Craig Engels Opens Up About Leaving Union Athletics Club, Re-Joining Ryan Vanhoy

By Jonathan Gault
November 2, 2022

Craig Engels still remembers the PowerPoint presentation that sold him on Ole Miss. Well, part of it, at least.

It was Thanksgiving 2014, and Engels, then 20, was in the midst of a frustrating second year on the North Carolina State distance squad. Frequently injured and soured on the sport, Engels had decided he would no longer run for NC State. He was between two options: quit the sport entirely, or transfer to Ole Miss and give running another shot.

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Ole Miss distance coach Ryan Vanhoy had grown up half an hour from Engels in Asheboro, N.C., and with both men back home for the break, Vanhoy made the short drive to Engels’ house in Denton, N.C., armed with a PowerPoint presentation outlining the benefits of Ole Miss. It may have featured something about Vanhoy’s training philosophy, or the trails Engels would get to train on in Oxford. Frankly, Engels can’t really remember.

The main thing that stood out to him that day — and that still stands out, eight years later: Ole Miss looked like a place where he could have fun.

“I was like, I’m in,” Engels says. “Cute girls, fun football games. At worst, I have a good time.”

There were a lot of good times during Engels’ three years in Oxford, on and off the track. Within four months of arriving, he had dropped his 800-meter pb from 1:51 to 1:46. He finished 4th in the 800 and 5th in the 1500 at the 2016 US Olympic Trials and helped the Rebels to an NCAA title in the distance medley relay in 2017.

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Now, Engels and Vanhoy are reuniting. In September, Engels parted ways with Pete Julian, his coach of the last five years. Under Julian, Engels reached the pinnacle of American middle-distance running, winning the US title at 1500m indoors and outdoors in 2019 and finishing 10th in the World Championship final that year.

He also dealt with his share of heartbreak, including another 4th-place finish at the Olympic Trials in 2021 and a 2022 season largely lost to injury that cost him a shot at competing for a spot at the first-ever World Championships held on US soil. At 28 years old and with 19 months until his third — and likely final — Olympic Trials, it was time for a change. In January, Engels will move to San Luis Obispo, Calif., to join Vanhoy, who is now the coach at Cal Poly.

“It was an awesome five years [with Julian],” Engels says. “I really, really enjoyed the freedom and I think it was so necessary at that point in my career. But now I need something a bit more structured.”

***

“I just can’t do it without either a coach or training partners there”

Craig Engels, in case you haven’t noticed, is a social creature. He thrives off the energy of human connection. All too often last year, he felt that element was lacking from his training.

Julian has a somewhat unusual arrangement as head coach of the Union Athletics Club, the Nike-sponsored pro team that arose from the ashes of the Oregon Project after Nike shuttered that group following the USADA-imposed suspension of Alberto Salazar in 2019. Even though UAC is based in Portland, Julian lives with his family in Denver, where his wife is a professor at the University of Colorado School of Medicine.

Because of the international makeup of his team and because Julian still flies in for workouts, the geographic distance has not been an insurmountable obstacle. But for Engels, it contributed to his decision to leave the team.

“I would only see Pete Tuesdays and Fridays for workouts,” Engels says. “And then from September offseason until December, I wouldn’t see Pete. That’s kind of some meaty training right there when you’re doing 3 x 2-mile alone. It’s like, all right, I’ve gotta do this alone. No one’s here, it’s just me.

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“I’m at the age now where I need something. I need some motivation. It wasn’t a shot on Pete, because he has so many athletes spread out – Suguru [Osako] in Japan, Koko [Klosterhalfen] in Kenya, some of the team at altitude, some of the team at sea level, some of the team in off-season, some of the team hurt. It seemed like just a lot to manage from Denver.”

Still, Engels says, he could have managed a long-distance relationship with his coach if he had consistent training partners. During his five years with NOP/UAC, Engels has trained with some of the best runners in the world — Clayton MurphyYomif KejelchaGalen RuppPaul Tanui, Matthew Centrowitz, global medalists all. He fondly recalls working out with Donavan Brazier and Eric Jenkins — they dubbed themselves the “Salmon Boys,” a nod to Jenkins’ salmon-heavy diet — but in recent years, with Brazier injured and Jenkins back in New Hampshire, workouts together were sparse.

The realization hit Engels during an altitude camp in Flagstaff last spring. The plan had been for Engels to stay for a month and train with UAC teammate Charlie Hunter, but the Australian Hunter had trouble securing a US visa, leaving Engels alone for most of the trip.

“I was told 28 days, no more, no less, and [Pete] had me stay for 50 days,” Engels says. “…I saw him twice in 50 days. That was tough. This one was almost a tipping point for my career with him. I was paying for my own camp in Flagstaff and recruiting my own training partners, Craig Nowak and other friends that I was living with. And I was like, is this my job? I joined a team.”

Hunter and some of Engels’ UAC teammates eventually joined him at the end of the camp, which only served to remind him how much he enjoyed being part of a group. Engels didn’t mind working out solo if he had a coach to guide him through it. And he didn’t mind working out without a coach if he had training partners to help him through the session. Yet as a member of UAC, Engels increasingly felt as if he was working out with neither.

“I’m watching Cole Hocker and Cooper Teare and all these guys that have people to train with and I’m watching them just crush it,” Engels says. “And I’m like dude, I know the solution. I know what I need to get to 3:30. I just can’t do it without either a coach or training partners there.”

