In this episode, we’re talking to the writer, runner recovering addict, Charlie Engle, who I met many years ago over our shared love for running, but whose story blew me away. Known to many as the running man, Charlie managed to go from rock bottom to resilience many times over. And he continues to push the limits of what is possible for the human body and for human kind.
I refer to him as the “Anthony Bourdain of running” because he is relentless in his curiosity to learn, in exploring the edges of human potential and in experiencing the fullness of life on the planet. Throughout his journey, he has been pushing himself beyond addiction, beyond physical and mental limitations, beyond a criminal record and beyond hopelessness.
Throughout our conversation, we talked about his rocky road to recovery and the role that running and spirituality has continuously played in helping him overcome enormous obstacles and achieve super-human feats, like running 4300 miles across the Sahara desert
And his next adventure is nothing short of amazing: to be the first athlete to trek from the lowest point on earth to the highest summit on every continent. He calls it the 5.8 vertical mile sliver of space in which all humans on the planet live...a space that has nothing to do with nations or borders; it’s about depth and shared humanity. Charlie is running for something greater than personal highs and lows or our differences and disagreements. He’s running for all of us.
This episode is all about resilience and what’s possible when we push beyond our limitations and discover our greatest potential.
Check it out.
Kerri Kelly: Charlie Engle. It's so good to see you, my friend.
Charlie Engle: Thank you. You too.
Kerri Kelly: It's been a couple of years.
Charlie Engle: It has.
Kerri Kelly: I'm so happy to have you on this podcast... just like knowing you and what you have to offer to this conversation about - I'm going to like describe it as “how the fuck do we get through our lives”? That's the unofficial theme of this podcast.
Charlie Engle: I've been stalking you online, so I know what you're doing.
Kerri Kelly: Yay. Well, the feeling is mutual. So when I describe you to people, I say that you have mastered rock-bottom to resilience many times over in fact, does that resonate?
Charlie Engle: It does resonate. I think sometimes I'm not comfortable unless I'm at least touching a toe down onto rock bottom. And that of course can be a problem with my growth, my own personal growth. But my rock bottoms have been both self-inflicted and put upon me by others.
Kerri Kelly: As most are.
Charlie Engle: Yeah, and some of them of course are a combination is I have a big addiction history, and so some people would argue that that is in fact self-inflicted, I would argue it's not, many of the choices I made were self-inflicted, but the actual addiction part of it I was absolutely born with and it manifested early and often and it just was a matter of time before it took over my life and that was pre-ordained and nothing was going to stop that.
Charlie Engle: So then it becomes a choice after I actually know that there is an answer and I don't have to live that way, then the choices I make after that become my decisions and my problems that I have to have some responsibility in.
Kerri Kelly: And those are the choices of recovery.
Charlie Engle: Absolutely, recovery, whatever form that might take, you know, for me, 12 step recovery was the right way to go, specifically AA. Interestingly, I really wasn't an alcoholic per se, I certainly could have been and I'm very grateful that I was a drug addict because did I am a drug addicts, because it pushed me so hard, so fast for 10 years that I reached a point where I had to choose between living and dying, and had I just been drinking, I'd probably still drinking today, I mean very badly, I'm sure. But there's a good chance that I'd still be at it.
Kerri Kelly: Functioning.
Charlie Engle: At least whatever that means, we all know functioning alcoholics and know this is a disease that touches absolutely everybody. Somebody's got an uncle, a brother, a kid, a parent or themselves who has an addiction issue and that doesn't take the form, it doesn't have to take the form of course, of a substance. It can be a behavior, it can be anything, it can be almost anything. And if it takes over your life and you simply cannot function without doing that action or it's always on your mind, or you spend all your money and can't find your car, then that's probably an indication that there's an addiction.
Kerri Kelly: Does addiction, I have a friend Nikki Myers and I was just talking about her in one of my talks, who says that often addiction is possible when we're trying to like avoid something.
Charlie Engle: Oh, I mean 100%. I mean, it makes sense, it's a way to avoid pain, actually, but it's not even just pain, it's a way to avoid anything, feeling anything. As an addict, as you all know, I became a runner and some people would say I became a running addict, but as a drug addict, all I cared about was hiding and being invisible.
