A late start couldn’t stop Joseph Gray from climbing Pikes Peak faster than anyone else during Saturday’s 13-mile Ascent race—and almost faster than anyone else, ever.
“[I heard] the gun go off when I was a long way from the start,” says Gray, 32, of Colorado Springs. “I was literally the last person to cross the start line [in the first wave, and] I ended up doing some obstacle-course racing, jumping over barricades to make my way to the starting mat.”
He went on to climb the 7,000 feet to the mountain’s 14,115-foot summit—the most dominant feature of his hometown’s skyline—in 2:05:28, eight-and-a-half minutes ahead of runner-up Andy Wacker of Boulder, Colorado. It is believed to be the fastest Ascent time since Ricardo Mejia ran 2:05:04 in 1995.
Ironically, it was Wacker who gained attention last year for winning the nearby Barr Mountain Trail Race after a similar snafu in which he started the race seven minutes behind everyone else.
The podium finishers: Gray, second-place Andy Wacker (right) and third-place Eric Blake. Photo by Tim Bergsten/PikesPeakSports.us
Matt Carpenter of nearby Manitou Springs set the Ascent record of 2:01:06 en route to a victory in the full Marathon (in which runners first climb, then descend, Pikes Peak) in 1993.
“[The leaders] weren’t messing around from the start and they went out hard, so I had to literally sprint a few times to close the gap,” Gray says. “I sprinted hard, which hurt a bit, and caught the pack just before we hit Barr Trail. From there [Wacker] and I ran for a few clicks before I took the lead maybe two or three miles in.”
Gray had run the Ascent before, in 2014, when he represented the United States in the World Mountain Running Association’s Long Distance Challenge, held in conjunction with the race that year. Fresh off an American record at Switzerland’s 31K Sierre-Zinal race, he placed fifth that year in 2:13:02.
“I’ve had great workouts, and have mainly just been very smart with my training, so coming into the Ascent I knew I could go sub-2:03,” Gray says of this year’s preparation.
Gray tackling one of the course’s high-alpine switchbacks. Photo: Sean Donovan
Gray is one of the most consistent and dominant sub-ultra mountain and trail runners in the country at the moment, with four US Mountain Running championships under his belt.
He says part of the key to his success has been longevity and consistency in training.
“Focus on what you personally can achieve, rather than trying to compare your goals to the goals of others,” he says. “A very simple piece of advice, but highly vital to longevity.”