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Where Will Ultra Confinement Lead Ultramarathoner Charlie Engle?

He just begun a 21-month “race” in federal prison that promises to draw on his well-developed perseverance skills.

Ultramarathoner Charlie Engle is spending 21 months in federal prison for fraud. What will he do with his life once he's released?

He just began a 21-month “race” in federal prison that promises to draw on his well-developed perseverance skills.

Written by Adam W. Chase

Ultra-endurance athletes are repeatedly asked the same question: “What do you think about when you are out there for so long?”  The obvious answer is, “a lot.”  But, speaking from experience, ultra-endurance athletes are also quite accomplished at not thinking much at all.  We block.  We zone out.  We focus on the future and numb ourselves to the present.  We cope.  We endure.

One ultra endurance athlete has just begun a 21-month “race” that promises to draw on such developed skills for persevering.  Charlie Engle, 48, is incarcerated at a Federal prison, having been found guilty by a jury on 12 counts of bank, mail and wire fraud in connection with a real estate scam.  The judge’s sentence was less than half of what the prosecutor had sought, a leniency extended thanks to more than 120 letters of support from Engle’s friends and family and the fact that Engle had a clean record and 18 years of sobriety and charitable work.

The Federal judge denied Engle’s request for probation only, stating that Engle had to be punished for what he had done and concluding “I believe he knew what he was doing was wrong.”  At trial Engle had contended that he was deceived by mortgage brokers and real estate agents who had forged his signature and inflated his income figures to increase his loan amounts. But the prosecutor introduced evidence, including undercover agents’ tape recordings, that were incriminating enough to convince a jury of Engle’s guilt in inflating his income in order to qualify for loans that, in turn, he used to leverage for mortgages in excess of $1 million.  Engle was able to withdraw equity on the leveraged properties, which were eventually foreclosed.  In addition to the 21-month jail term, Engle’s sentence includes 100 hours of community service, five years of probation and the repayment of $265,500 to lenders.

Engle, a father of two teenage sons, of Greensboro, North Carolina, is widely known for his run across the Sahara Desert, documented in “Running the Sahara,” narrated by Matt Damon. He’s also recognized for his attempt to run across America, made into “Running America,” an 86-minute documentary, as well as his motivational speaking.  He gave a long speech to the judge and said that he was confident he’d turn negatives into positives and that, with respect to his prison time, “I have no doubt I will make the best of this.”

Engle has written that he sees his sentence as being “a federally funded retreat in which I get lots of time for quiet reflection and exercise.”  He knows how to deal with difficulty and, on the eve of his incarceration he said he realized that he felt a bit like he does before the beginning of an expedition or a long race.  “I am anxious and full of anticipation.  And just like a race, I know that once the first few miles are done, I will settle down and find my rhythm.  Even though this is not the ideal situation, I have an open mind and am approaching this with great curiosity.  Every experience in life has the ability to teach lessons if I am open to them.”

And, as an endurance athlete, Engle knows how to keep his focus on the finish.  He’s already talking about book deals and using his sense of humor to help get through the rough patches, calling on his supporters to “send him a file with a cake in it.”  “In prison . . . I am [sic] going to focus on writing and reading and exercising.”  Engle calls this practice “running in place.”

“I convince myself that this is just another adventure,” Engle blogged, “But I wonder if I am delusional.  Maybe I am just denying the catastrophe that my life has become.”

Engle wrote about picturing himself speaking to a large group of people after being released from prison. In his speech he said, “For ten years, during my 20’s, I did drugs, occasionally dealt drugs, drove my car when I shouldn’t have, and generally lived a dishonest life. But I never got into legal trouble for any of that. Yet here I stand in front of you having just been released from prison. My crime? Allegedly overstating my income on a home loan application. It just doesn’t sound like an impressive crime.” He then states that he is not trying to make light of the situation but, rather, that he’s just pointing out the irony of it.

The word penance is derived from the same root as repentance or the desire to be forgiven, to change one’s thoughts, to correct a wrong and to make restitution.  Penance and repentance are often steeped in religion just as they are wedded to acts of self-discipline, physical suffering and other privations.  Like, for instance, running for days on end?

Will Engle use his federally-funded retreat to gain penance and to repent?  Will he be genuinely contrite and remorseful?  Will he tap into that part of his ultra-endurance psyche that allows him to self flagellate and be humble?  Or will he draw on his survival prowess and ability to endure through withdrawal or blocking in order to take on the challenge?

To gain some insight into that answer, check out “Running on Empty: An Ultramarathoner’s Story of Love, Loss and a Record-Setting Run Across America,” in which Marshall Ulrich explores some of his relationship with Engle and how they parted ways during the run across the United States.


Adam W. Chase is an ultrarunner, adventure racer, father of two boys, and practices tax law in Boulder, Colorado.  He is the co-author of the “Ultimate Guide to Trail Running,” and serves as President of the American Trail Running Association.