miles as I could before the end of the day. I'd change direction every five miles. At some point during the morning, I'd have to hustle into the rec department to do my job. And I would have to make sure I was in my cell for the 4pm count. Other than that, all I had to do was run. I looked at my watch: 6.15 am. There would be no starting gun, no cheering, no words of encouragement. I was off.

For maybe the first time since my arrest, I felt free.

By 11am, I had logged 30 miles [48km]. I was feeling good physically, but I was anxious about my job. If I didn't get it done soon, I was afraid that the CO in charge of rec might come out and ask me what the hell I was doing. If he did, then my day - and my Badwater - could be over.

I threw my greens on over my sweaty running clothes and changed into my boots. I walked inside the indoor recreation area and casually went about cleaning the pool table. I walked by the CO's office and saw him through the small window in the closed door. He looked up and gave me the slightest nod, which was all that I needed. I was in the clear. I had been seen and acknowledged. As soon as the door clicked behind me, I hurried back to the track, stripped down to my running clothes, changed my shoes, and grabbed a sandwich. Just like at Badwater, I would eat on the run.

As it closed in on 1pm, I thought about what was happening at the real Badwater. The starts were done in three waves, 6am, 8am and 10am. I had always been given the third start time.

At 1 o'clock sharp, 10am in California, the gun went off in my head. For some reason, I started to cry. I wasn't sure if I was sad or angry, but for a few minutes I felt pathetic. I slowed to a jog. Who was I kidding? I was in prison running around in a circle like a zoo animal.

I stopped to take a drink and compose myself. I removed my $6 commissary sunglasses and wiped my face and my eyes.

Don't be such a f***ing pussy, I said to myself. Nobody gives a shit if you do this or not. But you will know the truth, and that's all that matters.

I walked a little and then started to run, mentally tucking myself into the middle of the pack in Death Valley. Fifteen minutes later, I hit the 40 mile [64km] mark. When I came around the first corner at the basketball courts, I noticed Whitey, my old cellmate, standing by the side of the track with his arms crossed. This was not good.

I slowed to a stop. "Hey, man." "Hey. What the hell ya doin'?"

"Walk with me." He fell into step next to me. "I'm just going to run all day."

"All day? Why?"

"I want to see how many miles I can do." "You're f***ed-up."

I snorted.

"Really f***ed-up."

"You may be right. Keep it quiet, though, will you, man?"

I knew Whitey liked to gossip. I knew the odds were slim that he wouldn't run and tell the first dozen people he saw what I was doing. We walked in silence around the far end of the track.

"You need anything?" Whitey finally said.

I was shocked. I had learned that in prison any act of kindness came with strings attached - anything from doing an inmate's laundry to doing an inmate, with his pants down around his ankles in a bathroom stall.

"Yeah. Actually, I could really go for a Coke. Would you get me a Coke? With ice?" I only drank sodas during races, and I had been thinking for the last two hours about how good an ice-cold Coke would taste.

"Yeah. I can do that. No problem."

Whitey headed to the housing unit. Fifteen minutes later, I saw him coming back with a can of Coke in one hand and a plastic cup filled with ice in the other. I couldn't believe he had done it.

The first cold swallow was wonderful. "Ahhhh." I let out a satisfied belch. "Fantastic. Thanks."

"Okay. Cool." He turned and started to walk way. Then he looked back at me. "Good luck, man."

I felt strong and re-energised. I realised I felt something else: I felt happy. I didn't think that could happen here. But at this moment on this day, I was perfectly happy. I was doing what I loved, even if I was doing it behind prison walls. At about 3.30, I knew my time outside was getting short. I'd have to head in for count soon. In three more laps, I would have completed 54 miles [87km].

"The compound is closed, return to your housing units ... now." Beckley announcements always had an aggressive edge, but this one felt threatening.

Screw them. I was going to finish my 54 miles. I picked up the pace and peeled off the last lap as the recreation area emptied. Then I gathered my stuff and hurried to my unit. I got to my cell and pulled on my greens. It was exactly 4pm. I tucked in my shirt just before the guard yelled, "Count time." Sweat streamed down my face. I couldn't leave the housing unit again until dinner was called at 5pm. I hated waiting, but I tried to use my downtime wisely, just as I would during a race. I ate a honey bun and another sandwich, then got comfortable in my bunk and elevated my feet.

At 5.05pm, Evergreen was called to dinner. Once again, everyone went left and I went right. I got situated and started to run again.

My body was feeling good and my mind was running free. I had four hours left; I thought I might get in a total of 80 miles [128km].