Charlie Engle: And if there was a feeling that came up, "Oh, I just drank it away or drug that away," whether it's a good feeling or a bad feeling, you didn't have to be anything. It's just, I didn't know how to actually have it, I was like, I make the joke sometimes, very poor joke about like Dexter or anybody's ever watched Dexter? You know, which is Dexter's a serial killer who watches other people to try to take cues on how to have a feeling like that's well after the fact, I was like, "I get that, I get that," because I would watch other people in order to like understand how I was supposed to feel in a certain situation.
Kerri Kelly: Well, and I relate to what you were saying about becoming a running addict and I'm curious about that because, my addiction is perfectionism and workaholism, which is pervasive in my life and continues to this day.
Charlie Engle: And destructive. I mean, that's no joke.
Kerri Kelly: It's no joke and I work with it everyday and it's taught me a lot about addiction. when I hit rock bottom and pivoted my life from corporate workaholism to wellness, I very quickly became like a yoga wellness addict. And I realized later on that it was just another way of bypassing my pain. Do you catch yourself often with running in that? Like how do you keep your running honest?
Charlie Engle: Yeah, well, sometimes I find myself spending so much time helping and I'm doing air quotes for people who can't see right now, helping other people. And that helping allows me to not have any focus whatsoever on myself.
Kerri Kelly: Yeah. It's not convenient.
Charlie Engle: Although the person who like volunteers at the church and they're involved in five charities and chances are very good, that person spends absolutely no time with personal self-growth and it's a great deflection because you look good doing it, so wellness…
Kerri Kelly: You're describing me Charlie, by the way.
Charlie Engle: Yeah. Well, so wellness and running are two very common ways, I think for people to deflect, any real effort towards not any effort towards self-improvement, because of course you are continuing to improve yourself physically and mentally and helping other people is actually the core of, I always say to keep it, you have to give it away. It's an old saying and I love that one. Anybody who doesn't get it, I'm not going to be able to explain that to them. But you know, if it's your money, your wisdom, your time, whatever it is, if you're not giving it away to other people to a certain degree, then you're probably not going to be able to keep it. And even if you do, you'll be miserable. So with running, for me, running was the exact opposite of addiction, where addiction was hiding, running is like having a bright spotlight shining on me all the time.
Charlie Engle: And I feel everything and I'm fully present, which means that I'm fully present, of course, for the good and the bad and it stops me from running, stops me from deflecting the way that I used to and always finding ways to hide, not just through addiction but even in recovery. I still would manage to find ways to really not be present. And obviously being a workaholic and being a perfectionist is part of my makeup too. And so I'm sort of unfortunately too, it's all or nothing. So it's like if I'm not good at it, then fuck it, it's not worth doing. Which isn't really the case, it's just because I'm not good at it then therefore it becomes not worth doing. It is the definition of a vicious cycle.
Kerri Kelly: I remember after my divorce, I took a dance class and I was so bad, I was so bad, like I was maybe one of the worst people in the class and it was intolerable for me. But I had like the awareness that like this is a good place for me to be in, like how do I do something and really suck at it and survive?
Charlie Engle: Yeah. Well one of those own funny, this last few days here, I mean here we are at this Wellspring event which is filled with people who are so much better at the things that they do, well than I am at the things that they do. Yoga, meditation, a lot of body work, I am a very aware athlete. However, I do stay in my lane too often. I continue to do things that are easy for me to do, which it sounds funny to say to go run for six hours or something is easy but it's actually easier for me to do that than it is to do a 90 minute yoga class, because every second of that yoga class is actually hard for me.
Charlie Engle: Due to inflexibility, it's actually not, I don't have any ego around it in the sense that I'm after all the shit that I did during my addiction years, the last thing I'm worried about is being embarrassed because all my stuff is out there. There's photos of it is, it's not something that I worry about looking funny. It really is genuinely the fact that I'm uncomfortable and I have yet to really understand the way yoga and a lot of other body work makes me not just physically uncomfortable but it makes me emotionally uncomfortable because it never occurred to me that, that kind of thing could draw out feelings that I didn't expect.
Kerri Kelly: And that's sort of the purpose, a lot of that work.
Charlie Engle: I didn't get that.
Kerri Kelly: And you're like, "Oh shit."
Charlie Engle: I thought the purpose was to make me a better runner.
