Joe Gray: Better, and hungrier, than ever
The greatest mountain trail runner in history is back to contest the Adidas Terrex 10k Spring Runoff
Joe Gray admitted that he didn’t feel sharp en route to winning his seventh straight GoPro Mountain Games 10k trail run in 2021 by almost 30-seconds — it was, after all, his first race in 16 months.
This year, things are different.
“I’m in great shape; definitely much better shape than I was last year and I’m looking forward to the race,” he said last week.
A scarier thought for the field: Gray, the two-time World Mountain Running Association (WMRA) champion, 20-time and counting U.S. champion, six-time Xterra World Champion — his resume could consume this entire story — is not content.
“I’m my biggest critic and I have certain numbers in my head, things I want to do, and I’m not satisfied,” he said, evoking tone usually attached to the Kobes and MJs — icons uncommonly saddled with an indomitable will to win — than to your typical endurance athlete. Then again, Gray isn’t average.
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He’s the undisputed GOAT, yet he remains hungry for more. It might ‘just’ be trail running, but linking the Colorado Springs runner with the great Laker and Bull is appropriate. Gray himself grew up watching Black superstars in mainstream sports garner fame, ultimately concluding being a trailblazer for the trail world could be his calling.
“Black people don’t see representation of themselves in [this sport]. So it seems like it’s not for us, and the media perpetuates this,” he told iRunFar’s Alex Potter in December. While Gray’s dominance has forced a Eurocentric trail media to turn his way, to a degree, his skin color has amplified the spotlight’s pressure to stay on top.
“It motivates me in multiple ways,” the 11-time USATF Mountain Runner of the Year told the Vail Daily in advance of the Mountain Games.
“I know there’s a lot of younger and older Black athletes that are interested in outdoor sports and trail running and if I’m competing, I might be that person they’re looking to for motivation and inspiration,” he said. “So it’s very important that I take my competition seriously and don’t take them for granted and go out there knowing that people are looking to me to inspire their next dreams.”
Having been named to the U.S. mountain running team an astonishing 33 times over 14 years, spanning nine different lengths and disciplines (from 50-kilometer roads to snowshoeing to mountain trail), he remains the only African-American on the U.S. mountain trail running team. He told the New York Times in March that he often feels pressure to speak about racial issues, but is patient to know all of the facts before he does. “People message me a lot right after national issues blow up, asking me to share my thoughts, but I like to do my research first,” he told Andy Cochrane.
“Sometimes, I will say something, but generally I try to not do the reactive stuff.”
Growing up in a military family helped cultivate Gray’s sense of patriotism.
“We moved to Germany during Desert Storm, and I started to realize the huge sacrifice of protecting our freedoms,” he said to Cochrane.
“That experience puts it all in perspective for me. I’m proud of our country, and it’s a gift to represent it.”
As important as his voice has become in the Black community, and as numerous as Gray’s accolades are, his front-and-center ethos starts and ends with a different job entirely: Being a dad.
The most important thing
Sunday’s Adidas Terrex 10k Spring Runoff is the first of key back-to-back race weekends for Gray. After hopefully securing his legacy as the Mountain Games’ Bill Russell, he’ll fly out to New Hampshire for the legendary Mt. Washington Hill Climb, a race he’s won the last five times he’s showed up.
“They’re kind of those classic mountain races and ones that really draw in good competition,” he said of Mt. Washington, where he has the American course record, and the Mountain Games.
“And there’s a lot of expectation at these events, too so, they’re really important and I want to do well.”
Hidden within his vast global medal haul are a few FKTs (fastest known times) — the legendary Manitou Incline and the more obscure but certainly just as physiologically mind-boggling sub-90 minute sprint up Mt. Antero’s 7.7 mile trail — though he’s not a huge fan of the Strava-dependent, COVID-fueled, self-timed course craze. Most of the time, they’re a great sponsor plug or an excuse to snag an epic view. For the rest of us, however, they serve as a reminder that like Lebron James and Randy Moss, the guy’s once-in-a-generation athleticism just isn’t normal, even if it manifests itself in the avante garde hobby of trail running.
Still, when asked about his most impressive athletic feat, Gray pointed to his longevity and international consistency, the less flashy but perhaps most critical components to running success.
“What I’m most proud of is being able to return back-to-back-to-back and win titles even after years where maybe I was injured, and I was able to come back and get in enough shape to win again,” he stated.
“Because I think any great top athlete with the physical ability can win a race or a championship one time, but I think it takes a special athlete in terms of their mentality, work ethic and drive to be able to come back, consistently win major events and championships year after year — considering you might get injured or you just didn’t have a good couple of cycles of training.”
Undergirding his consistency is a selfless wife and a family, both of which provide balance in a running world filled with ultra-focused, type-A personalities.
“Having her around is priceless because anything I need, she’s there to support me,” he said of his wife, Christy.
