Want physical toughness? Want mental toughness? Then listen to the audio below or read the transcript and you’ll learn how to get more of it from Charlie Engle.
Logan: Hey, it’s Logan Christopher from Legendary Strength. I’m very happy to be on this call. I haven’t recorded an interview in a while, but once I met Charlie Engle, I knew I absolutely had to bring him on and talk to him because we’re going to be talking about physical and mental toughness, and this guy certainly has that in spades. We’ll be talking all about that and really diving into some of the strategies behind it that hopefully you’ll find useful and be able to take into your own training and your own life.
If you’re not familiar with Charlie, he is a world-renowned ultramarathon runner having won or placed in some of the planet’s most punishing long-distance foot races. In 2007, Matt Damon produced and narrated Running The Sahara, a film about Engle and his team’s successful bid to become the first to run 4,500 miles across the Sahara Desert. Yes, running across the Sahara Desert is mindblowing to think about. I want to welcome you to the call, Charlie.
Charlie Engle: Thanks Logan for having me. I’m excited to join you and after meeting you in Vermont, I’m intrigued to see where this conversation goes.
Logan: Absolutely. I met Charlie just a few months back in Vermont. We were actually out at Joe De Sena of Spartan Races fame on his ranch. We got to talking. Obviously, we’re both involved in some physical fitness, though different kinds of things, but really the element of mental toughness which is so important is strong no matter what type of thing you’re doing.
To start with … We’re going to dive into those questions in a little bit, but really I think understanding your backstory is important to this. In a nutshell, without describing everything, could you tell a little bit about the addiction. I feel that was definitely a foundation in how you transformed and were able to become this successful in running.
Charlie Engle: Absolutely. My story, like most addicts or recovering addicts, is there’s a lot of complexities, but it comes down to one pretty simple thing. I, in my late teens and 20s, figured out that I was not a good drinker or maybe I was a really good drinker. My story is in high school, I was very much an overachiever and captain of the various sports teams and good grades and dated cheerleaders and class president. I was sort of that guy in high school. I like to think that I was well liked.
I went to college as a 17-year-old freshman at UNC Chapel Hill. I half expected that there would be a welcome banner on the dorms saying, “Charlie, we’re so glad you’re here.” Of course, that didn’t happen and what I found out pretty quickly was there were 4,000 other freshmen there that also had incredibly good credentials. Many of them were smarter, better students, better athletes. I got lost.
At the time, I figured out basically that I was actually good at one thing and that was drinking. I began to drink more heavily and my school suffered, but I continued to plow through. Without boring you guys with all the gory details, I spent 12 years battling addiction. Maybe I didn’t look like the addict that people might think of. I was still the top salesman at the company I worked for. I got married and bought cars and houses and did things that made me look like a normal person because I went to great lengths to look as normal as I could, but my addiction continued to grow. My drinking and drug use got worse and worse.
It all culminated in a time when I was 29 years old and just after the birth of my first son. Thought for sure his birth would save me, like he would be my savior and I wouldn’t do it anymore. It’s not how addiction works. I found myself in Wichita, Kansas, where I was working at the time on a job and watching the police go through my car. The car had bullet holes in it and they were put there by somebody who was actually shooting at me. It was just a terrible, terrible day.
I made a decision on that day that I needed to change things. It was life or death. I went to an AA meeting that night. I got up the next morning and I put on my running shoes and went for a run. I did that for three straight years. I went to a meeting every day and I ran every day and I slowly began to change my life. Quite frankly, I haven’t stopped running since then. That was over 25 years ago at this point. I’m very grateful to still be sober today. Running really saved my life. Then the rest of my story is that running gave me a life after that.
Logan: I would highly recommend for anyone that wants all those details to check out Charlie’s book Running Man, very exciting read through those addiction days and then through the addiction to running coming later. Do you feel it really was a case of just switching one addiction for another?
Charlie Engle: Yes in a way. However … Anybody who either is an addict … In this country and this day and age, everybody either knows an addict, has an addict in their family, has a friend who has a problem with addiction, a parent, a sibling, a son or maybe you yourself. Addiction is complicated. When I was a drug addict and an alcoholic, my goal was to hide. I wanted to be invisible. I didn’t want to have feelings at all. While I may have switched my habits and even some might say my addiction, running does the opposite of those things. Running is … There’s no hiding in running.
Running really shines a bright spotlight on who I am and when I’m in the middle of running 100 miles and things get tough, there’s no disappearing or not feeling. I feel everything. The beauty of the sport is that I have to be fully present to be successful.
Logan: Absolutely. You started running and I remembered your story if you want to go a little bit into this. You started doing marathons and you thought that was the top of it. You had no idea there’s this whole realm of ultramarathons and you accidentally signed up for one, is that right?
