YOU THINK YOU’RE PINING for the Olympic Trials? Distressing as the pandemic delay has been for all who love the sport, at least you’re not miler Craig Engels, 4th-place finisher in the ’16 OT 800 and 5th in the 1500 as a then 22-year-old Mississippi junior.
Engels — who readily admits that athlete plights mean bupkis in the overall context of C19’s pervasive misery — is forgiven if four years has felt like forever. He came that close. Twice. Adding another year to the cycle — well, what’s another eon among friends?
Far from letting his spirits go hangdog over 365 days of delay, Engels — the USATF 1500 champ in ’19 and that season’s U.S. No. 1 — has opted instead to chill and carry on grinding out the preparation. Still, he is ready to get the show on the road.
“Last year was a tough year for everyone,” he says. “I’m not going to take away from the families who had people die and everything, but I mean, it sucked for athletes and it kind of showed us society doesn’t really need us, you know. We’re not vital to the way the world goes. But definitely, people miss sports. It’s cool to see they miss the entertaining part of it.”
Engels, mustachioed and famous for his mullet cut, has missed entertaining, too, though that’s a tertiary concern behind racing to win when it counts.
In ’20, he says, “I kept myself busy. I bought a house and converted a van. It was just doing all these things that if I wasn’t a runner, I’d be doing, so it was kind of a nice off, down year where I got to reconnect with a lot of friends. And yeah, it was a really weird time obviously for racing.
“’Cause you know in 2016 I got 4th in the Trials and the four years after that I was like wanting to redeem myself and now I have to wait another year. It was definitely tough and I definitely turned off that part of my brain that you need to be competitive.
“Maybe I didn’t hit the best training of my life, but I’m back now and I’m fired up for this season, no matter what happens, just because now we’re used to this kind of life, you know?”
The home that North Carolina native Engels purchased is in Portland, home base for coach Pete Julian’s Nike group. The van he converted? No, it wasn’t Engels’ stalwart Toyota Dolphin of at least minor social media fame.
“I actually ended up selling that Dolphin for double what I bought it,” he says, “and that’s what I used to buy the van and renovate it. But I got it tattooed on my ass before I sold it so It’s forever with me. It’s beautiful, I would say. I wish I could show everyone.”
With February’s halfway mark now past, Engels has tested the competitive waters with his first two indoor races since placing 3rd in the USATF Indoor 1500 a year ago. The first ’21 outing was at 800, a 1:46.10 for 4th at the ATL II meet, improving his undercover PR by 1.65 from his previous best in ’16. Two weeks later he raced to 5th in the cranking New Balance GP 1500 with 3:36.49, his fastest season opener at the distance by nearly 2.45.
So back on schedule after his “nice off, down” 2020, which on paper looked positively quasi-active. Last July and August Engels raced six times from 800–3000, including three 1500s, two of them at DL meets in Europe. In Monaco, back in the ruck in 11th he churned a 3:35.42 evidencing some fitness.
“I actually was not fit at all,” Engels clarifies. “It was terrible. It kind of gave me a little bit of confidence to run that off of terrible fitness. That just shows like, even in my worst mindset and fitness that I can still run 3:35. So that was nice. But then I was just ready for the season to be over.”
Training through February with Donavan Brazier and Eric Jenkins in the warm, friendly weather of Phoenix, Engels is eager to get the Olympic season rolling and will ring down on the curtain on his winter training block with an outdoor 5000 at the Texas Qualifier (Austin, February 26).
“I’ve never done a distance over 3K,” he says. That means Engels starts with the longest odds for reaching a best-of-all-worlds ’21 training group goal. “What we really want,” he says, “is we want me, Eric and Donavan to each have three Olympic qualifiers. So Donavan needs the 400 and 15, and then I need to get the 5K and Eric needs to get the 15. And then we all three have we have this like big sandwich, you know?”
Engels has already reached the 800 and 1500 standards, Jenkins is a go in the 5000 and 10,000, and Brazier, of course, has his Q in the 8. The Tokyo 5K benchmark is 13:13.50 and Engels points out his Texas Qualifier will be “paced for 13:25, which is — I mean, I would be over the moon with 13:40. So I think I have the least chance of hitting the series.”
What Engels does expect is to carry the most finely honed endurance fitness of his life into the Trials leadup. “Yeah, we’ve been working on strength,” he says. “We always have. I don’t think we changed anything but I do know I have to be ready for a 3:29 1500 if I want to be in medal contention at the Olympics. So we’ve been just mentally getting ready, doing a lot of workouts that are going to help with that.”
One wonders, How does a 1500 man know he’s got a 3:29 race in him without laying down the time first? Says Engels — whose 1:44.68 PR 800 from 2019 is the fastest in this Olympiad among milers who have started a Nationals 1500 in the period — “I’m confident in Pete’s training where I don’t need the assurance of a fast 15,” Engels explains. “But it would be sweet maybe either before the Trials or after to set up a race or get in a Diamond League race that’s going to go out in 1:52, you know? ’Cause I mean, you’ve got to run 56s to 57s if you’re going to be anywhere near the front of the race.”
Engels is surely correct if, say, Kenya’s Olympic fave Timothy Cheruiyot uses the tactic that delivered his 3:29.26 victory at the ’19 Worlds in Doha. Engels rolled home in that race with 3:34.24, second-fastest clocking of his life, good for 10th.
Now more than a year into working with Julian as his primary coach following the dissolution of the Nike Oregon Project, Engels finds himself with loads of confidence in his mentor. “Pete’s awesome,” he says. “He gives us a ton of freedom. A lot of coaches try and control your life and everything, and he does a great job of balancing that. Maybe that was a tough transition from college because my college coach [Ryan VanHoy] was a lot more involved in my daily life. Like I saw him more as a friend than a coach, but now Pete is — I mean I see him a couple of times a week and I get to do whatever I want to keep myself healthy and he keeps that at the forefront of everything, which is really cool.”
The training, Engels says, “is pretty similar to college, if not easier, but the biggest issue is finding something to do with your free time. In college, you have classes and all this stuff, all these people to hang out with and everything. But a lot of runners just, they get mental ’cause they have all this free time and they just sit in their house and watch Netflix.
“So I try and find things do that are going to keep me sane but also keep me kind of recovered and rested. So I really like getting out of the house and just doing anything that’s outside, which is tough to do in Portland, honestly.” Because — well, it rains in Portland. A lot.
“Yeah, the rain,” Engels confirms. “I mean, I love golf, disc golf, rock climbing, any of those things, but they’re also hard to do in the rain.”
Come early March, Engels will catch some R&R in his new van. “I actually drove it down here [to Phoenix], spent like 5 days driving it down, and my off season will probably be 5 days driving back.
“We have a bubble in Portland of a few friends that are safe and they’re renting a cabin and going skiing, which I wish I could do. I love skiing more than anything, but I’ll just be sitting in the cabin, keeping the house warm for them. I’ll drive straight to Mt. Hood and Portland and enjoy hanging out with my friends and stuff.”
After that? Full speed toward the Trials 1500, says the reigning U.S. champ.