Where does hedonism end and endurance begin? That was the question that rose to the surface of the excitingly murky book I was writing, Everything Harder Than Everyone Else. A follow-up to my addiction memoir, Woman of Substances, this new book looked at some of the key drivers of addictive behavior—impulsivity, agitation, a death wish desire to drive the body into the ground—and the ways in which some people channeled them into extreme pursuits.
I interviewed a bare-knuckle boxer, a deathmatch wrestler, a flesh-hook suspension artist, a porn star-turned-MMA fighter, and more; all of them what I came to term “natural-born leg-jigglers.” Some copped to having been diagnosed with ADHD, and many had a history of trauma, but I wasn’t interested in pathologizing people. I wanted to celebrate the extreme measures they’d gone to, to quiet what ultra-runner Charlie Engle called “squirrels in the brain.”
Personally, I have a strong aversion to running. With combat sports—my preferred punishment—you smash through stray thoughts before they have time to take root. With running, there’s no escaping the infernal looping of your mind. Your circular breathing becomes a backing track for your horrible mantras, whether they are as blandly tedious as, you could stop, you could stop. you could stop, or something more castigating. No wonder runners’ bodies look like anxiety made flesh. No wonder their faces have the jittery eyes of whippets.
So when Charlie, whose running feats have been made him an outlier in the sport, told me, “I myself don’t like it as much as you might think,” I was pretty intrigued.
When we spoke for the book, Charlie was bustling around his kitchen in Raleigh, North Carolina, reheating his coffee. It’s a fair guess to say he’s the sort of guy who’d have to reheat his coffee a lot.
As the story goes, he was eleven years old when he swung himself into a boxcar on a moving freight train, to experience escapism. So began a life of running that no destination could ever satisfy.
Charlie, who’s now fifty-nine, said something about validation early in our conversation that I wound up repeating to everyone I interviewed after him, to watch them nod in recognition. We’d been talking about his crack years, before he pledged his life to endurance races—the six-day benders in which he’d wind up in strange motel rooms with well-appointed women from bad neighborhoods, and smoke until he came to with his wallet missing.
“Part of ultrarunning is a desire to be different,” he told me. “And for the drug addict, too, there is a deep need to separate ourselves from the crowd. Street people would tell me, ‘You could smoke more crack than anybody I’ve ever seen,’ and there was a weird, ‘Yeah, that’s right!’ There’s still a part of me that wants to be validated through doing things that other people can’t.”
Charlie has completed some of the world’s most inhospitable races. At 56, he ran 27 hours straight to celebrate his 27 years of sobriety. If his biggest fear is being “average, at best,” then he’s moving mountains to avoid it.
It helps that he’s goal-oriented in the extreme. In fact, you might call him a high achiever. Even in his drug-bingeing years, which culminated in his car being shot at by dealers, Charlie was the top salesman at the fitness club where he worked.
When he began using drugs—before he’d even hit his teens—they distracted him from his antsiness. He’s noticed a similar restlessness in endurance athletes that comes from a fear of missing out. If there’s a race he doesn’t take part in, he tortures himself that it was surely the best ever. He took control of this fear by starting to plan his own expeditions, which couldn’t be topped.
“I need the physical release of running and the burning off of extra fuel,” he said. “I am that guy with a ball for every space on the roulette wheel. When I start running, all the balls are bouncing and making that chaotic clattering noise. Three or four miles into the run, they all find their slot.”
Even before he quit drugs, Charlie ran. He ran to prove to himself he could. He ran to shake off the day. He ran as a punishment of sorts. He craved depletion. “Running was a convenient and reliable way to purge. I felt badly about my behavior, even if very often my behavior didn’t technically hurt anybody else.”
A common hypothesis is that former drug users who hurl themselves into sport are trading one addiction for another. Maybe so—both pursuits activate the same reward pathways, and when a person gives up one dopaminergic behavior, such as taking drugs, they are likely to seek stimulation elsewhere. In the clinical field, it’s known as cross-addiction.
Some people in my book with histories of addiction wound up doing combat sports or bodybuilding, but it’s long-distance running that seems to be the most prevalent lifestyle swap. High-wire memoirs about this switch include Charlie’s Running Man; Mishka Shubaly’s The Long Run; Rich Roll’s Finding Ultra; Catra Corbett’s Reborn on the Run; and Caleb Daniloff’s Running Ransom Road.
Perhaps it’s the singularity of the experience: the solitary pursuit of a goal, the intoxicating feeling of being an outlier, the meditative quality of the rhythmic movement, the adrenaline rush of triumph; and on the flipside, the self-flagellation that might last as long as a three-day bender. The long-term effects of running can shorten the lifespan, and there have been fatalities mid-race, but they’re tempered by the “runner’s high.” As well as endorphins and serotonin, there’s a boost in anandamide, an endocannabinoid named for the Sanskrit word ananda, meaning “bliss.”
Another commonality in endurance racing is hallucinating. This, combined with runners under stress being forced to drill down to the very essence of self, reminds me of the ego death that psychedelic pilgrims pursue, in order that the shell of our constructed identity might fall away.
For Charlie, part of the attraction is the pursuit of novelty and the chasing of firsts, even though he knows by now that the intensity of that initial high can never be replicated. That explains why he takes such pleasure in the planning of his expeditions. “The absolute best I ever felt in relation to drugs was actually the acquisition of the drug … the idea of what it can be,” he told me. “Once the binge starts, it’s all downhill from there. In a way, running is the same because there’s this weird idea that you’re going to enter a hundred-miler and this time it’s not gonna hurt so much…”
To run an ultra takes a real dedication to suffering. Races have names such as Triple Brutal Extreme Triathlon and Hurt 100. In his book The Rise of the Ultra Runners, Adharanand Finn writes about the hellscapes in race marketing materials that appear irresistible to this breed. “The runners look more like survivors of some near-apocalyptic disaster than sportsmen and women,” he wrote. “It is telling that these are the images they choose to advertise the race. People want to experience this despair, they want to get this close to their own self-destruction.”
I think about a transcontinental US odyssey that Charlie planned, in which he would run 18 hours a day for six weeks. At one point, as he was icing his ankle and beating himself up for losing sensation in his toes, one of the film crew asked him, “Do you consider yourself a compassionate person?”
Charlie looked up. “Yeah. I try to be.”
“Do you feel any compassion at all for yourself?”
Perhaps the psychology of ultrarunners is uncomplicated: they simply prioritize the goal above the body. The meat cage is a mule to be driven, and is viewed dispassionately, whether that be for practical purposes, or from lack of self-regard, or a bit of both.
“Balance is overrated,” Charlie assured—and that’s something he says when giving keynotes to alpha types. “Very few people who’ve actually accomplished anything big, like writing a book or running a marathon or whatever it is, have balance in their lives. If you’re not obsessed with it, then why are you doing it? I don’t even understand how someone can do it just a little bit, whatever it is.”
When he first quit drugs, Charlie felt like taking a knife and surgically removing the addict, so strong was his rejection of that part of his identity. It took three years to figure out that the “addict self” had plenty to offer: tenacity, ingenuity, problem-solving, and stamina. Perfect for the all-or-nothing world of endurance.