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El blog del ultra maratonista Charlie Engle


Ya había hablado de los corredores quienes cruzaron el desierto del Sahara hace algunos años. Uno de ellos, el líder y organizador escribío un blog, el cual ya no está disponible, sabrá el sus razones. Algunos de sus artículos fueron escritos desde la cárcel, es decir, se los daba a alguien para que lo publicarón por él. En su momento guardé todos y cada uno de sus escritos. Como ya habrán visto, cada tanto publico las cosas que ya no están en línea. Espero lo lean y lo disfruten. 

Tomado de http://www.charlieengle.com/

Del blog de Charlie Engle


How Many is a Brazilian?

Finally it's time for some pain and suffering that I can really enjoy. On January 14, I will be joining my friends and teammates Chris Roman and Tony Portera for a little trek through a portion of the Amazon Jungle. This famous pilgrimage is known as the Caminho de Fe (Way of Faith) and it stretches for about 350 miles. As if covering that distance wasn't hard enough, we will be joining the Brazil 135 Ultramarathon about halfway through our journey. This means that we will run about 140 miles to the start of the race, then we will join many other runners for the 135 mile race itself. Once the race is complete, we will continue on for another 75 miles to complete the entire length of the Caminho de Fe. 

For me personally, this pilgrimage represents much more than a mere adventure. It will be a rebirth of sorts, a way to shed the burdens of the past few years and to move forward with my life. More importantly, it will once again allow me to use my legs and my words to benefit CAF (Challenged Athletes Foundation), a truly amazing non profit that helps so many people. In other words, I get to do what I love to do; run and help a charity....and talk.  And I will be writing articles for at least a couple of magazines while also shooting a short film. Of course that is the plan anyway. The best thing about an adventure like this is that at some point, everything will go wrong. That's when the fun begins!

I want to express my deepest gratitude to Brazil 135 race director Mario Lacerda for making this happen for me. And I want to thank Chris and Tony for including me in this adventure. And of course thanks to all of you who continue to support me. It just proves that any ordeal can be survived with the love and support of friends. 

For those who missed the latest media about my case and my story, here are a couple of links you might enjoy.




For today, I am actually moving and not just RUNNING IN PLACE.



Today I am leaving for Brazil to run 351 miles along the Caminho de Fe (Way of Faith). Starting Wednesday, I will be attempting to run about 60 miles per day for 6 straight days. Thankfully I am running with two great friends, Chris Roman and Tony Portera. For me, this trip signifies the end of a painful segment of my life and confirms the power of new beginnings. That said, I don't wish to forget the past few years. Instead, I will blend all that I have learned along way with the new lessons that are on the path ahead. Plainly put, I have to carry all this shit with me anyway so I might as well use it. 

I have a strong belief that endurance is not a physical attribute but is more of an attitude. I have learned, from many years of hard work, that if I can just keep moving through the hard, things will get better. It really is that simple. It's not easy, but its simple. 

I will be trying to do regular updates during the run but I am not certain about internet access in the region of Brazil I will be running through. Hopefully you will have news from me here and on sites like Facebook and Twitter. To see more about the run itself, you can check out this link, which is also our fundraising link for CAF. 


Finally, I want to remind all of you to check out my Running/ Yoga retreat slated for late February. It is in Santa Barbara and it will be an amazing experience for everyone that attends. I hope to see some of you there. 


For today, I am not RUNNING IN PLACE, I'm actually going somewhere.


Transition Times

This is me running around the 1/4 mile dirt path at Beckley Federal Prison

"He had his whole life in front of him; it wasn't a comforting thought." - The Art of Fielding

I have always considered myself to be a runner who writes rather than a writer who runs. Writing brings to mind an endless stream of questions while running usually provides me with some answers. For me, running and writing are symbiotic teammates rather than opponents. I love them equally but for very different reasons.

In running, I can train hard and this gives me confidence that I will be ready on race day. But writing feels groundless, completely without foundation, so each time I sit down to write, I feel lost and insecure. As a runner, I haven't bonked in years, but as a writer, I hit the wall every day, usually in the form of a blank page. I'm a veteran runner but a writing neophyte. I rely heavily on the security of my long term running foundation but I am energized by the newness of writing.

Both running and writing bring me freedom but both can also be ruined by my overly analytical mind. Each is an outlet for inner turmoil, both are stress relievers and problem shrinkers, if only temporarily. Running helps me focus my mind through physical exertion, bringing clarity along with sweat and blood and occasional vomit. Writing helps me off-load what i learn from running, letting me describe the crusty feel of the sweat, the bright flowing redness of the blood and the convulsing hitch and acidic taste of a dry heave.

Through running and writing, I take what was hidden inside of me and force it outside, liberating demons and angels alike in order to give them the will to live or the right to die on their own. There are times when I feel the urgency to write just as strongly as I feel the need to run. I want to purge what hurts, to clear the detritus from my brain. But it's not always that simple because there is great power in holding on to hurt, hoarding it like a last meal, eating one exquisite morsel of self torment at a time, allowing the anguish to sit on the tongue like an afterthought.

In the months since my release from Beckley Federal Prison, I've tried to focus on what's right in front of me; my family and friends mostly. The future seems impossibly uncertain. Of course, I am not alone in these feelings. The world feels very different than it did only a couple of years ago; more anxious and less confident. I am simply doing the next right thing and trusting that my path will be revealed in time. I am trying to be patient, to allow life to unfold on its own rather than forcing my way and my will. It is not in my nature to wait for clarity though. Usually I just take a machete and hack out my own path but today I know that won't work. Everything has changed.

I forbid myself to think about what's been lost but that's like telling my lungs not to breathe. When the negative thoughts start to trickle in, I try to deflect them, to redirect them, assuming that a glancing blow will hurt less and heal faster than a direct hit. I

usually fail miserably at this so when I inevitably stop resisting, I actually feel better. I allow the flow of thoughts to become a cascade, flooding me with all of the self pitying reasons that my life sucks, that things will never be the same again, that I won't be whole again, as if I was ever whole before. I allow loss to saturate me so that I can begin to heal properly.

But emotional loss is difficult to define because its based on perception. Just like a physical wound, the initial shock numbs the pain, allowing the moment to drift by like smoke if I let it. In the past, this was the exact moment that I would fly out the front door and go for a long cleansing run, pounding the pain out of me or deeper into me and I didn't care which one. But I can't run much right now so I take refuge in writing, replacing miles with words, trying to get lost in language, using fast phrases to frame feelings that I previously buried alive because I had nowhere else to put them.

At times, my writing feels frantic because I worry that when the numbness wears off I may never write anything worthwhile again. If a physical injury can stop my running, maybe an emotional setback can stop my writing. Can I force words onto the blank page the same way I've always tried to push past physical pain? We will see.

Sometimes I struggle to even begin to write, dreading it just as I dread running a hard interval workout, knowing there is no way to avoid the suffering. But the aftermath of both writing and running is beautifully satisfying. The elusive runners high is truly felt only after the sweat dries, just as the writers high comes when the page is full and the mind is vacant. For me, the purpose of running and writing is to empty out my insides so that I can refill the space again and again.

I thought that my post incarceration physical freedom would mean the end of RUNNING IN PLACE but that hasn't really happened yet. For now, I will keep running so I have something to write about. Maybe it's time to try WRITING IN PLACE for a while.


Dead Man Running

Today is February 14th, 2011, Valentine’s Day. Today is also the day that I report to the Federal Prison in Beckley, WV to begin my 21 month sentence. It is a bit depressing to think about entering prison on Valentine’s Day. But even more worrisome is the thought of actually becoming someone else’s Valentine. Not a good way to start. [caption id="attachment_392" align="alignnone" width="600" caption="A photo with my boys and their mother"]


I have a long list of things that I want to accomplish in prison. But right now I just want to get there and get the clock started. I asked for an early check in but they were booked. More importantly, I would like to earn an early check out. I realized today that I feel a bit like I do before the beginning of an expedition or a long race. I am anxious and full of anticipation. And just like a race, I know that once the first few miles are done, I will settle down and find my rhythm. Even though this is not the ideal situation, I have an open mind and am approaching this with great curiosity. Every experience in life has the ability to teach lessons if I am open to them.

How can I get anything done with all this time on my hands? That is my concern because in my outside life, I get overcommitted and I sometimes do a poor job at everything. In prison, I am actually capable of doing the same thing but I am not going to do that this time. This time I will focus on writing and reading and exercising. And I will look forward to the cards and letters that I know are coming. I feel incredibly lucky to have so many friends that love me and allow me to love them. I am not an easy person to be around sometimes but with friendship comes tolerance and forgiveness. We all deserve some of that.

Finally, I want to thank all of you who have shown such unflinching support during this difficult time. There has been very little in the way of judgment from anyone in my life, especially my family or friends, no harsh words or looks of disappointment. Instead I have seen and heard only love and support. In fact, many people have even come out with strong opinions in my favor.

If you would like to write to me, the address is here below:

Charlie Engle 26402-057 FCI BECKLEY SATELLITE CAMP P.O. BOX 350 BEAVER, WV 25813

If you want to know more about where I will be, then you can go to:


If you ever want to come see me, write to me and let me know. If you need my help, I will do what I am capable of. I will continue to write about running and adventure and how it helps me to deal with adversity and life in general. If you are a runner, then you already know what I mean. If you are not a runner, then maybe you should be. But above all, just make the most of your time, take care of your body and feed your spirit. Find passion in everything because it is there for the taking.

For the time being, I will not be free to run as I choose but if I have a few feet of space to move around in, I will keep RUNNING IN PLACE.


Leave It To Beaver

The first piece of advice I got that was really useful was told to me by an inmate named "pick n roll" who was fast approaching his 10 year anniversary in the system. He told me not to put my hands in my pockets when talking to a guard. And he told me not to ask questions to certain guards. Don't ever give them an excuse to focus their attention on me. So far I have taken that advice to heart.

I made it to Beckley, WV at about 2:30 on Valentine's Day, Monday Feb 14. The prison is actually located in the town of Beaver, West Virginia. I found it quite ironic that by days end I would be surrounded by beaver in a federal prison. Me and my kids and Chip and Liz made the 3 hour drive with no problems, unless one counts the claustrophobic weight of my impending incarceration. Other than that, the drive was pretty typical. Lots of movie quotes, inappropriate sexual innuendo and flatulence that nobody would admit to. Emotionally I was doing alright until we actually drove up to the prison gate itself. Then the realization hit me hard. I knew that I would be hugging and kissing my boys for the last time in a while. The anguish on their faces was crushing. Their worry for me was palpable. I believe that either of them would have taken my place if they could have. And I was desperate to take away their pain, to assure them that all would be okay. But the simple fact was that we were in uncharted territory here, possessing absolutely no useful skills that might help us cope with this unimaginable situation. All we could do was to hold onto each other for a few more minutes.

I talked quietly to them, telling them the truth. This time would be hard for all of us. But like all challenges, if we can make it through to the other side, then we will know that we can survive anything. Through their tears they both vowed to be strong and I knew they would be but I also knew these were the determined words of young men that have yet to be truly tested. I told them to focus on just one day at a time and not to worry about next month or next year. Love each other, protect each other and try not to drive your mom crazy. It felt like they were my little boys again but the fact is that they are young men with genuine problems and responsibilities. And now I am not there for them. That hurts the most. In the instant that I released them from my arms, they had no choice but to grow up. In that one second, our lives changed forever. Now we will either find great strength from hardship or we will crumble and disappear. As with all things though, I do believe that the outcome is within our ability to control.

My first few days here at Beckley have been tolerable. Humiliatingly, demorilizingly tolerable. I am living in the "bubble", an 8 man room filled with the newest arrivals. The bubble is a glass enclosed cage. It is called the bubble because everyone in the building has to walk past it to get to their own space. We are a mix of black and white, young and old, educated and not, guilty and innocent. Some have been in the system for many years and some are first timers like me. There are about 400 inmates here, 200 of them in my building. It is overcrowded by a little more than double the intended capacity. It is busting at the seams.

As far as I can tell so far, prison is all about schedule and routine. With structure comes discipline or so I am told. Structure has never really been my forte. The most pressing of duties here is the "count", which is just what it sounds like. The count happens 5 times per day, sometimes more if the authorities feel like it. We are to stand by our beds silently, while we are accounted for. The "count" serves as the nearly constant reminder that I am powerless and living with the loss of physical freedom. But at the same time, it urges to keep control of my mind, to use the time climb and run mentally since I can't do it physically. My mind is fighting, searching for sanctuary, a safe place to curl up and sleep for a while. But there isn't one right now and there may not be one for a while.

