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Marathon Man

by Mark Burger

Let’s say that someone came up with the idea to run across the Sahara Desert, inarguably one of the most punishing regions on the planet. What would you call such a person?

Crazy? Determined? A visionary? A resident of Greensboro?

All of them are true, to one degree or another – but Greensboro’s own Charlie Engle might point to the first description as the most accurate.

Crazy or not, he did it, something no one else on Earth had ever done: Charlie Engle ran across the Sahara Desert, a distance of nearly 4,500 miles, and he did it in 111 days.

Failure was not an option.

Joining Engle on this seemingly unthinkable journey were Canadian extreme runner Ray Zahad, who had previously run across part of the Sahara and the Tenere Desert (in Nigeria), and Taiwanese extreme runner Kevin Lin, who not only completed in a 150-mile race across the Atacama Desert in Chile when half the contestants couldn’t, but also won it.

“They’re pretty much as stupid and crazy as I am,” Engle says with a laugh.

The fact that they succeeded without any major pitfall or injury – although a succession of minor ones – is hardly indicative of stupidity. As for the crazy part, the word seems to come up time and again when talking to Engle, and he’s usually the one saying it.

The run commenced in Senegal on Nov. 2, 2006, and was completed Feb. 10, 2007 just east of Cairo, Egypt. During the 111-day trek, the runners crossed six countries: Senegal and Egypt (obviously), Mauritania, Mali, Niger and Libya – and everyone’s still here to talk about it.

The temperature would soar above 100 degrees every day, and sometimes dipped below freezing at night. There were sandstorms, rapid shifts in weather, and the rugged terrain of the Sahara showed absolutely no sympathy whatsoever. The Sahara has been described as the most punishing place on Earth for good reason.

No matter: Engle, Zahad and Lin ran every day, and accomplished a feat that no other human being ever had. Not surprisingly, Engle describes the experience as “a life-changing event.”

A long-time fitness enthusiast with a streak of imagination that could only be described as dauntless, Engle’s initial foray into marathon running was the 1989 Big Sur Marathon. Since then, he has completed over 200 marathons, triathlons and other extreme endurance events. Not bad for someone who freely admits that, at age 45 (“a good age”), he’s never really grown up. And don’t expect him to anytime soon.

Having already run across the Gobi Desert and through the Amazon, the Sahara seemed like the next logical (or illogical) step – or steps, as the case (and race) may be.

Engle, Zahad and Lin weren’t going the journey alone, however. They were joined by Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker James Moll and a film crew that… well, were pretty much as crazy and determined as Engle was.

The upcoming documentary feature Running the Sahara chronicles this remarkable feat of human endurance. Moll’s debut feature, The Last Days, won the 1998 Academy Award for best feature documentary, and he completed the critically acclaimed documentary Inheritance shortly before beginning production on this project – which proved a major undertaking for all involved.

Running across the Sahara is challenging enough for three runners, but became even more so with a film crew tagging along. It should be noted, however, that the film crew were not required to run the entire distance , but it was still an endurance test for them. The run took over 100 days, easily twice the time it takes to make the average studio feature, and the film crew was there for every step. If there was a problem, it had to be solved – quite literally – on the run.

“There was never a time when I felt I wouldn’t make it,” Engle recalls, “but sometimes I wondered if the expedition would. The physical suffering was immense and the psychological beating was tough,” Engle confirms, “but I enjoyed it!”

However, the suffering that remained most indelible in Engle’s memory during the journey was the instances he observed en route, encountering people on a daily basis for whom clean water literally means the difference between life and death.

Most Americans take clean water for granted. If we’re not drinking bottled water, we can just simply turn on the tap and fill our cups. We wash clothes and dishes without a second thought. We complain when we can’t water our lawns or wash our cars because there’s a water shortage or a drought warning for the region. We take for granted the “luxury” of a clean shower.

For some people in the world, however – and far more people than many realize – taking a clean shower is as unthinkable as it is a matter of routine for us.

Running the Sahara, which will likely play the film-festival circuit prior to a general release later this year, premiered last September at the Toronto International Film Festival and was a rousing success – both as a chronicle of the runners’ journey and as an examination of the many problems facing people in the world who lack clean water.

“It was unbelievably well received,” Engle says.

So well received, in fact, that Engle received a humanitarian award at the festival for his fleet-footed efforts to draw attention to the plight of those lacking clean drinking water, and found himself in pretty good company: Richard Gere, Sarah Ferguson (the Duchess of York), singer/songwriter/social activist Wyclef Jean, Phil Fontaine (the National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations) and supermodel/philanthropist Petra Nemcova.

The award and the acclaim are quite nice, confirms Engle, but even nicer is the attention the film will bring to the plight of the people he encountered on his journey.

There are one billion people in the world (that is not a misprint) who have no access to safe drinking water. Every day, some 6,000 children – one every 15 seconds – die from water-borne disease, simply because they don’t have clean water. And this in the 21st century.

