Engle was born in North Carolina in the early 1960s. His mother was a free-spirited, renowned playwright and activist. His father was a strict and non-supportive presence despite Engle’s early academic success. His parents divorced and he frequently moved homes across the United States.
He played basketball and competed in track and field events at the Junior Olympics. His runs were his adventures, such as the time he chased and jumped into a moving box train only to have to run back home.
Cocaine and Alcohol Addiction
In his teens and twenties Engle’s life spiralled out of control, as he used crack cocaine, drank excessively and piled on debt. He failed to hide his addictions; he entered rehab but regularly relapsed. Even his now former-wife and first son were not incentive enough to stay sober.
Even as he ran the Big Sur Marathon he was intoxicated, recovering on route as he vomited and drank more. Incredibly he still completed the distance in under 3 hours and 30 minutes.
Instead it was the accumulation of numerous near-death experiences, including dodging bullets from drug dealers, that changed his perspective. At age 30 Engle’s sobriety was cemented when an AA sponsor reminded him that it was not all his fault and that self-destruction was not a logical feeling.
Extreme Running as his Saviour
His addictive character was not squashed. He continued to run marathons, including the Boston Marathon multiple times, chasing a sub 3 hour finish. He ran through sickness and injury until he completed his goal.
His ultrarunning career began when he accidentally entered a 52km race whilst in Australia. Despite persistent doubts and a hilly course, he won the men’s division.
Influenced by numerous documentaries he entered adventure races in Ecuador, Borneo and New Zealand. The experiences were always memorable as he often found himself lost, disqualified or in the top finishers.
It taught him he was only as strong as his team mates.
He then enjoyed great success in other races including the Badwater 135, Jungle Marathon and Gobi March races. He learnt to control his effort and not the outcome, as he drifted apart from his wife and quit his job to pursue a remarkable run across the Sahara Desert.
The film Running the Sahara records Engle’s runs of 50 miles a day for over 100 days with Ray Zahab and Kevin Lin. They frequently needed IV fluids but overcame technical delays, multiple injuries, extreme exhaustion and constant loss of weight. The distraction methods they used included listening to countless audiobooks and music, and repeating jokes and stories to one another.
Later he attempted to run across the United States with another ultrarunner, Marshall Ulrich. Engle needed to finish the distance on a bike due to injury but still inspired children across his native land as he visited schools.
Imprisonment and Final Redemption
Engle faced many setbacks, including dealing with his mother’s diagnosis of Alzheimer’s and encountering financial difficulties. The latter would culminate in Engle being convicted of bank fraud in October 2010. Despite a lack of evidence he would spend 21 months in a federal prison in West Virginia.
Before his incarceration he ran with an ankle bracelet, endured knee surgery and almost relapsed.
He dealt with his imprisonment by journaling, reading, coaching others to get fitter and lose weight, and running frequently, sometimes on the spot in his prison cell. Time in prison fostered a new spirit in Engle, as he ran his own Badwater 135, 24 hours over 2 days to replicate the harsh conditions. This feat was equivalent of 540 laps of a dirt track and unsurprisingly gave him the nickname of ‘Running Man’.
Before his release he repaired his relationship with his father and rid himself of all anger and resentment towards law enforcement. He finally found love in a woman who would crew him on his future running pursuits.
Engle’s story is fascinating and redemptive, proving that running can replace more harmful addictions and create a lasting pursuit of human limits.