Craig Engels narrowly missed going to Tokyo to race the 1,500 meters, and he thus went home to North Carolina to reset and plan what is next. His dad is actually my neighbor, but I had never spotted Craig here until last week. I returned from picking up my boys from summer camp and I spotted two agile fast looking runners on our street and one of them had a very distinctive haircut. I slowed down the car, rolled down the window, and we finally met. My other neighbor has a very cool gym in his backyard and that is where they were headed after their running workout, and that gym is visible behind Craig in the final picture. Craig jumped over the fence and we had a longer chat about this and that and he was also curious about my pain cave. My Woodway 4Front got a big thumbs up and he was also very interested in Zwift. He wore a very basic Timex watch on his wrist and told me that he isn't on Strava either - luckily for all runners in town. A couple days later on Thursday, July 29th we then sat down to conduct this interview, and here is what he had to say.
Slowtwitch: It is really good chatting with you.
Craig Engels: Thanks for having me. We were neighbors but haven’t met until yesterday, and now we are doing an interview, photos and stuff.
ST: You just came from getting a haircut but still have that distinctive mullet. Was that just a simple trim and what would it take to get rid of these locks in the back?
Craig: A simple trim to look good for the ladies…. just messing. One of my buddies is super good with haircuts, so I wanted to let him practice.
ST: Well, we actually still might not have met if things would have gone the way you wanted to. You would have been in Tokyo already, or would you have left later?
Craig: Yeah, I would be headed out in a couple of days. But Tokyo is so weird these days, you can only get in a few days before your event and then stay a couple days after. There is actually still a chance I go, if someone tests positive for COVID-19 or gets injured.
ST: That was going to be my next question. How does it work being an alternate? If the event is early the alternate goes right away, and if the event happens later the alternate is on standby?
Craig: Right now we are in North Carolina and if I got a call that someone tested positive I would have to fly back to Portland overnight, grab my passport, take 3 COVID-19 tests and then fly to Japan.
ST: Why not bring the passport here? Is that scenario in your mind on the unlikely side?
Craig: There were specific COVID-19 tests that I had to do in Portland. So I figured I would have to fly home either way.
ST: Let us go back to the Olympic Trials. You were surely a favorite to grab a spot and it did not work out that way. Can you take us back to that run?
Craig: The first 2 rounds went the way they were supposed to. My goal was simply to get a top 5 and make it to the next round as easy as possible. Going into the final I knew there was going to be a hard move made with 400 to go and I couldn’t be boxed in. With 400 meters to go I was boxed in. I missed the move, and when you are not competing for the win it is a little bit different. I maybe gave up a little bit and then realized I had a chance with 100 to go. But it was too late at that point. I really messed up getting myself get boxed in. I don’t doubt my ability compared to those guys though.
ST: You said when not going for the win, and I get that it is not needed in the qualifying rounds, but in the finals was the win not on your mind or is it simply the qualifying spot?
Craig: I had the win on my mind for sure. I wanted to beat Centrowicz so I was going for the win. But I missed the move when Centro went with 400 to go and had a gap on the field.
ST: In 2016 you also narrowly missed qualifying both in the 800 and the 1500. What lessons did you learn from that experience and how was this one this time different?
Craig: In 2016 I did not even expect to make the trials so when I got 4th in the 800 and 5th in the 1500 I was so happy. I do remember afterwards thinking about a month later that woah I was really close making the Olympic team. I actually had a little bit of a crash – that post Olympic Trials hangover where I got a little bit sad.
This time there was so much pressure because it is my job, and I wasn’t having that much fun. It was that I had to do this task for my job, and I failed. It was a weird sensation, because last time I was so excited and this time I was so upset.
ST: Talk about that pressure.
Craig: I have done a lot of reflecting since. You got to find your main motivation for running, and for some it is money and that is not a big motivator for me. For some people it is intrinsic and for others their parents did it and they want to live up to that. But I couldn’t find my reasoning and I guess it was mostly to make my friends and family happy. It was a super tough time afterwards, because some people did reach out to me to say sorry, and those are the people I did it for.
ST: Let us go back to how you got started with running.
Craig: Now we can stop being sad. [laughs] I grew up in Pfafftown, NC and I played soccer my whole life. As a sophomore or junior in high school I got kicked off the soccer team for behavioral issues. I didn’t want my parents to know because I was coming home early and so I joined the track team. I ended up being pretty good, and my coach, who is one of the best coaches in the country, told me I could probably get into college and get a scholarship if I kept running better. I ended up getting into college and almost quit, but he told me I could make a career out of this if I kept doing well.
ST: You mentioned getting kicked out by the soccer team. What happened?
