Craig Engels has lofty goals for life and running
If you didn’t know who Craig Engels was, it would be hard to picture him as a professional runner, let alone the US national champion in the 1,500m. His haircut, his facial hair and his demeanor off-track could place him at a local farmer’s market, as a grad school student working on his MFA, or even a minor league baseball player who arrived 30 years too late. But Engels is one of the most beloved athletes in the sport, especially amongst younger crowds.
“It’s really cool that all those high school kids are following me. I was a big Jeff Gordon (NASCAR racer) fan growing up and there’s always these cool people that you look up to. Before the race, it’s really hard to get loosened up and I hear fans cheering me on, so recently I’ve been trying to hype them up like they do in other sports.”
“I just want to bring personality to the sport but also maintain the composure to run as much as possible, because you’d be looking like an asshole if you hyped them up and ran like shit.”
Despite his extraordinary talent, we’re lucky to witness Engels on the track at all. Instead, we could’ve seen him on the pitch, running down the flank and sending scintillating crosses to the box or putting the ball in the back of the net. That is, of course if he never mooned his soccer coach from the bus. Engels claims it was ‘a total accident’ but the coach, who had by this point seen enough of Craig, kicked him off the team. Not able to play soccer after school and unable to tell his mom about being kicked off the team, Engels turned to track and field.
Engels didn’t understand his raw running talent until right before he was about to finish high school, and had no idea he could go to college for running until his senior year in high school. He eventually chose NC State, in part because it was close to home. His world very quickly unraveled, and Engels came close to quitting running all together.
“It was really tough at that time. I broke up with my high school girlfriend and I wasn’t having fun running there. I didn’t know if I even wanted to run, but then my high school coach, Chris Catton, told me to go to Ole Miss (University of Mississippi). He told me to just try it out there see if it works out. Basically, told me to give it a last shot.”
And that became the turning point of Engels’ career and life.
“Going to Ole Miss was probably the best two and a half years of my life. I met some of my best friends there. It’s a lawless state down there and that’s exactly what I needed. Just no rules, no regulations, it was super fun. I found myself enjoying running and competing again.”
Engels attributes much of this turnaround to his coach, Ryan Vanhoy. “He had a way bigger emphasis on recovery than at NC State. We’d run on soft surfaces every day, we’d break the runs up if we needed to and we’d even take a day off if we needed to but we hit workouts hard. (In hindsight), it sounds like a perfect recipe but I couldn’t figure that out while I was at NC State because I think the culture was different.”
“Back in NC State, it was more like run hard every day and if you break, you break but if you don’t then keep running. Unfortunately, so many people get injured because of that and possibly not able to see their running career bloom but I mean, that’s how it all works.”
“(Vanhoy) was new. He was like 25, 26 years old when he coached me so we resonated with each other a little more. He understood that every once in a while, I needed to party and enjoy myself without being so stressed out. We really clicked. Him and (Chris) Catton, we still keep in touch and we are still talking on our group chat. I talk to them before every race.”
Engels thrived at Ole Miss, slowly replacing his personal records and then school records. After a strong outdoor season in 2016, he decided to run at Olympic trials in Eugene, Oregon. Despite being lucky to gain entry at the last minute into the fields, he finished 4th in the 800m and 5th over 1,500m, barely missing a trip to Rio.
While obviously disappointed to miss the chance to have USA across his chest, Engels was thrilled to have mixed it with the best professionals in the country.
“The whole time while I was running, I thought to myself,''I'd never go pro, they have the most boring life ever. All they do is run and watch Netflix all day’ but then I thought, ‘wait a minute, I can change that’.”
He received offers from a number of pro teams and eventually left Mississippi for Portland, Oregon to join Pete Julian and the Nike Oregon Project, where he has been since 2017.
“I think my coach, Pete Julian, is much more loose than my college and high school coaches were. To the point that my father would ask me if (Pete Julian) cares about me”, Craig laughs. “But he’s so great, I would tell him that I’m going on a trip to like a waterfall or mountain or whatever and he would text me about what I need to see while I’m there or just text me about random things. We work hard but he’s really great.”
The transition from college to being a pro has been a smooth one, the hardest thing being what to do with the extra free time now that he doesn’t have classes to attend.
“I trained like a pro when I was in college but there isn't a lot of difference training wise between then and now.
My first year, I had to figure out what to do other than just playing video games and watch Netflix.”
Engels continues, “Lots of people don’t realize that it’s about staying consistent, staying healthy and doing what you did in college. Because if you’re a pro, it means what you did in college worked so you just need to keep doing that and add a little more each year.
It's never an overnight thing.”