As with pretty much every situation in life, I am slowly meeting a few guys that I hope to learn to trust. It is a fact that prison creates strange alliances. I am finding my way carefully but steadily. I have found myself laughing hard a few times and making others laugh. As always, laughter is the best escape. There is much to learn but plenty of time to learn it. I do have a little space to move around in though, so for the time being, I will just keep RUNNING IN PLACE.


Surviving 8

I don't really believe things happen for a reason, mystical, magical or otherwise. Rather I think that things just happen and what ultimately comes from it is dependent upon what we DO with what happens. The reason behind some particular event usually becomes clear only after some time has passed and is always influenced by our reaction to it. Fair or unfair, just or unjust, hardship and suffering creates fertile ground for growing a new and better life. It's more than possible to make something good out of a seemingly bad circumstance. In fact, I would argue that a person's greatest triumphs usually spring from the ashes of disaster and disappointment.

When I was in 4th grade, my teacher kept me after school one day. She had noticed that I didn't participate in the morning prayer with the other kids. I stood up with everyone else but I didn't recite the words that were part of the pre-class ritual and she wanted to know why. I explained that my mother had told me that I didn't have to do something unless I understood the purpose behind it. I wasn't against prayer, it just didn't seem right to pray if I wasn't sure who I was praying to or why I was doing it. I didn't want to fake it, I wanted to feel it. 

My teacher was none too happy about this explanation and she told me that she "would be watching me". I went home slightly concerned that I might have misinterpreted my mom's words. Really I was just worried that I would be in trouble. But instead of being angry, my mom just told me not to worry and that I would figure out my own belief system if I just kept curiosity as my guide. (She was right of course) Then she said something that probably changed my life forever. Or maybe my life was already headed a certain way and this just explained it. She said, "you will always be okay because you are a survivor".  I breathed out internally, almost as if I had been holding my breath for years. 

At eight years old, I wasn't sure exactly what it meant to be a survivor but I liked the idea of it immediately.  At that young age, changing ones view of oneself is much easier than it is when we are older. As youngsters, we are still curious and pliable so it's easier to make big adjustments. As adults, fear seems to be the greater influence, trumping curiosity. We tend to be more concerned about protecting what we have rather than discovering new paths to happiness. 

My mother didn't just give me permission to think for myself, she insisted upon it. At eight years old, I'm not sure exactly what I had survived, other than just being eight. But once I decided to be a survivor, it was as if from that moment on I was meant to seek out adversity in order to survive it, just to see if I could. Since then, on the rare occasion that I couldn't find something hard to do, then I might just create something difficult for myself. I believe that it's my duty to push my own personal boundaries to their limits. After all, this lifetime is the one I'm living right now so I should live it fully.

What I learned along the way is that adversity comes in an unlimited number of forms but has two main categories; self-inflicted and unforeseen. Self inflicted adversity usually involves a choice and includes all of the things that we know will be painful but we choose to do them anyway; like running a marathon, starting a business, having children or pulling out nose hairs. When we choose to do these things, we know it will probably hurt but we are counting on it being worth the effort in the end.  

Unforeseen adversity is mostly just stuff that happens to us without our consent. Cancer and disease, the death of a loved one, the heartbreak of a broken relationship or the loss of a job. Unforeseen adversity blindsides us, makes us feel powerless and even helpless. Maybe we had an invisible hand in causing our own suffering but the lack of choice in the matter means that we are nonetheless surprised by the intensity of the pain. 

I tend to think of self-inflicted adversity as "fair" and unforeseen adversity as "unfair". If I chose my path, then I can't really complain about the results but if the path was forced upon me, then I am far less accepting. Regardless of the genesis of my suffering, if I can approach hardship with curiosity instead of fear, then I will not just survive the experience, I will very likely be enhanced by it. 

I am no longer eight years old although I can certainly be childish. I can also be small minded and big hearted in the same moment, I can be predictably unreliable and foolishly stubborn. But I have learned some things along the way and despite having more than my share of all kinds of hardship, I wouldn't change much. I am still curious, even when I feel crushed. I am still willing to dive head first into the abyss, regardless of the height I jump from or the depth of the water. 

I am learning to cope with my new reality. Despite my intention to stay positive and my desire to look forward instead of backward, I still wake up paralyzed some days. I try to return to the safety of sleep before my brain can form the first thought. Too many days start with an inventory that I don't want to take. I live in borrowed space, I drive a borrowed car, I need to help my mother and to spend more time with my kids and can't seem to do either one. I wake up angry and fearful most every day but that place is so uselessly painful that I know I can't stay there. So I remind myself that this will pass if I just let it. 

Suffering can be survived. Anything can be overcome. In fact, I would even go so far as to say that a life cannot be fully experienced without tragedy. And it doesn't matter if it's something that I did to myself or something that was done to me or a combination or the two. The ultimate outcome is entirely in my control. Today I know who to pray to and why. What matters most is not what happens to me but rather what I DO with what happens to me. I will continue to let curiosity rule fear. 

Let's see what happens next.


No Matter Where I Go, There I Am

After my release from Beckley Federal Prison on June 20, 2012, I was transferred to a halfway house in Greensboro, North Carolina, where I remained for a couple of weeks. I already had a job and a home to live in, so for me the halfway house was more symbolic than functional, a reminder that this is not over for me. In short order, I moved to direct home detention, which is still very restrictive but at least the food and the coffee is much better. I go to work every day, I exercise, I hang out with my sons and I go to AA meetings. This phase of my incarceration will last until August 21, which is the official end of my prison sentence. After that, I will be on probation but generally speaking I will resume some version of the life I had before this catastrophe. Through this challenging time, there have been several constants that have allowed me to not only survive, but perhaps to even thrive. I credit the love and support of my family, close friends and thousands of people that reached out to me. I also credit my sobriety and the lessons that I have learned from very hard personal work through the years. I am almost certainly a better person in some ways and a more flawed one in others but I never doubted that I would find my way to the surface again.

Thanks to these lessons, I know that if I just stay clean and sober one day at a time, more will be revealed. Like most people, I tend to look for some deeper meaning in the gut twisting challenges that blindside us from time to time. But sobriety has taught me that finding an explanation for something doesn’t really change the outcome and certainly doesn’t make the problem go away. So instead of focusing on the negative, I choose to be excited about my new path, anticipating the next opportunity, whatever form it takes.

On July 23rd, I surpassed a milestone that doesn’t change anything but it does validate my hard work in some ways. On that Monday, I briefly and privately gave thanks for 20 years clean and sober. Sobriety doesn’t guarantee that life will be any easier but it promises that if I stay the course, I can survive anything. I have learned so much but I think it’s more important to remember what it used to be like and what it could be like again if I ever chose to return to the dark side of addiction.

“My name is Charlie and I’m an alcoholic.” “Hi Charlie!” My first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting was in July 1986. I still remember the drive to Grady Hospital in downtown Atlanta, passing through some of the depressingly downtrodden housing projects where I occasionally drank and got high. My girlfriend (and future wife) Pam was riding in the backseat with me. My mother’s partner, Julie, was driving and mom was nervously glancing at me from the passenger seat, probably expecting me to fling open the door of the speeding car and run away. She was right to worry.

I was 23 years old and in my less than humble opinion, I certainly didn’t have a drinking problem. A drug problem, yes, but I was no lowly alcoholic. So when these three well-intentioned interventionists suggested that just maybe I was drinking a bit too much, I agreed to attend an AA meeting in order to appease them and to earn back my freedom and their trust. Besides, I reasoned that if I cut back on my drinking for a while, then I could plan my cocaine use in a more efficient manner. My assumption was that the whole purpose of AA was to teach drunks how to drink properly and responsibly. This was continuing education at its finest. This logic seemed crystal clear to me, especially since I tended to make bad decisions when I drank too much, which was pretty much every time I drank. Of course, it never dawned on me that doing cocaine was an actual bad decision all on its own. After all, it was the 80’s and cocaine was a ubiquitous part of that rather bland decade.

Grady Hospital was known by most as the “free hospital”, serving the indigent, the destitute and the geographically unfortunate. This AA meeting was being held in the hospital cafeteria and the room was packed with people seeking a change in their drinking habits or so I assumed. A quick scan of the crowd told me that there were some “real” alcoholics in attendance. Many looked like street people. A couple of guys in the corner appeared to have had their last drink in the parking lot just before stepping inside. This could be interesting. Maybe I could pick up some pointers, learn to spot the warning signs in case my own drinking ever really got out of hand. Even better, while I’m here, maybe I could pitch in and encourage some of these poor drunks to turn their lives around. I figured that once these folks realized that I really wasn’t one of them, they would gladly look to me for guidance. I could be the hero.

I chose a seat near the back of the room, leaving my mother and Julie to chain-smoke just outside the entrance to the hospital. Pam stood in the very back of the room, arms folded, brow wrinkled, reading a pamphlet about STDs and drug use. I could feel her eyes narrow as she beamed questions into the back of my head. They were questions that I refused to answer, even telepathically, until many years later.

An older black man stepped to the front of the room and began to read from a big blue book with a blank cover. He read out a list of 12 steps that sounded to me a lot like a list of 12 rules or 12 obligations. Everyone else seemed to already know these steps by heart. I leaned to my right and whispered too loudly to the older white woman next to me, “How long does it take to finish this course?” She leaned away from me and tilted her head back to take in the full view of me. “You a fuckin’ smartass or somethin’?” Apparently, I had insulted her with my question. Seconds later I was nudged from the left side by a young black man who asked, somewhat urgently, “Are you a guest?” I stammered, “I, I don’t know. Yes I think so. Is there a cover charge? I didn’t know.” Just as I was about to spontaneously combust, the man at the front of the room said, “Young man, are you a first-time guest?” I still wasn’t sure if this was a trick question but it was clear to me that I was about to be escorted from the room so I opted for a truthful answer. “Yes, it’s my first time?” It wasn’t clear to me or to anyone if my answer was a statement or a question but either way some secret cue had been relayed to the crowd as they exploded with a deafening, “WELCOME” that scared the shit out of me. Several people shook my hand and a giant man sitting behind me gave me a hug. I sat back in my chair, utterly confused but relieved that physical violence had been avoided. The woman to my right looked as if she wanted to raise her hand and expose me as an impostor, which I surely was, but mercifully she settled down and let the moment pass. I couldn’t wait to get home and have a drink.

The meeting continued with person after person stepping to the front and talking for a few minutes. But not just talking. They were cursing, slobbering, yelling and laughing. Even more amazing was that these people were telling stories; humiliating, ghastly, embarrassing stories of drunken calamities. While these tales seemed truly outrageous to me, everyone else was completely engrossed. I was horrified when the room exploded in laughter at the expense of a poor woman who was describing, in intricate detail, being so intoxicated the she peed in her ex-boyfriend’s car, and then parked the car in the hot sun for days afterward. Something was very wrong with these people. Even more distressing was that these alcoholics kept referring to drugs and alcohol in the past tense, as if they had actually stopped using them all together. They all seemed genuinely grateful and happy to have quit these vices. Had I come to the wrong meeting? Maybe this was some renegade offshoot, Alcoholic Anarchists, surely acting without authorization from the head alcoholics. Regardless, it was plainly obvious that I didn’t belong here. I certainly wasn’t one of these people. They were crazy. I left that meeting feeling certain that I could handle my problems without any help from these fruit loops.

It would be four long and destructive years before I would darken the door of another addiction recovery meeting. I would have a very different attitude this time, having hammered the arrogance out of myself with repeated binges lasting weeks or months at a time. It was during these years that I came to understand the true nature of self-inflicted suffering, testing my physical limits in the most destructive ways imaginable, yet miraculously not quite able to destroy the voice telling me that I was meant for something better, something meaningful. Only a complete fool would have listened to that voice under the circumstances, much less believed it. But I was nothing if not a fool.

Years later that same inner voice would take me to deserts and mountains and jungles, telling me to keep running because the addict is nipping at my heels, matching me stride for stride, waiting for me to fall or to fail, beckoning me to come back to the safety of numb oblivion. This seductive addict will be my companion for life. He is patient and welcoming, ready to forgive me for my absence. But I refuse to let him catch me. If I just keep moving, my addict cannot touch me. And if I can carry the message to the addict who still suffers, maybe I will earn another day or year of sobriety.

