Shades of Gray: The Story Behind Top Trail Runner Joseph Gray
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When the blast of a starting gun sent the runners on their way in the first wave of last summer’s Pikes Peak Ascent in the town of Manitou Springs, Colorado, Joe Gray was nowhere to be found.
As Andy Wacker, Eric Blake and other top competitors sprung from the starting line of the fast wave, Gray, one of the pre-race favorites, was uncharacteristically scuffling with his bag of gear behind the hundreds of recreational runners preparing to start in the second wave.
One of America’s most iconic trail races, this historic 13.3-mile tussle sends runners up the eastern side of Colorado’s most famous mountain, soaring a leg- and lung-busting 7,815 feet to the lofty finish line at 14,115 feet above sea level. In a race like that, there’s plenty of time to make up ground, but, for an intense runner like Gray, there’s no time to lose either.
As the frontrunners were already speeding up Ruxton Avenue on the way to the Barr Trail, Gray zigzagged through the crowd, hurdled a barrier and crossed the starting line with the final runner at the back of the first wave. His instincts took over and he hammered the significantly uphill first mile on the road in about 5 minutes 30 seconds, dodging runners in pursuit of Wacker, a notorious fire-breather who was off to his typical fast start.
As a runner, the 33-year-old Gray has earned a reputation as being one fierce and focused dude, one of the most relentless competitors on the international trail-running circuit. Starting the race with a 30-second deficit was a fluky hiccup in an otherwise astounding year for Gray—and it proves those things happen even to the best runners—but it only inspired him to go harder.
“He has kind of a Prefontaine mentality about him that says, ‘When you do something, you do it all-out, 100 percent,’” says fellow Colorado Springs trail runner Peter Maksimow, who would go on to finish sixth in the race that day. “He went by me about 90 seconds into the race, and he was just flying. He might have been going too fast at that point, but that’s what Joe is all about.”
It goes without saying that Joe Gray is one of the best trail runners the United States has ever produced. He’s a seven-time recipient of the U.S. Mountain Runner of the Year award and has competed for the U.S. at the World Mountain Running Championships a record nine consecutive years—a still-current streak punctuated last September by winning the individual world title and helping the American men earn their first team gold medal.
Yet, looking at Joe Gray only through the lens of running misses most of what he is all about. The intensity and meticulousness he exhibits in training and racing permeate other aspects of his life. Most notably, he likes spicy food, he loves his Seattle Seahawks, he’s keen on forensic science and he’s a passionate firebrand when it comes to topics he believes strongly in.
He’s not a hothead or an agitator, but he’s not afraid to stir the pot on his social-media channels when something bugs him. He has a graduate degree in criminal justice and a bachelor’s degree in sociology, which explains why he likes to chime in on hot-button issues like performance-enhancing drug use, prize money, runners who chase fame and glory instead of hard-fought victories and, especially in the past year, domestic issues in the U.S.—including racism.
Keep in mind, he’s one of the country’s very few elite-level African-American trail runners and the only athlete of color to represent the U.S. at the World Mountain Running Championships. He’s experienced the sour side of prejudice, both overseas, but especially in the U.S.
“Oh, yeah, I’ve felt that sting,” says Gray, who prefers not to repeat some of the names he’s been called. “We still have issues in this country, more than most people are willing to admit. One of the reasons there aren’t more African-American distance runners or trail runners is because there aren’t as many opportunities. That’s just a fact.”
Gray says African-American distance runners haven’t had the same chances to develop at the high-school, collegiate or pro levels for numerous reasons. He wants to help change that (there’s perhaps a strange bit of irony in the notion that Gray mostly trains with ex-pat Kenyan runners in the American Distance Project in Colorado Springs). But he doesn’t dwell on any of the ugly realities he’s encountered or play the race card; instead he just focuses on living his life to his own extremely high standards—values forged by his dad, Thomas, a career Army man, and mom, Donna, a staff-action control officer—with whom he remains very close. They are like his best friends and talk almost daily.
