Many Mountains to Climb

Joseph Gray is a four-time national mountain running champion. He’s a black athlete competing in a predominantly white sport. And he has a simple answer when it comes to how to battle racism and increase diversity on the trail: Just keep winning. 

At 32 years old, Joseph Gray thrashes literal and figurative obstacles. He is a 20-time USA National Team member and a four-time USA Mountain Running National Champion. Never heard of mountain running, a hybrid sport of cross-country length, trail and sometimes road running that takes place in the mountains? That’s okay. Gray also competed in the marathon at the Olympic trials this summer and he is the only athlete to win the North American Central American and Caribbean (NACAC) Championships in both Cross Country (once) and Mountain Running (a record five consecutive times). Regardless of the terrain, Joseph Gray dominates as an American distance runner in a country where he has been the only athlete of color to make the U.S. Mountain Running team in its 25-year history.

With racism and racial tension dominating the news, it’s just not ok that most people have never heard of Joseph Gray, a black runner making positive strides in such a predominantly white sport. But, for the most part, Gray doesn’t focus on race; instead he concentrates on racing. When pressed on the topic, Gray says, “We still have issues in the sport. Training groups that develop athletes in their post-collegiate careers are sponsored by footwear and athletic shoe companies, and there’s disparity in the athletes they’re accepting. There are quality athletes who are deserving of being included, but have been denied. At one point in my career, I was one of them.”

In those cases, he tries to remember his hero Jesse Owens. “He dealt with [racism] as a class act, without negativity. I try to model myself after him.”

Gray admits that inequalities exist in distance running, but not in sprints or other sports like basketball and football. What’s interesting is that the solution to the problem might just be Gray himself—because it’s hard to ignore consistent results. Winning races gets attention, and the more coverage Gray gets for his mountain running, the more diversity he’s likely to attract to the sport. And Gray wants more people to participate.

“Running is an adventure that can go anywhere you want,” he says. “Almost anyone can do it. Some use it as a way to explore other cultures. I love travel and food, and running allows all those things to happen.”

Though he started out playing basketball during his middle school years, he soon found that he wanted the pressure of winning resting squarely on his own shoulders. “In running, you can’t blame anyone else for a poor performance. You’re always on that high of being in a pressure situation. Even if you’re on a team, if you don’t do well individually, it hurts the team.”

Joseph_Gray-8693

As passionate as Gray is about mountain running, he’s still on the fence about it becoming an Olympic event—and loss of sponsorship might be the largest reason. Distance runners don’t garner enough attention or make a ton of money to support their training as it is, and additional rules and politics from a new governing body might take away or lessen the effectiveness of individual sponsorship opportunities. Merrell, Garden of Life, and Spenco sponsor Gray, though he’s quick to point out that most of the companies he personally endorses, he approached because their products impressed him.

“I tried Merrell’s entire line before I made a decision,” Gray says. And yet, self-promotion doesn’t come easy for him. “Today, companies want you to be involved in social media. I come from the old school of competition. I came from a family where you didn’t brag about yourself. I want my fans to know me based on my competition, rather than my social media presence. So I share my journey and open myself up to talking about training and competing.”

Gray participates in about 20 races in any given year, running throughout Europe and Asia, and enjoying another passion of his along the way. “I like to blend with culture and try new foods. If something’s interesting, I’ll probably try it.” That adventurous spirit backfired when an intestinal parasite he picked up in Malaysia waylaid his training leading up to the 2016 Olympic trials in February.

“I lost a lot of time in training in December and January and really couldn’t find my rhythm, but I went anyway for the experience.”

If quitting isn’t in Gray’s vocabulary, being tough on himself is. “I have a hard time pulling out of races,” he says. “I consider the trials one of the worst races of my career. I was mentally and physically unprepared.” Gray finished a disappointing 76th and, as a result, says he’ll make better decisions on the road prior to marathon competitions. Yet those who know him best, including his wife Christy, say he never gives less than 100 percent. “No matter what we may be doing or where we are, he doesn’t sacrifice his workout. That dedication and consistency carries over to every other aspect of his life too, including our relationship,” Christy says. “When he plans trips for us or gifts to me, he plans out every single detail to make it meaningful in some way.”

Gray cites being raised with a military father, a man who was an athlete in his own right, as the driving force behind his discipline and uncompromising work ethic. “When we played basketball, I could see he was focused and consistent and motivated to be the best he could be.” Gray says, “I learned that nothing really comes easy.” When asked what his proudest accomplishment is in his life, running or otherwise, Gray answers without hesitation. “The relationship I have with my mother and father. They’re my best friends. They supported me from the day I was born to when I first started running and needed money to pay rent.”

While relationships are important, as an elite athlete, Gray struggles to maintain balance in his life. Reminders like near-death experiences on the trail keep him grounded. After an unresolved argument one morning, Christy dropped off Gray in a remote area for a winter training run in the mountains outside of their home in Colorado Springs.

“The ridge got technical, with no way to run it without serious mountain gear. I wanted to see the area, so I kept going,” Gray says. “I slid across a gulley and recovered, but it scared me. As an athlete, you know when you’ve crossed that line. I came across another gulley and thought I could almost jump across it. Before I knew it, I was almost horizontal sliding with my face into the side of the mountain. I’m twisting out, looking at this crazy descent with a big drop, and a million things went through my mind about life. I didn’t get to tell my parents and brother and wife that morning that I loved them.”

His wife Christy recalls, “There was a lot of snow, and I remember not liking the idea of him going. They say you should never go to bed angry, well I think you should never drop off someone angry either!”

The GPS he carried with him that day humbles him. “I still look at it every now and then,” he says. “In a split second, it goes from 1 mph to 30 mph, and I’m back in that moment, barely able to breathe and hanging from a rock thinking, ‘No one is going to find me.’”

Christy went to the Devil’s Playground parking lot and waited. When he still wasn’t there an hour after the designated meeting time, her mind went to the worst-case scenario.

Gray found his way off of the rock and to a road where he flagged down a ranger to help him. He texted his wife a simple message, “Hey, I couldn’t make it. I’ll meet you at the toll-booth for Pikes.” When his wife picked him up that day, he hugged her. “It was one of the best hugs I’ve ever had,” Gray says. “I should never leave a situation unresolved. Life is not a guarantee.”

Gray and his wife moved from Lakewood, Washington to Colorado Springs two years ago to “try a new city and maybe start a family,” and they quickly fell in love with it. “I always liked Colorado, the community. Colorado Springs is a good city. It’s home for us,” Gray says, though he admits that running at altitude is an adjustment. “I make sure I’m not pushing myself 100-percent all the time. There are some days when I think altitude is great, and some days I miss sea level. Recovery takes longer at altitude.”

Not to worry though, as a foodie of sorts, Gray has perfected the ultimate recovery drink. His secret weapon: egg nog. “One winter, I just really looked at the ingredients. It’s sweet, for simple sugar replacement, and high in protein for muscle recovery,” Gray says. “It’s just right really. Well-balanced. Perfect.”

That is just the way Joseph Gray wants it to be.

Michelle Theall is a freelance writer and photographer and the former editor in chief of Alaska magazine.

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