Twenty years is a long time and no time at all. It is nothing more than an extended blink of an eye. The years add up but this day, today, is the only one that really matters. And when tomorrow gets here, that’s the one I will focus on. That’s how I manage to get through things. Of course I am anxious to move ahead. I want to recover all that was lost but that will not happen. Thanks to all that I have learned from my sober mentors through the years, I know that I am gathering my energy for what comes next and that I have much left to do. I may still be RUNNING IN PLACE for now but I am picking up the speed.


Eviction Notice

"What is truly teachable is unlearnable outside of oneself. I need only open my mind's eye a bit wider. Everything always exists. It is only me that must learn to exist with everything. Can I take what I have learned with me or does this version of me only live here?" -SIDDHARTHA by Hermann HesseIn just a few days, I will be leaving Beckley Federal Prison in order to join the "real" world again. My taxpayer sponsored holiday is coming to an end on June 20th, 2012. Please don't interpret my leaving as a lack of gratitude towards those that made all of this possible. They will not be forgotten. In fact, I hope to spend some time thanking them properly in the near future. In the meantime, I must marvel at how time flies. It seems like only 20 years ago that I arrived here. I never should have signed up for that "study abroad" program in the first place, although I did learn a lot here at criminal college. If I'm ever invited back, I'm afraid I will have to decline. It just wouldn't be fair when there are so many other more deserving people who should be given the opportunity to learn. In fact, I could even make a few suggestions as to who could take my spot, should space become available. Honestly, I am excited but also apprehensive about my pending reentry into the greater world. Despite my concerns, optimism is the overriding feeling I'm having. I am happy to be past this mess and ready to get onto some other mess. As for getting beyond this situation, I hope it happens quickly but there is no guidebook for this, no requisite time for getting past the hurt of injustice, no proper period of mourning the life I used to have. I know how to get beyond physical pain but this is different. The answer will not be found in blindly trudging forward, hoping that things get better, waiting for months to go by to heal my pain and take away my anger. Time has its place in the healing process but the mere passing of time is overrated as a fix-all. Time is given too much credit for helping to soften the way past trouble. The real way forward is all about looking ahead and not dwelling on the past. Only by taking positive action will I be able to move ahead. If I can do that, I know that I will find possibility in the places where there seemed to be only loss. I also know that I have to be patient because it won't be easy. But easy has always been overrated as far as I'm concerned. The hard path is the more rewarding one. Of that I have no doubt. I am through RUNNING IN PLACE. It's my turn to hit the trails again. I change and places change. If this were not so, then I would never miss or long for past places and people. I would just go back to them. But, of course, I can't go back to the same place that I left before all of this. It's gone forever and maybe that's not such a bad thing. At least that's what I tell myself in order to salve the wounds caused by the loss of 2 years that seem to have skipped ahead without me in it. I missed birthdays and holidays. I missed precious visits with my mother, visits that could have been used to pass her fading memories to my clearer mind. I missed high school dances, college visits, test anxiety and the heartaches of my teenage boys. Worst of all was simply not being able to be there when I was needed by family and friends. The one thing that cannot be replaced with something better is time. I have been doing time, not letting the time do me. There is probably some deep prison stuff buried in that sentence but I can't get to it right now. I just know that my sentence is up and I am happy for that. Some positive things came from prison, although I won't be sending any "thank you" notes. I learned to meditate and to practice yoga more consistently, although I still don't do either activity very well. But the cool thing about yoga and meditation is that perfection is not possible so just by trying, I am making progress. My learning curve as a human seems to have taken a sharp turn upward or at least I hope so. Prison exacts suffering equally, regardless of crime or the lack of one, with no quarter given to the unjustly imprisoned, and there are many. There are also plenty of men who earned their way here through a lifelong series of poor choices but they also deserve compassion and opportunity. The strange thing is that for the worst of them, this is a very comfortable atmosphere. A home away from home, if you will. They are thriving and even learning new skills that will likely land them here again. I am confident I am not one of them and this makes me angry for being stuck here. But time and again, I am liberated from anger by my gratitude for what has been gained. It would be so easy , even justified, to be completely absorbed by bitterness, focused on vengeance, driven by the need for absolution, ultimately moved to close the gates to my heart permanently. Instead, I fight my instinct to hide, opting to trust honesty and forthrightness, knowing that I will be exposed to critics with their own agenda, their own books to sell. But I will not shut down or hide. I am more grateful than I can express to the many friends who have stood by me through this absurd chapter in my life. Thousands of you have written to me or made your support known in some way. I have saved every letter. Many of the stories you have told me make mine seem like nothing. Every single letter made a difference. I also got lots of apologies from people who didn't write as much as they wanted to. I have always understood that we all lead busy lives and that many good intentions pass unfulfilled. I look forward to reconnecting with all of you. And then of course there are the few out there who chose to use my hardship to further their own agendas. Those folks are the most predictable, choosing to focus on others instead of themselves. And they are also the easiest to dismiss. I am sure I'll give them more things to talk about in the future. Finally, I want to thank my father for standing by me in every way imaginable. Together we have continued to fight for justice but the truth is that without him pushing me, I almost certainly would have given up long ago. Thanks Dad for not letting me quit. This whole disaster would almost be worth it as long as I knew that you and I would have so much time together. For future reference, how about we just go on a cruise next time. And now, in your honor Dad for Father's Day, I give you....

The Top 10 Things I Learned At Camp 1. The 5 second rule does not apply in prison. If food hits the floor, something will eat it before you have a chance to pick it up. 2. Being a fan of “Dancing With The Stars” can get you the wrong kind of attention in prison. 3. Never ask a man about his family while he's sitting on the toilet. 4. Squeeze Cheese, Honey Buns and sausage gravy are considered by many in West Virginia to be the "other food groups". 5. In prison, if it can be lifted, it will be stolen. 6. There are at least 27 ways to prepare Ramen noodles. 7. If something appears to be moving on the shower floor, DO NOT step on it. You will just make it angry. 8. When you call home, never ask your wife or girlfriend, "Where were you last night?" 9. It is not advisable to smack another inmate on the ass even if you say "Good Game". 10. If you think this can't happen to you, you're wrong.


I Just Want To Finish

Runners are strange. Since I'm a runner, by default, that means that I'm strange too. No surprise there. When I say that we're strange, it's not so much about who we are as individuals, rather it's about how our chosen sport causes us to behave strangely, neurotically even. We are the great rationalizers, mentally manipulating ourselves, constantly making deals with our bodies, justifying our training decisions to fit how we feel, forever watching the weather and judging the terrain we run across. One of the most wonderful things about being a runner is that generally speaking, we understand and forgive each other's quirks and neuroses. In fact, we are prone to emulate other runners, even when (maybe especially when) they are making dubious choices.Each of us claims to love/hate hills, flats, heat, wind, trails, rain, roads, mud, cold, rocks or snow when what we really love or hate is ourselves based on how we perform on a given day under the conditions present. We deem certain conditions as being our favorites while we claim to loathe other circumstances. The truth is that we like to run well and feel good so we wait for that to happen and then we reverse engineer our minds to believe that the conditions which were present during this good run were perfectly matched to our strengths. In reality, any of us can be good at running in any conditions but first we must allow our minds to believe it. If the mind believes something to be true, the body will perform to that same level. We all know that running is usually better with a healthy body but a strong mind is far more critical to long term success. A solid mental approach to running can overcome a battered body but the reverse is not normally true. Our thinking can cause failure even when our body is perfectly healthy and ready to run. Or as I like to say, 50% of running is half mental more than 90% of the time. What? Anyway, as I said runners are strange.....and we like it that way. In most sports, competitors attempt to intimidate their opponents in order to throw them off their game. This is entirely unnecessary in running because our heads are already stuffed full of self intimidating, self defeating crap that we've spent years putting there. Nobody else needs to bother screwing with our heads because we've got that covered. For instance, when I hear someone say "I just want to finish", I don't believe them. I'm not saying that the speaker of those words is not being sincere. In fact, I am sure that I've said those exact words myself at some point and I'm just as certain that I meant them whole heartedly at the time. But with the clarity of looking back, I don't think that I really "just wanted to finish". I think what I really meant to say was “I just want to finish without suffering too much and I would like to look good doing it and if it's not too much trouble, I would like to finish much faster than I expected to but without vomiting on my new shoes. At a minimum, I just want to finish fast enough to wipe that snotty self satisfied look off of my co-workers face because she thinks she's all that since she ran Boston a few years ago. But if the weather is really bad and the course is tough and I have stomach issues and my IT Band acts up again, THEN really, I just want to finish”. I think that's what I meant. Like most battles we have with ourselves as runners, it is really just a tug-of-war between ego and fear. When I say “I just want to finish”, fear has already won the first battle, but ego is really calling the shots. I am announcing loud and clear that “I may not finish this race but if I do, it might be really slow, so don't judge me”. All of that nonsense is born in ego and perpetuated by fear. It serves no real purpose other than to help soften the blow of failure. In truth, this statement sets the bar so low that we couldn't even crawl under it. It's as if some of us compete at not competing. If there was a prize for being the most non competitive, wouldn't that defeat the purpose? It may sound as if I am chastising all of us who have hedged our bets or given ourselves permission to perform at the lowest possible standard. Maybe I am. But there is actually a positive side to this hedging too. The very presence of fear verifies that I do have an ego, albeit an inflated one. The key is keeping my ego in check without freaking myself out with fearful thoughts of catastrophic failure. What would other people say if I ran a slow time or if I didn't even finish? The painful truth is that they wouldn't say much because even though I might think that everyone is watching me, it's not really true. There is really only one person that genuinely, deep down cares about my finishing time. That would be me. As it should be. Through 35 years of racing, my reasons for running have changed as much as my life has. I was 12 when I started to run in races and I have no recollection as to why I ever tried running. Probably to please my Dad. Today, I know why I run. I run so that I can create a haven for my thoughts and feelings, a place that is protected and hidden from my fears. Running is where I go to be safe, to create an energy zone around me. Running is a cozy house with an alarm system or a sturdy reliable car with airbags or the feel of a loved one's arms around me. Running is serenity and sacrifice and sunshine on my face. Running is the friend I can trust, the lover who won't leave me, the ice cream that won't make me fat. Running is the perfect partner because running gives back to me exactly what I give to it. Above all else, running has taught me humility. Given the choice, I would always prefer to reach the finish line than not reach it, although arguably the lessons learned from not finishing (I didn't say failure) have probably been more valuable to my long term success as a human being. Speaking of finishing something, I have been here in Beckley, West Virginia Federal Prison for nearly 14 months, with several more months to go. Before I got here, I had many pre conceived ideas about what to expect. Most of them were wrong. But the one thing that has proven to be true was my expectation that I would get out of this experience whatever I put into it. As I near the end of my time here, I am tempted to withdraw, to protect myself, to change what I have been doing, which is a lot. In other words, I feel like saying “I just want to finish”. And of course, taken literally, that statement could not be more true. I do want to be finished with this. I do want to go home. I do want my life back. But I will do it my own way. I have not become docile in prison but neither am I angry, although I could probably justify being angry. If anything, this time away has stoked the fire that has burned inside me, building what is now a fully engaged inferno. I have never wanted an easy life and I don't want one now. So instead of just trying to finish, I want to pick up the pace, push myself farther and harder into the uncomfortable unmanageable unknown, trusting that if I do, I will find new territory to explore both inside of me and outside in the world. I want to go beyond the safe confines of the finish line where there are no course markings or orange cones telling me where to go next. The path ahead is not obvious for me, there is no guarantee of safety or comfort. Perfection is implausible, if not impossible, so I will rely more on passion than on a well thought out plan. I do want to finish but more than that, I just want to do my best, even if I am only RUNNING IN PLACE.



"Remembering that I'll be dead soon is the most important tool I've ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything--all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure--these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart." -Steve Jobs Funny word; conviction. It means to know a thing with certainty or to be deeply committed to a cause or a person or an emotion. Of course, for me, conviction also has another meaning. I have spent the past 2 years (13 months of it in prison) primarily focused on daily life, unable to really plan much of anything for the future. While I didn't choose my current adventure, the routine of it is actually familiar to me. It's not unlike the daily grind of an expedition; attention to small goals is necessary to achieve the bigger goal. In addiction recovery, we refer to it as living One Day at a Time, as if we have a real choice to live otherwise. My point, and the point of the old AA mantra, is simply that during this difficult experience, I know better than to look too far ahead. But now I am seeing signs of changes coming. I still have a few months to go here but I am allowing myself the occasional daydream of hanging out with my kids, running with friends, drinking real coffee and eating vegetables that haven't been stuck in a can since the 90's. It's not over yet but at least the heaviness of prison is slowly giving way to the airiness of new beginnings.

