With 20 national championships and 9 international gold medals across 6 disciplines, Joseph Gray is by far the most decorated American mountain runner.
In a wide range of trail running, covering everything from 100-mile ultramarathons to very steep kilometer races, he is in the best pantheon of all time as a four-time world champion and four-time winner at Pikes Peak Ascent. , one of the toughest races in the country.
With its high-altitude trail type, challenging and technical surfaces, and significant elevation gains and losses, Gray’s mountain running is still a niche sport. However, trail running is booming overall.
As an organized sport, trail running began in the mid-1990s and now has around 20 million participants competing in 25,000 races worldwide, according to World Athletics.
Gray traces his love of trails and running back to his childhood. He moved with his family to Heidelberg, Germany at the age of six, where his father was stationed in the US Army. He spent a lot of time exploring the forest with his friends. “We made all kinds of games in the woods near the base,” he said. “I started running a lot and got lost and found my way home.”
After moving back to Tacoma, Washington, Gray began running competitively on the school track team in 7th grade. Coaches noted his dedication and talent. In high school, he ran cross-country, winning team state titles and individual awards. He competed cross-country and track at Oklahoma State University and competed in the NCAA Championship six times.
His first trail race was in 2007 with a friend, a year after finishing his college running career. His rise in sports was a meteorite. He was selected to represent the country after a year.
Many elite-level marathon runners are black, but few are at the pinnacle of trail and mountain running. There are a few black racers on the European team, but Gray is the only African American on the American Mountain Running team. His range is matched only by his consistency. He was named to Team 33 over 14 years spanning nine lengths and disciplines, from 50km road ultramarathons to mountain racing and snowshoeing.
I spoke with Gray about his path to becoming a professional mountain runner, the challenges of being one of the few black runners standing at the starting line, and how he hopes to inspire a new generation of athletes.
This interview has been edited and compressed.
What was your military life like?
We moved a lot. From Kentucky to Germany to Washington. I was able to dive into other cultures at a young age and that has shaped me. I also learned how fleeting time is. When his father was at home, he always wanted to be with his family. I didn’t understand it at the time, but now I do.
Like many competing runners, he started track and cross-country teams in high school and college. How was it going from track to trail?
I joined a good friend for racing and got into the sport pretty quickly. Learning how to handle mixed terrain, big uphills, weather and more was a new challenge for me. The following summer, I formed the US team and went all-in from there. That was 15 years ago.
How about wearing an American uniform when racing?
It’s a big deal. My father has represented this country in the military for over 20 years. We moved to Germany during Desert Storm, and I began to realize the tremendous sacrifices made to protect our freedom. That experience shows it all to me. I am proud of my country and a gift that represents it.
It has won national or world titles every year since 2009. What’s the secret to consistency?
Never use shortcuts. Success for me comes from loving what I do. I like to work to compete. For money or fame it will be temporary. You can win a race or two, but when things get tough, you collapse and get kicked out of the sport. I can tell runners who love to run because they run a consistent race from race to race. For their entire career, really.
How did your experience as a black runner shape your career?
I’ve been dealing with race issues since middle school. I was called slander, especially in cross country when I hit the best white kids. At Oklahoma State University, I got a police profile and heard a lot of slander. Just like racing in the Nationals, the better I did, the more I stood out. I have learned not to waste my energy on these people. I’d rather use it for the next generation.
Is trail running becoming more and more inclusive?
A lot of people would like to say so, but I don’t really think so. I used to get annoyed when people said that trail running wasn’t racial issues, but now I’m not so emotional. Of course, anyone can sign up for the race, but it’s all about how people react to you, how warm you are, how you feel and how you feel. Many people think that inclusion is physical, but it is more than that.
You spoke candidly about your race and your experiences as a black athlete over the past few years. What motivated you to speak?
Even though I knew it wouldn’t be easy, I couldn’t stay still. It started with conversations with close friends, recognizing that we all share the same biases. Just winning a race doesn’t change the sport. I had to share my experiences with others. For a long time, I worried about losing support, but I was afraid because it was for a living. These people have influenced my career. Keeping your mouth shut has been the best thing for our family.
Are you under pressure to talk about issues surrounding race and identity?
I feel the pressure. When a national issue pops up, people send me a lot of messages asking me to share my thoughts, but I like to research first. Sometimes I talk, but generally I try not to do anything reactive. 6-7 years ago when I started sharing more of my story [negative] answer. I didn’t want a problem. I didn’t want people to hate me. But I’ve learned that when people say things like that, they just want the status quo. If I hadn’t said that, I would have been a coward.
What changes are needed in sport to attract more people of color to trail running?
Sports are driven by the media. They indicate who it is for by showing whom it seems to be for. When I was a kid, magazines didn’t show camping, hiking, or trail running to black people. If you do it, like people say, “It’s a white man’s job,” you’ll be joking. Changing the optics is an important step. The best players attract more players like them. It’s hard to inspire the next generation of black runners tomorrow if we’re only talking about white runners today.