At the forefront of his sport, Joseph Gray is focused on the next generation of black athletes

In six disciplines in 20 national championships and nine international gold medals, Joseph Gray is the most decorated American mountain runner by far.

In the broader discipline of trail running — from 100-kilometer ultramarathons to full-mile races — he is in the pantheon of the best ever, four-time world champion and four-time winner at the Pikes Peak Ascent. , one of the toughest races in the country.

Gray’s mountain running specialty – a type of higher-altitude trail with difficult, technical surfaces, and a steep incline and ascent – is still quite a sports niche. But trail running is generally on the rise.

Trail running gained strength as an organized sport in the mid-1990s and now has about 20 million participants, competing in 25,000 races around the world, according to World Athletics.

Gray has a love of running and running in his childhood. At the age of 6, he moved with his family to Heidelberg, Germany, where his father was with the U.S. Army. He spent a lot of time exploring the woods with friends. “We used to play all kinds of games in the woods next to the base,” he said. “I started running a lot, getting lost and finding my way home.”

After relocating to Tacoma, Washington, Gray began competing on his school’s track team in the seventh grade. The coaches noticed his dedication and talent. In high school, he did cross country, winning a state team title and an individual award. He ran cross-country and track for Oklahoma State University and qualified six times for the NCAA Championships.

His first trail race was only to run with a friend in 2007, a year after finishing his career as a college runner. It was his meteoric rise in the sport. Within a year, he was named to a national team.

Although many elite marathoners are Black, there are few athletes at the top of the trail and mountain race. There are a few Black runners in European teams, but Gray is the only African American in the US Mountain Run Team. Its longevity can only be compared to its consistency: it has been named 33 times in the team over 14 years, in nine lengths and disciplines, from 50-kilometer road ultramarathons to mountain races and snowmobiles.

I talked to Gray about his journey as a professional mountain runner, the challenges of being one of the few black runners out there, and he hopes to inspire a new generation of athletes.

This conversation has been edited and shortened.


What was the life of a military man like?

We moved a lot. Kentucky to Germany to Washington. When I was young I was able to immerse myself in other cultures, and that shaped me. I also got to understand that time is elusive. When Dad was home, he always wanted to be with his family. I didn’t understand that at the time, but I do the same now.

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

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

What’s it like to wear an American uniform when you race?

That’s a great thing. My father was a military representative of this country for over 20 years. We went to Germany during the Desert Storm, and I began to realize the great sacrifice of protecting our freedoms. That experience puts me in the spotlight. I am proud of our people, and it is a gift to replace them.

Every year since 2009 you have won a national or world title. What’s the secret to your consistency?

Never take shortcuts. What makes me successful comes from loving. I like to put in a competitive job. If you are looking for money or fame, it will be temporary. You may win a race or two, but when things get tough you will fall and quit the sport. You can tell runners that you like running because they are consistent with the race. Their whole career, really.

How have your experiences as a black runner shaped your career?

I’ve been dealing with racial issues since high school. They used to call me cross-country slurs, especially when I won the best white kids. At Oklahoma State University, a police officer gave me a profile and I heard a lot of silence. The more I improved, like the national races, the more I stood out. I’ve learned not to waste energy with these people. I prefer to spend it on future generations.

Is trail running increasingly inclusive?

A lot of people like to say that, but I don’t think so. It used to frustrate me when people used to say that there is no race problem in trail running, but now I’m not so excited. Sure, anyone can sign up for a race, but how people react to you, how hot it is, is a matter of emotion and optics. Many people think that inclusion is a physical thing, but it is much more than that.

You’ve talked about racing and your experience as a black athlete over the last few years. What inspired you to speak up?

I knew it wasn’t going to be easy, but I couldn’t keep quiet. It started with conversations with close friends, recognizing that we were all suffering the same prejudice. Winning races was not enough to change the sport; I had to share my experience with others. For a long time, I was worried about losing protection, which scared me because it was my livelihood. These people have influenced my career. It was good for my family to shut my mouth.

Did you feel pressured to talk about issues of race and identity?

I feel the pressure. People immediately explode national issues and send me a lot of messages asking me to share my thoughts, but I like to do my research first. Sometimes I’ll say something, but overall I try not to do reactive things. When I started sharing more of my stories six or seven years ago, it was awesome to see [negative] answers. I didn’t want any trouble. I didn’t want people to hate me. But I’ve learned that when people say things like that they want the situation to continue. If I didn’t talk, I would be a coward.

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

Sports are driven by the media. They promise who it is by showing who it is for. When I was a child, magazines never showed black campers, hikers, or mountain runners. You would joke about doing these things when people would say, “That’s a white person.” Changing optics is a critical step. Higher athletes take on more athletes like them. If we are only talking about white runners today, it is difficult to inspire the next generation of Black runners tomorrow.

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