With 20 national championships in six disciplines and nine international gold medals, Joseph Gray is the most decorated American trail runner by a wide margin.
In the broader discipline of trail running, which includes everything from 100-mile ultramarathons to ultra-steep mile races, he is also in the pantheon of the greatest in history, as a four-time world champion and four-time winner at Pikes Peak. Ascent. , one of the toughest races in the country.
Trail running, Gray’s specialty, a higher-altitude type of trail running with challenging, technical surfaces and considerable elevation gains and losses, remains a fairly niche sport. But trail running as a whole is booming.
Trail running as an organized sport took off in the mid-1990s and now has some 20 million participants, competing in 25,000 races around the world, according to World Athletics.
Gray traces his love of trails, and running, back to his childhood. When he was 6 years old, he moved with his family to Heidelberg, Germany, where his father was stationed with the US Army. He spent a lot of time exploring the woods with friends. “We invented all kinds of games in the woods near the base,” he said. “I started running a lot, getting lost and finding my way back home.”
After moving back to Tacoma, Washington, Gray began competing on his school’s track team in seventh grade. The coaches noticed his dedication and talent. In high school, he ran cross country and won a state team title and an individual award. He then ran cross country and track for Oklahoma State University and qualified for the NCAA championships six times.
His first trail race was little more than a run with a friend in 2007, a year after completing his college running career. His rise in the sport was meteoric. Within a year, he was named to a national team.
While many elite marathon runners are African-American, few athletes at the pinnacle of hill and trail running are. There are a handful of black runners on European teams, but Gray is the only African-American on the US trail running team. His rank is matched only by his consistency: He has been named to the team 33 times in 14 years, in nine distances and disciplines, from 50-kilometre ultramarathons to trail running and snowshoeing.
I spoke with Gray about his journey to becoming a professional trail runner, the challenges of being one of the few black runners at the starting line, and how he hopes to inspire a new generation of athletes.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
What was life like as a military kid?
We move around a lot. Kentucky to Germany to Washington. I was able to immerse myself in other cultures at a young age, which shaped me. I also gained an understanding of how fleeting time is. When Dad was home, he always wanted to be with the family. I didn’t understand this at the time, but now I do the same thing.
Like many competitive runners, you started out on track and cross country teams in high school and college. What was it like going from the track to the trails?
I joined up with a good friend for a race and got 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 next summer, I made Team USA and from there I was all-in. That was 15 years ago.
What is it like to wear the American uniform when you run?
It’s very important. 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. That experience puts it all in 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 love working to compete. If you do it for money or fame, it will be fleeting. You might win a race or two, but when the going gets tough, you’ll break down and quit the sport. You can tell runners that they love to run because they are consistent race after race. For his entire career, really.
How have your experiences as a black runner influenced your career?
I’ve dealt with racial issues since high school. They called me names in cross country, especially when I was beating the best white kids. At Oklahoma State University, I was profiled by a police officer and I heard a lot of insults. The better I got, like running in nationals, the more I stood out. I’ve learned not to waste energy on these people. I’d rather spend it on the next generation.
Is trail running becoming more inclusive?
A lot of people like to say that it is, but I really don’t think so. I used to get frustrated when people said there isn’t a racial problem in trail running, but now I don’t get as excited. Sure, anyone can sign up for a race, but it’s all about how people react to you, how warm they are, the emotion, and the optics. Many people think that inclusion is something physical, but it is much more than that.
You have spoken openly about race and your experiences as a black athlete in recent years. What inspired you to speak?
I knew it wouldn’t be easy, but I couldn’t keep quiet. He began with conversations with close friends, acknowledging that we were all experiencing the same prejudice. Winning races wasn’t enough to change the sport; I needed to share my experience with others. For a long time I worried about losing sponsorship, which scared me because it was my livelihood. These people influenced my career. The best thing for my family was to keep my mouth shut.
Did you feel any pressure to speak out on issues related to race and identity?
I feel pressure. People message me a lot right after national issues come up, asking me to share my thoughts, but I like to do my research first. Sometimes, I say something, but generally I try not to make things reactive. When I started sharing more of my story six or seven years ago, it was overwhelming to see the [negative] answers I didn’t want trouble. 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 he didn’t speak, he would be a coward.
What needs to change in the sport to attract more people of color to trail running?
Sports are guided by the media. They dictate who it is for by showing who it appears to be for. When I was a kid, magazines never showed black people camping, hiking, or trail running. They teased you for doing those things, like people saying, “That’s a white thing.” Changing the optics is a critical step. The best athletes attract more athletes like them. If we’re just talking about white runners today, it’s hard to inspire the next generation of black runners tomorrow.