Craig Engels, the Ole Miss miler with a mean mullet, recently signed a professional contract to join the Nike Oregon Project training group. He finished fourth in the men’s 1,500 meter final at the 2017 U.S. Outdoor Track and Field Championships before competing in the TrackTown Summer Series. His next race will possibly be an attempt to break the four-minute mile barrier for the first time in his career at the 2017 Sir Walter Miler race in Raleigh, North Carolina.
Engels recently chatted with Sir Walter Miler Race Director, Pat Price, a Citius Mag contributor, on the Summer of Miles podcast, about the upcoming race.
The following interview has been edited for clarity.
Pat Price: Craig, I’ve been badgering you for a long time about it. Going back actually to running on Pre’s Trail last summer with coach Vanhoy so we’re glad it’s actually happening. Where are you right now? Where are we speaking to you from?
Craig Engels: I don’t know if I’d call if running if we were with coach Vanhoy. I’m just kidding. I’m in Oxford, Mississippi and flying to Switzerland tomorrow.
PP: So what’s going on there? I know the Oregon project is who you’re running with now and they tend to go to St. Moritz to train.
CE: I usually just follow what coaches say and that’s why I’ve had so much success in running. I actually don’t really know the plan right now. I know I’m flying out to Zurich and taking the train to St. Moritz and I’m gonna be there for at least 20 days. I think I fly to Raleigh on the 31st so I’m pretty much there to train.
PP: I know you’ve been running some fast 1,500s but we’re hoping that this is your first big crack at that sub-four mile. Obviously with the times, you’ve got it in you if that’s the case. Do you know what events you may be running while you’re out there?
CE: Yeah, I’m definitely not running any miles there. I want to save it for Sir Walter and break four minutes there in front of my home state and in front of my parents and friends. I could maybe do an 800 but for all I know, I’m just training for 20 days trying to get fit for Sir Walter.
PP: This year at both USAs and NCAAs, you had a pretty good run in the 1,500 where as last year you did both the 1,500 and 800. What kind of led to your decision to focus on the 1,500 this year?
CE: I think it was after the Trials last year. Most of the 800 guys couldn’t come back for a 1,500. It was six days so i’m not crediting myself too much. Vanhoy saw how much potential I had after running five races and PRing. I think that drove this whole year. We really wanted to run the mile indoors and get that collegiate record that Edward Cheserek actually got but unfortunately I wasn’t too smart, went snowboarding and broke my collarbone. I think because I had to take time off for that, it’s allowing my season to go into August and September.I’m very thankful for everything that’s happened.
PP: I totally forgot about that but it seems you made the best of it. Think about this time last year. You finished fourth in the 800 and fifth in the 1,500 at the Trials. You probably could’ve gone pro then but you rolled the dice and took a chance. Ole Miss made the podium in cross country. You won the distance medley indoor. Then you had a solid outdoor season and almost won a national title in the 1,500. When you had that accident, were you at all worried taht you might’ve had a chance and screwed it up.
CE: Yeah. It was such a successful season in cross country and going into indoors, we were all focused for the DMR. As soon as I fell and got back up, I knew something was wrong, I was just so upset with myself because I wasn’t just letting myself down. I’m OK with that. I was letting the other guys on the DMR down and letting coach Vanhoy down who put so much faith and work into me. I sat down on the ski slope, looked at my phone and looked up the protocol and time period for recovery. Thankfully the trainers at Ole Miss got me going back going really quick. It didn’t hurt too much because we did get the title in the DMR.
PP: With the contracts in the NFL and NBA, there’s clauses about you can’t go skiing and all these other things. Without really making Ray Flynn or Nike upset, is there any verbiage in your contract that says no more skiing activities while you’re competing?
CE: I actually never read the long form. I left that up to the agents. I read the short form and there was nothing in there. I’m gonna leave that up to my intrinsic feeling where if they’re putting this much faith in me, I won’t be doing any extreme sports until at least after Tokyo.
PP: Without going too much into armchair psychologist on you. I have a couple friends who said to me – and I’m sure it’s been the same with you – that in that last 100 or 150 at USAs, you were going for the win. You probably could’ve hung back for second or third. Am I right to say that’s always been your mentality to go for it.
CE: I guess. When I pulled up on Matt Centrowitz, the defending gold medalist at the Olympics, I was like ‘OK, I got this.’ But I think I discounted Robby Andrews and [Johnny Gregorek] a little too much because they beat me pretty bad down that last stretch. Yeah, I wanted to win. That’s what I always want but it doesn’t come too often in collegiate and professional running. We’ll see what the Oregon Project can do with me to start winning.