Before prison I was a father, a runner, a writer, a speaker, a lover and a friend. When I leave prison, I will be all of those things still, better equipped in some ways, diminished in others but wholly committed to continuing a life of passion , energized by the promise of new and greater adventures and a deeper love of people and of life itself.

Prison brought an end to some relationships and strengthened others, making many indestructible. Endings are necessarily painful, whether I chose them or the end came against my will. But painful endings are the only ones I ever want because the pain confirms that my effort was not spent on something or someone that was just killing time. I would argue that I never feel more alive than when I feel the emotional suffering of loss. It lets me know that I wasn't wallowing in that safe middle ground, just waiting for something better. I was all in. I have no switch that can be easily flipped, easing me gently past hurt, moving on with my life without repercussions or the narcotic hangover of loss. For me, the lingering passion remains long after the acceptance of loss. Those feelings are true about people but also about other pieces of my life.

One part of my life that has been strengthened by prison is my commitment to sobriety. After 19 years clean and sober, I am living in a place where I see the ghosts of addicts past, present and future. These are not just the ghosts of others but of myself, of the addict I used to be, and of the imperfect sober addict I still am today. Miraculously, I never got into any serious legal trouble around my drinking and drug use two decades ago, beyond a DUI and an infamous hubcap heist incident in college. I did some truly stupid and dangerous things back then with no real consequences other than brutal wear and tear on me and on those stuck in my force field. I am now imprisoned with hundreds of men whose addictions have landed them here for a very long time. That could have been me. I am grateful it's not.

Perhaps I deserved my current fate for some past sins but if so, then I wonder how much grace I must have to make up for my sinful nature or is the scale tipped too far against me to ever find its midpoint again? I don't think so. In fact, I think this experience will be a catalyst for all that comes next for me, a reminder that everything that lives outside of me can be taken away in an instant, so I must protect and nurture what lives inside of me, keeping it untouchable, untakeable. I cannot return to the place in my life that I left; that's gone forever. I won't spend a minute trying to replace what's lost because I'll be too busy living now instead of reliving what's gone. All possibilities exist inside me, I need only open a window to allow a hot wind to caress desire, to stimulate the raw power of the unknown future, to breathe life into the next thing I am meant to do.

In my most memorable times, my favorite times, I am acutely aware of departure from a place or a person. But this also holds true for leaving hardship behind. It's strange how even suffering has a certain comfortable rhythm to it, causing me small anxieties about what comes next. I have mastered most of the nuances of prison life so there is very little left to fear here. Leaving a place, even this place, forces me to identify my own dominant traits, desires and hopes. Having been stuck with an almost complete lack of movement, now I think about moving from place to place throughout my life and eventually, inevitably towards the same end we will all meet.

But to quote the great and venerable Monty Python troupe in The Holy Grail, "I'm not dead yet." In fact, I feel energized and motivated to continue my own quest for my personal holy grail. And much like the hapless but determined Knights of the Round Table, I might lack a clearly defined direction but I will immerse myself into the joy of the quest anyway because that's where the real fun is. So to that end, I have some plans. The most exciting of my plans involves my boys, who have weathered this storm well. I am so proud of Brett and Kevin and I could not love them any more than I do. My eternal gratitude goes to Pam and my parents and an incredible group of friends who have looked after my kids. It's a beautifully painful thing to watch my boys become young men, knowing that so many of you have contributed to their growth during my absence. I have other plans for running, biking and adventure. I have plans for work and for play. I have no plans for love but planning for that is pointless anyway. Love happens or it doesn't.

As things stand today, I should be released to home detention in May. I have not been given an exact date yet but according to federal guidelines, that's what I am expecting. I should get my "out date" soon. While on home detention, I will still be required to follow a prescribed set of rules until my official release date in August. Home detention is meant to be a transitional phase for an inmate, so there will be some limitations on what I can do and where I can go. However, I will be allowed to work, actually required to work. For me, that means running and racing and writing. As part of my job, I should be able to travel to some events. After August, I will be on probation, which requires me to check in regularly and follow certain procedures, but travel should become easier, assuming I behave myself.

As I draw closer to the next phase of my journey, I will do my best to stay focused on today, knowing that tomorrow will be here soon enough. I know that life out there hasn't exactly been easy this past year. But I am ready to join back in. So while I can see a light at the end of the tunnel, right now I am still in the tunnel, RUNNING IN PLACE.


Mother's Finest

Charlie Engle 119mo//keep unread//hide

Today is Christmas day, 2011. This story is for and about my mother, RebeccaHargett Ranson, the writer. We can't be together today but that's not all that unusual for us. We both prefer independence to tradition so family holidays are celebrated eventually but not inevitably. No matter, I know what my mother is doing today. I can see her as if I was sitting on the steps next to her. She is on her back porch, sitting on the top step, smoking. She's wearing old jeans, a tee shirt with a long sleeved button up shirt over top and Chuck Taylors. She's round shouldered, just like her father and her son. She is playing with the little kitten that was smart and lucky enough to have chosen my mother's backyard to wander into a few weeks back. The kitten is tiny and elusive, matching my mom in both stature and demeanor. Both are playful on their own terms, simultaneously aloof and attentive, giving their all and then finding a safe place to curl up and rest.

I vividly remember being a child, maybe 7 years old, living in Athens, Georgia with mom (momma then) and my stepfather Coke. They were perpetual grad students, hippies with goals and unabashed animal lovers. I have a child's memory of several litters of kittens and puppies appearing simultaneously in closets and cardboard boxes and a laundry bin, filling the household with dozens of living, breathing playmates for me. I loved the runts the best and I cried for the ones that didn't make it, my first tears shed for something other than myself. At 7 years old, my breadth of memory was so compact that I still recall the frantic desire to pile every animal together because choosing which one to play with was just too hard. My stomach hurt from giggling and those are moments that have stretched themselves to fit over a lifetime of love for animals.

I can still see my 25-year-old mother just as clearly as I now see the 68-year-old one behind those same brown eyes. But the eyes' unmistakable passion that was so apparent back then has given way to a more guarded look, owing to the Alzheimer's Disease that has blurred the edges of a beautiful mind. The younger Becky was strong and defiant, fiercely committed to making the world see things her way because it was the right way. She was, and still is, a writer, a purveyor of words describing emotions both subtle and overt. She prefers to write about people and how they fit into the world. Or how they don't. If she could, she would write about herself, exposing all, sharing herself in ways that might make others squirm. She would love that because feeling anything is always better than feeling nothing.

My mother is a lifetime social worker, even though that was her official occupation for only a short time. She realized early on that she could affect meaningful social change more effectively without the baggage of a government program that chooses to first humiliate those it deems eligible for assistance. Instead, she brought change by being a writer and an artist and a lesbian, openly encouraging free expression of ideas, even those, maybe especially those, that disagreed with her. Over the years, people and animals have been drawn to mom because they instinctively know that she will take them in and care for them. Maybe the most salient lesson that I learned from my mother is that pretending not to see injustice is the same thing as condoning injustice. Once something is seen, it cannot be unseen. I must take action or I must acknowledge my shameful lack of action. There is no in between.

Alzheimer's Disease ravaged two of my grandmothers, cruelly allowing their bodies to live for far too long after their minds stopped keeping up. My mother has openly expressed a desire to stop breathing before her mind stops thinking. Thankfully, she is still very much my mother today. Some of her words have become harder to reach, her mind keeping her thoughts tantalizingly out of reach of her tongue. It is truly a devious disease that withholds the words of a writer.

I want to take all of the fear from my mother but I can't because I have nothing to replace it with. What I do have to give right now are mere words, which seems terribly stingy and inadequate when compared to all that she has given to me. It could even be considered the worst kind of re-gifting since I am really just giving back what was given to me first. But what a gift it has turned out to be. My mother gave me my voice but not my thoughts, urging me to come up with my own words to explain my own feelings. Her opinions were never forced upon me, even when I asked for them. As a child, I was not required to parrot her words so that others could marvel at the strength of my youthful convictions. Instead, she taught me to consider all sides and come to my own conclusions, right or wrong, encouraging me to express myself and to lend my voice to others who deserved to be heard. I haven't stopped talking since. To be sure, not everyone is grateful for that.

She let me develop my own set of beliefs, not allowing her biases to sway my moral balance. But, of course, I was swayed sometimes. She stood against war and racial prejudice and gender inequality, demonstrating moral courage through action. Rather than just talking about change, she brought change and sometimes she forced change. She showed me, rather than told me, not to judge others based on their skin color or sexual preference, but rather by their capacity for compassion. Nobody has the right to judge another person's choices in life. Choice alone makes us human. Our tastes and beliefs and desires should be learned from personal experience, not forced upon us like some hold-your-nose-hard-to-swallow medicine meant to fix us. Despite my sometimes obvious flaws, my mother never tried to fix me.

Thanks to her, I have learned to acknowledge human frailty, including my own. I know that I don't always have to fight the inherent weakness that comes with just being alive. Sometimes I can just be weak. I have the right to change my mind when I feel I must or even just because I want to. I need not be defined by the

inconsistencies that shape me and sometimes shame me. Convictions backed by courage alone can be powerful but sometimes the courage is more bravado and the conviction merely an excuse to exert power over others. At my worst moments as a man, I am acutely aware of my mother's disapproval for my harsh stance or my provocative words, sometimes meant to enlighten but more often meant to wound. But she was always there to remind me that I wasn't expected to be perfect. The truth, my truth, is mine alone, tainted by personal bias. I see things my way, I can be graceless in my assessment and my expectations of others. I am certainly more needlessly harsh in my delivery than she could ever be but we often shared the same directness present in the end result, which rarely leaves doubt as to where we stand.

While mom was sometimes disappointed in my lack of humanity, beyond that was always her support and her love without conditions, her forgiveness granted almost before my latest transgression, her singular knowledge of me being deeper than all others combined, always made me know that I was loved even when self pity caused me to doubt it. What else could even a lifetime of striving hope to achieve but that unflinching confirmation that I am worthy, that I have value, that I am loved even when I am at my worst.

I watched closely as my mother struggled to love the other important people in her life. She had her share of relationship success and failure but she never hid either from me. Children always seem to be shocked to learn that their parents aren't perfect but she showed me early on that being flawed was normal, that perfection is unachievable and, in fact, undesirable. She could be impossibly stubborn and exasperating but these were not stand-alone flags planted on some barren land. Rather they were deep seated stances, rarely taken for her own benefit.

Now when I talk to my mom, I am acutely aware of the sweetness of her voice, the passion still very much alive even if some of the words are missing. Throughout my life, I have always come to her first with every brilliantly dubious idea because I knew that she would tell me that it sounded amazing. She never told me to be careful or to take the easy way because there is so little to be gained from easy and so much to be learned from hard. I am still learning, still stumbling, still flailing around as I grasp for a strong ledge to hold onto. But I will only stay safe just long enough to catch my breath, then I will find a new path or I will make one for myself. That is what I learned from you mom. I am who I am, warts and all, thanks to you.

When your mind is wandering without your permission and you can't find the words you've misplaced, I know that you see in yourself mostly what is missing. Rest assured, I see all that is still there. Don't worry about me mom. You have given me all that I need to get through this life. I love you and miss you today and every day.


Longing for Libya

We had run for 2 solid months without a day off, covering more than 3,000 miles to reach the border of Niger and Libya. Sadly, it appeared that our journey would end there, incomplete and unsatisfying. For nearly a year, all we had heard from the Libyan government was a deafening silence, which could only be interpreted as rejection or even worse, an indifference that reminded us of our insignificance to them. We started this crossing of the Sahara Desert knowing this could happen but foolishly believing that it wouldn't. I had been told that I was naive to think that Libya would welcome us. Why should they? What was in it for them? As far as I was concerned, plenty. But how could we get the Libyans to see this? As anyone who knows me well will attest, I am not interested in logic or normalcy or regular boundaries. I don't want to hear about my limitations, obvious as they may be. I genuinely believe that wanting something badly enough, willing it to happen, can actually change the outcome. Of course, not everything we want happens and that is probably a good thing. Sometimes the universe conspires to give us what we want and other times it gives us what we need (thank you Mick Jagger).

I will likely spend a lifetime pondering what I deserve from life, my deep seeded insecurity constantly blurring that line. But what is never blurred is my gratitude for the life I have lived so far and my excitement about what is still to come. My life, every life, is a struggle, a never ending series of hardships dotted with soul saving perfect moments. This is as it should be. Enlightenment of any kind comes only as a direct result of surviving the hard times. The real trick is recognizing perfection at the moment it happens instead of on the car ride home.