Charlie Engle: Yeah, which is always … I don’t know if it’s a proud moment for me to admit how stupid I was. At the time, it just never occurred to me that anyone would run farther than a marathon. I’m like, “Why would you do that?” People still ask me that question now, but yes, a few years into my running and my sobriety, I had already run about 30 marathons. I whole expected I was going to be that guy that would someday be hopefully 80 years old and still running marathons and I was happy with that. I went to Australia for a job and entered what I thought was a 5K. Showed up. I had to drive a couple of hours to get to it. I was in the middle of a rainforest and I showed up at this race.
People are saying things like, “Gosh, it’s going to be hot today. I sure hope I can finish this race today.” I’m thinking, “It’s a 5K. These are the slowest people on Earth that they’re going to do this. They’re going to crawl the 5 kilometers.” Somebody finally said to me, “So have you ever run a 50K before?” I’m like, “No, why? Why would I?” I broke into a sweat and sure enough, I looked down at my number and it says right there 52K. It wasn’t a 5K, it was a 52K. It is a funny story and I started this race. I fully intended to just run … I’d driven a couple of hours to get there. I wanted the T-shirt. I thought I would just run part of the race and quit, and that’s what I tried to do. I was sort of shamed into continuing.
Logan: Because you started winning it, right?
Charlie Engle: Right. People were noticing because I was actually in the top five in the race. I was the only American in the race, the only non-Australian I think even. It was a couple of hundred people, but I stood out just because I was the only Yank as they called me. I really though not heroically at all … I tried to walk away. I tried to quit the thing. I finally got about two-thirds of the way through. It was a three-loop race. I finished the first two loops and I’m sunburned and dehydrated and I got blisters.
I came there to run three miles not 30 miles. Something happened to me though, Logan. I guess I realized the moment … It’s not like I had some epiphany or the sun broke through the clouds or something, but I just said, “You know what? I’ve done two-thirds of this damn thing. Why not just go ahead and finish it?” I did. I did the third loop, and I came around and I ended up winning the race.
The lesson I learned is that the universe puts you in positions to succeed or fail very often. A lot of times we take ourselves out of it by default and never even get a genuine result. This was a lucky time for me, where through the circumstances I was able to complete this thing and actually do well and what it taught me was, there was a whole lot more to running than just trying to run your fastest marathon and that I could learn things about myself, the way that I’m built.
It’s one of those lessons too, where … I say this quite often when I’m giving talks. You don’t ever … When you ask somebody to describe the formative things in their life and they go back in time, nobody ever says, “Oh my gosh, my life was so freaking easy. I didn’t have to work for anything. I learned all these great lessons.” No, what you hear is, “I grew up poor. I got into a car accident. I got cancer. My husband let me. My family … ” Whatever. You hear about hardship and people say that really made all the difference and it forms who we all are.
Through running, what I figured out is I had a voluntary way to put myself into really difficult physical and emotional situations. I knew that every time I toed the line and I stepped up for a 50 mile or a 100 mile or even a race of hundreds of miles, I was going to learn something new about myself. Not always good, but new.
Logan: That definitely seems with that story there’s a case of universal alignment. You don’t see the other number in the 5K, so you just imagine that, then these things seem to conspire against you to keep you in that race, which was like a life defining moment in many ways.
Charlie Engle: Totally. It really did. Sometimes the universe puts you where you need to be and you just have to pay attention. A lot of us are so preprogramed to steer away from and … You, above many people, understand this. We steer away from pain and we seek comfort. I always say comfort is greatly overrated. Nobody ever learns something from the comfortable things. I’m not suggesting that you go wing suiting tomorrow and you’ve never done it before, but finding a way to do something that’s going to be challenging whether it’s in business or physically or personally, emotionally, it’s basically the definition of why for me. If I’m not doing something like that, then it’s as if I’ve given up on trying to grow personally.
Logan: Absolutely. Let’s fast forward a little bit of time. You get this wild idea of running across the Sahara Desert. Can you tell that story?
Charlie Engle: Sounds brilliant, right? This idea … Now I’ve been running for quite a few years. This takes me up to end of the 2000s and I’ve been running for quite a while. I’ve been sober for a while. I’m in 2005, and I’m actually in the Amazon Jungle in the middle of a seven-day stage running race there. This guy, who I really didn’t know very well, a Canadian guy, we end up being good friends. One night after the stage is over, we’re laying in these jungle hammocks and there’s mosquitoes and snakes and spiders and everything all over the place. We’re laying there laughing about how filthy we are and how hard this race is.
He’s like, “Hey, I just went to Niger last month to do a race and the Sahara’s really beautiful. I wonder if anybody’s ever run all the way across the Sahara, just all the way.” I actually sat up … If you can sit up in a hammock. I sat up in my hammock, and I said, “That’s quite literally the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard. You can’t get supplies out there. Nobody can run thousands of miles in deep sand. It’s impossible.”
That was sort of the end of it, except it wasn’t. I couldn’t get it out of my head. I just couldn’t stop thinking about this idea. When I got home, I started researching the Sahara Desert and I found out that in fact no one had ever run across the entire length of the Sahara. It turns out for pretty good reason I guess. I began to tell people that I was going to be the first person to run across the Sahara Desert.