PP: With the success that you had, you probably had some options with shoe companies and training groups. First came the agent, then the shoe company before the training group. I know you had a relationship with Matt Sonnenfeldt so when choosing someone like Ray Flynn, who has a history of working with middle distance runners and was an excellent middle distance runner in his own right, what kind of went into your thought process when deciding to work with them?
CE: I’ve known Matt for years now but it’s cool because if I went a traditional agent then I couldn’t have said some of the things I do to Matt. Every once in a while I’ll text Matt and be like “I have a very good idea for a secondary sponsor. We should do Budweiser.” and stuff like that. I feel like I couldn’t say that to people I know that well. Matt may be thinking, “OK. I know he’s joking but he might be serious so we’ll look into it.” It’s a really good relationship. Ray is awesome. He’ll fight for his athletes and I’ve seen that in person. It’s really cool.
PP: Then you start thinking about shoe companies. What was going through your mind after you had signed with Ray and that was the next step?
CE: They asked me non-stop: Did I want to stay with Vanhoy or did I want to join a group? I didn’t know the Oregon Project was interested in me. I wanted to be with a company where they would let me stay with Vanhoy if I needed to and one that may be interested in starting a professional group in Oxford, Mississippi. We have so much talent coming out of there with Robert Domanic, Ryan Manahan, Sean Tobin and MJ Erb. There’s just so many people. Once i heard that the Oregon Project was interested, then it was over.
PP: When I heard the rumblings about this, I was thinking about one of the guys running out there is Eric Jenkins. Of course Eric trained under Ryan Vanhoy for at least a year at Northeastern. Did you lean on him or ask him any questions before you made that decision?
CE: Yeah. I had met Jenkins a couple times now. He’s such an awesome guy and everyone I’ve ever talked to loves him. I thought he would be not only an awesome guy to train with but to hang out with outside of running. Coach Vanhoy knew him personally and was totally in agreement. He would ask Jenkins if I would be a good fit. I don’t know what Jenkins answered but hopefully it was something positive because now I’m a member of the Oregon Project.
PP: So what is your timetable for that? I know you’re going to St. Moritz, coming out to Raleigh to race Sir Walter but will you be moving out to Portland soon after that? How’s your fall looking?
CE: I think my last race of the season will probably be the 5th Avenue Mile but I don’t know maybe I’ll extend my season a week longer. I’ve been hearing all these rumors about a blue jean mile.
PP: Yes, we have heard the rumors too. We’re putting one on at Sir Walter. It’ll be an exciting lead-up to your guys’ race but we have certainly heard from some other runners that maybe after the 5th Avenue, there may be a real shot at a sub-four minute mile. I certainly would like to be there for that. Make sure you do a few jogs in that before you start running 58s in jeans. That might burn a little.
CE: That’ll be fun. I saw Centrowitz is interested too. Maybe I’ll try to double at Sir Walter.
PP: The jean mile is before you guys so maybe not this year. So signing a contract to be a pro runner, when did you realize that this may become a reality?
CE: Certainly not when I got to Ole Miss. I was not in the professional runner’s mentality. I was asked this question the other day and I answered “The trials last year.” I’ll stick with that answer. I didn’t even know professional running was in the books for me. No one said anything after the trials last year. I just thought ‘Oh cool. I had a few good races.’ Apparently, the trials set me up for ultimate success this year and in my future.
PP: I think the first time I met you was at the 2013 U.S. Championships in Des Moines and you qualified for the Pan-Am team and ended up winning that. You had a few injuries at NC State before moving on to Ole Miss. When you got there, everything seemed to fall in place. I know Ryan Vanhoy has helped built that up and as you mention, there’s a lot of guys running fast in that 800-miler range. How do you think that’s come together?
CE: Jeez, I don’t know. NC State was such a good team culture and loved it at NC State but I just couldn’t stay healthy. When I came [to Oxford] we haven’t run on roads. I have not run on roads since I got here. We take our easy days easy. Everyone’s got talent. We all workout together and we workout hard. I think if you take all those factors then it’s made Ole Miss one of the strongholds of distance running.
PP: What is one thing you’ll miss about being down there?
CE: I’ll miss a lot of things about being in Mississippi. It’s a little bit lawless. The perfect description is that it’s the Ole Miss Rebels. Everyone’s down here for a different reason and it’s pretty cool. I love the team. The team here is incredible. It’s crazy to find such strong personalities getting along. I feel like there would be a lot ore arguments and people not getting along but it’s crazy how well they did here at Ole Miss. I’ll really miss that team aspect. It’s really cool that Oxford, Mississippi.