Storytelling Is About Show, Don't Tell - Take it from Charlie Engle, "Running Man"

The first man to run the Sahara Desert, ultramarathoner and author Charlie Engle raises awareness for social causes

Kindra Cooper

Charlie Engle Running Man

Marketers are indiscriminately advised to take up storytelling, but what does it really mean? Charlie Engle, AKA “The Running Man,” is living proof that storytelling is what mobilizes people to rally around a cause.

Specifically, he gets complete strangers to appreciate the fact that over 1 billion people in the world lack access to clean water and sanitation, and donate money for it – but not by asking them to. 

The first ultramarathoner to run across the unforgiving Sahara desert, Engle amassed $6 million in funding for clean water from hosting film screenings around the world of the documentary Running the Sahara, executive-produced by Hollywood actor Matt Damon. The film chronicles Engle’s 111-day journey across the Sahara, covering 4,500 miles. That equates to 50 miles a day – essentially two marathons. 

During his journey, Engle encountered entire desert villages between Niger and Mali with little to no access to clean water. Deserts are by no means dry; there’s plenty of water underground, but it takes expensive technology to harvest.

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One scene in the documentary shows Engle and his two running mates finding a lone 7-year-old boy crouched in the sand waiting for his father, who is a two days’ walk away looking for water. 

“A lot of my job is about storytelling. You can do lots of amazing things and do good around the world but if nobody ever hears about it, then it’s a little self-impeding,” Engle said at the Wells Fargo Sustainability Summit in New York City.

What Engle, a former alcoholic and drug addict, wants people to take away from his story is this: life is 10 percent what happens to you; 90 percent how you react to it. 

In 1992, while working as a traveling auto repairman in Wichita, Kansas, Engle’s first son was born. For the last 12 years Engle had been a hardcore cocaine addict. He mistakenly believed that Brett, by simple virtue of his birth, would save Engle’s life. 

A few months later, he went on a six-day cocaine bender, which ended with a gun-toting drug dealer spraying his car with bullets. Eventually, the police came, and Engle sat on the curb watching them search his car, which bore three bullet holes. An officer reaches under the driver’s seat, pulls out a glass pipe and shoots Engle a look of disdain. 

“Any rational, moderately sane human being would’ve thought, I’m in some serious trouble,” Engle recalls. “But all I could think was, so that’s where that was.” 

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He realized in that “rock-bottom” moment that no one was coming to save him, not his son, not his then-wife. Only he could save himself. 

“In that moment I had a choice between living and dying and I chose running.”

That night, he went to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting and the next morning, he laced up his running shoes and took off. He says he did these two things every day for the next three years without missing a single day. 

“During those three years I ran somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 marathons or so – so I clearly had that whole addiction thing under control,” Engle jokes. 

In 1996, while in Australia for work, Engle mistakenly enrols in a 52K – not seeing the 2, he thinks it’s a 5K. Initially, he resolves to finish half the race, but there comes a point during the race when he realizes he craves the pain. Soon, he was competing in some of the most challenging events around the world – running across deserts, jungles and entire countries.

“Addiction for me was all about being invisible; it was about hiding, about not having any feeling at all,” he says. “With running I felt everything.” 

While running a marathon through the Amazon rainforest, Engle encounters a stranger who mentions that no human being has ever attempted to run across the Sahara Desert.

At 3.5 million square miles with a ground temperature of 140 degrees Fahrenheit, it was deemed too hot and too difficult for a runner to resupply water and food.

But after that chance conversation, Engle became obsessed with the idea. After returning home, he couldn’t stop thinking about it. He started telling everyone he was going to run across the Sahara. 

“I realized every time I was told it was impossible, I found myself letting [other people] own the impossibility, and I just became determined that I was going to pull this off.” 

At the time, Engle was working as a senior producer for ABC’s Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. One of his coworkers offered to introduce him to James Moll, an award-winning documentary filmmaker. A few weeks later, Moll calls to tell him that Matt Damon wants to narrate and executive-produce the film. 

A year later, they’re on the coast of Senegal. But one week in, things are falling apart. Two support staff have quit, another two are on IV drips every day and morale fell to an all-time low. It took hitting another rock bottom for Engle to figure out what was wrong. 

“I had so much pressure from sponsors and expectations that all I could think about was getting to the finish,” he says. “I was so focused on the end goal that I forgot lessons that I learned in sobriety – the simple lesson of one day at a time.” 

When he woke up on Day 8, all he thought about was running a marathon before lunch. After that, running another one before dinner. 

“When the day was over, I took my thin foam mat, put it down in the sand and stared up at the stars – because there wasn’t a single electric light within 500 miles – and I just gave thanks for the fact that I had the opportunity to be there suffering.” 

Engle had spent years numbing himself with cocaine and hard liquor. After sobering up, he believed the right thing to do was to suppress his addiction, but he discovered that his obsessive personality was the impetus for “making big plans and taking on big challenges.” 

“It took three years for me to understand that my addictive personality is actually all the best parts of me,” he says. 

The documentary, Running the Sahara played at festivals and theaters and snagged Engle lucrative speaking engagements and sponsorships. 

After returning from the Sahara Desert, injured and a changed man, Engle does an Icebreaker Run with five recovering addicts, who took turns running 24 hours a day for 24 days from Los Angeles to Washington D.C. 

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In 2010, Engle was arrested for mortgage fraud after misstating his income in a mortgage application – a common practice called “liar loans.” While jailed in a West Virginia correctional facility for 21 months, Engle kept up his running, “once completing a 135-mile ‘race’ by going around the modest jailhouse track 540 times,” according to the New York Post

This month, Engle is preparing to take on his most foreboding challenge yet: starting from the depths of the Dead Sea to the top of Mount Everest, “the lowest place on the planet to the highest place on the planet.”

He’s doing it to symbolize the fact that life is a rollercoaster of highs and lows, and sometimes it takes hitting rock-bottom to have a breakthrough. 

“I’m swimming out to the Dead Sea in Jordan and I’m going to do a free dive to the lowest point I can reach in the Dead Sea, swim back to shore and run 2,000 miles across the Arabian Desert,” Engle explained.

“When I get to the tip of Oman I’m getting into a kayak and paddling 1,000 miles to Mumbai, India and when I get to Mumbai I’m getting on a mountain bike and riding to the base of Mt. Everest, where I will climb to the top.”

At the summit of Mt. Everest, Engle says he’ll empty a flask filled with water from the Dead Sea as a “symbolic joining of the ends of the earth.” 

“You can do so many amazing things but a press release or the normal things that people expect doesn’t really hit home,” says Engle. “If we give people something to follow, something else in storytelling, it makes a big difference.”