Intensity aside, those who best know Gray say he’s also as soft and gentle as a teddy bear, a real happy-go-lucky family guy who’s humble and yielding in deference to his strong Christian faith.
Although he’s a physical specimen of an athlete with an imposing look—tall and lean, sinewy and strong, with a starkly shaven head—he mostly conveys a soft, accessible demeanor. His brown eyes appear tenacious and piercing when he’s racing or talking about a serious subject, but soften when his contagious, wide smile lights up his face—which is often among friends and fellow runners. The impression you get when talking to Gray is that he’s unyieldingly authentic.
“He’s one of the most genuine people I’ve ever met,” says Nancy Hobbs, the USA Track & Field Mountain, Ultra & Trail Chairwoman for the past 15 years, who has known Gray since his initial unsuccessful attempt to make the U.S. Mountain Running Team in 2007 not long after getting out of grad school. “I’ve watched him grow up, both as an athlete and as a person. He can be very focused and very intense when it comes to running, but he’s not just focused on running. He’s very opened-minded and is always open to trying new things and learning about things.”
Perhaps what has really rounded him out as an upstanding guy was marrying his longtime sweetheart, Christy Mills, in 2014. They met in high school back in Lakewood, Washington, and remained friends in college while away at different schools, Joe initially at the University of Portland before transferring to Oklahoma State and Christy at Washington State. (Joe was a good basketball player and runner in high school, who became a national-caliber cross-country and track runner in college.)
The longtime attraction—and Joe’s self-admission of finally growing up a bit—eventually led them to start dating in 2010.
Uprooting their lives to move to Colorado and start their married life together away from family and longtime friends has helped forge a special synergy, which Gray admits is another factor to his competitive progression. Christy has played a big role in helping him secure and manage sponsors as he pursues running as a full-time career over the past five years.
“She’s been everything to me,” he says. “She’s rabbited me in workouts, she’s hiked water up the trail for me, been my agent, been a friend and been there when things ain’t so good.”
“Joe is obviously very competitive, but it’s not to the point that he’s annoying to be around. If a race doesn’t go well, he’s not sulking around the whole time,” says Christy, who is a claims adjuster at the United Services Automobile Association in Colorado Springs. “He has a good balance between a very serious athlete and a normal, laid-back person.”
The two love to travel, are sophisticated foodies who are handy in the kitchen and have become passionate gardeners. Joe especially enjoys cooking spicy foods he’s sampled while at different races around the world, often with some of the many varieties of hot peppers from their garden. Christy was a competitive rower in college and for many years afterward, but she’s given that up for cycling races since moving to landlocked Colorado.
Along with his mountain-running team streak, Gray has excelled in many other races in the United States and around the world, for example, a victory in the 21K Iztaccihuatl Skyrace that climbs 15,800 feet in Mexico, a runner-up showing and American record time at the historic Sierre Zinal 31K village-to-village mountain race in Switzerland and, of course, what turned out to be a dominating win at the Pikes Peak Ascent last August.
After starting off the back, Gray caught Wacker in the second mile of the race, and by the 4.3-mile split at No Name Creek had gapped him by nearly two minutes. True to his aggressive racing style, he kept charging and led by more than three-and-a-half minutes near the midway point at Barr Camp and won with an eight-and-a-half-minute margin in 2:05:28—the fastest time in 21 years.
“At Pikes, he went by me and I was like, ‘Yeah, man, go for it,’” says Wacker. “He was in such good uphill shape that I just knew he was gone.”
Although Gray is mostly known for his trail prowess, what makes him special as a runner is that he’s one of the country’s most prolific racers and isn’t afraid to throw down in just about any discipline. His success extends across all types of running—cross country, road running from 5K to the marathon, snowshoe racing and all varieties of trail running, including short and steep mountain races, vertical kilometer uphill courses and even ultra-distance races up to 50K.
“I really admire his versatility,” says Wacker. “It shows that he’s a great athlete and no matter what kind of running obstacles you throw at him—if you put a mountain in front of him or if you put snowhoes on his feet or if you put him on a flat road—he’ll be competitive.”