I took possession of this idea. Almost to a person, I was told that it was impossible. At this point, I’d done a lot of really hard runs, so I was no longer a novice. I was certainly a guy that people were used to hearing crazy ideas from and yet this one seemed so outlandish that even my good friends were like, “Look man, it’s a bad idea. Don’t do it.”
Finally, a buddy of mine who I was working with. I was a TV producer at the time for Extreme Makeover: Home Edition on NBC … ABC sorry. They would shoot me for that. He was working on the show with me. He’s so tired of hearing me talk about this idea. He’s like, “If you’ll shut up, I have a director friend of mine who won the Academy Award a few years ago. If you want, I can set up a meeting and you can go tell him about this crazy idea.
That’s what happened. I got a chance to go meet a guy named James Moll. Frankly, I thought he might introduce me to a student director or somebody that might be willing to take on this project. By the time I was done, it was a terrible pitch that I gave, one of the worst ever, and yet he stood up at the end of it and extended his hand and said that he wanted to do it.
A week later … This is the funniest part. A week later, he calls me and says, “Look, I just hung up with Matt Damon and Matt would like to executive produce this film and he wants to narrate the film too. Would that be okay with you?” I sat in silence for a second. Quite literally deadpanned, I said, “Well, James, I was really hoping for somebody better, but sure, Matt Damon would be fine.”
That’s how that happened. Ultimately, flashing forward after this film was done, Hans Zimmer ended up doing the score. I quite literally ended up with three Academy Award winners attached to a running film. A big part of me throughout this process, practically every day, is going, “Oh my God, I’ve suckered everybody into this really bad idea. I have no clue if it’s really possible. How do I get past this fear?”
I just kept plowing forward. There we are in Senegal a year later and I’ve got 20 people there including my two running partners and a whole crew to take care of us and a bunch of film crews and native Tauregs from the region, from the Sahara, to look after us and make sure we don’t die. They’re like the Sherpas of the Sahara kind of.
I don’t know what to expect, and we embark on this adventure. Ultimately, a week into this thing, we completely disintegrate. The runners are … There’s three of us running and we all three, to be clear, are running the entire distance. It’s not a relay or anything. We’re just running as a team. We’re running together. A week into this thing it’s 125 degrees every day and ground temperatures are up to like 140 or so. We’re literally melting I think.
Crew members are quitting. My two fellow runners are sick and hooked up to IV bags. It’s just not going well. We got lost a couple of times, and I realize … This is probably the greatest lesson that came from the Sahara. I realized at that moment that I had been so focused on the finish line … I’d been so focused on success and envisioning myself putting my feet in the Red Sea months from that date that I forgot that I needed to do the hard work on a daily basis.
The next day, day number eight, I got up and I said, “Okay, I’m going to just focus on running a marathon before lunch. Then I’m going to lay down and take a little nap and eat some lunch and then I’m going to get up in the afternoon and I’m going to run another marathon. That’s all I’m going to think about. Then that night, I’m going to lay my little foam mat out and I’m going to stare up at the stars and be grateful that I’m actually out there alive and suffering. Then I’m going to get up the next day and do it again.
Slowly, but surely in this way, we began to make our way across this desert. 111 days later, we reached the Red Sea and we had run nearly 50 miles per day for 111 consecutive days without taking a single day off. It was, needless to say, a life changing and life transforming experience and one that I will never forget. Just one more thing about the Sahara. I think this is another … Hopefully, there’s a lot of people out there that can relate to this.
There was this huge project that I had taken on. I also co-founded with Matt Damon a water nonprofit to provide clean water infrastructure in Africa. It was called H20 Africa. Today, that nonprofit has turned into Water.org. Matt is still involved and a lot of people see the ads for Water.org these days. It’s a very proud thing for me to know that by doing something that I was passionate about, which basically was running and telling a story, by doing that, it created the atmosphere that allowed for a much bigger and more important thing to happen. That was that literally today millions of lives are affected by having clean water that they didn’t have.
Logan: That’s great. That actually segues to some of my next questions because I really want to dive into the values that drive you, that keep you running when you hit those really hard moments and you’ve certainly talked a little bit about some of those things, but I want to read a few quotes from your book back to you and just get you to expound on them or some questions that derive from them. It seems one of the big things for you and why you enjoy running is chasing this feeling that you have. For example, you said, “I ached for that exquisite illuminating pain now, the kind that exposes who you really are and asks you who you want to be.” Can you expound on that?
Charlie Engle: Yeah, I can. It’s a great … Thank you for that quote because it is. I recognize that part of it is related to my addict. Just to take one quick step back, I spent the first few years of my running and my sobriety thinking that I needed to kill my addict. I needed to pound that part of my personality out of me. It took me years to really appreciate and to understand that in fact, my addictive nature is what makes me good at things. It’s the actions that I took as an addict, not the underlying addiction that actually caused my problems.
Consequently, I figured out that I could harness my addictive nature and my drive that that gives me to accomplish some things that I may not have been able to do otherwise. The lesson that I learned is that I like to push myself to that place physically and emotionally where I want to quit, where I hit that spot where I’m like, “Look, I’ve had enough,” and then dig and try to find a way to just hang in there a little bit longer and push past that moment.
