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Joe Gray Leads U.S. Men to First World Mountain Running Gold

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On Sunday, Joe Gray won the men’s race at the World Mountain Running Championships in Sapareva Banya, Bulgaria, leading the U.S. team to its first-ever victory there.

It was also the first individual World Championships win for Gray, 32, of Colorado Springs. One of the country’s most dominant mountain runners, he has represented the U.S. in that race nine straight times, including as part of bronze- and silver-medal-winning teams in 2008 and 2010, respectively.

“Running is strange in that some days you feel crappy and others you feel like Superman,” Gray says of his performance this weekend. “I had a Superman day.”

His time of 1:02:12 on the 12.7-kilometer World Championships course—which had over 4,800 feet of elevation gain—beat out second-place finisher Israel Morales, of Mexico, by 1 minute 39 seconds.

Four other U.S. men finished top-20—Hayden Hawks, fourth, in 1:05:02; Brett Hales, seventh, in 1:05:10; and Andy Wacker, 20th in 1:07:46—leading to victory over the Italian team by one point. (Scores are based on each team’s top four finishers.)

“I knew from the course that with the level of talent we had, our team had to get aggressive—many of our guys are known for pushing the pace,” Gray says. After a few lead changes in the early miles, he “pulled away in the middle and never really looked back.

“I really tried to charge in the end, as I wanted to see if I could beat the chairlift up the last climb,” he adds. “I did, but that’s not saying much. It was probably the slowest chairlift you’ve ever seen!”

In the event’s 32-year history, the United States has had two previous male world champions: Max King, in 2011, and Jay Johnson, in 1987.

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Kim Nedeu finished 9th, leading the U.S. women to bronze. Photo by Richard Bolt/US Mountain Running

The women’s team added to the U.S. medal count with a team bronze finish, led by Kim Nedeu in ninth (42:51), Addie Bracy in 12th (43:08), Ladia Albertson Junkans in 15th (43:25) and Bethany Sachtleben in 18th (43:39). At 7.3 kilometers, with around 2,500 feet of gain, the women’s Championships course is shorter than the men’s—which has been a point of contention and will be changed for the 2017 Championships.

The U.S. women have previously won three team golds, in 2006, 2007 and 2012, and fielded one individual champion: Kasie Enman, in 2011.