Kerri Kelly: Or to feel good, I think a lot of people come to feel good on the mat and they think it's going to be juicy and they're just going to get automatically flexible and it's really to reveal the parts of us that are stuck and unreconciled and unhealed. But I imagine running also serves that purpose. I mean, I've heard you say that running for you is spiritual. And I imagine you have moments, I mean, let's give context to like the kind of running you're talking about for our listeners. This isn't like you're not a marathon runner and for a lot of people that's a reach. You're like an ultra, ultra, ultra, ultra. I mean, how do people define the kind of running you do? Besides like crazy?
Charlie Engle: Yeah, idiotic would be one, absolutely one way. And it's a funny thing. So what I found is very simply, the farther I go, the more I learn and it's not, it's really, obviously it's a metaphor, but it's also a reality when it comes to running. So I started, when I got sober, I was 29 clean and sober and that was at the end of a six-day binge where my first son had just been born a couple months earlier. And my expectation was that he was going to save my life just by being born. Like, surely I wouldn't put my kids through this life, this kind of addicted life.
Charlie Engle: And of course two months later there I am again sitting on the ground watching the police search my car and it's got bullet holes in it and that were put there by somebody who wanted to shoot me. And the realization hit me that nobody, Brett, my son couldn't save me, nobody was coming to save me and I had to make a choice between like living and dying and the dying, unfortunately, would be a really long slowed. I mean it could be a short death with a bullet or a drug, but more likely it would be a long, slow, decades long descent into the abyss.
Kerri Kelly: What was that question that you asked yourself? Like in that sort of crossroads?
Charlie Engle: Yeah. Or you know what, it's really funny, and this is the true version of what happened in my head. I'm sitting there watching the police go through my car and this policeman reaches under the seat, the driver's seat, and he pulls out a crack pipe and he turns really slowly and looks at me and he's shaking his head. And it's that condemnation, that judging that he's doing in that second and it hurt. And anybody, even remotely rational person in my position would have been going, "Oh shit, I'm in some serious trouble, like this is not good." Bullets, drugs, paraphernalia, all that. All I can think is, “so that's where that pipe was.” I wonder if there's anything left in there...talk about some sick thinking, like that's where I was, I was pissed. Speaking of perfectionism, because I looked for that damn thing for like three hours, but I had taken it and tucked it under the edge of the underneath of my seat and I couldn't find it and he found it. But then the next, really the next second was, I'm looking around, like shaking my head. I'm like, "This seems like a pretty good time to quit." Like it really was that simple in a way and realizing that nobody else was coming to save me was actually such a blessing and in the sense that I no longer had to wait for that person. I had done everything quit from my job. I mean quit, drugs for my job, quit drugs for my wife, quit drugs for my kids, quit everything. And never though had I done it.
Charlie Engle: It's not that I didn't want to for me, but I had never done it that way. So the way the words went is I had to choose between living and dying and I chose running.
Kerri Kelly: That's great.
Charlie Engle: And running, that day and night I went to an AA meeting and I had been to AA meetings before, but I was very puzzled by the fact that people had actually quit doing drugs and alcohol. I thought they were just there to manage it.
Kerri Kelly: Oh no. What a disappointment?
Charlie Engle: Right.
Kerri Kelly: Oh shit.
Charlie Engle: So this is the first time I'm in there going, "Wait, okay, I get it now." So I went to a meeting that night and I put it on my running shoes the next today and for three years, three straight years, I did those two things every single day. And without missing a single day and that was that created the platform for me to move forward with my life. And I couldn't make it around the block to begin with, for obvious reasons. And not long after I was running marathons and I ran 30 marathons in those first three years, I was like, because clearly I had that whole addiction thing under control.
Kerri Kelly: It just shape shifted for you. But it was a step forward too, I mean those things are probably two at the same time.
Charlie Engle: It was. And then I accidentally, it's too long of stories, I'm not going to tell you, but in Australia, I went to Australia like four years sober and I literally, I was so stupid. I accidentally entered an ultra marathon, it was 52 kilometers. And I actually thought I was entering a 5K-
Kerri Kelly: Oh my God.
Charlie Engle: ... because it never occurred to me that anybody would actually run that far.
Kerri Kelly: I hope you didn't clock the first 5K the way you would.
Charlie Engle: I didn't. But it is a very funny story, I'm there at the start, I'm picking out my number on it and I hear people saying like, "God, I hope I can finish this race before dark." I'm thinking, "Man, these Australians are slow. What are they doing? Crawling?" And I laughed, and this guy's going, "Hey, you know, crikey mate, you ever done a 50K before?" And I'm like, "No. Why?" I like I break out in a cold sweat and I walk over to the table, there's this super cute girl sitting there and I'm like, "So is there a map of this course?" And I looked at the map and it says, "Then Engle rain for us, 52K." I looked down at the number on my chest and it says 52K. I'm like, "Man, you are stupid."