As Ray and Kevin and I were only a mere 200 miles from Libya, it seemed that our urgent desire would not be enough to sway the Libyans to allow our entry. Logic and pragmatism should have dictated that we abandon our quest two weeks earlier, when we were in the relative comfort of Agadez, Niger. We could have stopped there and been justified by the rational certainty that we could go no further than the border of Libya, 800K away. To continue would only bring more physical trauma to our wrecked bodies without allowing us to reach our goal of swimming in the Red Sea. But we couldn't just quit. That was simply unacceptable. Instead, we would run to Libya and force someone to turn us away in person, preferably with a gun so we could taut our bravery. If that was as far as we could go, I could live with that. What I couldn't live with was wondering what might have been. I had to find out for myself.

As it turned out, our faith in the universe was rewarded. The Libyan government allowed us to enter. More importantly, they allowed us to exit a few weeks later. The border crossing itself consisted of two large barrels and a Libyan flag, perfectly understated and symbolic of the humble muted existence of the average Libyan. The country itself was bewildering and amazingly beautiful. The mountains were pristine, the valleys desolate, the air clean and pure.

The people were cautiously withdrawn during the first week. Our military escorts of 5 heavily armed vehicles and accompanying soldiers seemed to expect us to get drunk and steal their women at any moment. They may have actually been disappointed to find us asleep by 10:00 PM and up and running at 5:00 AM. The rest of the day was just running, eating, laughing, talking and farting. After a week of watching this from a distance, our escorts began to lighten up. We all started to use the universal sign language that overcomes spoken word barriers (eat, drink, run, pee, women). We all began to relax, slapping backs, fist bumping (it was still cool then), and laughing at things known only to men. A couple of the guards began to run a few miles with us every day, wearing full uniforms and boots. By the time we crossed over into Egypt, wonderful but unsustainable friendships had been formed. We couldn't exchange numbers or email addresses so when we said goodbye, there was no pretending that we would stay in touch. I think it deepened the emotions of that final day together, knowing that we needed to see and feel things more deeply, to embed them in our minds and hearts, lest we forget.

As I watch the changes taking place in Libya today, I wonder about the people we met. When the shooting started, which side were they on? Are they okay? I have read that some members of the Libyan government were escorted to Agadez, Niger, back along the same empty stretches of desert that I crossed on foot years earlier. I can still see it all so clearly.

I am not qualified to know what is best for Libya or its people. Revolution is necessarily based in dissatisfaction with the status quo and a demand for change. When people get tired of being controlled or being lied to, they make a change. The same can be said for any individual too. When a person gets tired of what he has, or who he is or what he stands for, he will make a change.

A person or a country wants freedom to live as they choose, without fear of persecution from government or neighbors. Many people start the revolution full of passion but once some ground is gained, they become complacent and accept less than what they set out for, settling instead for half a victory. If they can just keep pushing forward, more will be revealed. The real victory will only be gained if the new regime can treat its people better than the old one.

I will never forget our journey across Libya. We never would have had the experience though if we had not been able to swallow our fear of the unknown and just keep moving forward one moment at a time. I use that lesson to get through every day right now. If I can just keep going, then I will always find the passion that is waiting inside each new experience and every new relationship. If I can do that, I will cover a million miles, even when I am only RUNNING IN PLACE.


Charlie featured in Men's Journal article

Charlie Engle 122mo//keep unread//hide

Charlie was featured in the latest issue of Men's Journal. Here is a link to a pdf of the story: http://www.adamhigginbotham.com/Archive/Writing_files/Charlie%20Engle.pdf


Cinderella Story

When I was 15 years old, I decided to start playing golf. In truth, I simply went out one day and played nine holes with a buddy. I was hooked. The decision was made for me without my approval really. As with most love affairs, it just happened. Also much like love, I didn't take lessons or ask for advice or even learn the rules of the game. I just went out every day for an entire summer and I played. I had old beaten up, hand-me-down clubs and tennis shoes that I mowed the grass at home with. I gripped each club like I was holding a baseball bat. I swung as hard as I could on every shot, having no idea how to play the game with finesse or strategy. I was just having fun, excited every time I stepped onto the first tee, no pressure, no expectations. Most of my shots were horrible but when I hit one just right, the feeling was transformative. While it was rare for me to hit a good shot, when I did, that fleeting feeling of euphoria kept me coming back. In between those few happy shots were lots of ugly ones, along with plenty of club throwing and swearing at lost golf balls. Ah, but the adrenaline rush of that perfect shot made the frustrations totally worth it...for a while. Then, one day I made the fateful decision that I wanted to be a better golfer so I signed up for lessons. I learned the proper grip, the right way to stand, how to swing correctly. I bought new clubs and actual golf shoes. I even got myself some plaid pants and a pink IZOD, "popping" the collar at just the right time, namely whenever I saw someone else doing it. After spending all of my summer life guarding job money, along with tons of practice, I actually began to improve pretty dramatically. I dreamt about shooting scores in the 70s and winning tournaments. Cinderella story, about to become the new Masters champion..........

After a few weeks of steady improvement, I was finally ready to play with other golfers, giving me the chance to show off my mad skills. But instead of dazzling my partners, I played worse than ever. I tried to focus on what I had learned but it just wasn't working. Somehow I had managed to lose the fun and now I was mired in the muck of expectations, trying to power my way past the embarrassment of my crappy play. Predictably, I abandoned the proper technique and went back to my old way of swinging. I hit the ball better for a few holes but soon the wheels fell off completely and I was playing the worst golf of my short but unimpressive career. That day, I actually quit on number 14 and walked off the course without a word to my playing partners, embarrassed by my play but humiliated by my behavior.

Today I can safely call this a pattern, but I didn't know that at the age of 15. I have learned not to quit anymore but I still struggle with falling back on old bad habits when things get difficult. I am old enough to admit to plenty of bad habits, some which are so deeply engrained that I can't really envision me without them. This is especially true in my personal life. I am good at the first part of a relationship, romantic or friendly, because I eagerly take the lead, diving into all kinds of deep and impressive subjects, including but not limited to religion, marriage, kids, human rights, addiction, romance and puppies. This gives the impression that I am willing to share myself and I am, at least the part that I have access to. It doesn't take long for people to feel comfortable around me and I like that. But I also feel like it doesn't take long for my faults to appear, and when that happens, I usually make the situation worse by trying too hard to fix me or you, whichever one seems more broken at the moment. This may help for a while but when things get really difficult, I will predictably revert to my old self and my old habits and behaviors. Even though I know I will almost certainly fail, I do it anyway because I can't help myself. It's my default, my fall back, my safety net. I begin to crave the familiar and the comfortable, even when I know it will lead me nowhere I want to go. I begin to use that "tone" that I get sometimes. I say "helpful" things in that superior voice because then you will surely see things my way. Despite the lessons I have learned, I go back to my "old swing", hoping that this time it will be different, it will work out better. But it never does because bad habits are just that: BAD.

I know that I am capable of learning new coping skills and better habits. I am not just talking about golf here, I am talking about life. The painful truth is that learning a skill and actually putting it into practice are two very different things. I can learn to communicate better in relationships, I can make great strides to enhance my running, and I can even work to have a better golf swing. But if I always fall back on old habits when things get difficult, then I have learned nothing. Am I capable of real and lasting personal change? I sure hope so because if I can't make positive changes within myself, then I can never hope to be of genuine long lasting use to others. If I can't set goals and work towards improvement, then I am in a prison of my own making, confined by self-imposed limitations. Conversely, if I seek knowledge and growth and live with passion and generosity, compassion and compromise, then there is no limit to my freedom. If recognizing a problem is the first step to recovery, then I am there.

I also know that if I can always find a way to run, then I will have an unlimited resource for peace of mind, a way to quiet the chaotic mental violence that I impose mostly upon myself. When I run, my mind is free, no matter where my body is located. Some runners seem to focus entirely on pushing aside pain, hiding it, masking it. I prefer not to try to hide from the pain, but rather to embrace it, to nurture it, even to welcome it with a determined voice that says, "Is that all you've got"? Then I try to quietly listen for the lesson, anticipating it like it's the drink I've been waiting for all day.

I try never to forget that running is not reality, it's fantasy, it's fun, it's joy, not work. Running enhances my life because it is the mirror image of my non-running life. In running and in real life, there is pain and suffering because these are the necessary components that lead to a fulfilling life. The pain is there like a sharp knife to scrape away the bindings that hold us back, that make us afraid to try. The suffering exists as a reminder that we can't just wish away our problems. A good life cannot be lived without suffering to measure the goodness against. Some of the best moments of my life have come while running and many of my best non-running milestones match up perfectly with my best periods of running. I do not see this as a coincidence.

This would be a good place to remind you and me that running is just a metaphor. It happens to be my manifestation of passion but it may not be yours. But of course you have your own passion, your own way of suffering and growing. If you don't have it, then I hope you find it because to live without passion is like swimming without water, you are pretty much guaranteed not to get anywhere.

Running doesn't just free my body, it frees my mind. Whether I am running for hours or days, I fantasize; I become a time traveler, visiting people and places from my past and my future. I replay arguments with my father (he was usually right), I make the right move on the basketball court, I get the girl and sometimes I even win the race. But I cannot live or function in that fantasy world. Instead, I have to get out into the real world and do something, take a chance, push to the edge, always looking for ways to improve. But more importantly, when I learn a lesson or a skill, I need to have the courage to use it when it's difficult instead of falling back on old habits. The truth is the truth. Ignorance is not an excuse. Willful ignorance is equal to willful blindness. Once a lesson has been learned, it cannot be unlearned. Once a shortcoming or fault or weakness is identified, it can no longer be brushed aside. It can be massaged or minimized, but the lesson lives inside us and we know if we are using it or not. I want to make improvements in me, grow and be better instead of just saying, "this is who I am, take it or leave it." Now if I can just find someone that can see the possibilities in me and not just the problems, someone to help me be a fully formed man. That's a tall order though because old habits can hang on well beyond reason.

Whether in golf, running or love, I do not believe in blindly flailing about, hoping to find enlightenment and fulfillment. Instead, I need to be focused; I need to make a plan and be willing to stick with it, trusting the process, willing not just to learn lessons but also to actually use them. Otherwise, if I am not careful, I could end up RUNNING IN PLACE forever.


Chasing the Dragon

In April 1989, I ran the Big Sur Marathon for the first time. Actually, it was my first ever marathon and in hindsight, I now know that it was my best marathon experience ever. I have run dozens of faster marathons in better weather on even harder courses (although not many) but no marathon has ever matched the intense array of emotions I had that day at Big Sur. The course was breathtakingly beautiful, the race was flawlessly organized and the Big Sur "vibe" was mesmerizing. While all of these factors helped create the right setting for a great day of running, my feelings about that race are more visceral because there is just something about a "first time" feeling that simply can't be duplicated. During the 26.2 mile ride to the start line, my stomach was doing back flips, my left ankle was throbbing, I was under dressed and over hydrated, I had to pee for the entire bumpy ride and I was being bombarded with inane small talk from Dave the car salesman from St. Louis who was running for Jesus or running from Jesus, I can't remember which. I remember exactly what I was wearing right down to my Nike Pegasus running shoes and overly short running shorts. I was anxious and sleep deprived and hungry. I clearly recall thinking to myself (can one think to someone else?) that this whole marathon thing was a really bad idea. I hadn't trained and I had no game plan since I was clueless as to strategy for running a marathon. I can still feel the anxiety of that day as if it were happening right now.

I managed to finish the race in around 3:20 as I recall. It was rough, with bonking, puking and blisters but I got through it. And like many first time marathoners, I mentally checked the box and vowed that I would never do that again. I was completely spent, more relieved than happy but there was another feeling lingering around the fringes of my depleted body and mind; satisfaction. I was completely spent, the race having scraped away my ego while replacing it with contentment, even if just for a few minutes. This was a satisfaction and ease that I had never felt before. I was exhausted, elated, but enhanced somehow. It was a life changing feeling and I have spent 22 years trying to recreate that exact feeling, to no avail.