I say this to recovering addicts all the time, especially people who are new in sobriety. I think it translates well to life. I think we all spend 99.5% of our time basically in this moderately safe middle ground with some highs and lows, but generally speaking, we’re trudging along, living our lives and hopefully having some good experiences, some bad ones, but what we’re really preparing for is that other half a percent, that 0.5% when everything goes to hell.
It’s my experience that who we really are is really defined and is illuminated by the times when everything goes to hell, when everything falls apart. I want to feel that pain and yes, I do mean … The physical pain that might come with running or biking or climbing or some of the things that I do, but what that really does is that provides the mechanism for scraping away all of the crap that we accumulate in daily life and puts me in a place where my mind is clear and I can just have the experience without all the noise that surrounds it.
Logan: I think it was earlier in your book you mentioned, “I knew that I deserved the pain. Running was my penance.” That was that earliest phase when you were beating … What did you say? Pounding that addictive personality out of yourself versus now you can see it in a different light.
Charlie Engle: Yeah, absolutely. I felt … Look, man, as an addict, I didn’t physically hurt people. I didn’t rob a liquor store or whatever, but I wouldn’t consider myself a good person during those years in some ways. I felt guilt about that as anybody would. I certainly have my underlying things that made me feel like not a good person.
Part of what I did, especially in those early years of running, was to run and do these long, difficult things as a way of almost punishing myself to a certain degree. I felt like I deserved that pain, and it just took a long time for me to find a balance of feeling like I was learning something from the experience and no longer punishing myself that wasn’t necessarily my fault. I was an addict. I’m still an addict. 25 years clean and sober, the addict still lives inside me. If I never chose to go that direction again … Of course, the result would be the same. My life would fall apart.
Logan: Getting to that feeling more, another quote, “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 love this feeling of being raw more than anything else.” At what point do you get to this feeling, is it really the continual pushing of the limits? Do you get this feeling after every run you go to or every race that you do?
Charlie Engle: Man, that’s a tough one, but I always remember that … Through my whole life, people have said, “Tell me about the runner’s high.” I’m like going, “I have no idea what you’re talking about because, yes, maybe on a couple of occasions, I got a second wind in the middle of a run and I felt good and was able to push, but usually that endorphin release doesn’t happen until long after the run is over. I’m like, “If there’s a runner’s high. It’s because I’m really happy to be finished as much as anything.”
To your question, I do believe … This is how I envision it. I do envision that as I’m running, if I’m just going to go out let’s just say for a 20-mile run and a lot of people who train-
Logan: Just a casual 20-mile run.
Charlie Engle: But a lot of people who train for a … Let’s even say a 10-mile run, something that maybe a whole lot of people can relate to. It takes the first couple of miles before I stop thinking about the phone call I needed to make, the email I needed to return, the, whatever, argument I had with the gas station attendant. I don’t think that really happens, but whatever. Just all of the stuff that accumulates for all of us just by existing on a daily basis.
When I go out to run, it’s almost like I’m wearing 10 shirts and one by one, I start peeling those off and my brain starts to settle down and I feel my breathing become rhythmic. I do envision it almost like a skin being scraped clean, like skin of an animal. The whole purpose is to create this new, clean place, where more and better stuff can be put.
For me, that’s how I envision my running. I guess one other visual that I like is if you’ve ever gone swimming in a pond or needed to take a drink, you’ve got to scrape away the … There’s a bunch of crap floating on top and you have to move that out of the way and you reach down to the cooler, cleaner water that’s down below the surface and that’s what you’re trying to get to. My purpose when I … Not just running, but I do meditation. I do yoga. I do some other things that … I don’t always need to physically beat myself up to get to that place anymore, but the fastest way for me to get there is to put on my shoes and head out the door and start putting in some miles.
Logan: I was just going to comment that it sounds very meditative what you’re doing there. I’m curious to get more to the … You’re saying there’s the visual of wearing the 10 shirts and peeling them off or scraping them clean, there’s very much a feeling component to this. You mention that after a few miles you clear your head or thoughts. Is there anything else that really … The essence of that feeling, that state that you get to, whether it’s through running or these other means, that you could describe?
Charlie Engle: Yeah. The meditation and yoga certainly is the thing that I’ve learned in recent years that gets me to some of the same places, but I think that … I’m not really going to answer your question with this answer, but I’m going to be like a politician and give you the answer I want to give. One of the things my wife pointed out to me, and we’ve been married four years tomorrow in fact, is that I am very, very good … When the chips are down … If things go to hell, Logan, you want me in your corner. You want me there because I don’t panic when things go wrong. I almost thrive on hardship. I like that challenge and what it feels like. I want to find a solution and a way to get through whatever it is.
When things are just okay and life is actually pretty good and there’s no major catastrophes on the horizon, I struggle, which sounds funny. My wife, she asked me a few years back. She’s like, “You’re really good at this whole struggle thing and when things are difficult, but do you even have the first clue how to be happy?” My answer honestly was no. I struggle with this place of just being content. At this point in my life, I’m still seeking balance. I don’t have all the answers.