A look at Gray’s initial 2017 results gives a glimpse at his competitiveness and versatility. In early February, he placed ninth at the U.S. Cross Country Championships in Bend, Oregon, covering the muddy 10K course amid a stacked field in 31:04. Later in the month he won the 2017 World Snowshoe Running Championships in Saranac Lake, New York, covering the slippery, slushy 8K course in 28:24. Then, on March 4, while competing in a Team USA jersey, Gray placed third in the 8K North American/Central American/Caribbean (NACAC) Cross Country Championships in Boca Raton, Florida—the 21st time he’s represented the U.S. in international competition.
For Gray, running over hill and dale seems to come naturally. But he also works hard at it and definitely doesn’t take a single step of his progression for granted.
“I always enjoyed playing in the woods as a kid and I like being out in nature, so it makes sense that I found trail running,” says Gray. “But there have been some moments in my career when I’ve been on top of some mountain and it feels very surreal, and I think, ‘Wow, my life could have been so different,’ and, ‘I don’t deserve this; I’m not worthy of this life.’ But in the end, I know I’ve worked as hard as I can for everything I’ve done and am appreciative of where I’ve been.”
In 2013, Joe and Christy decided to move to Colorado Springs so Joe could reap the benefits of living and training at altitude and running a diverse array of trails every week. But perhaps the biggest catalyst for his progression has been the guidance provided by coach Scott Simmons and the opportunity to train with faster runners.
Simmons had guided numerous elite track and road runners through the years from the collegiate to the pro ranks in his American Distance Project (ADP) training group and, since 2010, honed his chops further with famed Italian marathon coach Renato Canova.
But, he had never coached a trail runner before Gray.
“In our first conversation, he made me feel like maybe I wasn’t ready to be coached by him,” Gray recalls, furling his brow and tilting his head. “I felt almost insecure and disappointed and upset at the same time. It hit me personally and I thought, ‘I kind of want to work with this guy and prove him wrong.’”
That initial tension and intrigue, along with the ensuing synergy they built, has helped catapult Gray into another level of fitness, confidence and, ultimately, race results. Simmons challenged Gray to become faster on the track and roads from 5K to the marathon, but, just as importantly, he hammered home the value of rest and recovery, helping to eliminate the detrimental effects of overtraining that had plagued Gray earlier in his career.
Training with the likes of Hillary Bor (the 7th-place finisher in the 3,000-meter steeplechase at the Rio Olympics), Lawi Lalang (a 13:01 5K runner) and Augustus Maiyo and Sam Chelanga (both 1:01 half-marathoners) has proven to be invaluable. For example, Gray has regularly done 5 x 1-mile repeat workouts with the ADP averaging 4:35 per mile and hard 6 x 5-minute sessions with just two minutes rest.
Under Simmons’ tutelage, Gray has set strong new PRs for the 5K (14:12), 10K (29:03) and the half-marathon (1:03:42, which qualified him for the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon). He also won the individual title at the U.S. Club Cross Country Championships 10K race in 2013, set a new American record with his second of three straight wins at the gruelingly steep Mt. Washington Road Race in 2015 and has won three of the past four U.S. Mountain Running Championships.
While the ADP crew keeps adding world-class road and track runners, it’s Gray that is often ending the group’s workout reps with something extra. For example, after finishing each rep of an 8 x 800-meter workout in about 2:10 on a flat dirt loop last fall in a Colorado Springs park, Gray could be seen jetting off into the woods to finish with a stout uphill effort on a singletrack trail.
Plus, he still gets plenty of legit trail running with local mountain stalwarts Maksimow, Zach Miller and Alex Nichols, among others, and also spends some days and nights training in the 8,500-foot environs of the small mountain town of Woodland Park.
“Joe is the expert on the trails and knows what he has to do to excel out there,” Simmons says. “But training with our guys … he’s not quite on the level they are as far as 5K, 10K or half-marathon times go, but when he does workouts with them, he’s right there in the thick of it. And the faster he’s gotten, the more he’s been able to apply that to uphills and downhills and longer races out on the trails.”