That is why, Engels says, he chose to leave UAC. It was not an easy decision. Brazier is one of his best friends. He liked the rest of his teammates. He liked Julian, too. But Engels knows he may only have a few years left in the sport, and he owed it to himself to make the most of them.

Engels said that letting Julian know he was leaving — which he did over FaceTime — was “way worse” than breaking up with a girlfriend.

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“I was so nervous,” Engels says. “I was stuttering. It wasn’t something I wanted to do, it was something I had to do. It was pretty sad, I think I was almost tearing up. The phone call was probably a minute and a half. He probably said 10 words. I just kept rambling.”

In San Luis Obispo — that’s SLO, to those in the know — Engels will have college guys to run with on easy days and one elite training partner, John Rivera, a 1:46 guy and 2022 Ole Miss alum. But the big thing, Engels believes, will be having Vanhoy there every day at practice.

Engels’ training under Vanhoy won’t look much different to what he was doing with Julian — around 70 miles a week, 4-5 mile tempos every couple of weeks, always touching on speed, lifting is important. The difference, Engels says, is the energy they bring at practice.

“Vanhoy is very present,” Engels says. “When he’s at my workout, he’s hype, like All right man, let’s go one more rep. That’s something I need. I know most people probably want their coach to be super level-headed at practice, but I want hype.”

***

A year to forget on the track in 2022

Engels will be hoping that 2023 brings the season he thought he’d have in 2022. After coming half-a-second shy of making the Olympic team, Engels rededicated himself to the sport last year. He cut back on partying. He placed a greater emphasis on recovery. He was ripping winter training in SLO. One workout of four sets 600-400-300-200 went particularly well.

“In the last set, I went like 1:20, 51, 39, 25,” Engels says. “I was like, holy shit, I’m gonna run 3:49 easily at Millrose.”

That…uh, did not happen. After going out with leaders Ollie Hoare and Josh Kerr at Millrose, Engels faded badly, finishing in 10th place.

“I guess I just overcooked myself and ran 4:01, which was comical,” Engels says.

From there, Engels could never get back on track indoors.

“I was just dead after [Millrose],” Engels says.  “I think I repressed memories from this year.”

The spring went no better. On one of his last long runs in Flagstaff, Engels felt pain in his shin. Two MRIs and a bone scan revealed nothing, and though Engels initially tried to train through it, he could not run without a limp. With USAs a few weeks away and Engels still unable to train properly, Julian told him it would not make sense to run USAs and that he should take two weeks completely off. He wound up taking four.

Engels had no interest in sticking around to watch three other people make the World Championship team he had been dreaming of. He got a ride to the airport, bought a flight to Portugal en route, and was in Europe within hours.

Why Portugal?

“I just typed in ‘Portland to Europe’ on Google Flights and Portugal was the cheapest,” Engels says.

Engels spent a month in Europe. His dad flew over to join him, and the two rode mopeds around the country, then flew to Valencia and took a road trip to Andorra. It was the trip Engels had never been able to take due to running, and he loved it.

“There was a part of me that always thought I wanted ultimate freedom just to travel my whole life and do this – go stay in hostels and meet new people and do all these things,” Engels says. “That was a part of me that I needed to get out.”

While a part of that wanderlust will always remain in his soul, Engels returned to the US with a newfound appreciation for the structure provided by his life as a professional athlete.

“As far as traveling for me, I’m getting too old to stay in hostels and not get a good night’s sleep,” Engels says. “…Sometimes it’s nicer to have people make decisions for you.”

Craig Engels extolling the virtues of a good night’s sleep? Are we sure this is the same guy that boarded that flight to Portugal?

Engels returned to training later in the summer, but at a lower intensity. He went to Europe and ran a lot with female UAC teammates Sinclaire Johnson and Jessica Hull — same workouts, same splits. He wound up running 3:37 in Berlin.

“I’m like, all right, I’ve still got it,” Engels says. “I know 3:37’s nothing to write home about, but off of no training, it was good for my conscience.”

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Since then, Engels has encountered no setbacks, and he will race a few more times before the end of 2022, including Saturday’s USATF 5K road championships in New York. Looking further ahead, Engels, 28, figures he has at least three more years of high-level running in him, which would take him through the 2025 World Championships in Tokyo.

“After that, who knows?” he says.

Engels wants to regain the US title he won in 2019 and challenge for medals at Worlds and the Olympics. But things have changed since Engel burst onto the scene in the mid-2010s. There’s a new crop of American contenders to contend with. Will the youngsters — Yared Nuguse (23), Cooper Teare (23), Cole Hocker (21), and Hobbs Kessler (19) — take over the event for good, or can the old guard — Engels (28), Josh Thompson (29), and Johnny Gregorek (30) — or very old guard — Matthew Centrowitz (33) — battle back? And can any of them elevate to the 3:29/3:30 level that is required to win a medal on the global stage?

“These new guys, they’re really good, Cooper and Cole,” Engels says. “I think a lot of guys my year, we looked up to Centro, who was this sit-and-kick tactician, and all of our college races were sit-and-kick, everything we trained for in college was sit-and-kick. And now we’re all trying to pivot so quickly to, oh we’ve gotta do double thresholds, we’ve gotta run 115 miles a week. Everyone [my age is] trying to find themselves and how they’re going to run 3:30.”

Can Engels get there? If it happens, Vanhoy will now be the one guiding him there. He didn’t even need a PowerPoint this time.


Talk about Engels’ move to a new coach on our world-famous fan forum / messageboard. MB: Craig Engels explain why he left Pete Julian, “I saw him twice in 50 days. That was tough…almost a tipping point.”

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