What I’m trying to do is find a way to be balanced and to be satisfied and content. Not necessarily that I’m going to stop doing the things that I’m doing, but when things are okay, don’t create chaos just so I have a problem to solve. Part of my way of living these days is to find ways to be peaceful and quiet, go for a walk instead of a run sometimes. Go outside. My wife is actually a scientist. She’s an ornithologist, a bird expert. Go outside with her and listen to nature and try to just be instead of always needing something to do. Try to just exist sometimes, and that’s a struggle for me.
Logan: One of the other quotes from your book right on this, “As hard as it was to admit, a part of me missed something about those addict days, not the drugs themselves, but the pulse jacking danger of that life, knowing that every day I could be teetering on the edge of a rusted blade. I felt happiest and most alive when I was in peril.”
Charlie Engle: Yeah, that was me. It is still me. It’s a great … I’m glad you picked that one too because it’s crazy. People think I’m nuts when I say this, but driving into a strange neighborhood to buy drugs and experiencing that danger and exhilaration, I’m not saying that I want to feel that, but there were parts of that feeling at the time all those years ago that were very … It was very exciting and dangerous and stupid. I’m not in any way trying to romanticize what I was doing. Quite bluntly, I worried when I got sober that my life was just going to be freaking boring because I don’t know. I’d just gotten used to all that. I do. I still love this idea of going into something like running across the Sahara Desert. I was so over my head. I had no idea what we were going to face.
Logan: You could say the same things off of that. It was stupid. It was dangerous.
Charlie Engle: Absolutely.
Logan: It really is very much the same.
Charlie Engle: Absolutely, but if you also think about this … I do remind “normal” people … I don’t know if anybody’s normal or maybe not the people I know. It’s a crazy undertaking to think about having a kid or starting a business. These are scary things because if you’ve never done it before, and even if you have, you anticipate all the things that might go wrong. It’s easier to just not do it in some ways and not ever take a risk or a chance.
I certainly don’t want to live that way. I want to live in a way that hopefully balances the risk taking with progress, with making progress as a human being, but also with finding new challenges and finding something else that’s going to turn me on. I don’t want to wake up and think about going to do something that … Sure, I have to do certain things that I’m just doing it because I need to get paid, I need to make a living, but I’m hoping that that will never be the only reason I’m doing something.
Logan: I’d like to focus now on pain and relationship to pain. First of all, this is a big question and one that I have spent a lot of time thinking about myself. What is the difference between the pain of injury because I know you’ve had races where you did have to stop and then the pain of discomfort like running a marathon? It’s not a comfortable thing to do. Do you have any thoughts as to the line between those and being able to differentiate them? People will often, “Oh, it’s painful to go running,” but that’s really just laziness versus painful that someone had a bad knee and that would make it much worse? These are two very different things. Your thoughts on that.
Charlie Engle: Yeah, it’s a complicated question because I can only know what physical pain feels like for me. None of us can actually … Despite the fact that we can witness someone else’s physical pain, we can’t compare our pain to theirs because you don’t know what it feels like. Obviously, if somebody’s got a broken leg and it’s dangling at a 90-degree angle, it’s pretty clear that that’s probably painful and that they need to not run on that, but it is.
What I tell people with regards to running, when it’s this … First of all, most people that start running after maybe many years of not running, it hurts. It’s uncomfortable. Look, running is a universal thing. We all ran, and as kids, we are runners. We all are. If you’re capable physically, assuming there’s no impediment to running, we all run because we want to get where we’re going as fast as we can get there. We’re excited. We want to go to our friend’s house. It doesn’t matter. You just want to go across the living room as fast as you can when you’re a kid.
When we get older … Maybe it’s been 20 years and you haven’t run and you go out the door and you’ve got this awesome plan of how you’re going to get in shape and lose weight. This is it, and you mean it. Everything in your heart means it, but you go out there and you take off at a break neck pace and guess what? 300 yards into it, you’re going, “Oh my God, this sucks,” and you want to quit.
I think that the important thing is finding a way to moderate that excitement with an approach that allows for growth. When I start people on programs, it’s always with a running/walking program, alternating. You’re not allowed to count the miles. You just have to go out there and spend 20 minutes or 30 minutes or an hour moving.
Injury pain, as it’s differentiated between just exertion pain, really does have to be in the eye of the person who’s experiencing it. Obviously if a person goes out to run … The other big mistake people make, they start a running program and they’re so excited that they go out there and they run every day for the first 10 days. It would be like you. You’re a very strong guy, but you’re not going into the gym and bench pressing 10 days in a row because … At least I don’t think you are. You might be.
Logan: No. I’ve done some unusual stuff, but I haven’t really done that one.
Charlie Engle: Actually, regardless of whatever strength exercise you’re doing, I’m assuming you’re not going to max out on that strength exercise every single day because it doesn’t make sense. You’ve got to let your body recover. It’s a cycle. It recovers and then it gets strong and you push it and it recovers and you get stronger. That’s the idea with this. Any person does have to understand the feeling of true physical pain.