Charlie Engle: And anyway, I was there and I decided to run the race anyway and I was going to quit though, it's a three loop race, so I was going to quit after the first loop and I come across, they'll start finishing that day. Announcer's like going, "Oh here's the American, he's actually in 10th place. I didn't know these guys could run." I'm like, all of a sudden I'm representing all of North America."
Kerri Kelly: Oh my God.
Charlie Engle: Anyway, I do the next two loops. And when I get to, I realized after the second loop that I had a chance to do something accidentally, like the universe had put me in this very unexpected place and I could choose to either quit or I could just go forward and see what was going to happen. And so with no expectations, I actually ended up winning the race.
Charlie Engle: So I'm there with no purpose, no expectation. I ended up winning this race and it was then that I would like, I want to see just how far I can go. And that's what I've spent really the next now, 21 plus years since that time doing is seeing how far I can go.
Kerri Kelly: That doesn't sound like an accident, that sounds divine-
Charlie Engle: I agree.
Kerri Kelly: Like that sounds totally by design and I'm curious if you believe in God, because I know the first step of the AA Program of the 12-step program is I think Nadia Bolz-Weber described it as the, "I'm fucked” step, and that you have to admit that you're powerless to something bigger and greater than yourself. Like, did you do that when you entered the program?
Charlie Engle: Well, I did. And I will say, the only religion I ever knew as a young person was my grandparents Southern Baptist Church in North Carolina. So I like at five, I knew my thoughts alone were sending me to hell, like I hadn't even done any of them. So to say that any of my recovery is based in God, in any traditional religious sense would not be true. I don't have anger or bitterness around it, I wasn't abused by the church or have any of those memories or scars but I also don't, I think it drives a lot of people away from recovery from 12-step recovery because they are put off by the word God, and while the founders of AA were brilliant in a lot of their language and they go to great links to explain, they're talking about it being a higher power of your choosing, it could be anything.
Charlie Engle: It still turns a lot of the people off and I try very hard to, when I'm telling someone about it, it's almost always their first question. If they're reluctant to come in and almost always revolves around the word God, they read the first 20 pages or whatever and of the big book and decided it wasn't for them or they go to one meeting and there is always that person in the meeting who clearly is talking about God and they're talking about God, like the Christian God or the whatever. I mean, that's what they're talking about. And it makes it really hard for people, I'm not that person at all, I'm spiritual. I talked to my grandfather, you know, when I run, I have to tell you this quick story, but it's a short one, but it's a meaningful one.
Charlie Engle: I went to a very well-known, I won't name it but retreat in Arizona several years, probably been 10 years ago now. And they gave me, you got like treatments every day so it was really expensive and I was there actually for a symposium on love, which was wonderful and these amazing people and we're spending these days, so I'm at love and you've got to treatment every day. So I had a massage, then I had a hot stone massage the next day and the last day I'm like, "I don't know what to do," and I call the front desk and I said, "I want something different."
Charlie Engle: She's like, "Well, we just had a cancellation with our shaman for a spiritual cleansing." I'm like, "Yes, I'll take that. Why not? It seems like something I should do." And so I walked in to this guy, he's native American, he's an MD, he's so freaking like, just being around him, I felt warm and like just one of those people that makes you know that there is greater power in the universe. And obviously he'd never met me and knew nothing about me, whatever, he's got a hand on my shoulder for the first five minutes just talking to me.
Charlie Engle: And he goes, "You had a very famous grandfather who ran track," and I did. My grandfather was an all American in track and he was the track coach at UNC Chapel Hill for 40 years, very well-known man. And he says, he wants you to know that he runs with you every day. And it was, it was such a pivotal moment for me, like it is one of those times when knew, I knew I was on the right path.
Charlie Engle: And that when I do talk to him, like, I mean, he was telling me, he's listening. And so that's how I described my spirituality. I mean, AA is so powerful and you and I have talked it's a guide, it's a guide that can actually be translated to any part of someone's life. The steps really do work if you apply them. Even if you're not about addiction and you apply it to something else, you should have the sponsor or mentor or whatever you want to call that person sort of helping you saying things out loud to someone else, your deepest darkest secrets to at least one other person in the universe is the most powerful thing I've ever done.
