From the Archives: The Marathon Junkie

January 10, 2019

Chuck Engle may be light on his feet, but he doesn’t take running lightly. This cross-country athlete finished a marathon in every state, each in under two hours and fifty minutes.

 

BY CLINT KIMBERLING   PHOTOS PROVIDED

 

 

 

 

 

     As marathon running has become more popular, many runners have devised challenges to further test their endurance. One such running trial is the Fifty States Marathon Club challenge. Last month Chuck Engle, better known in running circles as Marathon Junkie, completed his own version of the fifty state challenge. Not content with merely finishing a race in all fifty states, Chuck challenged himself to finish all fifty marathons in less than two hours and fifty minutes. 

     After he won the Aspen Valley Marathon with a time of two hours and 44 minutes, he was able to cross off Colorado, the final state in this unique marathon mission list. Completing the Aspen Valley marathon places Chuck’s marathon total somewhere near 340. That number is only approximate because Chuck has lost count of how many marathons he’s run. “To be honest,” he tells me, “I’ve kind of quit counting. Mostly because I don’t care anymore.” Perhaps what’s most astonishing about these feats is that the 43 year-old didn’t even get serious about running marathons until about ten years ago. 

     An Ohio native and all-American runner at Mount Union College, Chuck moved to the Jackson area for a position at Mississippi College after graduation. While completing a degree in biology, Chuck worked as a coach with the track and cross country teams as well as a host of other positions including athletic trainer, adjunct professor, and caretaker of Choctaw Trails.

     Chuck called Jackson home for 10 years, from 1995 until 2006, and it was during this time that he forged relationships that would take his life on its current trajectory. “Jackson was the breeding ground, the launching pad for what I’m doing with my life now.” 

     While coaching at Mississippi College, Chuck began to rack up some serious mileage. “I was running with the cross country team in the morning and then I would run again with my friend Hank Hardy in the evening. Soon, I was covering 90-100 miles a week.” Hardy suggested to Chuck that he should run a marathon. “He put it to me like this: It’s a 20-mile long run with a 10k race at the end. And that didn’t sound so bad to me.” Simple enough, right?

     As we speak on the phone, Chuck takes a conversational detour to tell me about some of the places and routes he used to run. “One of my favorite 20-mile-long runs,” he recalls “would take me down Highway 80, to Highway 18 toward Raymond, through the Hinds Community College campus, and back up Clinton-Raymond road. I used to run on the Natchez Trace a lot and on some horse trails just north of town.”

     In 2000, he relented and decided to run the Tupelo Marathon. Chuck, who had failed to pre-register for the race, was able to not only procure a spot in the field but to also win the race. In the process he set a course record that still stands (along with the Mississippi marathon record).

     It’s easy to point to the Tupelo Marathon as the start of something big for Chuck, but he wasn’t totally hooked on marathons just yet. “I really went into it blind and didn’t realize the exacting toll it would take on my body. It was a hot day and those last 6 miles were tough,” he admits. 

     Chuck took some time off from running marathons after the Tupelo race, but remained active in the Mississippi Track Club. He was also working as a personal trainer at the YMCA and one day he approached a man walking on a treadmill whom he thought could benefit from his training sessions. Looking to expand his client base, Chuck told him plainly that he needed to work out harder and, if he wanted, he could help him lose weight and be fitter. 

     Chuck was later informed that the man was none other than Jackson-area YMCA CEO Scott Baddley. “I immediately began to second-guess myself and my approach, thinking maybe I shouldn’t have put myself out there like that.” Rather than chastise Chuck, Scott was so impressed by Chuck’s boldness, he decided to hire him. After some shuffling around, Chuck was named director of the Clinton YMCA and also oversaw corporate wellness for all Jackson-area YMCAs. As a result, Chuck and Scott began to train and run together. 

     In 2003, Chuck decided to get back into marathoning when he and Scott hatched a plan to run the Boston Marathon. Unlike other marathons, which accept all comers

who pay an entry fee, runners must qualify for the Boston Marathon with a qualifying time at an approved race site. With this in mind, Chuck and Scott trained hard for the Chicago Marathon and were able to hit their mark with about 30 seconds to spare.