Knee injuries … I should say knee pain is a great example. Very often, a person who hasn’t run for a long time, unless they have had a catastrophic knee injury in the past, the knee pain they might be experiencing is probably due to something like an IT band issue or something that is just an inherent problem in the leg. As we get older, our tendons and our muscles, they shorten and they get stiffer and tighter. Look at a newborn or a toddler, they bend up like pretzels. The older we get, the less of that most of us are capable of doing. It causes all kinds of different pain for us.
I realize I’m not exactly answering the question except for the fact that if a pain is so sharp and there’s swelling, there’s redness, there’s actual visible evidence of an injury, then of course you need to stop and you need to go seek medical treatment. Most of the time, my recommendation would be don’t just run. Alternate days with an elliptical machine or some cycling and some yoga. Typically, what you’ll find is that balanced approach will keep you healthy.
Logan: A big thing I’m a proponent of is listening to your body and it’s really about understanding. I like that distinction in injury pain versus exertion pain. Hopefully, by listening to your body, you can avoid having that seeable injury in the first place. To go a bit further on this point, in running across the Sahara or other long, multi-day runs that you’ve done … I forget the number of days, but you speak about just the body takes three days, you’re feeling aches and pains and you’re stiff and everything. At some point, you break through. Your body switches into a new gear and adapts to that running. Is there anything within that that clarifies this distinction between types of pain?
Charlie Engle: Man, totally. I do tell people that are starting off on a program … I’m like, “Look … ” Pardon me for putting it this way. I tend to be blunt. I’m like, “Look, you didn’t get fat in 90 days. You’ve been working on this for years. You’re not magically going to feel fantastic in 90 days. It’s not going to just be simple. You need … I should really say, “You didn’t get out of shape in 90 days.” That’s a fairer way to put it. In that first 90 days, there’s going to be discomfort, and I always tell people, “No matter what, do not … Give this thing 90 days and try to measure how you feel in those first few days against how you feel towards the end of that 90 days because I’m certain actually … I’m so certain that you’re going to feel so much better that you will continue doing it.
I think it’s all a matter of perspective. It’s instinctive, and I think that’s what you were just saying. Yes, you get a program from a coach or you get it out of a magazine or online or whatever it is you do, but don’t be a slave to the numbers on the page when your body is telling you something different. You have to balance determination with instinct and finding a way to be instinctive, but give yourself a break. The run across the Sahara was a great example because in the first week … This is what you were saying. Man, we fell apart, physically our bodies … I always call it diving into the abyss. We quite literally hit this crazy bottom, all of us did, after a week or 10 days of running.
Then magically, it’s like the body said, “Oh, I get it. You’re trying to kill me.” It began to recover and it adapted to the stress. I think that’s what happens for all of us no matter what. We just have to … You’ve got to spend 99% of our time preparing for that 1% when it’s all going to suck and we’ve got to push past that. Usually with running, with long-distance running, alter running, nutrition and hydration plays such a big role that very often, it feels like physical depletion, but it’s really about calories and quite often, if I feel terrible at mile 70, I’ve run 70 miles, of course I’m going to feel lousy. If I sit down and cram 1,000 calories into my body, pretty magically, 20 minutes later, I actually feel better.
Logan: Excellent. Just going a bit further, this relationship to pain, you have some amazing quotes from your book. Probably one of the favorite quotes from the book was this, “I was suffering yes, but this was not the kind of pain I was used to, the kind that implored me to stop. This pain told me to go on, feel the pain, welcome the pain, use the pain, transcend the pain.” The reason I really liked that is it’s really a strategy for how to use pain, how to go through these four different stages.
Welcoming it is just really, “Okay, yes, I’m feeling this pain.” Hopefully this exertion pain or pain of discomfort right in that moment and then going through this. Could you walk through that? Was that just some great words that came to you when you wrote the book or is that something you’ve thought about a lot?
Charlie Engle: Yeah, man, it is both. Absolutely it’s both. I think everybody can relate to this and it does hinge around one simple concept, and that’s fear. When we’re in pain, we actually, whether it’s … Certainly everyone can relate to it with emotional pain. None of us wants to feel emotional pain. Whatever the source of it is, we want that to stop. That’s natural human instinct I think.
With physical pain, our fear is that it is going to continue. We’re running. You’re a couple of miles into the run and you planned on running 10 miles and all of a sudden, your mind and your body conspire to start telling you that you can’t do this, that the pain is too much and that it’s too difficult.