Kerri Kelly: Yeah, I couldn't agree more. And it's funny, and I have like a brief experience with AA and Al-Anon actually. But you know, because I see it as like a map, it's almost like they give you the map for transformation in the context of relationship, which I think is like the secret sauce, that like you've a sponsor and you're like doing it together and you've got each other's backs. And so much of what the transformation I often see in the wellness world is really individual, it's isolated, which to me means it's why it's so unsustainable and it often doesn't last and it's really shallow. But with AA, I wonder like if we applied the 12 step program that map to some of the stuff that we're addressing in society today, like dismantling white supremacy and deconstructing racism, like understanding misogyny and the gender relationships and the gender spectrum. I just wonder, like, if we would have much more productive and kind and transformative experiences of social justice.
Charlie Engle: Well, I have no doubt that we would, and I think it would be so amazing, the problem of course, and I hate to start right off with the problem, everything you just said is awesome. But you know, the first step of AA is of course admitting that you have a problem and unfortunately, and look, I fall on a particular side of the racial political side which actually is very liberal, very focused on social issues in particular. And the problem that I see is, and of course they see the same... I don't even know if they see the same problem in me on the other side, but what I see in them is they can't even get to a place of admitting or not admitting they have a problem because there's not even acknowledgement that there's a topic to talk about.
Charlie Engle: And which is why you and I, and people like us struggle so much with, you really want to pick a metaphorical hammer, usually, metaphorical and hit them over the head with it because that's what it feels like. The frustration of just getting someone to take a minute and listen is really it consumes me at times. And I admire so much about what you're doing right now and from the time we met, you have clearly evolved tremendously in those years. And not that you weren't magnificent before, but now you've taken your platform and you are being an agitator and I call it, I sort of hate the language of the day, but a disruptor. And I think it's something I struggle with because I have a platform of my own and I struggle with wanting to remain, not neutral, but where sponsors are concerned where things like that, you know, once you go down that road, it's pretty hard to come back.
Kerri Kelly: It's tricky territory.
Charlie Engle: It is.
Kerri Kelly: And yet nothing is neutral. So like, even by trying to be neutral and I'm also now air quoting like nothing is ever neutral, like we're constantly navigating choices around like how to stand in our values. But what I want to say about you is like everything about your life and how you've lived it feels so integrous to me, like you really say yes to walking through the fire. Like you're not afraid of the shadow, and I just think like when I think about what you've been through and how you have overcome, like there's never been a bypass, there's never been like a shortcut for you. I mean, I think actually like your running style is like a perfect metaphor, like you go the distance through the darkness and through the pain and through the suffering to get to the other side and it's admirable.
Charlie Engle: I want to be there. Like I actually like I run hundred milers all the time, and I say even though I question this stupidity, like when I get to that moment, but I always get to at least one moment where I want to quit. Like how can you not run a hundred mile, I don't care who you are, you're going to have highs and lows and it's going suck. But I want to get to that point and then push past it, find a way through nutrition and hydration or just in my mind to get past that moment and understand that in fact, in my opinion, we spend 99.9% of our time in life and in running and sports and everything else, preparing for that 1% of the time when things go to hell. Like that's what we're preparing for and what you're made of and who you are at your very core can only be revealed in those moments.
Charlie Engle: In my opinion, you can't find it without some self-inflicted pain or getting in touch with the pain that others have caused, or the combination of those things. For me, in a controlled setting, I get them beautiful benefit of going and running a hundred miles, I know it's going to take me somewhere between 15 and 25 hours, like so on. And I'm choosing, I remind myself all the time and this is you know the Middle East or somewhere where somebody shooting at me or where like I may, like I can quit when I want. So it's my choice to like get to that place physically and emotionally.
Charlie Engle: I always picture like scraping out, like literally scraping out my insides, like with a knife or something and getting in down into the deep little edges and then I get to fill it back up with something new.
Kerri Kelly: So you make it through addiction, right? You're on the road to recovery, you're playing the long game, you're like, you're out of the woods and by accident you're running ultras and then you end up in jail.
Charlie Engle: I do. And let's actually use the proper term, it's prison.
Kerri Kelly: Yeah.
