Mountain running champion Joseph Gray talks about the determination it takes to rise to the top and inspire others to find their hearts in a sport where no one else looks like you.
Joseph Gray’s running resumé is so loaded it would take most of this page to list all of his accomplishments. To pick some highlights, the Colorado Springs-based athlete is an 18-time USA National Champion. He has represented Team USA 31 times in international competition and won eight world titles across the mountain, trail, and snowshoe disciplines. Gray, 35, is also the first Black American to win the U.S. Mountain Running Championships and the first Black American to win the U.S. Snowshoe Running Championships. EO readers also voted him Resident Colorado Trail Badass in 2019. He wants to share his love of running and the mountains with young people of diverse backgrounds and encourage them to take the sport by storm the way he has. With the help of sponsors like Hoka One One, his ongoing Inspire Diversity project (@joegeezi #inspirediversity) reaches out to these kids and supports them. He took the time to talk to us just two weeks after the birth of his second child and as the novel coronavirus pandemic began to close down most of the country.
What was the impetus behind the Inspire Diversity project?
A lot of it reflects back on my own career. When I was young, I didn’t have a lot of money to get really nice gear and running stuff. I remember a couple of times in my young career when someone gave me a free product and I remember how much it motivated me and inspired me and got me excited about the sport. I wanted to provide that same opportunity to this next generation of kids. I understand that it’s hard to stay motivated in a sport where nobody really looks like you and where it’s not popular in your community.
What was it specifically that brought you to mountain running and kept you there despite the barriers and the difficulty of not seeing anyone else who looks like you in the sport?
I just love running. I love being outdoors. It’s very raw and very pure. You’re just outdoors running on mountains and trails. It’s rugged, and I love that physical challenge, but I also love the peace that you find out there in your thoughts and seeing the beauty. This is for you. You were born into this. All this beauty is in our earth.
Why is mountain running a good way for young Black kids or other underserved populations to find their place in the outdoors?
It’s a relatively cheap sport. It can be tough to access from some urban areas where you see bigger populations of Black people but it’s also something you can travel to and it’s pretty easy to participate in and train for compared to other sports where you’re spending a lot of money on gear. I mean you can have Payless shoes—I wouldn’t recommend doing that for the longterm—but all you need is a pair of shoes. But, then, you might get teased for mountain running in your community because it’s so different and so new to the Black community. But when it comes down to it, trail running is just something fun. It’s not a white sport. It’s not an Asian sport or a European thing. It’s everybody. Humans. We are our purest form of humans when we are mountain running.
What challenges do you face as one of very few Black athletes in your sport?
I have to do my due diligence, making sure I’m healthy and fit. And when I go to the start line I need to make sure I’m doing something that’s going to be impactful for my community. Being Black in this sport, I can’t just be mediocre. I can’t just be sixth place. In order for me to get attention or sponsorships, I have to be great and I have to win consistently. The same goes with inspiring the next generation. You can’t just be a mediocre Black trail runner.
In the next five years, what changes would you like to see in the sport of mountain running?
I’d like to see more diverse athletes getting more sponsorships. There are talented Black runners and Hispanic runners who are not getting sponsorships. The majority of sponsorships still go to white athletes. Maybe we can spread the love and help inspire more folks and represent for a diverse country like the USA.
Is there something you want to say to someone who reads this story and feels inspired by you?
Follow your heart. If you see trail running or mountain running and your heart yearns to do it, do it. Don’t let race or a fear of being accepted stop you from moving forward with that passion, because, ultimately, you only have yourself to blame if 10 years from now you regret not making that decision. Life is short. If you have a passion for something, go after it.