THE FOLLOWING PASSAGE is an extract from Running Man: How Running Saved Me from Addiction and Transformed My Life — a memoir by one of the world’s most renowned ultramarathon runners, Charlie Engle.
Somehow, even with my escalating drinking and cocaine use, I was still running several times a week with a local running club. I had enough of an ego that I wanted to at least look good, and running was the most efficient way for me to keep my body lean and muscled.
My chiropractor, Jay, was part of the group I ran with. He’d done several marathons and urged me to try one. He knew I was an addict. He thought a goal such as that might be just the motivation I needed to get clean.
A week before the Big Sur Marathon, I decided to enter. I’d run farther than 10 miles only a few times in my life, but I figured it couldn’t be that difficult. I’d just keep my feet moving. Pam was incredulous but seemed pleased that as part of my “training” I’d stop drinking that week.
Jay had told me not to run the day before the marathon. I heeded that advice, but that left me with nothing to do but sit around and feel anxious. I decided to go out for one beer, just to ease the tension a bit. Hours later, I was in a bathroom of a bar on Cannery Row, snorting lines, with my friend Mike.
“I’m running a marathon tomorrow,” I said to him as I dusted off my nose.
“The fuck you are.”
“Yup. I have to be in Camel at 5.30 to catch a bus to the start.”
He looked at his watch and his eyes got big.
I looked at my watch. “Shit.” It was 2.00am.
I rushed home, showered, brushed my teeth twice, and splashed my neck and armpits with cologne. I downed several glasses of water and some aspirin and made it to Camel in time to board the last bus to the Big Sur start.
The 26-mile ride along the hilly, twisting coastal road nearly killed me. My stomach was doing backflips, my left ankle was throbbing and purple — I must have wrenched it during the night — and I desperately had to pee.
What was worse the guy next to me insisted on making small talk all the way. It was all I could do not to vomit on him. When I finally stepped off the bus, wearing only a singlet and running shorts, I realised I was underdressed for the 40-degree morning air. Now I was nauseated, scared, intoxicated, and freezing.
Over the years, I had mastered the art of the strategic puke, and I decided that this was a good time to use my skills. I went into some bushes and let loose. I felt better and was able to force down a banana and some Gatorade at the snack table.
I wandered around a little, then heard the national anthem being played over a loudspeaker.
I joined the race workers around me standing at attention. As I was finishing a second cup of Gatorade, I heard a gunshot.
On instinct, I ducked. But nobody was shooting at me. Apparently, the race had begun. I was nowhere near the start line.
I sprinted up the road and caught the slow-moving back of the 3,000-runner pack. When the logjam of runners loosened, I picked up the pace. The sun broke through the fog as we emerged from the redwoods and headed out into the broad green hills.
I could smell the booze on my skin and imagined everyone around me could, too. At mile nine, I crossed a long bridge, then started the two-mile ascent to Hurricane Point. Jay had warned me about this climb.
The wind was blowing 35, maybe 40 miles per hour — right into my face — and my stomach was a hard-balled fist. I struggled up the long hill and crossed another bridge.
When I reached the half-marathon mark, I stopped to barf again. A guy running by asked me if I was okay.
“No. I’m so hungover. Got a beer on you?”
“Highlands Inn. Mile 23!” he yelled back, as he pulled away. “Always a party there.”
He thought I was joking about the beer, and I guess I had been, but by mile 21, a cold beer was all I could think about. I started looking for the Highlands Inn. At last, I rounded a curve and spotted a group of about a dozen people sitting in lawn chairs, with coolers by their side.
“Three miles to go,” one of them yelled. “You might as well start drinking now.”
A few of the racers whooped and waved; most of them kept their eyes forward and ran by without acknowledging them.
I stopped. “Who’s got a beer for me?” I yelled.
Someone passed me a can and I tipped it back and drained in. The group cheered. I gave a small appreciative bow. I accepted another, drained that one, and belched. High fives all around. Then I ran again, and for the next mile I felt fantastic — better than I had felt all morning.
The road was so beautiful — the rocky headlands, the twisted cypress trees, the long curves of dark sand. The Pacific was an exceptional blue all the way to the horizon, where it disappeared in a blurred bank of cotton-pale fog.
The road turned inland and I passed a band playing in front of a gas station. Groups of people were cheering and waving signs. Kids on the side of the road were smiling and holding out trays of sliced strawberries for the runners. I smelled the ripe berries and felt a sudden wave of nausea. My legs buckled and I lurched to the side of the road, doubled over and my stomach let loose again.
I stood up and took a few wobbly steps forward, wiping the mess from my chin. The kids stood staring at me with their mouths open. “Gross,” one of them said.
I was wrecked, completely spent. But I was going to finish this damn thing. I walked, then forced myself to run again. My feet were on fire, my quads were screaming. I saw the MILE 25 sign.
I passed a field with horses behind a barbed-wire fence and swaths of orange poppies bent nearly horizontal in the wind. I kept moving up a short steep hill, then across the Camel River bridge.
At last, I glimpsed the finish line. I willed myself to stand tall, lift my knees, pump my arms. Bring it in strong, Engle, with some style. Bring it in as if you are an athlete, not an asshole.
I crossed the finish line in just under three hours and 39 minutes. A race worker put a clay finisher’s medal around my neck. All around me, runners were whooping, pumping their fists, hugging friends. Some were crying. And I felt, what? Some satisfaction, yes. I had done it; I had shown Pam and my friends and myself that I could follow through on something. And relief, definitely, that I had finished the goddamned thing and would never have to do it again.
But something else overshadowed the other feelings: crushing despair. I had just run 26.2 miles. A fucking marathon. I should have been flying. Where was my joy? Where was my runner’s high? As soon as I got home, I put in a call to my drug dealer.
Running Man: How Running Saved Me from Addiction and Transformed My Life by Charlie Engle is published by Simon & Schuster. More info here.
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