With 20 national championships in six disciplines and nine international gold medals, Joseph Gray is by far the most decorated American mountain runner.
In the broader discipline of trail running – which includes everything from 100-mile ultramarathons to ultra-steep kilometer races – he is also part of the pantheon of all-time greats, 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, mountain running – a type of running at higher altitudes, with difficult, technical surfaces, and considerable elevation gain and loss – is still a niche sport. But trail running as a whole is booming.
Running as an organized sport took off in the mid-1990s and today has around 20 million participants, who compete in 25,000 races worldwide, according to World Athletics.
Gray traces his love for the 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 in the US Army. He spent a lot of time exploring the forests with friends. “We invented all kinds of games in the woods near the base,” he said. “I started running around a lot, getting lost and finding my way back.”
After moving again to Tacoma, Washington, Gray began running competitively on his school’s track team in the seventh grade. Coaches noticed his dedication and talent. In high school, he raced around the country, winning a team state title and an individual award. He then raced cross country and track for Oklahoma State University and qualified for the NCAA Championships six times.
His first trail run was little more than a run with a friend in 2007, a year after finishing his college running career. His rise in the sport was meteoric. Within a year, he was named to a national team.
While many elite-level marathon runners are black, few athletes at the top of trail running and mountain running are. There are a handful of black runners on the European teams, but Gray is the only African American on the US mountain running team. His range is matched only by his consistency: he’s been named to the team 33 times in 14 years, across nine lengths and disciplines, from 50-kilometre road ultramarathons to mountain runs and snowshoeing.
I spoke with Gray about his journey to becoming a professional mountain runner, the challenges of being one of the few black runners on the starting line, and how he hopes to inspire a new generation of athletes.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
What was the life of a military child like?
We have moved a lot. Kentucky to Germany to Washington. I was able to immerse myself in other cultures from an early age, which shaped me. I also gained an understanding of the transience of time. When Dad was home, he always wanted to be with his family. I didn’t understand this then, but I do the same now.
Like many competitive runners, you got your start on track and cross-country teams in high school and college. What was it like going from the track to the trails?
I joined a good friend for a run and fell into the sport pretty quickly. It was a new challenge for me, learning to deal with mixed terrain, big climbs, weather and all that. The following summer I made Team USA and from there I was all in. It was 15 years ago.
How does it feel to wear the American uniform when running?
It’s a big problem. My father represented this country in the military for over 20 years. We moved to Germany during Desert Storm, and I began to realize the enormous sacrifice of protecting our freedoms. This experience puts it all into perspective for me. I am proud of our country, and it is a gift to represent it.
You have won a national or world title every year since 2009. What is the secret of your consistency?
Never take shortcuts. For me, success comes from loving what I do. I like to work to be competitive. If you are in it for the money or the glory, it will be fleeting. You may win a race or two, but when the going gets tough, you crumble and quit the sport. You can tell runners who like to run because they are consistent race after race. For their entire career, really.
How have your experiences as a black runner shaped your career?
I’ve been dealing with racial issues since middle school. I was called insults 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 insults. The more I got better, like running at nationals, the more I stood out. I learned not to waste energy with these people. I prefer to spend it on the next generation.
Is trail running becoming more inclusive?
A lot of people like to say yes, but I don’t really mean it. It used to frustrate me when people said there’s no racial issue in trail running, but I’m not that emotional now. Sure, anyone can enter a race, but it’s all about how people react to you, their warmth, emotion and optics. Many people think of inclusion as a physical thing, but it’s so much more than that.
You’ve been candid about race and your experiences as a black athlete over the past few years. What made you want to express yourself?
I knew it wouldn’t be easy, but I couldn’t stay silent. It started with conversations with close friends, acknowledging that we all faced the same biases. Winning races was not enough to change the sport; I needed to share my experience with others. For a long time I was afraid of losing the sponsorship, which was scary because it was my livelihood. These people have had an influence on my career. It was in my family’s interest to keep me quiet.
Have you felt pressure to talk about race and identity issues?
I feel pressure. People message me a lot right after national issues explode, asking me to share my thoughts, but I like to do my research first. Sometimes I’ll say something, but generally I try not to do reactive stuff. When I first started sharing my story six or seven years ago, it was overwhelming to see the [negative] answers. I didn’t want any problems. I didn’t want people to hate me. But I’ve learned that when people say things like that, they just want the status quo to continue. If I didn’t talk, I’d be a coward.
What needs to change in the sport to get more people of color into trail running?
Sports are driven by the media. They dictate who it is for by showing what it looks like. When I was a kid, magazines never showed black people camping, hiking, or running. You’d be laughed at for doing these things, like people who said, “That’s a white thing.” Changing the lens is a critical step. The best athletes attract 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.