Craig: I think I got 3 strikes against me. The first strike was a fight at soccer practice, totally not my fault. Second strike was I was caught pulling someone’s pants down, and third was while traveling to a soccer match. I mooned people out of the bus window. It was the coach I was doing this to and when we got to our destination - he told me that I was done.
ST: College then in Mississippi?
Craig: First I went to North Carolina State for 2.5 years and the I went to Ole Miss.
ST: How was the running at Ole Miss compared to NC State?
Craig: In Raleigh the coaching just wasn’t built for me and I was getting in trouble. I was 18 and free for the first time in my life. It was just a whole mixture of things that did not work out and I kept getting injured. When I went down to Mississippi we ran easier runs, broke up the runs and ran on softer surfaces. That got me healthy and I had fun.
ST: At what point did it become clear that you weren’t just another college runner?
Craig: Maybe the Olympic Trials in 2016.
ST: But what caused you to be there in the first place?
Craig: It is actually pretty funny. I made the NCAA meet and that was in Eugene, OR and there was a chance that I was getting into the trials. I then bought a van on Craig’s List for $600 and stayed with random friends in Portland and drove my little van around. If I had gone home, I would have likely just partied with friends and not wanted to do the trials. It turned out I stayed in Portland and I made the trials.
ST: You are best known for racing the 800 meter and the mile. Can you talk if that is still the case and how that might be evolving?
Craig: Right now I am at the end of my contract with Nike and still run the 800 and 1500 meter events. I don’t really like the 5k and I don’t want to do the marathon. But I think I actually would really like to go up to ultra-distances like you. A marathon seems insane - running 4:30 pace on the roads for 2 hours. It seems much more fun to go into the mountains, and deal with 10,000 feet of elevation change.
ST: How much trail running do you actually do?
Craig: I have always loved trail running. There is quite a bit of single track here (Winston-Salem, NC) but it is not really that hilly.
ST: Not hilly is relative of course, but some road runners can naturally switch to trails, and others just can’t, nor want to do so.
Craig: Well, I love it.
ST: Talk about your weekly training volume.
Craig: Currently it is about 30-40 miles a week, but in the fall when I get ready for the season, I am running 70-80 miles a week, and I really love the long run. Maybe that is why I am considering the ultra-trail distance.
ST: When you talk about a long run, what is a long run for you?
Craig: Anywhere from 13-15 miles and I have hit as much as 17 miles, but I am training for a mile right now so there is no reason to go long.
ST: Why then train that long then when your actual race distance is well shorter?
Craig: I am not sure. I just listen to my coaches and I have always had a coach who told me to do a long run. To date I have not met one who asked me not to do one.
ST: No fancy GPS watch for you, just a very basic Timex watch. I guess when you race you have a big clock, and in training a coach to yell splits to you. Can you elaborate?
Craig: If it ain’t broke don’t try to fix it. There’s no better watch than a Timex. You don’t have to change the battery more than once every 3 years, they are simple to use and I’ll never have to worry about breaking it.
ST: You had mentioned before to me that you don’t want to be tempted by Strava to race segments when your training plan is otherwise.
Craig: I feel like I would get competitive with my watch and then not listen to how my body actually feels.
ST: What about other sports?
Craig: I really like swimming and I also like playing pick-up soccer and basketball. Also pickle ball and tennis, anything I can go outside for in Oregon is how I get my cross-training in I guess.
ST: For an athlete of your caliber is there anything in your Nike contract that prohibits certain sports?
Craig: I am not allowed to snowboard, and I am not allowed to buy a motorcycle. [laughs]
ST: What is next?
Craig: It is only 3 years to Paris, and I think I can buckle down and go as hard as I can for 3 more years and make the Olympics. But if I am going down that path, I want to win USA Nationals.
ST: Trail running after Paris?
Craig: That would be super cool. I love staying fit and being outside and I really like traveling in my RV. Trail running would be really cool if the right company were to sign me.
ST: How hard is sponsorship life right now and will it be difficult moving forward? Considering also that some companies might have cut back because of COVID-19?
Craig: I don’t know how hard it will be to get sponsored. I think it might be hard for some people but I think I have marketed myself well. So hopefully companies can appreciate that.
ST: Best of luck to you.
Craig: Yeah, maybe we will do a 100k race together.
ST: That sounds like a plan.
Craig: Thank you.
The workout he did the day on the track when the pics were taken:
800 easy in 2:20, 8 minutes rest
3x600 in 1:30/1:28/1:26 (400 recovery)
2x400 in 56 (400 recovery)
1x200 in 26
You can follow Craig Engels on Instagram via @craigathor
All images © Herbert Krabel