Running’s Most Committed Party Animal Returns to Nike—and Running Fast

Craig Engels explains what he can about his new four-year deal and heads to Millrose Games in good shape.

2021 prefontaine classic
Jonathan FerreyGetty Images

Craig Engels, the fun-loving 1500-meter runner who never misses a party, inked a new deal with Nike in the early days of 2022. It’s a four-year agreement, taking him through 2026.

But he went through a lot of soul-searching before he decided to return to running at a high level.

Engels, 27, finished fourth by half a second in the 1500 meters last June at the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials, just missing the team bound for Tokyo.

In the days afterward, he was adrift. “Everything I worked towards [was] over,” he told Runner’s World during one of several recent interviews. “I didn’t know what to do with myself. Which—I don’t know what emotion that is. It wasn’t sadness. More like, what do I do?”

He spent the rest of the summer racing on the track and road circuit in the U.S. He helped pace men who were trying to break 4:00 in the mile, and he encouraged facial hair growth. And still, he raced at a high level, although neither Engels nor his coach, Pete Julian, would say that his training resembled what it was before the Trials.

“We had to change things up,” Julian told Runner’s World last September, “had to piece together workouts in between to keep him so he could at least finish a mile. That’s what Craig needed at the moment.”

On August 14, he finished second at a mile in Falmouth, Massachusetts, clocking 3:53.97. Six days later he finished second again in the international mile at the Prefontaine Classic in Eugene, Oregon, in 3:55.41.

That runner-up finish at Pre came as a result of a premature celebration. He waved to the crowd at the top of the home stretch, but Geordie Beamish of New Zealand sailed by him with a few meters to go.

They hugged it out on the track and then took a victory lap.

“That’s Craig,” Julian said. “He makes mistakes along the way, it’s why he’s so damn popular. I’ve never seen anybody do something as dumb as wave to the crowd and then get beat and still get to take a victory lap. Pretty classic, right? There’s one guy in the world who can do that, and that’s Craig.”

After Pre, Engels shut down his season. In the fall, he returned to the University of Mississippi to finish the final semester of classes he needed to complete his MBA.

While Engels was in Oxford, Mississippi, he trained with Ole Miss cross-country coach Ryan Vanhoy, who had coached him in college, and the Ole Miss team. They logged high mileage and did a lot of long strength-based workouts. Meanwhile, Engels pondered his future.

Engels flirted with retirement, and Julian said Engels was sincere in his questioning, asking himself: “Is this something that I want to do?”

Running the Numbers

As Engels got back into shape and finished his classes, he began the process of negotiating a new contract. Initially, he tried to do it alone. He said he parted ways with his first agent, Ray Flynn, via email between rounds of the 1500 at the Olympic Trials.

Reached by text message, Flynn said, “It’s all good with Craig and I. Happy to see him doing well.”

Engels said he had long struggled with the role of agents in pro running and the fee they charge—15 percent of everything, including sponsorship deals, appearance fees, and prize money—for negotiating what often turns out to be a single contract with a shoe company.

“A lot of these agents were athletes,” Engels said. “I don’t know how they possibly sleep at night, taking 15 percent. NFL agents are capped out at three [percent].”

But as Engels talked to shoe company executives and weighed various offers and training situations, he realized he needed someone to review the contracts—“the lawyer jargon,” he calls it. “I was getting a little stressed,” he said.

So he hired Mark Wetmore as his agent, who also represents Engels’s teammate Donavan Brazier, among others. Wetmore immediately increased the value of the offers Engels had started negotiating on his own behalf.

2020 us olympic track  field team trials day 8
Craig Engels after racing in the semifinals of the 1500 meters at the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials.
Steph ChambersGetty Images

Engels signed with Nike again. At the end of the four-year deal, he’ll have run professionally for 9 years, and he said it will be his last contract.

The terms of the deal are private—Engels had to sign a nondisclosure agreement, as most athletes do, which also limits the knowledge athletes have about their value in the market.

All he could say about it? “I definitely had some great offers on the table, which led to a very good contract for myself.”

Engels said if it were up to him, he’d post the details of his contract on Instagram to his 97,000 followers. Such knowledge would only help other runners, he says, while the current system benefits agents.

The Athlete Changes the Coach

Engels also returned to train with Julian and his team, recently named the Union Athletics Club (UAC). The club is headquartered in Portland, Oregon, but between altitude stints, training camps, and races, they’re rarely there for long.

He is now doing the bulk of his workouts with Charlie Hunter, who is on the UAC, and Craig Nowak, who trains with the group but isn’t officially on the roster. The group has been training in San Luis Obispo, California—team member Jordan Hasay’s hometown—and enjoying sunny skies and warm weather, and preparing to race the Millrose Games. Engels is entered in the mile.

“I’m in pretty good shape, yeah,” he said. “I don’t want to talk too much before it happens. I’m in pretty good shape.”

After Millrose, UAC hosts an indoor meet in Spokane, Washington, the Lilac Grand Prix, on February 11. The U.S. indoor championships are back in Spokane two weeks after that.

Julian, for one, is glad to count Engels on the roster. He told Runner’s World that Engels has “completely changed” the way he coaches.

“We’re not curing pediatric cancer here. We’re running around in half tights on a 400-meter circle.” — Pete Julian

“He’s made me realize that making [something] enjoyable and working hard don’t have to be separated, don’t have to be mutually exclusive,” Julian said. “The two things can exist. And we can be really great. But by being able to enjoy ourselves and being able to have some fun. To not take ourselves as seriously, but at the same time, take what we’re doing very seriously. You can do both.”

That’s a startling admission from Julian, who was a longtime assistant coach to Alberto Salazar. He was viewed as in relentless pursuit of every advantage for his athletes. Salazar is now banned from coaching Olympians permanently by SafeSport and serving a four-year ban for anti-doping offenses.

“[Engels has] made me realize that, hey, we can add some color to our lives,” Julian continued. “We’re not curing pediatric cancer here. We’re running around in half tights on a 400-meter circle. Coming from my own background, I’ve had to realize that, too, [with] my own coaching the last four or five years. You know what? Everyone needs to chill out a little bit. Let’s quit trying to eat our own and actually try to promote the sport and race really, really fast.”

One small way that Engels has changed the team? He prefers FaceTime to phone calls. Julian said Engels likes to see people, likes to smile at them. The FaceTime habit has spread throughout the group, so now, anytime anybody communicates on the team, it’s always by FaceTime. “That started from Craig,” he said.

Critics of Engels—who is an unabashed beer drinker, hot-tub soaker, RV driver, and mullet wearer—don’t see the work that he does, his coach says. And they don’t see how hard he tries.

“He did everything he could to make that Olympic team,” Julian said. “He’s done everything he can to make the sport better. He puts forth an amazing effort and he tries to win. But he’s not a robot, either.”

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