Charlie Engle: Not that there's any, there's very little distinction but I always say jail is like going to the county or whatever, and I ended up in federal prison. And so you know about my, I did this, you alluded to it in the beginning. I ran about 4,500 miles across the Sahara desert years ago and it was this crazy adventure through just a bizarre idea that I had and managed to sucker other people into coming into it with me, Matt Damon being one of them. And there's a film and I end up being the co-creator of water.org, which is the world's biggest clean water nonprofit. You know, I raised about $6 million for that during my run. And so I had these amazing experiences and running across the Sahara desert kind of like put me on the map, if you will, and Jay Leno and NPR and all the morning news shows.
Charlie Engle: And I got a chance to do all those things, and it was cool. I got speaking gigs, I got corporate sponsorships, all of these things were happening for me, and I was enjoying what I was doing and I got a chance to be a proponent of the things that I believed in. And I was out running here, I was at home, I was out running errands one day and I came back to my house and, and six armed federal agents came out of a coffee shop next door and actually handcuffed and shackled me and put me in jail for the night, that was jail for the night.
Charlie Engle: And without knowing what was even going on and ultimately I would come to learn that a small town IRS agent, I had seen running this Sahara and decided that he was going to open an investigation into my taxes. And upon finding nothing, because there was nothing to find and it's all in the memos, he just kept digging and ultimately I became the only person in the country to be charged with and I mean only person to be charged with allegedly overstating income on a home loan application from 2005, a no doc loan as they called them.
Charlie Engle: And for that, I could go to prison for 20 years and I fought the charges because I didn't do it and I wasn't going to admit to something or take a plea, which is what almost everybody does and I lost in a seven-day trial and I was sentenced to 21 months in federal prison. And I got to prison in Beckley, West Virginia and I was pissed. I was angry, I was frustrated by what had been done to me. That's how I saw it “look at what's been done to me”, and it took me like almost no time to realize that first of all, I was not going to get through this experience, if I did it with bitterness and anger, and I couldn't find a way to get past that.
Charlie Engle: And it didn't matter anymore if it was fair or unfair, I was in prison and that wasn't going to change. And so I had to find a way to get through it, and so I went back to 12 step recovery. And as cliche as it is, sometimes, it was “one day at a time”, and I focused on what was right in front of me and didn't worry, I focused on the day I was living rather than the day I was going to get out because that was so counterproductive, and of course I started running.
Kerri Kelly: And did they have a program in the prison?
Charlie Engle: For running?
Kerri Kelly: For 12 step.
Charlie Engle: No, I mean talk about…
Kerri Kelly: These are like self-study?
Charlie Engle: Yes, but talk about craziness. How can you have a prison system with millions of men and women who are incarcerated for drug related charges? And there is no AA, there's no recovery meetings, there's no drug treatment program. They claim to have a drug treatment program but what it amounts to is if you've got a 25-year sentence for especially if you're a black man in this country and you get a 25-year sentence for a tiny amount of crack because you shoplifted twice before and that's your third strike. And you end up basically getting a life sentence for a gram of crack cocaine and ad maybe you are an addict, but you go to prison and there's no treatment whatsoever for any of it. You're just left to your own devices all the time.
Kerri Kelly: Well, and the prison system is not designed for rehabilitation.
Charlie Engle: No.
Kerri Kelly: It's designed for profit.
Charlie Engle: I was going to say, people assume it's designed for punishment. I'm like, "Fuck you. It's designed for punishment." And you know what, where politics is concerned, that's an equal opportunity thing, both sides of the aisle we're talking about Reagan is the one who kind of did the tough on drugs, you know thing, but Clinton who I loved Bill Clinton, but he's the one who put it on steroids.
Kerri Kelly: That's right.
Charlie Engle: Incarceration rates went up 600% while he was president and because basically he said, "Fine, you guys want to lock people up, let's make money at it."
Kerri Kelly: And so you had a really different experience, I hear that like you're really conscious that like you're a white man who went to prison for like a white collar crime and yet our prison system is deeply racialized in this country, right?
Charlie Engle: In my 20's, I never would have made it beyond 25 or whatever without going to prison, if I'd been a black young man, 25 years old, driving around in the neighborhoods where I was. And so it was just, I would have been in prison because I would have been stopped as a white clean cut looking kid during my 20's, driving around those neighborhoods. It's not one time ever, ever did I get stopped.
