The Beckley Badwater: Charlie Engle Runs Ultramarathon Within Prison Walls

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    Charlie Engle, author of the new book Running Man. Image courtesy of the New Zealand Herald.

    It’s probably impossible to find a runner who doesn’t associate the act with freedom. Whether it’s a temporary escape from life’s daily stresses or part of a longer road to recovery, there’s no shortage of testaments from across the globe to running’s ability to make us feel free even in the most brutal circumstances.

    Charlie Engle, author of the new book Running Man. Image courtesy of the New Zealand Herald.
    Charlie Engle, author of the new book Running Man. Image courtesy of the New Zealand Herald.

    Charlie Engle found freedom through running in what many would consider the most confining of situations. Following an unjust conviction for mortgage fraud, Charlie was sentenced to 16 months in a federal prison in West Virginia. That’s where he decided that he would run the equivalent distance of the notorious Badwater Ultramarathon – that’s 217 km – using the track in the prison’s recreation area as his course. Prior to his conviction, Charlie turned to running to kick a decade long addiction to crack cocaine and alcohol.

    In an excerpt from Charlie’s new book Running Man published in the New Zealand Herald, Charlie writes:

    This was for me. To keep my sanity, I would do the insane; it had always worked before. Deciding to run Badwater sparked a feeling of purpose in me that I had not felt since I arrived at Beckley. I had been in survival mode. But now I knew I had to do more than simply get through this. Fair or unfair, I would probably be in Federal prison for at least another year. There was no point in wasting time wishing for a different outcome.

    Unlike the runners of Badwater, Charlie would have no support crew or access to some of the things runners consider essential such as fuel or technical running gear. Charlie was still determined to make his run happen:

    After 5am count, I made myself three peanut butter and jelly sandwiches – one for breakfast and two to take out to the track with me. I packed them into a mesh bag, along with granola bars, almonds, graham crackers, and two of the packets of Gatorade I had won in the three-point shooting contest. I had been acquiring these items and squirrelling them away in the weeks before the run. I filled a small, leaky watercooler I had bought from another inmate for two stamps. I didn’t have any moisture-wicking shirts or compression socks, but I did have some awesome cut-off gray sweatpants with a drawstring, a nice white sleeveless undershirt, and a pair of dingy white socks – all cotton.

    As he counted off the laps, Charlie says, “I was not an inmate or a number. I was a skinny kid from North Carolina. I was a runner.”

    Check out the full story at the New Zealand Herald to learn how Charlie navigated the unique obstacles of a prison ultramarathon. His book Running Man is available from Simon and Schuster.

    -Ravi Singh