I think it takes a lot of practice, but transcending that pain can be accomplished by a combination of things and I will freely admit early on there was a part of me in the early years that would almost like yelling to the … I probably looked like a complete lunatic, but almost like saying, “Is that all you got? Bring it on.” I almost was like … I don’t know who the hell I was talking to, but it’s almost like as if the universe was somehow trying to give me a hard time physically. It seemed like when I would run, the wind would be in my face both directions. It was like, “Bring it on,” and I began to take this attitude of …
I’ll give you one other example. I hate to talk in circles, but there’s a race that I do every year called Badwater … Most years … Out in Death Valley. It’s 135 miles through Death Valley in July. After I did that race, the second time. I’ve done it like seven times. After I did it the second time, I realized that I felt like … There’s a lot of hill running. I mean mountains. You’ve climbing 5,000 feet and you’re going down 5,000 feet. You’re up 5,000 feet and down 5,000 feet. It’s this crazy rollercoaster.
What I found was I was a terrible downhill runner. I told myself I was not a good downhill runner. I finally got fed up with that and I spent six months preparing for that race one year. Every single day that I trained, I would spend time actually running hill repeats, but I would run hard down the hill and jog back up, which is the opposite of what most people do. Typically, you’re running hard up and then jogging back down. I began to tell myself that I was going to be an amazing downhill runner.
I went back to Badwater that year after six months of working on running downhill and I crushed it. I ran two hours faster than I’d ever run. I set age group records. I came in third overall in the race. I made a decision that I was going to take a weakness and turn it into a strength. I think that transcending pain and trying to push that fear aside can only happen through hard work and practice. You have to be willing to go out and suffer some.
Logan: I think that’s good. It seems most people just default position because pain is not pleasant. We just typically fear pain. In this case, just for whatever reason you weren’t good already at downhill, that was something you struggled with, so you got to a point where instead of like, “Oh … ” You flipped the switch and decided you were going to become good. You actually practiced that. That allowed you to eventually transcend the pain of that downhill running.
Charlie Engle: Yes, exactly right. I got the results that I wanted. It doesn’t always work out that easily. Then today, I’m still … What’s funny is after doing this for many years, I look for races that are hilly and I always say, “I’m going to kick ass on the downhill.”
Logan: A little bit that I want to go into is your thinking as you’re doing this running. Obviously when you’re running two marathons a day across the Sahara Desert, you have a lot of time to think about all kinds of different things. I’m curious how much are you … You did mention a little bit of this being focused on the finish line. Obviously, that’s probably more appropriate for shorter races, whereas the Sahara being focused on that finish line for that morning marathon or that afternoon marathon and then how the next part of your day was going to go. How much of that is keeping that in mind versus distracting yourself or thinking about other things as you’re running? What’s your thought process during these times?
Charlie Engle: I did have an iPod, and my kids helped me. They were both teenagers at the time. I had about 1,500 songs. I mean everything from Johnny Cash to Eminem. It was a very eclectic mix. Linkin Park and Alison Krauss. You name it, it was on this thing, and I loved it. One of my rules for running was that I wasn’t allowed to fast forward through songs. I was out there for so long every day, 12 hours a day. I wasn’t listening to it all the time, but my joke was that the universe was picking these songs and whatever came up was what I was supposed to be listening to.
Yes, I did use music. I also took about half a dozen or so books on tape that I listened to out there, but I will freely admit, it’s a … People talk about boredom when they’re running or whatever. My mind clears, but it also has a tendency to go back in time. I replayed entire arguments with my father. I relived relationships with old girlfriends. It was a time to really be able to reflect and think about my life and to feel … I guess not only feel the moment that I was in, but also experience some of the things I’d been through in the past.
I will say this. For people that start a running program, these days I don’t really listen to music all that much anymore, but I do listen to podcasts just like this one. I think that it’s become very mainstream and I highly recommend it for people to, during their workouts, listen to motivational things, listen to podcasts that you like, listen to books. I love to listen to books when I run.
12 hours a day out there across the Sahara was mind numbingly tedious at times. I don’t even want to begin to pretend … Like there were times when I wanted to just scream from being bored, but I was in this gorgeous place doing this amazing thing and I did have bigger causes attached to it. There were times when thanks to being sober so long, I will say I never lose sight of how lucky I am to be doing anything. One of those bullets that hit my car back in Wichita in 1992 easily could have hit my head instead and that would have been the end of it.
Logan: Let me switch gears just a little bit. You’ve done a whole bunch of other races. With the Sahara, there wasn’t really as much of a time limit. What about a race where you’re going for the win and there’s stiff competition, so it’s not really about distracting yourself in the moment. What do you do in that moment? What do you think about that helps you dig deeper, push a little bit harder to go faster?
Charlie Engle: I’m certainly a motivated competitor. Part of the reason I’m able I think to be competitive even into my 50s is I do take good care of my body and I also let go of the results. I’m not really answering your question, but I don’t push too much. I still win races and I still get my butt kicked in races, and I don’t take either one of them too seriously. I recognize that anybody who ever watches Running The Sahara, the film that Matt Damon produced, will actually notice that the running only makes up a very small portion of the film because who the hell wants to watch me run for 12 hours a day? I certainly don’t want to.
I wasn’t competing out there. In a race … I don’t know. I am motivated by human nature. I’m motivated by watching other people and how they move. There’s a lot of strategy and I guess even some gamesmanship. You always want to look good even when you feel bad. Part of it is sucking it up and just showing your competition that you’re stronger than they are. There’s so many strategies in these long races that I do.
