USATF 1500 WINNER Craig Engels has trained primed with motivation aplenty since the ’16 Olympic Trials. A 4th (800) and a 5th (1500) in the qualifying meet for the sport’s grandest stage make for rich incentive. The Nike Oregon Project miler admitted as much after stepping up in Des Moines to outlean Olympic gold medalist Matthew Centrowitz by 0.04 for the 1500 win. “I don’t want to talk about it,” Engels half-joked, palming his head as he met the media afterwards. “Yeah, I got 4th-place twice [the ’17 Nationals 1500 being the second] and last year I got 10th. This year I came in with a different mindset, different training, everything and I won it.”
Naturally, Engels is, in his words, “super-stoked on it, and it’s come together at the right time, right? Last year was an off-year, it didn’t matter. This year is the World Championships year; I get to go to Doha, Qatar.”
Engels feels ready now for global-level challenges after a few one-step-forward-two-steps-back oscillations in his progression since he raced a promising 4:03.96 for the mile as a prep at Reagan High of Pfafftown, North Carolina. After a 1-year spell at NC State—at the end of which he won the Pan-Am Junior 1500—and then 3 seasons at Mississippi during which he took 3rd in the ’17 NCAA 1500, he landed with coach Pete Julian at the Portland-based Nike Oregon Project.
The miler with the mullet says he is now the fittest he has ever been: “One, for the confidence, and two, I got to train with [Eric] Jenkins for the past 3 weeks [before USATF]. We were doing 5K workouts and I mean if I was solo I would not have been able to do those workouts. But he was there pulling me along. Unfortunately, he had to pull out of these U.S. Championships with an injury but he was the reason I got this fit.”
Staving off Centro’s attempt for a sixth Nationals win, “feels good,” Engels said afterwards, “’cause I watched every single one of his race videos to be able to try and beat him. It’s cool finally to beat one of the guys in the sport you’ve looked up to the whole time.”
Centro TV was by no stretch a one-off for Engels: “It’s something I do before I go to bed every night, watch a few videos so I can dream about it or something. But whatever.” One might surmise watching a competitor-supreme in action could unleash adrenaline and induce insomnia. Not for Engels. “Sometimes I get a little antsy but most of the time Centro puts me to sleep.” Irony alert; he laughed as he said that.
Nor was Engels’ pre-Des Moines YouTube diet restricted to highlights of the Rio champ. He “watched Leo [Manzano], especially Leo. But then I watched 2013 here [Centrowitz’s Nationals win] ’cause it’s like the most relevant. He won that one. He goes at similar times every time, and I knew I had to go early this time and I did. He was coming that last 50, though.” With advice from his coach, Engels toed the Des Moines start line ready to change his go-with-200-left race plan as needed: “Pete right before the race said, ‘If you need to make an audible, do it.’”
Engels did make that audible, taking the lead from 800 out and defending his position with a lap left: “I’ve watched enough video to know that you’re supposed to be in position with 400 to go, you know? And if you’re in the top 4 you’re usually going to make the team so I wanted to be up there. And it just happened I was in the lead, which was pretty new for me but I like it. I think we closed in 51 or something crazy [Engels ran 51.91, Centro 51.98] so I think at the World Championships if I’m chasing someone it will be better. So hopefully I can medal there.”
Engels agrees he has evolved as a strategist since those Olympic Trials races 3 years ago. As he sees it, “Most of the evolution is in the confidence. In high school I didn’t know what I was doing. In college I hit a big speedbump where I sucked for 2½ years and then at Ole Miss I slowly started building confidence and now we’re back and confidence is up here [raises hands above his head] going into Worlds, which is right where I need to be.”
As the Pan-Am Games approached and social media lit up over a discovery U.S. 400 hurdler CJ (Craig) Allen appeared to be listed for the 1500 where Engels name should have appeared, the miler wasn’t concerned. As he explained, plans changed over the course of 3:44.93 worth of championship racing in Des Moines: “I guess tonight I’m going to go look at flights for my Mom. And I guess I gotta book flights out of Des Moines because I didn’t know where I was going to go after this if I didn’t make the team. If I didn’t make the team I was going to go to Pan-Ams. Now I’m just going to go back to Portland or take a week off and go back home and party with my friends for a week [laughs]. My buddy rented a lake house for a couple days and I think I’m going to go there, but we’ll see if coach says OK.” (Continued below)
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Next race up for Engels will be a 1500 at the Birmingham DL on August 18. He will not object either if he can fit an 800 into the schedule after PRing at 1:44.68 in July: “Yeah, try and break 1:44, I’m stoked.”
As he preps for Doha, Engels looks at more video time ahead: “I’ll just watch all the World Championships and visualize as much as I can being on the Ingebrigtsens or Cheruiyot, Souleiman, you know all those guys that are going to be in contention for medals because that’s where I want to be.”