With 20 national championships in six disciplines and nine international gold medals, Joseph Gray is the most decorated American mountain runner by a wide margin.
In the vast discipline of trail running – which includes everything from 100-mile ultra marathons to steep kilometer races – he is now a four-time world champion and four-time winner at Pikes Peak Ascent, now Included in the best pentane up to. One of the toughest races in the country.
The Gray Mountain Race feature – a type of trail that runs at high altitudes, with challenging and technical levels, and the advantages and disadvantages of high altitude – is still a very specific sport. But overall trail running is on the rise.
According to World Athletics, racing began as an organized sport in the mid-1990s and now has an estimated 20 million participants, competing in 25,000 races worldwide.
Gray traces his love for trails – and escapes – back to his childhood. When he was 6 years old, he moved with his family to Heidelberg, Germany, where his father served in the US Army. He spent a lot of time exploring the forests with friends. “We made all kinds of games in about twenty jungles,” he said. “I started running a lot, got lost and found my way home.”
After returning to Tacoma, Wash., Gray began competing on his school’s track team in seventh grade. The coaches took note of his dedication and ability. In high school, he ran cross country, winning team state titles and individual awards. He competed for Oklahoma State University in cross country and track running and qualified for the NCAA Championship six times.
Her first trail race was a little more than a race with a friend in 2007, a year after she completed her running career in college. His ascent in the game was meteoric. Within a year, his name was added to the national team.
Although many elite level marathoners are black, there are few athletes at the height of trail and mountain racing. European teams have a handful of black racers, but Gray is the only African-American in the American Mountain Running Team. Its range is only matched by its consistency: it has been named to the team 33 times in 14 years, in nine lengths and disciplines, from 50km road ultra marathons to mountain races and snowshoeing.
I talked with Gray about his path to becoming a professional mountain runner, the challenges of being one of the few black runners on the starting lineup and how he hopes to impress a new generation of athletes.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
What was life like as a military child?
We have come a long way. From Kentucky to Germany to Washington. I was able to immerse myself in other cultures at an early age, which shaped me. I also understood how time is. When Dad was at home, he always wanted to be with the family. I didn’t realize it then, but I still do.
Like many competitive runners, you started track and cross country teams in high school and college. What was it like to walk from the track to the trails?
I joined the race with a good friend and got into the game very quickly. It was a new challenge for me, learning how to deal with mixed terrain, big climbs, weather and so on. The next summer, I made the American team and from there I got everything. That was 15 years ago.
What does it feel like to wear an American uniform when you race?
This is a big deal. My father represented this country in the military for 20 years. We moved to Germany during the desert storm, and I began to realize the great sacrifice of protecting our freedoms. This experience puts it all in perspective. I am proud of my country, and representing it is a gift.
You have won the national or world title every year since 2009. What is the secret of your consistency?
Never take shortcuts. For me, success comes from what I do. I like to work to compete. If you are in it for money or fame, it will be temporary. You can win one or two races, but when things get tough you get separated and out of the game. You can tell runners that they like to run because they run regularly after a race. For the rest of his career, really.
How have your experiences as a black runner shaped your career?
I’ve dealt with race issues since middle school. I was called slurs in cross country, especially when I was killing the best white kids. At Oklahoma State University, I was profiled by a police officer and heard a lot of abuse. The better I got, the more prominent I became as a citizen. I have learned not to waste energy on these people. I would love to spend it on the next generation.
Is trail running becoming more comprehensive?
A lot of people like to say that, but I don’t really think so. It frustrated me when people said there was no racial problem running the trail, but I’m not so emotional anymore. Sure, anyone can sign up for a race, but it’s about how people react to you, how warm they are, the emotions and the optics. Many people think that engagement is a physical thing, but it is more than that.
You’ve been talking openly about race and your experiences as a black player over the last few years. What inspired you to speak?
I knew it wouldn’t be easy, but I couldn’t keep quiet. It started with a conversation with close friends, acknowledging that we are all facing the same prejudice. Winning races was not enough to change the game. I needed to share my experience with others. For a long time, I was worried about losing the sponsorship, which was terrible because it was my livelihood. These people had an impact on my career. It was in my family’s best interest to keep my mouth shut.
Did you feel pressured to talk about race and identity issues?
I feel pressured. Immediately after national issues flare up, people send me a lot of messages and ask me to share my thoughts, but I like to do my research first. Sometimes, I will say something, but usually I try not to react. When I started sharing more of my stories six or seven years ago, I was so happy to see it. [negative] Didn’t want problems in the answers. I didn’t want people to hate me. But I have learned that when people say things like that, they just want the stalemate to continue. If I don’t speak I will be a coward.
What changes are needed in the game to bring more colorful people into the trail run?
Sports are guided by the media. They say it is for whom it is as it is for whom. When I was a kid, magazines never showed black people camping, hiking or trail running. You will be ridiculed for doing these things, as people say, “This is a white man’s thing.” Changing the optics is an important step. Top athletes attract more athletes like them. If we are only talking about white runners today, it is difficult to impress the next generation of black runners tomorrow.