The rec yard was filled with inmates. On a nice evening, plenty of guys were always outside, sitting in the bleachers or playing hoops. But this seemed different. I heard someone say, "Go, Running Man," as I ran past the basketball courts. As I went by the smokers, I was shocked to hear, "Good job, Engle." I kept moving.

At 8.30, I heard an inmate whistle, a signal used to tell everyone within earshot that danger was coming. In this case, danger was a CO riding on a John Deere 4WD out to the track - probably hoping to catch smokers or looking for anything out of place. I knew this CO. He was a decent guy. He pulled up next to me and motored along at my pace. I was trying to be nonchalant, pretending that I was just out for an evening jog.

"Is it true you ran a hundred miles today, Engle?"

"Where'd you hear that? No, I did not run 100 miles."

"Figured that was bullshit. Nobody can run that far."

That hit a nerve. I couldn't stop myself from saying, "I only ran 80 miles today." I should have kept quiet but my ego got the best of me.

"That's the craziest shit I ever heard." He motored away from me. I didn't know what he was going to do with this information.

The compound closed for the night at 9.30. I had run 81 miles [130km] - 324 loops around this misshapen track. I was exhausted and starving, and now I was worried. I hated the feeling of not knowing if I would be allowed to continue. I was mad at myself for my big mouth. But beneath it all, I was deeply satisfied. And I also had a secret that made me feel better. As I stood in my cell waiting for the 10pm count and lights-out, I smiled. If they wouldn't let me continue on the track tomorrow, I could finish my Badwater right here in this cell - running in place.

I showered, ate whatever I could scrounge up, and climbed into my bunk. I stared at the ceiling, exhausted but too jazzed to sleep. I knew this feeling well. I was scraped clean, made new, fully open. People asked me why I ran. I wish I could let them feel this way for just a few minutes; then they would know. I loved this feeling of being raw more than anything else. Even in prison; maybe especially in prison.

At 5am, I got up and made my preparations for another day on the track. Breakfast was called, and I veered off to the yard. I heard a couple of guys say, "Good luck, man."

I felt old and creaky as I started up again. My body hurt. I was sunburned and had some chafing in my crotch and under my arms. I needed to distract myself. I had a small radio with me, which picked up both kinds of popular West Virginia music, country and western. I opted for NPR instead. I tuned in to Fresh Air. I started to feel better as my body loosened up. The radio weather forecast called for afternoon thunderstorms. That could be a problem. If they were really bad, the compound would be closed and I would have to go inside. But for now, I was running well.

At about 11am, I went in to the rec department to do my job. The CO was not in his office, so I quickly cleaned the pool table and headed back outside. When I got back to the track, I saw the rec CO standing next to my pile of stuff near the base of the light pole.

"You know you're not supposed to leave things out here unattended," he said when I got close to him.

I nodded. There was a long pause. I was afraid that my Badwater was over.

"I hear you're running some long distance?" "That's right."

He looked me in the eyes. "Well, get on with it."

Mid-afternoon, I had to use the bathroom, and when I finished, a rush of men pushed their way into the unit. "Storm's coming!" Whitey shouted when he saw me.

I shoved past the crowd and made my way outside. It was only raining lightly, but a platoon of dark clouds was rolling in from the west, and the afternoon light had taken on a strange green pallor. I heard distant thunder. By the time I reached the track, the rain was coming down hard.

It was 2.45 and I was running in a kind of panic, desperate to finish. The rain had flooded the low spots in the track, and I splashed through the pools. Staccato lightning bursts illuminated the yard and the basketball courts and the woods along the track. I was alone; even the smokers were gone. I could not remember the last time I had been by myself.

When I got to the light pole, I peeled off my wet shirt, which was most definitely not allowed, and let the rain pound my bare skin. I dropped the shirt and ran. Lap after lap, I ran. I was not an inmate or a number. I was a skinny kid from North Carolina. I was a runner.

With two laps to go, the announcement came that the compound was being closed for weather. It was also nearly time for the 4pm count. I struggled to go faster and willed myself to roll into a sprint. My legs were dead but I was going to finish. I was going to finish this thing even if it meant missing count and getting sent to the hole.

I passed the marker for the final time at 3.47pm. I had done it. Thunder cracked and the rain came at me in sheets, but I didn't care. This past year had taken so much out of me, from me. Running my Beckley Badwater had replaced some of what had been lost.

Extracted from Running Man by Charlie Engle (Simon & Schuster, $38).

- Canvas

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