A marathon is one thing. I’m not a weak marathon runner. I broke three hours a whole lot of times, but I wasn’t running 2:08 with the Kenyans. It’s not like I was going to win the Boston Marathon or anything. Competition in a race like a marathon for me has always been competition against the clock and not really other people. In ultras, that changed and I found that the longer the race was …
Here’s the other thing mentally, and I think you will relate to this and maybe some of your listeners will. I want bad conditions. That’s what I tell myself, and I do genuinely believe that to be the truth. I want it to rain. I want it to be cold. I want it to be 140 degrees because my view is the harder the conditions, the better I’m going to do in the race because I do genuinely believe that I can withstand the punishment whatever it is better than other people. I get my tail kicked all the time in Spartan races by people who are just more talented than I am. It’s not like that always wins the day, but I think that’s the attitude I go into it with is that I’m going to end up being there. If it’s a 100-mile race, I know not to panic if I’m in 30th place at 50 miles because it’s the last 50 miles that really counts. The first 50 miles doesn’t get you anything, but halfway through.
Logan: Would you say you have a greater capacity for pain than most people? Is that just some of your inborn talent versus training?
Charlie Engle: It is. I do actually think that I can withstand pain, but here’s the thing. Again, because pain is such a weird and abstract concept, my pain compared to your pain, we can’t relate the two, not really. What we believe is what is. You believe. I’ve seen you do things that seem impossible to me and you clearly believe and know … You know that you can do it and probably sometimes you know you can do it and maybe you fail, but your mental approach to it is, “I’m doing this.” That’s the way I approach things.
I do believe that my life experiences, especially through my years of addiction, prepared me for difficult situations. Running and sports and all that, even family and business, those are all bonuses for me because I look at this as I’m lucky just to be here. I don’t want to leave … How’s that old saying go, that old joke about, “I don’t want to leave a pretty corpse?” I want to be worn down and maybe not broken apart, but I want to make sure that I’ve used all that I have before I’m done and that I’ve experienced things.
I’ll also tell you one other thing that sport does for me. I think this is hopefully self evident in the projects that I take on. I love other cultures. I run in a whole lot of other countries. There’s nothing so wonderful than to run through some village in Africa or in China or some place where they’ve never seen anybody that looks like me and to just have that experience. Being on foot in other parts of the world puts me on equal ground, no pun intended, with the locals, with the people that are there. Man, I love that feeling. I usually won’t pick a … I don’t do a whole lot of local races. I’ll do some, but I want to go places that I haven’t seen before and have an experience that’s both cultural and athletic.
Logan: Excellent. There’s probably not much of a better way to see the world like that. We’re coming up on time, so two final questions. Did you want to mention your next big project for people that have enjoyed this and want to connect with you more, where should they follow you, where should they go?
Charlie Engle: Great question. Absolutely. My joke is … My wife calls it my next bad idea. A year from now, starting the beginning of the 2019, I’m going to do a human-powered expedition from the lowest place on Earth, which is the Dead Sea, to the highest place on Earth, which of course is the top of Mount Everest. It’s about 5,000 miles and I’m going to swim and run and bike and paddle and sail and adventure road bike and climb from the Dead Sea to Mount Everest. It’s going to take about four and a half months. I’ve just done a deal with a company called Oath, which is basically Verizon. They have come onboard this thing. We are going to do a series that’s going to be the first of its kind, a mobile only release of a series of basically shows that will highlight this expedition.
It’s a metaphor I think for all of our lives. We all struggle from our low places when we hit those to try to get back up to our high points and to the better life that we want to live. Anybody that wants to follow that, I’m all over social media, so all the normal Facebook and Instagram and all of that. My website’s probably the best place, so if you want to … My book is available through Amazon and Barnes & Noble and all the indie bookstores, but my website is just CharlieEngle.com. That’s the place you can see my blogs. You can see videos. You can also see my contact information, my phone number and my email are right there on the contact. It comes directly to me.
For people out there, if anybody wants to talk about addiction or talk about running or this Dead Sea to Everest … If anybody wants to toss in a couple of million dollars, fell free to. It’s going to be a great project. I’m excited about doing something. I’ve done some mountaineering, but Everest is a whole new ball of wax for me. Thanks for letting me mention that. Hopefully I’ll write another book about that experience and get a chance to tell that story.
Logan: Absolutely. I had a lot of fun today. I definitely learned a few things and I know people are going to be inspired by your stories, as they always are, and also hopefully learn a few things that can help them to get more comfortable with being uncomfortable.
Charlie Engle: Man, thank you so much for having me. It was a great conversation, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I’ll come back any time, maybe after this next undertaking, we can talk about it again.
Logan: Or maybe during. That’d be good.
Charlie Engle: Absolutely man. You might be out there next to me just talking … I’m planning on trying to make you come out for part of it.
Logan: Thanks so much, Charlie.
Charlie Engle: All right Logan. I’ll talk to you later buddy.