Since that day at Big Sur, I have run more than 100 official marathons all over the world in all kinds of weather and over every imaginable terrain. I have run slow and fast, with friends and alone. But I have never quite managed to duplicate the deep satisfaction that I felt that first time. Maybe it's not possible, maybe the newness and the unknown cannot ever really be replaced by the now known, the familiarity of routine displacing the edgy agitation that accompanies first time experiences. So each time I try again to find that feeling and fail, I vow that it's the last time. But I am easily seduced by the next race, still thinking that maybe this will be the one. On that day at Big Sur, I felt raw and exposed, vulnerable in a way that can only come from diving headlong into the abyss of the unknown, delving into the heretofore untapped part of myself. I was so concerned that I would be revealed as the pretender I felt like, as someone who didn't belong in a marathon, as an actor wearing a running costume. But that didn't happen because everyone was really just like me, self conscious, self aware and self centered. It's not that runners don't care about each other, quite the contrary. We just care about our own running experiences more and for some reason we think that everyone else is watching us and judging our performance and worthiness. Turns out they aren't.

I am admittedly biased but I find runners to be warm, enlightened, compassionate people (except of course for the ones who aren't any of those things). But I do believe there is one universal trait shared by runners, especially marathoners. We all remember our first marathon and whether we know it or not, we compare every running experience to that first one. And I believe that we will likely spend the rest of our running lives trying to recapture the feelings and emotions associated with that first 26.2 miler. It's like trying to remember a smell from our grandmother's kitchen, fleeting and elusive but we get a small whiff of familiarity from time to time, and then it's gone, reabsorbed by the memory itself.

Holding the new up to the unforgiving reflective light of the old is not unique of course. In fact, we chase the ghosts of first experiences in every aspect of our lives. We all remember our first job, our first real kiss, our first car and our first apartment Regardless of the outcome, we are flooded with an emotional cacophony of anticipation and fear and relief and satisfaction and pride. And while we will eventually own better cars, have better jobs and make out with better kissers, we can never truly have the same powerful emotions that we had the first time.

Time has a way of softening the sharp edges of our most powerful recollections. Each detail has passed through the memory and the memory sometimes alters and sometimes even rejects certain details Our magic magnifying minds can turn our past fears and failures into heroic acts of fortitude and perseverance. We twist our memories, convincing us to be brave, telling us the pain wasn't so bad, confidently running toward the next race, enticing our minds and bodies to seek knowledge that only comes through suffering. That is the beauty of running, there is always more that can be learned as long as we seek out new trails that challenge us, new directions that make us hurt and opens us to healing. Ah, but the first time will always be the best. Experience is a great and forgiving teacher but the wide eyed naiveté of the first time is so pure. There is truly nothing to lose and everything is gained. One simply needs to pay attention because the first time will leave an indelible mark on the soul of a runner. Revel in it, absorb it, be present in the pain and joy. First experiences are transformative, but any race, anywhere, anytime, is better than RUNNING IN PLACE.


Prison Romance

I never thought it could happen but I am having a love affair in prison. I feel vulnerable, exposed, anxious. I look longingly across the compound at the odd shaped dirt track where I meet my muse every day. Edgy anticipation greets me as I wake at 5:00 AM, feeling a now familiar giddy yearning, the pull of a new day with more time to explore this relationship that I am clearly obsessed with. But I am trying to play it cool, being careful not to be oppressive or needy, lest I scare away my partner with too much intensity. I am in love with running. The feel, the smell, the comforting monotonous motion of movement. Oh sure, it may be mere infatuation based on a complete lack of options. In prison, I am bereft of most all of the choices that I had on the outside, so I am fully engaged and tuned in to the needs of running, whispering heartfelt vows never to stray again. After all, I remind running, we have already seen each other naked.

Running looks at me with suspicion though, not really trusting my commitment or intentions. After all, we have been down this rutted rocky path before. In the past, admittedly, I have taken running for granted, sometimes forgetting to call, neglecting to nurture the relationship, even cheating unapologetically. At times, running has seemed merely a chore, badgering me like a bathroom that needs cleaning or taunting me like the 3:00 AM chirping of a smoke alarm battery that needs changing. Running is patient though, willing to sit back and allow me to fumble around, letting me search for fulfillment in futile forays, watching me bask in the flirtations of sexier pursuits. But here in prison, there is no cycling or swimming or climbing to seduce me with false promises of passionate sweatiness. There is only running, perfect and simple, staring at me with equal parts accusation and forgiveness. We both know that I have a history of using running to get what I want then veering off to seemingly lusher, greener pastures in hopes of triggering the feelings that come so easily with newness, the wide eyed lust that seems so readily available only through first experiences.

Like many of us, I spend too much time grudgingly trudging the same paths that I have traveled so often before, hoping for better results even though I am giving the same effort in the same ways in the same places. But now things are different for me. Now I see running with renewed fascination, recognizing there are complex layers of intimacy I have yet to experience. Like any long term love affair, we need to spice things up occasionally. Role playing, leather and fancy underwear would be a very bad idea under the circumstances, but yoga, interval training and sensory deprivation could help me to see the purity, the possibilities and the beauty of my 35 year marriage to running.

I go through many ups and downs in prison, with extreme lows that threaten to swallow me permanently. The highs cannot possibly offset the lows because the reality of prison is like the maddening whine of a jet engine, claustrophobic and overwhelming, even on the best of days. Unexpectedly, incarceration has forced me to choose between closing off my emotions completely or fully opening myself up. I can see now that my outside life had become overwhelming, causing me to neglect some of my most valuable and reliable relationships. I have also become acutely aware that I expect more from myself than I realized and my self imposed expectations cause me to be hyper sensitive to criticism from others and from myself. I am trying to reverse the damage but it is a slow process. When did I become so turned in on myself, so self critical, that I am willing to swallow my pain like Chinese take out and everything I feel has the same bland taste? Strangely though, prison has given me strength and a desire to find meaning in life's creases. Instead of allowing imprisonment to shut me down, I am using my incarceration as the whetstone that sharpens my thinking while running provides the locomotion needed for forward movement, keeping my innate restlessness at bay.

Today, I run to feel the dark subtle colors of emotions that are really like most any developing relationship, moving through introduction, flirting, dating, courtship, commitment, injury, disillusionment, break up, reconciliation, gratitude and peaceful acceptance. And then there's the next day. Over time, I have learned to appreciate who I become through running, what running becomes with me in it, and the symbiotic beauty that we create together.

Finally, running has one very real advantage over many of the other loves of my life; unconditional forgiveness. To be sure, I am not implying that I deserve forgiveness all the time but I always hope it comes. But running doesn't just forgive my many imperfections, it actually encourages them to rise to the surface where they can be seen in the light of day. This way, they can be dealt with straight away or acknowledged as something that needs more attention. Running does that by scraping away the layers of fear and ego, scrubbing my empty places, assuring the cleanliness of the dark corners, preparing those places for something new. But what to put there? Maybe nothing for now. I am in no great hurry to be full again. For now, I will remain faithful to running but I will leave space for other relationships, ones that move me closer to having a truly honest friendship with the most elusive person I almost know; ME. Until then, I will keep RUNNING IN PLACE. And if that doesn't work, maybe I will try the role playing, leather and fancy underwear after all.


I didn't say it was your fault, I said I was blaming you

One year ago, May 20, 2010, everything changed for me. I was arrested and charged with about 100 crimes (okay it was actually 15, but it felt like 100). I was sure it was just a big mistake and would go away once the details came out. I was half right, it WAS a big mistake but it did not go away. My life was turned upside down and my reputation was shattered. Or was it? It has been an interesting year. I have a reputation for certain things. I guess that can be said for all of us. And like most reputations, mine has been formed through a combination of fact and myth. Facts are typically those character traits that have been witnessed first hand by others and the myths are usually created by the subsequent watered down rumors that permeate the larger world in the aftermath of the facts. The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle, as it should.

Since my arrest on May 20, 2010, I have had the good fortune of hearing from many people concerning their feelings about me. It is a rare day when someone doesn't feel compelled to share with me exactly how they feel about me, either good or bad. Of course, I prefer to hear from those that love me, like me, or are at least willing to tolerate me. But I also feel fortunate to hear from those who do not care for me or who just downright dislike me. I say fortunate because this is one way for me to learn more about myself, even if it doesn't feel good. If I only take the word of people who love me, then I would be delusional. Conversely, I would never believe the entirety of the negative things said about me or I might never leave my house, or my cell as the case may be.

So let's get to the point. I have a reputation for being passionate (over bearing), driven (aggressive), determined (pushy), stubborn (abusive), self deprecating (self centered), loving (insincere), idealistic (uncompromising), generous (greedy) and funny (funny). There is really no doubt that I am all of these and more, a perfectly flawed person. I have attempted expeditions in many countries and I have raced all over the world. I have former teammates that would follow me anywhere and there are some that wouldn't piss on me if I was on fire. I am an arguer, an antagonist and true master debater (to quote the great Austin Powers). I think that about covers it but let's dig a bit deeper anyway.

I am told that I seem confident and self assured but that is certainly not always the case. Sometimes, life's setbacks can cause some serious doubts but that is when I try my best to relax and just go with the flow, see what happens next. If I don't panic, things pretty much always work themselves out. The part of me that I dislike the most is my sometimes uncontrollable temper. I can be abusive and arrogant and uncaring at times. (And those are my good qualities) Sometimes I hear words coming out of my mouth that I can't believe are mine and I try to reach out and shove them back into my throat but it is too late. When I get angry, it doesn't matter anymore if I am right or wrong, my tone and my hurtful words make me the loser. I am not proud of it. But I am proud of what usually comes next. As I have learned in addiction recovery, I don't have to be perfect, thankfully, but I do have to be willing to "keep my side of the street clean." Today, I do not hate anyone and I do not hold grudges because that is a waste of time and energy. If I were to spend my precious time talking badly about others or pointing the finger of blame at others, what would be the point? It is a small person that spends even a moment explaining the flaws of others.

You may not believe me, but I don't even hate the people that put me in prison. Sure, it's possible that they are short sighted, overly aggressive, manipulative, win at all costs, misguided bottom feeders, but I don't hate them. Wait, did that sound angry? Give me a moment to center myself with a short breathing exercise. (Wait 30 seconds before continuing to read) Okay, I'm back.

Ironically, Being in prison surrounded by lots of anger has helped me to see the futility of my occasionally self righteous attitude. I would not go so far as to say that I am glad to be here, but I do think that the powerlessness I feel has helped me to keep things in perspective. I am incredibly lucky to have a father and family that regularly remind me that I am worthy of love. Friends and strangers alike have reached out to let me know that my value as a person is not tied to what has happened to me.

I like the old saying, "Do not argue with an idiot. He will drag you down to his level and beat you with experience." But here is the problem. Sometimes I am the idiot, sometimes the idiot is someone else and most of the time it's impossible to tell the difference until long after the argument is over and even then, the identity of the idiot is well hidden behind revisionist history that is probably skewed in my favor. My "work in progress" goal is to care more about the person I disagree with and less about the disagreement. I want to figure out how I feel and not worry so much about how I look.

So what is the value of a person's reputation? That depends entirely on who is being asked and who is being asked about. Politics offers the best and easiest example of this. Not many of us personally know the president of the United States but each of us probably has a fairly strong opinion about the man and about the way he conducts himself. I think it is fair to say that we base our opinion on a number of factors including but not limited to: Experience, truthfulness, integrity, appearance and the more intangible "shiftiness" factor. The problem is that unless we know the man personally, we must rely heavily on the opinion of others and our overall perception. In other words, we don't have a clue.

As for my reputation, I am pretty sure it's a mixed bag of truth and fiction. If I am brutally honest with myself, I think I am probably 80% decent guy and 20% jerk. Does that mean that 1 out of every 5 things I say or do is based in anger or insensitivity? I sure hope not. It's more likely that I go in streaks of "jerkness" that can seem never ending to the person that is enduring me at the time.

While I can't be sure of the motivation behind all of my own actions, I am at least certain that I want to do better, to be better. I want to be more caring and patient, more compassionate and thoughtful, less angry. Is reputation important? To a certain degree, yes. But what's more important to me is the ability to honestly assess both the good and the bad of who I am in the eyes of others and when looking in the mirror. It doesn't make my critics right or wrong but I would say that there is usually more than a grain of truth in every criticism. I hope that I can improve my faults eventually because I would rather not continue RUNNING IN PLACE on this one.


LONELY AND HOPELESS (Don't worry, it's a good thing)

To my way of thinking, my life up to this point has been loaded with brilliant highs and crushing lows and not a lot of time spent in the safe middle ground. I would love to say that this is by my own design but the truth is it's just the result of my particular brand of neurosis, caused mostly by genetics and environment. First and foremost, I am an addict. Every decision, every feeling and every reaction I have is somehow influenced by the addict that still lives inside me. This is neither good nor bad, it just is. My addict drives me to run for wisdom, to strive for success and to love with abandon. The very same addict tells me that I am unworthy of love and undeserving of prosperity. He can be a real dick. He is everything in me and about me. He is me. Over the years, we have found a way to coexist, understanding that we actually need each other if we want to survive this journey.

