Running in PlaceHe has run across the Sahara Desert. He has run to overcome drug and alcohol addiction, and to help others. Most recently, he ran smack into the law. In 2011, Charlie Engle faces his toughest challenge yet.
Photo by Rod Mclean
This article appeared in our May 2011 issue.
It sounded like a fun weekend in Greensboro, North Carolina, with a 5K or 10-mile run through a greenbelt park, but there was one strange twist. The e-vite promised a Saturday-evening presentation by the renowned adventure racer and ultrarunner Charlie Engle, known for his astounding 111-day, 4500-mile run across the Sahara. For the “Main Event,” however, attendees were invited to caravan to Engle’s Monday-afternoon sentencing, in Norfolk, Virginia, for a recent felony conviction.
On a crisp Saturday morning in January, I arrive at Engle’s Greensboro residence (clued in that I was probably at the right place by the “XTREMIST” license plate on an older-model Suburban in the driveway), where Engle lounged, watching a classic John Wayne western Fort Apache, awaiting the arrival of weekend guests from across the country.
“I have to get my weekly dose of the Duke,” says Engle, as we sit on the white L-seat couches of the nicely appointed suburban house in which he lives with its owner, Chip Pitts, a fellow runner and close friend.
Within 10 minutes of watching, I begin to realize Engle, 48, possesses a commanding, penetrating voice not unlike Wayne’s. And, I would discover, he has a similar likeable swagger and arresting presence.
Between frequent incoming cell calls, texts and e-mails, Engle is open and talkative, cracking jokes and flashing a ready smile. He is self-deprecating, and friendly. While his gregarious nature rides easily on the surface, when a couple of friends show up, an uneasiness drifts into the air.
One is Jack Fierstadt, a real-estate attorney in Pasadena, California, who has come to support Engle, whom he met in a tent in a multi-day stage race in the Gobi Desert in 2006. “This case is bullshit,” he tells me. “I’ve never seen anyone prosecuted criminally for this kind of thing.”
As Charlie’s ex-wife, Pam Engle, housemate Chip and friend Elaine Daniels filter into the house, Engle enthusiastically gives Fierstadt and another visitor beta on running the tree-lined trail visible across the street.
“People are treating me like I have a terminal disease,” he says, turning to me as the two are about to bolt out the door for a run. “I am not a gentle person or known for my subtlety or shyness, so I can joke about it”—his impending sentence—“but my friends are afraid to.”
Indeed, Engle tells prison jokes unabashedly, about not taking many showers, about at least not planning to have sex for the next year or so, about his “federal vacation,” where he will be learning “about a whole new culture.” While Engle’s humor lightens the mood, he becomes serious about one thing, two actually—his sons Brett, 18, a freshman at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro, and Kevin, 16, a sophomore at the Early College at Guilford—whom he sees daily when not traveling.
“People have to listen to me talk incessantly about my kids,” says Engle. “The worst thought [about prison] would be something happening to them, from an emotional standpoint, and not being around to help them.”
LAW AND DISORDER
At the time I visit, Engle’s legal woes have been recently highlighted in a January 3 blog post entitled “Charlie Engle’s Fraud-Funded Sahara Run—Will He Get 111 Days in the Slammer?” by a prominent California trail runner, Scott Dunlap, who writes runtrails.blogspot.com.
Some commenters on the post jumped on Engle’s case. “Be mad all you want at Scott for his tone, but it is his blog and his point of view,” wrote one poster, identified by the screen name of Anthony Brantley. “Regardless, Charlie is a thief, Google what occured and read the articles, the guy’s a thief. Who you are or what you did does not absolve you of your bad deeds. The statement he made ‘everybody was doing it’ is pretty telling of his character, IMHO.
As far as his family and sons go, maybe he should have thought of them before he did what he did. … The guy did these crimes to do and live the way he wanted. I don’t care what his reason or cause was, it was wrong. …For whatever reason [the investigator] checked up on Charlie and found out he was a crook.”
It is public record that Engle, on October 6, 2010, was convicted of 12 counts of bank, mail and wire fraud related to two real-estate loans. But Engle, along with friends, family and acquaintances familiar with the case, are shocked that it existed in the first place, and by its premises. And they mourn the fact that someone who does so much for others will be taken out of circulation.
“I am so angry,” says his ex-wife, Pam, with whom he maintains a close relationship. “It’s upsetting that the banks get bailed out and they are coming after the consumer.”
“This case is bogus, and it is not over,” says his father, Richard Engle of La Quinta, California, a longtime real-estate broker, who attended every minute of the six-day trial and is intimate with every detail of the case. “We are protesting to the Department of Justice, to anybody who will listen.”
Engle was initially investigated for tax evasion. When I ask him what he was actually convicted of, he says, “Basically, I’m going to prison for allegedly overstating my income on a loan application.”
Dunlap and other sources, including Greensboro newspapers, have suggested that Engle may have used the loans to help fund the feature-length film Running the Sahara, which was produced and directed by the Academy Award winner James Moll and executive co-produced by the actor Matt Damon (who also narrated the film) and Jim Van Eerden, who led the project’s investor group.
Engle emphatically says that not a single penny of his own money went into financing RTS, which had a final budget of over $3 million. The net equity of the loans, he says, was around $140,000. “We couldn’t have gotten past day two of the Sahara expedition on that,” he says. “It’s hurtful that Running the Sahara is tainted at all, because of all the great people involved.”
“There is a rumor circulating that Charlie helped fund the expedition and film with his money,” says Van Eerden of the Helixx Group, when contacted. “That is simply not true. We funded Running the Sahara with third-party investment. Charlie was paid a fee as expedition leader along with the other runners.”
So, it was in skepticism, confusion and anticipation that I had traveled to Greensboro to meet the enigmatic Engle.