At the top of his game, Joseph Gray focused on the next generation of black athletes

With 20 national races across the discipline and nine world gold medals, Joseph Gray is the most beautiful American mountain runner, by definition.

In the broad discipline of the track – which includes everything from 100-mile ultramarathons to ultra-core mile races – it is in the pantheon of the best ever, Similarly, a four-time world champion and four-time winner of the Pikes Peak Ascent. , is one of the most challenging races in the country.

Gray The specialty of mountain running – a type of running at higher altitudes, with more race and performance, and more climbs and falls – is also a beautiful sport. But the whole run is booming.

Track-based athletic events originated in the mid-1990s and now have an estimated 20 million participants, competing in 25,000 tournaments worldwide, according to World Athletics.

Gray pursues her love – and runs – back to her childhood. At the age of six, he moved with his family to Heidelberg, Germany, where his father had served in the American military. He spends a lot of time exploring the forest with friends. “We have developed all kinds of forest sports near the base,” he said. “I started running a lot, falling and finding my way back home.”

After returning to Tacoma, Wash., Gray began running the race at his school team in seventh grade. The coaches know about his passion and intelligence. In high school, he ran across the country, winning a state team title and a prize. He went on to work transit and track for Oklahoma State University and qualified for the NCAA Championship on time.

His first competition was a little more than a competition with a friend in 2007, a year after he completed his acting career. His advancement in sports is meteoric. Within a year, he was elected to the national team.

Although many elite-level marathoners are Black, few are the athletes at the end of the trail and mountain. There were a handful of Black racers on the European team, but Gray was the only African American on the US Mountain Running Team. His range is balanced by his similarity: He has been named to the team 33 times in 14 years, crossing nine distances and disciplines, from 50-kilometer road ultramarathons to mountain racing and snowshoeing.

I talked to Gray about his path to becoming a professional mountaineer, the challenges of being one of the few Black runners on the starting line and he hopes to support the new generation athletes.

This interview has been edited and condensed.


What was life like in the military?

We moved a lot. Kentucky for Germany to Washington. I was able to jump to other races when I was younger, which was like me. I also get an understanding of how fast the time is. When Dad was home, he always wanted to be with family. I did not understand this at the time, but I am doing the same now.

Like many runners, you have started walking and cross-country teams in high school and college. What’s like moving from road to trail?

I joined a good friend for racing and got lost in the sport soon. It was a new challenge for me, learning how to deal with the dirt, the big climbs, the weather and all that. The next summer, I was in the American team and from there I was in it all. That was 15 years ago.

How to dress American when you race?

It’s a big deal. My father served in this country as a soldier for over 20 years. We moved to Germany during the hurricane, and I began to realize the great sacrifice of defending our freedom. That experience left me with all my thoughts. I am proud of our country, and it is a gift to represent it.

You have conquered the country or the world every year since 2009. What is the secret to your consistency?

Do not use shortcuts. For me, success comes from loving what I do. I like to challenge for a job. If you live in it for money or fame, it will be soon. You may win a race or two, but under difficult circumstances you will fall and lose the game. You can tell the runners who like to run because they race after race. For their entire job, really.

How has your experience as an administrator been like your job?

I have been solving race issues since middle school. I was called slurs in the country, especially when I was hitting the best whites. At Oklahoma State University, I was profiled by a police officer and heard lots of slurs. The better I get, the more race I get, the more I stand out. I have learned not to waste energy on these people. I want to use it for the next generation.

Does the trail run as much as possible?

Many people like to say yes, but I never think so. It has bothered me when people would say there is no racist problem in running, but I do not get the idea right now. Sure, anyone can sign up for a contest, but it’s about how people react to you, how warm they are, emotionally and optics. Many people think that inclusion is a physical thing, but it is more than that.

You have spoken out of race and your experience as a Black athlete over the last few years. What inspired you to speak out?

I know it will not be easy, but I can not live. It started with a conversation with close friends, knowing that we were all experiencing a stigma. Competition is never enough to change sports; I have to share my experience with others. For a long time, I was worried about losing support, which was scary because it was my way of life. These people have influenced my work. It was the greatest pleasure for my family to keep my mouth shut.

Do you find it stressful to talk about issues around race and identity?

I feel depressed. Many people sent me messages right after the national crisis broke out, asking me to express my opinion, but I like to do my research first. Sometimes, I would say something, but most of the time I try not to do reactive stuff. When I started telling more of my story six or seven years ago, it was hard to find those [negative] answer. I do not want problems. I do not want people to hate me. But I have learned that when people say things like that, they just want the situation to continue. If I did not speak then I would be a liar.

What needs to change in sport to get more people of color on the track?

Sports are brought to the media. They say it is for anyone by teaching it like it is for anyone. When I was a kid, newspapers never featured blacks on camping, hiking, or hiking. You have to joke about doing these things, like people say, “That’s free.” Changing the optics is an important step. Top athletes pull more athletes than they do. If we only talk about free runners today, it’s hard to inspire another generation of Black runners tomorrow.

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