The champion mountain runner has a lot to say about race, doping and the pure joy of being in the mountains.
Joseph Gray has one impressive mountain running resume. The Washington native, who recently moved to Colorado Springs, took his fifth USA Mountain Runner of the Year title in 2014 and became the first athlete to win the USA Mountain Running National Championships consecutively in 2013 and 2014. Last year, he also became the first athlete to win the North American, Central American and Caribbean (NACAC) Championships in both Cross Country and Mountain Running. And in a sport that is not very diverse, he has made big inroads for aspiring African-American mountain runners—he’s the first African American to win the USA Mountain Running national title and the first to make the US World Mountain Running championships team. But his goals are not just to represent Black Americans. He has his sights trained on representing the U.S. by becoming a top international skyrunner and hopes living and training in his new Colorado home will help put him atop that podium.
How did the mountains and trail running first call to you?
I’ve always been adventurous and curious. I used to explore forests and trails with friends and sometimes alone just wandering and looking at plants, bugs and trying to find where trails ended. So I got lost quite a bit at a young age. After college, I was told by stud mountain runner Simon G. that I should try mountain racing. I had done some mountain/trail type training all throughout high school, and even college, so when I found out there was an actual pro level to this genre of racing I jumped on the chance.
The outdoor industry keeps talking about how it can become more diverse, but nothing really seems to change. Even this magazine. We stated that we want to be more diverse, but then we left you off our athlete poll. Why do you think that is?
I think diversity calls for a change, and, as you know, it’s hard for people to change their way of thought. Change is especially difficult for those who work in the sports marketing industry and in the media.
What do you do to inspire more African-American kids to get out and enjoy the mountains? What about African-American adults?
I try to let kids know that distance running is not a “white” sport. Anyone can enjoy it, and any person regardless of their skin color can excel at it. Lots of kids in inner cities that I’ve come across view running as a “white” sport. It’s important to show them from my past experiences that sport in general can enhance your life if you are dedicated and provide experiences that otherwise would be almost impossible. The best way I know personally to inspire other Black Americans is to encourage them to try something new. I was encouraged by someone (a white man, who, to this day, is like family and one of my best friends) who happened to be my first distance coach, to try long distance running. Also, I’d like to start a program to help fund African Americans, both adults and children, to get them into trail/road running and maybe to get them race experiences.
Who have been your heroes, mentors, role models on this path?
Jesse Owens has been a huge inspiration for me. He was a class act and despite all the hatred and negativity surrounding him, he still competed and held his head high. Never once did he lash back with hatred.
What are your personal strengths as a mountain runner?
I think my strength resides within my mentality. I have had to face opposition in various ways as a youngster which have lead me to be mentally tough and focused. I love racing and I love battling with other athletes. The idea of competing really excites me and gives me something to look forward to when its time to train and race.
You moved to Colorado recently. Are there any other mountain sports you have engaged in now that you live here?
I’m pretty afraid of the idea of skiing to be honest. However, I’m a lover of mountain biking as a sport and do that frequently in the summer so I’ve been thinking about getting a fat bike and doing some snow mountain biking.
How do you see mountain running growing as a sport?
The more the sport grows, the better our national teams will perform at the international level. I also see a need for better testing in our sport. There are many ultra- and trail runners who have never been tested, yet win events regularly. This has to change. I’m sure at one point cycling was fairly clean, but the organization did not take a stand against doping or focus on the idea of clean sport soon enough, which then allowed guys like Lance Armstrong to come along.
Do you think it’s possible for your sport and others to be dope-free?
I think there are ways to deter doping and lower the rate of dopers in the sport. It would be impossible to make a sport 100-percent clean. Where there is money, there will be cheaters in almost every aspect of life. I have had many great ideas about doping but they all boil down to the same problem: My plans won’t work unless there is more funding in the Anti-Doping organizations globally. There are ways I believe we can contribute to these funds as athletes but it will take a revolution.
What achievements are you most proud of? What’s still on your list?
I’m most proud of the fact that I accomplished my goals of making National Teams and representing my country at World Championships and other international events while also accomplishing my goal of winning multiple USA National Championships. •
Photo by Brad Hudson