I am closing in on 19 years of sobriety, and while I am grateful for it I recognize that the accomplishment is nothing more than the result of not drinking alcohol and not using drugs for that same period of time. The true test of sobriety is buried in the rubble of who I am now and who I will become and not in the more tangible and trackable passing of time. Time passes at the same rate whether I am sober or not, whether my behavior is sober or not. In other words, just being sober teaches me nothing, I learn only from taking action and enduring or basking in the results. For me, sobriety without action is pointless.

Of course, we all recognize that there are no guarantees of any particular result when we take action. This is an absolute truth. Even when we get exactly the results we expected, it may not lead us in the anticipated direction. This is a very good thing. How boring would life be if we always got exactly what we expected to get? I have no doubt that the choices I have made in life and in love have been the right ones for me. But when the inevitable loneliness and fear creep into the darkest corners of my brain, I am tempted to run for the relative safety of some secure middle ground, a place that offers little reward but where the risks are minimal. I fantasize that in this riskless place I would find peace and the incessant chatter from my inner addict would die down. As I relax deeper into the contemplation of elusive safety, I begin to feel numb. It seems to me that with safety comes a deadening of sorts. I picture it as I would a nearly frozen mountaineer giving into the temptation of sleep in order to escape reality. But sleep at the wrong time can be death for a mountaineer and the safe middle ground of existence would be death for me. In this belief, my addict and I work together to stay awake.

When I arrived in prison a few months ago, I was engulfed by loneliness and obsessed with the secret hope that a miracle would happen and the life I lost would be restored. I no longer hope for this. In fact, I am completely hopeless and I could not be more grateful for it. So often in life and especially in my current life, I can be seduced by hope, spending hours and days wishing for something better, wanting my old life back. Hope pushes away the present moment and tells me to focus my energy on the unknown future when all will surely be okay.

But hopelessness brings me fully awake to this very second and forces me to be present and productive. Hopelessness gets a bad rap for being depressing, angry, full of despair. Instead, hopelessness can be empowering and enlightening. Being hopeless forces me into thoughtful action right now, not later. It is absolutely true that the life I had before incarceration was wonderful and difficult and fulfilling but no amount of hoping will bring that life back. For a while the loss of that life was devastating and incomprehensible. I felt paralyzed by the accompanying fear. Despite the overwhelming support I received and still receive from family and friends and strangers, I felt lonely beyond explanation. Once again, my inner addict pounced on the opportunity to remind me that I am an unlovable screw up deserving of nothing good. I hate that guy sometimes but he keeps me on my toes.

What a difference a few months and a lot of hard work makes. By allowing myself to be sad about my losses, I have also found the means to scrub away some of the plaque that had accumulated from my manic and never ending busy existence. In many ways, the simplicity of my current day to day life has calmed me down considerably. Loneliness has forced me to spend all of my time with me, a fate I would not have previously wished upon anyone. But the man that is slowly emerging feels more genuine than the one that was lost. I no longer feel the overwhelming urge to fill every minute with people or activity. In recent years especially, I think I have treated my life like a contest of friend gathering and over achieving. Mind you, undeniably the best part of my old life and this evolving one is the friends I have made along the way. But along with the addition of friends comes the responsibility to be a better friend to others and I have failed too often at this. I always told my kids that if you want to have friends, first you have to be a friend. I am a slow learner sometimes.

All of this indulgent self analysis has brought me to the surprising conclusion that I just need to relax into the unknown of my situation and stop trying to control it. Relaxing into hopelessness sounds bad on the surface but it has forced me to be present and mindful of what I am doing now instead of focusing on future rewards. Relaxing into loneliness has taught me that I can be alone and I will not die from boredom. It seems that I can actually stop trying to escape being alone with myself.

It's not that I suddenly lack desire for companionship or that I lack desire to accomplish meaningful goals, but I am learning that desire can be addictive, causing me to grab for something just because I want to fill the empty spaces with something, anything. My fear was that the violent involuntary destruction of the old me would leave an empty shell. Maybe what I have found out is that I was already more empty shell than I thought. Either way, I now prefer to believe that the empty shell is being filled with a new and better me. I can't say yet that I am grateful for what was done to me but I am at least comfortable with saying that my higher power has done for me what I was incapable of doing for myself.

When I have true moments of clarity, I can take an honest inventory of what was actually lost. Moments in time, circumstances, outcomes that may have been even worse than prison. But what has been gained is overwhelmingly positive. Of course, I still want to be loved by others and I still want to feel the pain and learn the lessons that come from testing my body and spirit. But now I also want to feel okay when I am alone and lacking a specific goal to drive me. Being lonely just means that I am alone for the moment, nothing more. Being hopeless just means that I am doing something and not just hoping for better days.

My inner addict is not happy right now because I refuse to feed him. But he is patient. He knows that if I should ever become complacent, thinking that I am cured, he will welcome me back to the dark side. I don't plan to let that happen but just to sure, I will keep RUNNING IN PLACE.


No matter where you go, there you are

"Honoring oneself means that one should never surrender his or her dignity to those who may appear more powerful, or abandon that which they know from their own divine spark to be right, simply because the force of others is great. Honor oneself"-Howell Woltz, writer and inmate. When I was 26 years old, I checked myself into a residential drug treatment program in Pacific Grove, CA. While I was mostly convinced that I needed to change my behavior, an even more powerful motivator was to get everyone off my back. I used to think things like, "My family will always love me no matter what" or, "My wife will never divorce me", or my personal favorite, "They can't fire me, I'm the top salesman". Wrong, wrong, and really wrong!

So I went to a 28 day program to save my job, salvage my marriage, and soothe my family. Oh yeah, and I went to get clean and sober. I accomplished all of those goals and I did it in record time. I wanted to be the best recovering addict in my class. And I was....for a while. Six months after I left rehab, out of 15 people I was the only one still sober. I picked up my six month sobriety chip and never went to another AA meeting. Two months later, I joined my relapsing classmates in addiction Hell once more.

I made many mistakes during that initial attempt at sobriety, but the main one was that I had treated it like a contest. When I hit the six month mark as the only sober one left from my class, I mentally relaxed and a small voice inside me whispered, "You won". I had yet to grasp the fact that sobriety was less about not drinking and more about learning how to live. I had proven that I could stop drinking and drugging but still had no clue how to start living.

It took two more years of killing myself daily with drugs and alcohol but I finally decided I was finished being controlled by drugs, and tired of being beholden to demons, both known and unknown. But I was afraid to try again because I had done everything right the first time or so I thought. I had gone to tons of AA meetings, gotten a sponsor and worked the 12 steps to perfection. And yet I had failed. Why would this time be any different? Then it occurred to me one day that I was overlooking a very obvious fact. The first time I tried to get sober, it was a desperate attempt to save the life that I already had. But this time around, I wanted to create a new life; to be a new person. I wanted not just to behave differently but to actually feel differently.

For 10 long years, I used drugs to temporarily hide, to bury myself for a day or a week. I hated who I was, a pretender, a mere actor in my own daily drama. True or not, that is how I felt. But On July 23, 1992 I was finally ready to bury the old me forever and to become the person I am today; a sometimes overbearing, slightly insecure, brutally honest, very sarcastic, occasionally funny person. Oh, and did I mention annoyingly arrogant at times? And some of those are my good qualities.

The point I am making is pretty simple. The greatest lesson I have learned in sobriety is that perfection is not possible and should not be the goal. Not in sobriety, not in work, not in running and certainly not in relationships of any kind. Now, instead of perfection, I strive to clean up the messes I make along the way, instead of allowing them to pile up and bury me. I no longer expect perfection from myself, but at times I still seem to expect it from others, especially those closest to me. I still need to do much better and learn to ease up sometimes. Progress, not perfection.

The fact is there are actually some things I do like about who I am today. That has been a long time coming and is a promise fulfilled only through staying sober long term.

Also through sobriety I have come to the clear understanding that there will always be people that simply don't like me. And thanks to instant gratification technology, anyone can express any opinion anytime. I now know that when I chose to be a more visible person in public, I opened myself up to higher intensity criticism. It hurts sometimes but I have learned that if I choose to be the person I was meant to be, I will simply rub some people the wrong way. There are even former friends who have chosen to take advantage of this particular time to heap disapproval upon me, either for long past disagreements or my current legal challenge. I am an easy target right now. There will always be an abundance of people who feel entitled to judge others. It is certainly a much easier task than looking at oneself and one’s own imperfections.

I know from experience that every adventure has a set of unique challenges and this current one is no different for me. Interpersonal relationships are often the most frustrating aspect of any great challenge. Feelings get hurt, and things get said that are regretful. For my part, I try very hard to choose forgiveness, recognizing that speaking badly about someone after the fact has no real value. Plus, I know that my memory of any past incident would be far too one sided to be fair so I think it's best to keep it to myself. There are always two views or more to every story. And the simple fact is that most of us need a bit of forgiveness for harsh words spoken from time to time. This insight is another amazing gift of sobriety for me.

My arrest, my trial, my conviction, my sentencing and my incarceration have brought me full circle from disbelief to anger to fear to acceptance. Not acceptance for any wrong doing but rather acceptance of the fact that human existence is utterly unpredictable. I can't control what happens but I can control how I react to what happens. I have never felt the need to publicly defend myself because I know the truth and that is enough for the time being. Ultimately, the only truth I have to live with is my own. No matter what comes next on this crazy ride, I will continue RUNNING IN PLACE.


Free your mind and the rest will follow

I want to thank Joe Nocera for his powerful article on the front page of Saturday’s New York Times Business Section. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/26/business/26nocera.html?ref=business

Today I awoke to the sound of waves crashing on the shore outside my bedroom window. The sun was crawling out of the ocean so I dressed quickly and went outside to enjoy the day’s first light. I was pleased to find myself alone on the beach but since it was the middle of the week, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. I relax with my closed eyes turned towards the rising sun, the smell of strong dark coffee massaging my senses. I can see a woman standing at the waters edge so I start walking towards her. As I approach, I hear someone say, “Hey, Charlie, you want to get some breakfast?” Then a little louder and closer,” Charlie, BREAKFAST!” I reluctantly drag my mind out of the mud and back to the present moment. Hovering above me I see my 6’10” African American cellmate glaring down at me impatiently. I keep my eyes closed and wonder if I just ignore him maybe I can drop myself back into my dream, and if I can, would time have passed or would the woman still be standing there? But Shorty persists, “Yo man, yes or no?”

I decide to get up and follow Shorty down to breakfast. There is no beach or ocean in sight. I can feel a sadness around the edges of my mind. But then it occurs to me that I need to look at the situation differently. I know that, in fact, I can return to the beach anytime I want to. My physical reality cannot stop my mind from body surfing the oceans waves. No person or situation or incarceration, no matter how unjust, can force unhappiness, especially in prison, especially when I can get mired in the feeling that I shouldn’t be here. So I must prepare for those inevitable times when depression finds a foothold in my brain’s cracked shell. To naively pretend that there will not be hard times would be foolish.

For me, a long time recovering addict, depression hovers just below the waters surface, tethered to the anchor of my sobriety. But I don’t have to drink or drug for the tether to fray or even snap, sending me to the deep dark waters of my physical confinement. When I sense that darkness coming on, I know immediately that I must find my running shoes and I must not succumb to the temptation of sleep therapy. Some inmates spend every free minute sleeping, just to escape this place. I will not do that. Instead, I must put in some miles. In prison, more than ever before, I know there is no escape from me or for me.

When I run, there is no prison. There is no loneliness. There is no injustice. There is only relief felt by a body in motion that takes the mind on a wild joy ride.

A lifetime of experience has taught me to be patient when it is warranted, to take action when it is prudent, to be still when it is dangerous. Adaptation to an ever changing environment is the key cog in the wheel of my fulfillment. Rigidity and intolerance, whether self inflicted or imposed upon me, are the stepping stones to my demise. Alternatively, I know that I can choose to head to the beach anytime I want to. The choice is mine and I cannot blame anyone else if I allow myself to be miserable. I may be forced to struggle through the deep sand but I can get to the waters edge and enjoy the sun on my face. As long as my mind remains strong, this ability cannot be taken from me. I just have to choose to do it. Maybe I can even find out who that woman at the beach was.

All I have to do is lace up my running shoes and start moving. Running takes me everywhere I want to go. Even if I am only RUNNING IN PLACE.


