For all that Joseph Gray has accomplished while running, there is one achievement that has extra meaning.
Gray, the 32-year-old distance running star from Lakewood, is the first African American to win the U.S. mountain running championship, make the world championship team and win a world title.
“It’s more meaningful because it’s history and I hope to inspire the next generation of African-American kids to give distance running a try,” Gray said.
On Sept. 11, Gray added another highlight to his career. Racing in Bulgaria, he became just the third American man to win the mountain running world championship. The title also earned him USA Track and Field’s Athlete of the Week honors.
What is mountain running? Here’s how Gray, a member of the last nine U.S. world championship teams, explains the sport: “The trails people typically hike, we are racing those to see who can get up the mountain the fastest.”
Routes are often steep, sometimes technical and usually at elevation. No courses are the same. In the Bulgaria race, the course climbed about 5,000 feet over 7.8 miles.
It’s a type of running Gray loves, but not the only type in which the former Lakes High and Oklahoma State University running star excels. Gray, who lives in Colorado with his wife (former Lakes classmate and Washington State University rower Christy Gray), made the Olympic trials in the marathon.
But it didn’t go well because Gray was sick. He was still on antibiotics and knew going in to the race that he wasn’t going to make the Olympic team. He finished in 2 hours, 31 minutes, 20 seconds, about 17 minutes slower than he would have expected to run.
“I pretty much just went through it for the experience,” Gray said. “Usually, if I’m not going to compete I’m going to stay home. But because of the experience, I really wanted to do it.”
As his season winds down, Gray took a few minutes to field a few questions about running.
Q: What drew you to mountain running?
A: I just always loved being out on the trails. I like the dynamics of mountain running. There is so much more to it. You can’t just be a fast runner. You have to be mentally tough to grind it out. Mountain running provides a different challenge than your typical track or road race.
And just the experience of being out there on trails that are different every time. One course might be rocky. Another might be like a ski hill. And I like the solidarity of being out there.
Q: You still have one of the fastest times in Fort Steilacoom Invite history, is cross country where you developed your love this kind of running?
A: Mountain running is kind of an extension of cross country, it’s just more technical terrain. I always ran cross country and even as a kid we would play tag and run fast on the trails.
Q: As somebody who runs in other types of races, how hard is it to be in top form for big races in multiple disciplines?
A: The mountain running world championships can be tough when you are running professionally, because it is difficult to be ready for specific races. Sometimes it works out and your season kind of leads up to the world championships and you’re ready to go. Other years maybe you aren’t prepared specifically for that championship.
Q: What’s the difference in the athletes between marathons and mountain running?
A: Mountain running is not as objective and so people aren’t number crunching. So there is a lack of that egotistical nature where you are sizing each other up. You aren’t really able to do that unless you’ve run the same courses.
And because it’s mountain running, you get a lot of recreational type athletes. And because of the nature of the race at the start line the professionals are lining up with the recreational athletes.
Q: What is your strength?
A: I excel more on the uphill courses. And the more technical the terrain, usually the better for me.
Q: What’s the trick to embracing the uphill grind?
A: It’s mostly mental when you look at it. How hard can you push and how long can you do it? How long can you convince yourself you aren’t really hurting?
Q: What was your favorite place to run in Washington?
A: I liked Cougar Mountain, but Fort Steilacoom was probably my favorite because I can do everything I need there.
Q: What’s next?
A: I just want to keep pushing myself and accomplish my individual goals and not worry about other people so much. There are some records I want to go after.
Q: What records?
A: There are few. Pikes Peak (14,114 feet) is one of them. The record is 2 hours, 1 minute. I missed the start this year (August). I still won, but it cost me about a minute or so. My time was 2:05 (He figures he ran it in about 2:04). But I think being a little more prepared for that specific event I can get a little closer to that record if not break it.
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