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On Sunday, Joe Gray cruised across the finish line of the 2017 GoPro Mountain Games Spring Runoff 10K in 46 minutes 47.6 seconds. It was his fourth-straight win at the race, which takes place on the steep trails of Colorado’s Vail Mountain.
Gray, who last week won the U.S. Mountain Running Championships at the Cranmore Mountain Run in New Hampshire, is one of the top mountain runners in the country. His history with the Mountain Games dates back to 2008, when he was “broke, fresh out of grad school.”
A friend secured him housing and convinced him to compete. It was his first-ever mountain 10K and he finished third. He would return to Vail several times over the next few years.
“I had a great time,” Gray says of his experience that first year. “I think when you have a good memory of a race, there’s more incentive to come back.”
However, his four-peat did not come easy—last year he raced U.S. Mountain Running teammate Andy Wacker, and this year he contended against Lake Sonoma 50 champ Sage Canaday, 2016 U.S. Mountain Running team member Matt Daniels and 2016 U.S. Skyrunning champion Morgan Elliot. But, Gray says, “This course plays to my strengths. The climbs are tough, and right away it weeds out the weak from the strong. From one minute in, it’s a race. It’s not about speed or tactics. It’s about guts.”
Indeed, the course gains 2,282 feet in 6.3 miles, with an average grade of just over 13 percent. The first climb comes within just a few hundred yards of the start.
From the gun, Gray maintained a comfortable lead on the rest of the field, and by the time he crossed the finish line he had gapped second-place finisher Canaday by over a minute.
First place women’s finisher Morgan Arritola finished eight minutes back from Gray, followed close behind by second place female Anna Mae Flynn.
“I like the stress of shorter distances,” says Gray. “I like being competitive. With sub-ultra distances, there are usually no lotteries, so you know that all the best guys will be on the line.”
That competitive edge has carried Gray to 10 consecutive World Mountain Running Championships. Last year he took home the individual gold (and the title of World Mountain Running Champion), and also brought Team U.S.A. to its first team gold medal. With last weekend’s race in New Hampshire, Gray earned himself a spot on the 2017 U.S. Mountain Running team—and a shot at vying for another gold at the world championships, which take place in Premana, Italy, this July.
“I’m focused,” Gray says. “Our team is strong [2016 Team U.S.A. veterans Brett Hales and Andy Wacker have also earned spots, as well as 2014 team member Patrick Smyth], and I think we will win a medal. We could even repeat as gold-medal winners.”
For the next month, Gray will focus his training on transitions between different types of terrain and, perhaps more importantly, on his mental game. “In a world championship, if you fold [mentally] for even five seconds, it gets ugly real fast,” he says. “You can’t let negative thoughts cloud your mind.”
For Gray, that means not allowing himself to get hung up on past failures—and, more importantly, not idolizing past successes.
“Never rest on what you have done,” he says. “Focus on what’s next. There’s always something bigger.”