Heading into last year’s World Mountain Running Championships in Albania—which was staged on a grueling 12.5K uphill course with 4,500 feet of elevation gain—Gray was in the shape of his life. Outwardly, he was hoping to improve upon his fifth-place effort at the 2015 championships in Wales, but quietly and inwardly he says he wanted to win. Still, as much as he was laser focused on his own race, he made it a point to keep his younger Team USA teammates motivated, inspired and loose when they arrived in the small mountain hamlet of Sapareva Banya in the days leading up to the race.
“Joe is such a competitor, but he’s such a leader, too,” Wacker says. “He’s been there so many times. He was very confident and had this calm, cool demeanor, and I think that helped everybody get focused on what they had to do.”
When the race started, Gray burst out to the lead and continued to run from the front through the 4K mark. That’s when he noticed teammate Hayden Hawks was just behind him, followed by a slew of other Team USA jerseys. Inspired, Gray pushed harder and gapped the field a bit, holding off a challenge from Mexican runner Israel Morales. Gray was still in the lead with about 3K to go when Ugandan runner Robert Chemonges challenged him on a flatter section just before the final climb.
“I was hurtin’ and riggin’ pretty badly, but I was still confident and knew I could still win at that point,” Gray says.
Gray surged again, but so did Chemonges, this time with a younger Ugandan teammate suddenly running alongside of him and literally pushing him with his hands up the steeper sections. Infuriated, Gray yelled, “You can’t do that,” and looked around to see if anyone else saw what was going on. Determined to outrun the cheater, Gray surged again as they approached the final ascent. But with 200 meters to go, Chemonges, who was still being aided by his pacer, made a push that Gray couldn’t match.
After crossing the finish line in second place, Gray went straight over to confront Chemonges, but the Ugandan tried to play it off like it was no big deal, and so did his coach. Although he was absolutely livid, Gray switched his focus to cheer on his own teammates and then was sequestered to provide urine samples to comply with IAAF drug-testing protocol.
No one among the American contingent ever officially protested—mostly because of a lack of photo or video proof—but fortunately a race marshal and other teams did, and Gray was eventually awarded the win.
What was even more heartening to Gray, though, was hearing the final team standings announced. Thanks to Gray’s victory—as well as strong efforts from Hawks (fourth), Brett Hales (seventh) and Wacker (20th)—the U.S. edged Italy by a single point in the lowest-score-wins standings, 32-33, and earned the Americans their first team title in the 32 years of the event.
“Overall, I was pumped and had the race of my life. I felt that I attacked the course and was able to crush everybody,” Gray says. “The guy’s cheating took a little bit of the sweetness out of it, but I knew I could sleep at night knowing I did what I did with my own strength and integrity. But, honestly, winning the team gold medal is one of the biggest highlights of my career.”
So what’s next for Gray? He’s an odds-on favorite to make his 10th straight U.S. Mountain Running Team on June 3 at the Cranmore Mountain Race in New Hampshire, and that will give him a chance to defend his world championship on July 30 in Premana, Italy. Unlike last year’s uphill races, this year’s championships will both be held on up-and-down courses.
Can he make a serious run at Matt Carpenter’s 24-year-old Pikes Peak Ascent record on August 19? In 2015, he eclipsed Carpenter’s mark on the daunting Manitou Incline—the ungodly steep 0.9-mile converted cog-wheel rail trail up the lower flanks of Pikes Peak—and his effort in winning the Ascent last summer shows he’s got a chance. But the trail has changed a lot since 1993—it’s more rutted and slippery in many places. Gray is the first to admit it’s a stout record, and he’s still four minutes away from getting a sniff at it.
“To me, it’s all about racing and running faster than I did before,” Gray says. “I think the authenticity of racing allows you to have respect for yourself for years and years to come. Whereas if you did it for something really fleeting like fame or money or even going for a record, those things go away, and, in the end, they don’t really have any density. You can tell the guys who love what they do, because they’re consistent.
“I’m not in it for fame. I love what I do.”
Brian Metzler was the founding editor of Trail Runner at its inception in 1999.