At the Top of His Sport, Mountain Runner Focuses on the Next Generation

With 20 national championships across six disciplines and nine international gold medals, Joseph Gray is the most decorated American mountain runner, by a wide margin.

In the broader discipline of trail running — which includes everything from 100-mile ultramarathons to ultra-steep kilometer races — he’s in the pantheon of the best ever, too, as a four-time world champion and four-time winner at Pikes Peak Ascent, one of the toughest races in the country.

Gray’s specialty of mountain running — a type of trail running at higher elevation, with challenging and technical surfaces, and considerable elevation gain and loss — is still a fairly niche sport. But trail running as a whole is booming.

Trail running as an organized sport took off in the mid-1990s and now has an estimated 20 million participants, who compete in 25,000 races all around the world, according to World Athletics.

Gray traces his love for trails — and for running — back to his childhood. When he was 6, he moved with his family to Heidelberg, Germany, where his father was stationed with the U.S. military. He spent a lot of time exploring the forests with friends. “We made up all kinds of games in the woods near the base,” he said. “I started running a lot, getting lost and finding my way back home.”

After moving again to Tacoma, Wash., Gray began running competitively on his school’s track team in seventh grade. Coaches took notice of his dedication and talent. In high school, he ran cross-country, winning a team state title and individual award. He went on to run cross-country and track for Oklahoma State University and qualified for the N.C.A.A. championships six times.

His first trail race was little more than a run with a friend in 2007, a year after he completed his collegiate running career. His ascension in the sport was meteoric. Within a year, he was named to a national team.

While many elite-level marathoners are Black, few athletes at the pinnacle of trail and mountain running are. There are a handful of Black racers on European teams, but Gray is the only African American on the U.S. Mountain Running Team. His range is matched only by his consistency: He’s been named to the team 33 times over 14 years, across nine lengths and disciplines, from 50-kilometer 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 on the start line and how he hopes to inspire a new generation of athletes.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

What was life like as a military kid?

We moved a lot. Kentucky to Germany to Washington. I was able to dive into other cultures at a young age, which shaped me. I also gained an understanding of how fleeting time is. When dad was home, he always wanted to be with family. I didn’t understand this at the time, but I do the same now.

Like many competitive runners, you started on track and cross-country teams in high school and college. What was it like moving from track to trails?

I joined a good friend for a race and fell into the sport pretty quickly. It was a new challenge for me, learning how to deal with mixed terrain, big climbs, weather and all that. The next summer, I made the U.S. team and from there I was all in. That was 15 years ago.

What is it like to wear the American uniform when you race?

It’s a big deal. My father represented this country in the military for over 20 years. We moved to Germany during Desert Storm, and I started to realize the huge sacrifice of protecting our freedoms. That experience puts it all in perspective for me. I’m proud of our country, and it’s a gift to represent it.

You’ve won a national or world title every year since 2009. What’s the secret to your consistency?

Never take shortcuts. For me, success comes from loving what I do. I love putting in the work to compete. If you’re in it for money or fame, it’ll be fleeting. You might win a race or two, but when things get tough you’ll fall apart and drop out of the sport. You can tell the runners that love running because they’re consistent race after race. For their entire 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 beating the best white kids. At Oklahoma State University, I was profiled by a cop and heard a lot of slurs. The better I got, like racing at nationals, the more I stood out. I’ve learned to not waste energy on these people. I’d rather spend it on the next generation.

Is trail running becoming more inclusive?

A lot of people like to say it is, but I don’t really think so. It used to frustrate me when people would say there’s not a racial issue in trail running, but I don’t get as emotional now. Sure, anyone can sign up to a race, but it’s about how people react to you, how warm they are, the emotion and the optics. Lots of people think inclusion is a physical thing, but it’s way more than that.

You’ve been outspoken about race and your experiences as a Black athlete in the last few years. What inspired you to speak out?

I knew it wouldn’t be easy, but I couldn’t stay quiet. It started with conversations with close friends, recognizing we all were experiencing the same prejudice. Winning races wasn’t enough to change the sport; I needed to share my experience with others. For a long time, I worried about losing sponsorship, which was scary because it was my livelihood. These people had influence over my career. It was in the best interest for my family to keep my mouth shut.

Did you feel any pressure to talk about issues surrounding race and identity?

I do feel pressure. People message me a lot right after national issues blow up, asking me to share my thoughts, but I like to do my research first. Sometimes, I will say something, but generally I try to not do the reactive stuff. When I started sharing more of my story six or seven years ago, it was overwhelming to see the [negative] responses. I didn’t want issues. I didn’t want people to hate me. But I’ve learned that when people say stuff like that, they just want the status quo to continue. If I didn’t speak up, I would be a coward.

What needs to change in the sport to get more people of color into trail running?

Sports are guided by the media. They dictate who it is for by showing who it looks like it is for. When I was a kid, magazines would never show Black people camping, hiking or trail running. You’d get joked on for doing those things, like people saying, “That’s a white-person thing.” Changing the optics is a critical step. The top athletes pull in more athletes like them. If we’re only talking about white runners today, it’s hard to inspire the next generation of Black runners tomorrow.

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