“Sometimes she’s my manager, sometimes she’s my masseuse, sometimes she’s just an ear to listen for me. You need that — you need someone who’s a big-time giver when you’re chasing major goals consistently. You need someone who’s a giver and who’s OK being in that support role.”
Cooking up new recipes provides Gray with another outlet, but its minor compared to what he views as his most important job.
“Just being a dad is really important to me,” he stated.
“Being present in my kids’ lives and not being the kind of person who is going to be on his cell phone when his kids are hanging out. Talking to them — if they have questions, they can ask me. If they want me to do something — kick a soccer ball, shoot a basketball — I just want to make sure I’m present with my kids, making sure I’m in their lives.”
More than an obligation, the champion runner views the responsibility of raising up Isaiah, 3 and Layla, 2 as an imperative passion, one lying at the crux of many societal ills.
“When you’re talking about the socialization process, the maturation process — kids need the father,” he said, noting statistics for children from single-parent households in regard to crime, education and well-being. “The likelihood of them failing in life is much higher,” he said.
Gray said that in earning his B.A. in sociology and M.S. in criminology, one piece of his education that stood out was family dynamics and the statistics that coincide. He particularly understands the importance of a father for young men.
“When you’re a boy especially — men don’t respond to women the same way they do to a father,” he explained. “So, boys who are raised by single moms almost always have issues when they don’t have that father figure.”
Mountain Games and grinding
In terms of training, Gray understandably doesn’t divulge many details.
“I can say that what I’m a big fan of is, I do like to revisit workouts I’ve done in previous seasons to kind of see where I’m at and gauge fitness,” he said. A key component to his analysis is dialing in his effort across those familiar workouts.
“I gauge it by how I felt,” he bluntly stated.
“And if I can do it under control, that says more than if I go out there and just blitz it and put a race effort out there just to beat that time. It doesn’t mean I’m in better shape; it just means I ran harder.”
He credits his business-like distinction between practice reps and race day as foundational to his consistent improvement and trademark ability to show up when it matters.
“There’s a lot of guys, if we work out together today, they would probably be ahead of me or they’d make it really competitive in the workout,” he slyly chuckled. “But, that’s because they run their workouts differently than I run my workouts.”
Rather than approach practice as a performance, Gray’s “mindset” is about preparation.
“I go into the workout with the idea that this is work and I’m preparing. It’s not a race. race day is different. And some people don’t do that,” he said.
Scott Simmons, the coach of the Colorado Springs-based American Distance Project, which also houses two-time Olympic 5000-meter medalist Paul Chelimo, still provides an element of wise counsel for Gray, who won’t be found blistering a local track with the rest of the ADP members anytime soon.
“In mountain season, I do a lot of stuff on my own,” he said, noting he might team up with ADP for an occasional fartlek session. “It makes more sense for me to join for that kind of stuff, but if they’re on the track, then yeah I don’t really want to be on the track.”
In regard to his coach, Gray said, “I don’t need a cheerleader. I don’t necessarily need someone to tell me things that are not true just to boost my ego, and Scott’s never been that person. He’s always been kind of a realist and I think that’s something that he provides me still to this day.”
In advance of Sunday’s 10k, a realist probably would believe Gray is the odds-on favorite to win again.
He blitzed a new course record at the May 14 Black Canyon Ascent, a low-key tuneup race for a season that includes the U.S. vertical championships in July and races in Europe before the WMRA Championships in Thailand in November.
Then again, like every sport’s greatest participants, underlying a string of titles is the ever-present paradoxical trinity of self-doubt, supreme confidence and unquenchable desire.
“The first time I won it, I’m sure there were a lot of people, including myself who were like, ‘that’s nice, but can you do it again?’” Gray said of winning the first 10k Mountain Games title.
“And then in the back of my mind, you know I’m like, ‘well, you’ve done it twice now, can you get the hat-trick?’ After you’ve got the hat-trick you’re like, ‘now everyone knows who you are, everyone’s coming for you, can you get it again?’”
His annual pilgrimage to Vail, what he calls “a nostalgic experience,” will probably involve the usual scoping out of kayak, mountain bike and road time trial events, though he doesn’t consider his own cycling skills “worth mentioning.”
“I really like the race, I like the vibe, it’s just a fun week in general, whether you’re racing or just there to hang out and it’s kind of like a festival,” the 38-year-old said of why he keeps returning.
“I love being out there — the people have always been supportive and great, the race has always been supportive of me and I love working with those guys at Vail Valley Foundation.”
Though he identifies consistency as being the hardest thing to attain in his sport, since he burst onto the scene in 2007 (after meeting accomplished trail runner and mountain runner Simon Gutierrez), he’s been the model example of it.
But, there’s more to be had.
“There’s definitely a few more things that I want to accomplish in the sport, and so I’m still hungry and still chasing those dreams and aspirations,” he said.
On Thursday at 7 a.m., runners can join Gray and Josiah Middaugh, along with Hillary Allen and Zach Friedley, for a preview of the Mountain Games courses at the Go Sleeves Fun Run.