Charlie Engle: So flash forward, 20 years later, here I am, I land in federal prison in a way something I make jokes because I like to use humor to deflect. But I didn't even know what kind of like a tattoo to get, what kind of prison tat that you got for like overstating income, like a fountain pen or something? So it was almost embarrassing to tell people while I was there, but I was, I was angry and it was unfair and then there's an African American man next to me in the cell, 60 years old and he got a 26 and a half years sentence for the same amount of crack that I had in my hand 100 times.
Kerri Kelly: Whoa.
Charlie Engle: So his whole life was taken away, and nobody talks about, there's what? 30 shows on television that cops and locked up abroad and all this that shows you criminals getting caught, people in prison, and there's not a single show about people getting out of prison. And there's no, people are basically just thrown away and proportionally black men are thrown away at a rate 50 times greater than any other group in this country.
Kerri Kelly: Did that experience inspire you to get engaged in that issue?
Charlie Engle: It did, but I'm still not fully immersed other than I'm very comfortable having this kind of conversation, which makes a lot of other white men uncomfortable. I actually, I went to a function last night and there was a really just lovely African-American woman sitting next to me in her late 20's, and we had this same conversation in a way, and she was actually, she could not have been more shocked at what I was saying because things have become like so divisive as you know, that there is no even racist used to soften the edges of their comments.
Charlie Engle: Now, there's nothing but a sharp blade on the other side. And it's all or nothing all the time, and so that's why we need more people like you, and that's why also we need more people.
Kerri Kelly: And you.
Charlie Engle: Well, we need more people like me speaking up and it is part of what I need to do a better job of.
Kerri Kelly: Yeah, well I really appreciate the way that you're talking about it now and it does make me feel like we need to be telling the truth with as sharp a blade, as people on the other side are tearing people down and using inflammatory language to inspire and incite harm. And I hear that you have those words and you clearly have that platform, and I think it's really powerful for you to be using it to speak out on this, especially given your location in society, especially given that you're a white man.
Charlie Engle: Yeah. Well, I live in North Carolina too, so I live in Durham, North Carolina, which is a tiny little blue dot in a very red screwed up state and in a lot of ways. And I need to use my voice more and be more open and honest and upfront about these things with the people that I come in contact with. And I have a platform that is called Surviving Anything. Actually it's my new thing I've launched recently and survivinganything.org, and this idea of it being sort of an overarching idea because we've all survived something. And there are plenty of platforms out there to be able to talk about surviving things.
Charlie Engle: But my hope is that through video and some things that I'm doing that people will actually tell their stories, themselves and their own words on this platform and begin to continue, I shouldn't say begin, continue to challenge the powers that be.
Kerri Kelly: Yeah. You've survived like 1800 thousand million things. I feel like, you've had like nine lives.
Charlie Engle: Yeah, at least.
Kerri Kelly: And you're also one of the most like ambitious human beings I've ever known, I resonate with you that way but you just blow me out of the water Charlie Engle. How do you measure success? How do you define success? What's enough Charlie?
Charlie Engle: Yeah, there's never going to be enough, no.
Kerri Kelly: Is it a thousand mile race?
Charlie Engle: Success, I guess to me, looks like planning the next expedition, it is, and it's not that, why should there ever be enough? I mean, I'm 56 years old and I will very, very boldly say that anybody my age who is using their age as the excuse for why they're not doing things is just absolutely, they need to look inside and be a little more bold in the decisions they're making because even if there are physical limitations, "Oh, I got bad knees, or I hear all this stuff all the time." There's always a way to do the next thing. So for me, I know we were talking earlier, my next thing is in fact to go from, I mean, other huge expedition and it's the biggest I've ever planned and it's actually to go from…
Kerri Kelly: By huge, you mean like huge.
Charlie Engle: Shit every way, yes.
Kerri Kelly: Oh my God.
Charlie Engle: Yeah. I call it 5.8. So I'll tease it that way. So it's called 5.8 and I'm going to go from the lowest place on the planet, the Dead Sea land elevation. I'm going to swim out into the Dead Sea and I'm actually going to do a free dive to the lowest point that I'm capable of reaching.
Kerri Kelly: Whoa!
Charlie Engle: I'm going to come back up hopefully. And swim to shore and dry off and run basically 2000 miles across the Arabian desert. So including an area called the empty quarter which is just like what it sounds like, I get to Oman and I basically get to the tip of Oman and I'll get in a kayak and paddle a thousand miles across the Indian Ocean. And when I reached Mumbai, India, I'll get on a mountain bike and cycle to western Nepal to visit an orphanage that a friend of mine runs there. And then continue on to Everest base camp where we're I'll do what all climbers their attempt to do and I'll reach the top of Everest.