Running the Sahara was produced under the auspices of Matt Damon’s production company LivePlanet, with Damon himself serving as the film’s narrator. In addition to being a top box-office draw, an Academy Award winner (for the screenplay of Good Will Hunting) and People magazine’s Sexiest Man of the Year for 2007, Damon is also the founder of the H20 Africa Foundation, which was formed in 2006 as the charitable arm of the film project. Its goal is to raise money and public awareness regarding the need for clean water in Africa.

That humanitarian purpose is shared by WaterPartners International, on whose board of directors Engle now sits and whose mission was born in North Carolina.

WaterPartners was founded in 1990 by Gary White and Marla Smith-Nilson when both were attending graduate school at the School of Public Health at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Its first water project, in Honduras, was funded the same year, and WaterPartners was incorporated three years later as a non-profit organization.

Engle has a long history with the principals of WaterPartners, dating back to his own days at UNC, when he would frequently run into White (not literally, but I couldn’t resist the pun). The two shared a common spirit and determination that they could, in their own respective and collective ways, make a positive difference in the lives of others.

Nearly two decades later, WaterPartners International has widened its scope to include a total of eight nations: Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, the Philippines, India, Bangladesh and its more recent expansions into Africa: Ethiopia in 2003 and Kenya in 2005. The organization’s South Asia office opened in India in 2005, followed by its East African office in Kenya the next year.

Although WaterPartners International is headquartered in Kansas City, “there’s a very strong North Carolina connection,” confirms Traci Tucker-Cortez, the North Carolina development manager for WaterPartners, who joined the organization in 2007 and is herself a native North Carolinian who attended Meredith College and Duke University.

Many of the organization’s most popular fundraising events have taken place in the state, and many more are planned for the future – including the 16th annual Triangle Water for Life Event, which will be held Feb. 23 at the Carolina Club at UNC.

“I like the fact that they don’t jam the message down your throat,” he says. The organization most certainly has a purpose and a passion, but there’s no reason to be pushy. The facts speak for themselves.

“It’s very true,” says Tucker-Cortez, “and people are catching on to the message. We’ve had some success growing the message throughout the state. We started with some smaller events, and they’ve only gotten bigger. This is a pretty amazing organization to be a part of, and it feels really great to make a difference.

“Our mission is very simple: We envision the day that everyone can take a safe drink of water.”

And with events like the one on Feb. 23rd, that vision becomes a little more clear. “We encourage people to go to our website [water.org]and join the on-line community for water-related issues. You can learn more. You can get involved. You can help affect a change for the better.”

But, even if one isn’t so much an activist or a “joiner,” that’s not a problem, because one thing that everyone likes to join in on is a good time.

“That we promise,” Tucker-Cortez says with a laugh. “Just go to the events and have a good time. That’s really all you have to do to make a difference. You’ll have fun and you’re taking positive action for a very good cause.”

Thus far, WaterPartners has successfully completed safe water programs in each of the eight countries it presently serves, giving much-needed assistance to more than 200 separate communities. Its mission is far from complete, but steady progress is being made – and you can see that progress as it’s happened, on the website.

With the impending release of Running the Sahara, Tucker-Cortez is confident that WaterPartners International and its mission will be exposed to an even wider audience, and that can only help the cause in the long run (no pun intended).

In addition, a documentary about the documentary – Beyond the Expedition: Running the Sahara, directed by Michael Rosen (and also produced by LivePlanet) – will air on television this year, further promoting the film and, more importantly, the work being done by WaterPartners and the groups it is affiliated with in Africa.

The official website for the two documentaries is nationalgeographic.com/runningthesahara/. There, you can see photos and footage of the journey, a map of the route they took, various articles about the run, a runners’ blog, and much more about the runners’ accomplishment.

When he’s not running or thinking up new challenges, Engle is the happily married father of two sons with homes on both coasts: East (Greensboro) and West (Hermosa Beach, Calif.). He’s also a motivational speaker and, given his previous feats of superhuman endurance, has plenty to talk about with his audiences.

Engle has also toiled in the entertainment industry, working behind the scenes as a television producer for several years, most notably with ABC-TV’s popular reality series, “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition,” hosted by Ty Pennington – one of the biggest douchebags of the reality-show craze, with a couple of Emmy wins for outstanding reality program to show for it.

“I’ve come full circle,” Engle observes. “I’ve gone from North Carolina to Hollywood and back to North Carolina.”

Admittedly, with some interesting stops and detours along the way – and there will be more to come. In March, “I will be embarking on another really bad idea,” he jokes. He’ll be attempting to break a 28-year record for the fastest crossing of the United States by a runner. All he need do is run 70 miles per day for 45 days, that’s all.

The odds are against him, but would you bet again him? Craziness takes you a long way. It’s already taken him nearly 4,500 miles across the Sahara Desert and the adventure of a lifetime. Crossing the continental US would simply be another one.

“I’m making yet another great attempt not to have to get a real job,” concludes Charlie Engle.

For more information about WaterPartners, visit water.org.

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