Beckley Prison 101

“Could be worse, could be raining” – Marty Feldman

© Copyright Rod McLean

On February 14, 2011 (Valentine’s Day) I reported to Beckley Federal Correctional Institute to begin a 21 month sentence. I am here because I allegedly overstated my income on a home loan application in 2005. I have spent the past weeks trying to learn the ropes and stay out of trouble. Here are some of the things I have learned. *The food here serves one main purpose; namely it assures we will not die of starvation. We may die of food boredom though. This is not the ideal place for a vegetarian but I am getting by. *Do not ask a correctional officer (CO) any question that can be answered by an inmate. Talking to a CO is an invitation for verbal abuse. *Absolutely anything can be acquired in prison by those that are determined enough. I am learning to steer a wide path around trouble and those that seem to be attracted to it. *Beckley has a drug education program and those that complete it get one year off of their sentence. Most participants seem to have no interest in dealing with their drug problems but they have great interest in getting one year off. I find it very ironic that because I have been clean and sober for 18 years, I do not qualify for the program and therefore must serve my entire sentence. *We do have television rooms but they are ruled by seniority. I will not be here long enough (thankfully) to ever have a “seat” in the TV room. It’s okay, I don’t miss TV. Now if we had Dexter or Californication, it might be a different story. *Some people here comfort themselves with food and not surprisingly they gain a lot of weight. But I have met several men here that have lost more than 100 pounds and are leaving prison much better than when they arrived. They are inspirational. *Running is not necessarily encouraged here. I guess being able to run a long distance is not seen as a good thing. Already, many guys here have approached me about getting on a running program. I love it. A lot of them have never even run a 5k but I am hoping to help a bunch of them run a half marathon around the recreation area in June. I know it will change their lives if they can learn to love running. It is a lifelong gift. And yes, I do Run In Place every day. *Is it dangerous here? Of course it is, it’s a prison with lots of criminals. While there are a few men here after being convicted of a so called “white collar” crime, most are here for drugs and guns. Many of them have served much longer sentences at higher security facilities and are here serving out the last years of their sentence. *Books and magazines are highly coveted here. Everyone reads or wants to read. I am helping to teach a couple of inmates to read. It is incredibly gratifying watching someone begin to put sentences together. I am also ready about 3 books per week. *I have learned that my twisted sense of humor translates well to prison. I have hundreds of new people to torture with my puns. *There is a tremendous amount of farting in prison. Just picture the campfire scene from Blazing Saddles. Farting is like a sport here. There may even be a ranking system but I’m not sure because I haven’t qualified yet. *Getting sick or injured in prison is a bad idea and should be avoided. And don’t even think about having a dental problem. *Being a vegetarian in prison is like being a whore in church. Everybody looks at you funny but they all want to ask questions in private. *If an inmate is not present for the “count” five times per day, he will most likely go to the hole. As far as I can tell, that’s not a good thing. I will try to avoid it. *Only four sets of “greens” are issued to each inmate. These uniforms must be worn at all times until 4:00pm each day. After that, sweats and tee shirts can e worn. Steel toed boots can be exchanged for tennis shoes at 4:00 also. Many inmates cannot afford to buy sweats and tennis shoes so they are stuck in uniform all the time. *At this time I am still stuck in the bubble with 7 other inmates. It is supposed to be temporary but the overcrowding in prisons nationwide is beyond comprehension. I will eventually be moved into a two man cell with steel bunks and a small steel locker. Beds must be made each morning and all items must be stored in the locker before work. *Phones – I get 300 minutes (5 hours) of phone time each month at about 25 cents per minute. I used to use 300 minutes per day in my real life. It’s kind of nice not having a phone attached to my ear all day. *Church – some people find religion here while others bring it with them, but for many, their faith is what gets them through each day. As for me, I pray to my higher, meditate daily and read from Buddhist teachings. And of course I run to truly raise my spirits. *Showers – The showers are private so the whole “dropping the soap” thing is not an issue. The only problem is that there is rarely enough hot water. Imagine the water heater for 450 men. *Shaving – About 15 years ago I started shaving my legs for triathlons. When I stopped doing triathlons I kept shaving them because truth be told, I like the way my legs look with no hair. I have temporarily suspended the shaving of the legs. For so many reasons smooth legs just seem like a bad idea in prison. *Toilets – (TMI) In my wing there are 8 toilets for about 225 men, so things can get backed up (pun intended). Each bathroom has an orderly so they are reasonably clean. Its better than a truck stop but far worse than an airport bathroom. Another oddity is that many inmates will turn on a faucet for noise dampening and also use a “courtesy flush” technique. Who knew inmates could be so shy and courteous? *Hair – You name it – its here. Ponytail, Gerry curl, mullet, pig tail, marine cut, bald, Mohawk, nohawk and my personal favorites are the guys that look like Forest Gump clearly having decided to forego hair cuts and shaving for the duration of their stay. I don’t like seeing those guys working in the kitchen. *Beatings, shackles and waterboarding – It seems that none of these are part of the curriculum here at Beckley and for that I am grateful. However, verbal abuse and psychological games are the chosen weapons here. There are some decent people on the staff here, ones that understand that mutual respect works very well. Unfortunately there also some real abusers here, men that clearly have no power on the outside so they choose to take it out on the defenseless. *Mail call – It is the highlight of each day. I am thoroughly enjoying getting to know many of you better through your letters. I am hoping that everyone will tell me about their most memorable running experience. I write as many letters as possible but sometimes it is hard to keep up. I assure you that I read every word of every letter I get. *Computers – Despite my seemingly constant presence online, I do not have access to the internet here. I have some very limited email and some amazing friends that help me. And I am a pretty good problem solver so I always try to find a way. *Education – I am taking classes in everything from blood born pathogens to parenting. I have even joined Toastmasters. I have read 4 “classic novels” so far and have taken tests to receive credit for the reading. I am very happy keeping my mind busy. I also spend about 2 hours per day writing. *Visitation – When I arrived here at Berkley, I had high hopes that I would have a long list of visitors. I think that would happen were it not for the fact that it seems to be discouraged here. I have been told by my counselor that I can have only 10 people on my visitors list at any time. He made it clear that he would accommodate very limited changes over the course of my sentence. I have read the BOP (Bureau of Prisons) handbook and there is no mention of a limit to the possible number of approved visitors. There is, however a limit to the number of visits I can have each month. As far as I can tell, some counselors set their own guidelines even if it goes against BOP policy. I am following the rules and being a good citizen here. I have confidence that the rules will ultimately be followed by the staff. My only desire is to remain in close contact with friends and family. That is also the BOP goal stated in the handbook. We will see. *Weather – Berkley Prison is located in Beaver (I said Beaver) WV. I am told that we are at about 2500 feet elevation. So far it has rained or snowed most days but I think the spring and summer will be nice. Generally, my days pass quickly because I choose to stay busy and I do not dwell on the circumstances. Man inmates sleep and eat and complain their way through each day. There are also some really good men here, many of whom made terrible mistakes with drugs early in their lives. It is easy to see that many of them will be here again. This place is not terrible but make no mistake, it is prison. I have chosen to approach my time here as a challenge. What things can improve upon in myself while I am here. The list is long. There are many things I don’t like about this place but I can’t change any of them. However, I can change me. Beckley is forcing me to practiced acceptance every day. Its not easy but I am using the tools I have learned in recovery. I am learning to keep the flames low without allowing my fire to be extinguished. And as always, what truly keeps me sane is Running In Place.

My Daily Routine: 5:30am – wake up on my own, meditate for 20 minutes 6:00am – breakfast, varies between dry cereal, oatmeal, pancakes, French toast 6:30am – Board bus for work at landscaping/recycling 7:00 – 10:30am – work, read, write, listen to NPR, be outside 10:45am – lunch – I opt for no meat, usually rice, beans and bread, maybe hard boiled eggs 11:30 – board bus back to work 11:30 – 2:30 – work, read, write (the work part gets busier in the spring) 2:30 – board bus back to prison 2:45pm – change quickly and get outside for a workout. There are no weights so imagination is needed. Anything that can be lifted is in play. Basketball courts and dirt track are here too. This my time to run outside. 4:00pm – “count” – I must be in my room (aka: the bubble) 4:30pm – dinner – fishlike patty, meat like patty, chickenish patty, canned corn, canned green beans, bread, water – I usually skip dinner and eat rice or noodles in my room. Maybe some peanut butter. 5:00pm – back outside to the track 5:30pm – mail call – this takes a while as each piece of mail is called out. This is my favorite time of day, thanks to many of you. 6:00pm – back outside if possible or to the recreation area to try and find a spot for some yoga 7:00pm – head to the library to write and read and talk to a few friends. There are a handful of very smart people here. Newspapers are a day old but still interesting. 9:00 – I sometimes play cards but usually read 10:00pm – count time – lights out 10:30pm – I read until sleep finds me. Lather, rinse and repeat



I used to love Tarzan movies. Adventure, exotic travel, fighting, treehouses and a scantily clad damsel in distress. What's not to love? Although I must admit I was always a bit troubled wondering how Tarzan kept his package in place while wearing a loin cloth. But other than that, only one thing really concerned me as I imagined myself living as Tarzan, king of the jungle; Quicksand! At least once in every Tarzan movie, some poor soul would stumble into a pit of quicksand. Predictably, the nameless victim would panic and flail around even though I yelled at him not to do that. The camera would cut away to a lion roaring and then back to the quicksand again, revealing only a hand sinking below the surface or a hat laying on top, too light to join the former wearer in the depths below.

Everybody knows that fighting the sucking sinking pull of quicksand is the speediest way to lose the battle, yet we do it anyway. It is pure instinct and has nothing to do with logic or wisdom. When we are scared and panicky, we struggle wildly, blindly grasping at anything that might offer safety. If we do manage to latch onto something, we will most likely pull it under with us, creating an even greater tragedy. We simply cannot see that if we just relax, the sinking will slow significantly. Only then can we get our bearings and start to form a plan. And instead of sinking, we might just be able to save ourselves.

I arrived at Beckley Prison in Beaver, West Virginia on February 14th, 2011, Valentines Day. I was edgy and anxious which probably confirms that I am human. I spent most of my first week in prison trying to learn the routine. I had a hundred questions about how to get along and I have managed to figure out some of the answers. It is true that every question has a power that is completely lost in the answer. But I also kept asking "why", mostly just to myself but occasionally I asked it out loud. In prison, I have almost no control over my physical existence, so asking the question "why" is not only irrelevant but potentially harmful. Case in point, on my second day here, I was called into my counselor's office. My more experienced cell mates advised me of me things to be wary of but especially that I should never have my hands in my pockets when speaking to this particular counselor. This seemed ridiculous to me. What if my hands are cold? For those of you that know me personally, you understand that this advice did nothing but make me curious and a bit defiant. I desperately wanted to test the waters. If I walked into his office with my hands buried in my pockets, how bad could it really be? Or maybe I should just ask him straight out, "why can't I have my hands in my pockets?" And while I am at it, I will ask him why there can't be better food in here and why there are no weights in the gym and why I can't have more than 5 books at one time in my locker and why I can't have more visitors. And then just for good measure I will punch myself in the nose.

My mind was in quicksand and sinking fast. My normal instinct is to seek reason and logic but my current life is not logical or reasonable. I am accustomed to facing problems head on and finding solutions but there is no way to fix this problem, no solution to get me out of prison. So I have stopped asking "why" because it simply doesn't matter right now. Instead I am practicing acceptance and patience. Practicing is the perfect word for it because I really stink at the whole patience thing. I am good at being patient as long as I can do it on my schedule and guarantee the results I want. Wait, does that count as patience? Anyway, I have no problem accepting results that are to my liking, but now I must find a way to accept my loss of freedom. I have to try to set aside my anger and frustration for this treatment that I feel is unwarranted. I am struggling with that.

So it's clear that I have not just stumbled into a pit of quicksand, I have actually fallen into an ocean of the stuff. I have yet to find a way to float to the top but neither am I flailing around, making things worse. I am trying to take Pema Chodran's advice and "relax into the groundlessness of the situation". I think that she is saying that with relaxation comes acceptance. I am not there yet. But of one thing I am certain, for the time being, "why" does not need to be answered. I just need to seek solid footing so that I can keep RUNNING IN PLACE.

PS-Thanks to all of you amazing people that continue to be part of my life, especially the ones that are acting as surrogate parents for my kids. Their mom is very appreciative and so am I. For those of you keeping an eye on my boys, keep after them. They are teenagers and not always easy to corral. But I continue to be excited and grateful for the beautiful friendships that they are developing without me. I would never choose to be away but much good is coming from this.

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