Kerri Kelly: Holy shit.
Charlie Engle: And when I get there, I'm going to pour out a little flask of water that I carried with me from the Dead Sea as a symbolic joining of the ends of the earth. And I call it 5.8 because that expedition is about 4,300 miles all together. But in reality, it's only 5.8 vertical miles-
Kerri Kelly: Whoa!
Charlie Engle: ... from the lowest place to the highest point. And you know what? You and I, everybody at this conference and everybody on this planet actually lives within this tiny little 5.8 miles sliver-
Kerri Kelly: That's cool.
Charlie Engle: ... that covers the earth. We're all in it together whether you want to be or not, you're already there. So you might as well get busy.
Kerri Kelly: That's deep. Literally, that depth.
Charlie Engle: It is.
Kerri Kelly: How long will it take you to do this?
Charlie Engle: If all goes well, about four and a half months. So that expedition itself will start January the first 2020, which I think symbolically it's a really great time to start.
Kerri Kelly: And what do you hope to accomplish?
Charlie Engle: Part of, when I started running across the Sahara, I had started this tiny little clean water nonprofit but I didn't know if it would amount to anything. And today it's the biggest clean water nonprofit in the world. The right thing is going to appear for me.
Kerri Kelly: Good.
Charlie Engle: In this. I'm partnering with Red which focuses of course on the aids epidemic in this country. water.org will be a partner, but I will find a way, I hope and it will make itself known.
Kerri Kelly: You're listening for it.
Charlie Engle: Yeah, what that's going to be. I think maybe it's just hope, I mean, it sounds so cliche and I hate that kind of language in a way, but I feel so hopeless sometimes these days, like environmentally especially but that there's nothing I can do to make a difference. And look, we see death and destruction and human suffering every single day on television and everywhere, we see enough of that, we don't have to even try. What I want to show people is this magnificent 5.8 miles space where we all live.
Kerri Kelly: Well, when I think about you, Charlie, you embody for me, you defy like all practicality and when I think of like what you've been able to accomplish is just so beyond, I think the limitations of our mind. Like you just are like, you continue to blow up any idea we have of like what possibility could look like, every time you challenge and reach and say, this is possible. I do think actually it does seed within us an invitation to think bigger and to dream bigger and to imagine better what we're all capable of, despite how fucked up the world is right now.
Kerri Kelly: And I really appreciate that you're like putting that true north forward for us that we can actually, we can point to that like holy shit, that's possible. And I would never, ever in my wildest imagination have thought that that was possible. Were you not taking this risk?
Charlie Engle: Man, you summed it up so well there, and I mean that means everything to me that you feel that way and I think what you do is what I talk about all the time, share the struggle. The mistake that people make quite often I think is to only share the success that they're going through, they may acknowledge the struggle to a certain degree but I believe that as human beings, we actually want to know that other people are struggling too.
Kerri Kelly: When we have to.
Charlie Engle: When the camera goes on, when the mic turns on, if you're not sharing your struggle and letting other people know that despite what outward success other people might see in you, it hasn't been easy, and it's not about like telling some sad story about how hard it's been for you, it's about just sharing. I know when people turn on, if they were watching me run, who wants to watch me run 50 miles a day? I don't want to watch that. But they'll turn on to see me, puking and crying and you don't want to see someone make something look easy.
Charlie Engle: And I think it is this idea that no matter whether it's athletics or criminal justice or human rights, it's not easy. And so you do have to show and share the hard stuff with other people and allow them to understand they're part of it.
Kerri Kelly: Rock bottom to resilience.
Charlie Engle: Perfect.
Kerri Kelly: Right?
Charlie Engle: There we go.
Kerri Kelly: Full circle.
Charlie Engle: It's going to be on my t-shirt.
Kerri Kelly: Charlie. Thank you so much.
Charlie Engle: My pleasure.
Kerri Kelly: Every time I drop in with you, I'm just like amazed by who you are and who you're becoming, like you just keep kicking it up like 10 more notches and challenging us to like go bigger.
Charlie Engle: Right back at you. Right back at you.
Kerri Kelly: Go bigger, go.
Charlie Engle: Thank you.
Kerri Kelly: All right. Until next time.
Charlie Engle: All right.