Meet an ex-crack addict marathon runner — and more extremists

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When it came to smoking crack, Charlie Engle was the best. He was pretty good at drinking, too. It was only in his late twenties that he finally managed to quit and took up ultrarunning instead.

Three years ago, aged 56, he celebrated 27 years of sobriety by running for 27 hours straight.

“Part of ultrarunning is a desire to be different,” he says. “And for the drug addict, too, there is a deep need to separate ourselves from the crowd. It sounds crazy to say this, but street people would tell me, ‘You could smoke more crack than anybody I’ve ever seen,’ and there was a weird, ‘Yeah, that’s right!’ 

“There’s still a part of me that wants to be validated through doing things that other people can’t.” 

Charlie Engle is one of the many subjects featured in the book “Everything Harder Than Everyone Else — Why Some of Us Push Ourselves to Extremes” (Apollo Publishers) by Jenny Valentish, which examines what drives some people to go above and beyond what most of us consider safe, tasteful or rational.

“To push your body to such extremes is basically self-harm,” Valentish told The Post. All of her subjects, she said, “not only found something they’re good at but something that also makes people gasp. There’s a lot of bravado.’”

According to University of Wisconsin psychologist Frank Farley, as many as 30 percent of Americans are what he calls “Type T” people — thrill-seeking individuals who not only thrive on intensity, conflict and risk but also require excessive stimulation to reach their optimal level of arousal. Psychologist Marvin Zuckerman at the University of Delaware believes thrill-seekers are driven by lower naturally-occurring levels of the feel-good hormone dopamine in their systems.

Alex Mann pursued extreme pain through Deathmatch wrestling — until it led to a brain injury.
Alex Mann pursued extreme pain through Deathmatch wrestling — until it led to a brain injury.
Cory Lockwood Photography

“The nature of dopamine is that the more you rodeo-ride your reward system, the more reactive it becomes, which means the more compelled you feel to raise the stakes,” writes Valentish. 

Take Alex Mann, 42. Like nearly all of the case studies, he is what Valentish calls a “natural-born leg jiggler.”

He found an outlet for his energy in “Deathmatch” wrestling, where he fought under the name “KrackerJak,” using creative props and weapons, like a cactus fastened to a baseball bat with barbed wire. Valentish said the sport “was the perfect thing for Alex to channel all this agitated energy he had in him.”

In the book, Mann describes how the “masochistic melodrama” of wrestling and the pursuit of pain was all-consuming. He even allowed Valentish to fire a staple gun into his forehead, just to show how far he was prepared to go.

“It felt like I’d come home . . . to feel pain in parts of my body I’d never felt pain in before, and pumped beyond belief at the frenetic exchange of energy,” he explained.

Camilla Fogagnolo said being sexually abused as a child and other multiple traumas caused her to seek out extraordinary challenges.
Camilla Fogagnolo said being sexually abused as a child and other multiple traumas caused her to seek out extraordinary challenges.
Kishka Jensen

KrackerJak thought his wrestling days were over in 2016 when he suffered a brain injury after being repeatedly bashed over the head with a DVD player during a bout. Now, five years later, he’s making tentative steps back into the ring. 

“It all has much in common with scratching a stubborn itch,” he reflects. “The more you scratch, the more you itch.” 

Other extremists say they experienced a painful early life scenario and are driven to re-enact the trauma “with the unconscious desire to achieve a different outcome so as to emerge the victor,” Valentish writes.

That describes Camilla Fogagnolo, 36. A former Olympic weightlifter turned professional strongwoman (who can deadlift cars), she was sexually abused as a child and later kicked out of her family home for drinking, smoking and general rebelliousness. Along the way she also suffered multiple bereavements, from her pet horse to her dad to her coach. 

But she now realizes her trauma is what made her who she is, compelling her to do whatever it took to be the best. Much of it can be attributed to her disciplinarian father, Roberto, who put her and her two brothers through a daily drill of qigong-style breathing exercises, an uphill circuit run, rounds of tumbling, somersaults and handsprings, rope climbs, and wood splitting. 

Richie Steward said he has channeled his anger over a torrid childhood into MMA fighting.
Richie Steward said he has channeled his anger over a torrid childhood into MMA fighting.

“Looking back, it was a strange setup, because we were always taught that ego is nothing and ‘yourself’ is nothing,” she said in the book. “So even though we were striving to be as good as we could be, we were still meant to put ourselves last.” 

It was a similar story with Richie “Hardcore” Steward, who also survived a torrid childhood to fulfill his dream of becoming a mixed martial-arts fighter and now works as an educator, activist and public speaker on sexual violence prevention and mental health. 

He notes that the first 1,000 days of a child’s neurological development are critical in how our personalities take shape. 

Thrill-seekers, like Charlie Engle (above), are driven by lower naturally-occurring levels of the feel-good hormone dopamine, according to psychologist Marvin Zuckerman.
Thrill-seekers, like Charlie Engle (above), are driven by lower naturally-occurring levels of the feel-good hormone dopamine, according to psychologist Marvin Zuckerman.
Zandy Mangold

“Well, my first thousand days weren’t peaceful,” he said in the book. “And eventually, I wound up beating my dad up a few times because I got good at fighting, but that’s not a healthy thing to do. 

“I needed somewhere to put all my hurt feelings.”

Some extremists are outliers, whose behavior doesn’t stem from trauma or tragedy but rampant curiosity. Like Dr. Jack Allocca.

Dr. Jack Allocca has consumed more than 100 species of animals, many of which he hunts himself.
Dr. Jack Allocca has consumed more than 100 species of animals, many of which he hunts himself.
@jack.allocca Instagram

An Italian neuroscientist working at the University of Melbourne in Australia, Allocca is determined to challenge common notions of disgust by eating everything most of the world considers either inedible — or just wrong. To date, he’s consumed more than 100 species of animals, including monkey, vulture, caribou, wombat, bears, koala, lion, tiger, whale and zebra, which he hunts alongside indigenous tribes.

For Allocca, it’s all about the chase. 

“The pursuit is a mixture of wrath, coordination [and] cruelty,” he admitted to Valentish. “And finally there’s the actual assault, where you are next to the animal and you are fighting it. You’re stabbing it, or strangling it, and there’s a specific functional panic response in which you just have to beat that other animal.”

Everything harder than everyone else

But when the battle is over, Allocca said he experiences the deepest form of peace.

“It’s an altered state,” he said. “You have a carcass in your hand, you’re covered in blood and bruises. The process of pursuing an animal, killing it, butchering it, is one of the most complex psychological and neurological experiences that I can possibly recount.”

In the end, Charlie Engle believes some of the traits that drove his search for a drug-induced high — tenacity, ingenuity, stamina and an almost restless drive — were the same ones he needed to become a successful ultrarunner.

“The absolute best I ever felt in relation to drugs was actually the acquisition of the drug,” he told Valentish. “There’s nothing more powerful than having the drugs in my pocket; the idea of what it can be. 

“Once the binge starts, it’s all downhill from there. But the idea of what it can be is huge. In a way, running is the same because there’s this weird idea that you’re going to enter a hundred-miler and this time it’s going to be different.

“This time it’s not gonna hurt so much, and everything’s going to be perfect.” 

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