We’ve all heard the stories of the world’s best athletes and their insatiable desire to win. Ultracompetitive beasts who couldn’t handle losing a hand of poker (Michael Jordan, anyone?) or a meaningless guessing game. Engels? Yeah, he’s that guy too.
“I have this drive to be the best at every single thing that I do. Doesn’t matter what it is, it could be video games or ping pong. I try to tone it down a little bit like I won’t get mad or anything but I’d go to bed at night after losing a tennis match to my roommate and thinking, ‘what could I have done better?’ And with running, I am just like that; I want to be the best in the world. I don’t care if I’m competing against people who are doping or older than me or whatever, I’m gonna beat them. I wanna beat them no matter what they have.”
This drive will be on show over the next 12 months as Engels heads to the World Championships in Doha, and eventually (hopefully) to Tokyo. The competitiveness will be a little more valuable, too.
“Every night before I go to bed, I watch the past 10 or 15 1,500m races at USA’s. I watch all of Centro’s races, all of Ben Blankenship’s races, trying to figure out what I am going to do at Nationals (Ed: we conducted this interview 2 weeks before Nationals – which Engels won). I think about every scenario before I fall asleep...that’s like every night!” Craig laughs, but behind that laugh he exudes an incredible amount of confidence and excitement.
“Sometimes I wish Centro and I weren’t friends so we could create the biggest rivalry in track and field like Conor McGregor and Nate Diaz but unfortunately, we are friends. We’re good friends, we don’t have running beef but still, when we step on the line, we are not friends and he’ll tell you the same thing. I’m not friends with anyone when I step on the line. I wanna beat everyone.”
Despite his fun loving nature and easy going personality, you don’t get to where Engels has without discipline and application, so naturally he feels strongly about those who take shortcuts to the top.
"It's the people that never come out from (admitting) doping. That's going to weigh on your conscience until you die and that's so crazy to me.
I don’t get mad often but it pisses me off that there are some people who can go their whole career doping. Even if you’ve done it once, you still cheated. It gets me so mad when I see that but (also)...I don’t care if they are doping because I’m going to beat them.”
This is the first glimpse for a lot of people into what sits behind the optics Engels puts out - behind the rude haircut and the wild RV, there’s a man with an incredible amount of honor, respect and confidence, not only for himself but for the sport. He’s constantly thinking about the state of the sport and how to attract new fans to athletics.
Engels didn’t follow the typical trajectory of an elite athlete. He failed at times, he’s both surprised people and disappointed them, and was relatively a late bloomer. Through all of this, his love for running blossomed.
“We are living a life that’s unpredictable, so enjoy that. If we were to live in a life that’s predictable, why the hell would we be living?”
“What I really like about running is the competing, meeting people and traveling. Like meeting Antonio Brown (Oakland Raiders wide receiver) was awesome. He’s such a competitor. There’s very few people like him in the world and when you see him, ‘Wow, that’s an athlete, he looks like he’s born and bred to do this’.
I really, really like Patrick Tiernan and Sam McEntee. I love being around them because they’re so chill, we went to Belgium together and we ran a couple miles together around the United States. I’m not just saying this because it’s on TEMPO but they are just so easy going and they are probably the coolest people I’ve met.” Engels continues, “Other humans, they make me happy. I travel by myself but sharing what I have with other people makes me happy.”
Running matters, obviously. It has taken Engels around the world, and changed the trajectory of his life in all kinds of ways. But he knows that one day running won’t be everything, and when that time comes he has a bigger purpose to fulfil.
“I want to work in a field where I can make the world a better place to live. I don’t want to leave my job every day feeling unfulfilled. I really want to work with renewable energy and make the planet better for hundreds of thousands of people. Maybe one day I can start a renewable energy company for developing countries.”
"I’d like to be remembered as someone who made people happy. Hopefully, I am not remembered for running but remembered for something much more important than that."
Speaking of careers and the inevitable closing of this chapter of Engels’ life at some point, it’s not surprising that his outlook on expectations is different from what you might think.
“Some people have been training since like middle school, and all the things that they did and are doing now are expectations. So if they don’t get that medal then they didn’t meet their expectations but for me, I surpassed my expectations in 2013 when I made my first USA team as a junior.
Donovan (Brazier) and I had a heart to heart talk about this. Obviously, we all want to win medals at the Olympics but we also have other dreams and aspirations.”
We often forget that Engels and Brazier have so much more life to live after their track careers are finished. Careers in sport are generally short, and while Engels lives for the moment and thrives on competition, he is the last person to let his finishing time define who he is.
“I don’t have any qualms about not being remembered. But when people talk about me, I’d like to be remembered as someone who changed the sport for the better…but I would rather be remembered as a person who made the world a better place. I’d like to be remembered as someone who made people happy. Hopefully, I am not remembered for running but remembered for something much more important than that."