     “We registered for Boston as soon as we got back to the hotel room, but then I thought, ‘why wait until April to do another one?’” Finding no good reason, Chuck ran 29 marathons in 2003 (including Boston) and even managed to win quite a few of them. 

     One of those races was the Omaha Marathon, where he found himself in a conversation with the race director the night before the race. “She asked me if I was a first-timer and I said, ‘no, in fact I’m planning to win tomorrow.’ She kind of laughed at me, like she didn’t believe me.” Chuck did win (setting the course record) and during an interview with a reporter from the Omaha World Herald, Chuck revealed that this was his 18th or 19th marathon of the year and that he had also won several of the races. The reporter, taken aback, called Chuck “a veritable marathon junkie.”

     “The moniker kind of stuck and I’ve really latched on to it.” Marathon Junkie is not only Chuck’s Facebook username but he has “Marathon Junkie” tattooed on his calf. But it’s more than a nickname. In 2009, Chuck ran 44 marathons, and in one 365 day period, he completed 54 marathons. He’s since backed off the hellish pace, but it’s not uncommon for him to run races on back-to-back days or consecutive days. 

     Chuck signs his emails with the rather appropriate phrase RUN MORE. And that’s exactly what he plans to keep doing. “I may never expand beyond the marathon, but I’m going to keep running. In the past, I’ve done two ultra-marathons, but I didn’t feel the sense of accomplishment at the finish as I do with the marathon. There is a very distinct post-race euphoria, just an unmistakably different feeling that I didn’t get from the longer races. And I see no reason to stop. Not to say that I’m invincible, but I’m going to keep going at it, until my body says I’m not allowed to.”

     I pressed Chuck about current studies that point to a high rate of heart disease among distance athletes. He cuts me off, saying “I don’t care. I’m going to keep doing what I love, and if it’s going to kill me, well, that’s great. That’s why I call myself a junkie. If my heart goes, I hope that it’s at the finish line of a marathon. I’d rather go out that way than a car crash or something else.”

     Chuck says he has no health concerns to speak of. Typical runner injuries have sidelined him at times, but his knees and lower joints are all sound. He mentions the time he tore a calf muscle at mile 4 of a race and went on to finish. “I should’ve stopped” he admits now, “but I wasn’t going to do that.”

     Of all the hundreds of races he’s competed in, Chuck finds it hard to single out a favorite. “I’m always being impressed by something new, some new piece of scenery.” While the marathon and half-marathon boom has increased the number and availability of marathons around the country, Chuck tries to avoid races that attract thousands of participants. “Race directors are changing the face of the marathon world with the swag and course gimmicks. I’m attracted to more simple races that may have only a few hundred participants. I like to be able to stay with the race director, go out to dinner with him or her and hopefully share my experiences to help improve the race.”

Chuck has also participated in the state’s premier marathon event. “I’ve fallen in love with the Blues Marathon. I would love to do it every year as my schedule allows; it’s always a lot of fun. It feels like a homecoming. And I see folks I know from Jackson from all over the place. It’s amazing to me; this is such a big world but such a small community of running people. I loved the social aspect of the running circle when I lived in Jackson; it was a blast.”

     While marathon racing still provides him with the feeling of euphoria he seeks, Chuck has found other perks to enjoy. “At this point” he says, “it’s more about travel and running in new places. Marathon running has taken me all over the world. I’ve been to Egypt, Barcelona, Germany and I’m planning a trip to Australia.”

     Despite the fact that he’s won over 150 marathons and shows no signs of slowing down, Chuck is somewhat deflective about his accomplishments. “By any metric you choose, I’m never going to be the best marathon runner. There will always be someone faster; there are tons of folks who do them more frequently than me.” Even so, Chuck will keep traveling and running and looking for his next marathon fix. 

 

Keep up with Chuck at www.marathonjunkie.com

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