2020 Heroes of the Year: Mountain Runner Joseph Gray – Red Bull

2020 Heroes of the Year: Mountain Runner Joseph Gray  Red Bull

Joseph Gray was having a day familiar to him, one in which he was high on running and winning, high on the feeling of inhabiting a life of his own making.

It was August 24, 2019, and Gray had just won the grueling Pikes Peak Ascent running race, a 13.3-mile course that climbs 7,815 feet and ends at the towering Colorado mountain’s 14,115-foot summit. All bets had been on Gray, the most decorated mountain runner in the niche sport’s 35-year history. He was a 28-time member of the USA World Mountain Running Team, an 18-time national champion and the winner of the 2019 World Mountain Running Championships. He was the U.S. record-holder of the iconic Mount Washington Road Race and he’d already won the Pikes Peak Ascent twice.

On this latest race up Pikes Peak, Gray had suffered, after taking a two-month break from running. His buildup to the race had been short, and he’d come to the start with shaky confidence. He wasn’t sure he could run the course fast. Yet as usual, he did. Mountain racing was second nature to him. The ground fell away beneath each of his piston-like strides. He looked like he was floating, as if he was being pulled up the endless steep grade by invisible wires.

The race starts in the town of Manitou Springs, winds up a series of grueling switchbacks with sharp changes in elevation and moves through a section known as the 16 Golden Stairs, with frequent loose-gravel step-ups of 10 to 15 inches. Much of the trail is narrow, so passing is difficult or impossible, but Gray led from beginning to end with a time of 2:08:59; only one finisher crossed the line in the next 15 minutes. This triumph was made possible by his extreme fitness and his ability to shut out everything but the terrain before him. “In order to be an Olympic-caliber athlete you need extreme focus,” says Nancy Hobbs, executive director of the American Trail Running Association. “And Joe is laser focused.”

Now he was back in Manitou Springs, jogging to cool down after his third Pikes Peak victory. His spirits were high. And then a dirt-smeared van pulled up beside him, and a man stuck his head out the window. The guy spat “N—–!” at America’s most decorated trail runner.

Mountain running typically involves racing up long trails and dirt roads

© Chip Kalback

When he heard it, Gray felt enough energy surge through him that he could have done another Pikes Peak Ascent. Acting on pure instinct, he did something you might call reckless at a time when hate-crime violence is at a 16-year high, according to the FBI. He started sprinting after the van, intent on reaching it at a nearby stoplight. He imagined himself opening the door, dragging the racist out and giving him “no words, just thumps.”

Thankfully, the light turned green before he caught up, and the van sped off. Even Gray says “thankfully,” because the guy could have pulled a gun on him, or the police could have showed up. And a third “thankfully” is apropos, because Joseph Gray is set on delivering a broader and more constructive message about justice and racial equality to his sport—and to the world.

For years he hesitated to speak out about his experiences both as a Black man and as a uniquely successful elite Black athlete in running. It’s no wonder: Even in mainstream sports, hall-of-fame caliber Black athletes like Jesse Owens, Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali and LeBron James have faced backlash as they spoke up and took action and changed the world. Gray knew it would not be easy.

That’s why Gray is glad he never got the short-term satisfaction of giving that ass-whooping. Now he’s focused on paving the way for future Black runners to kick ass.

For years, Gray hesitated to speak out about his experiences

© Chip Kalback

This didn’t begin for Gray in 2020. It is, of course, the year that the Los Angeles Lakers took a knee behind the Black Lives Matter slogan at the start of the NBA season, and that the NFL allowed players to protest during the national anthem. Back when Gray first felt the call to speak out about racial injustice, it was 2016 and Colin Kaepernick, after six seasons with the San Francisco 49ers, couldn’t get a job. But the sum total of Gray’s upbringing, early running life and experiences walking the world as a Black man would push him in Kaepernick’s direction whether he wanted to or not.

Compared to many African American childhoods, Gray’s was idyllic. He was born the second child to Thomas and Donna Gray on Fort Campbell on the Kentucky-Tennessee border. When Joseph was 6, Thomas was transferred to the 7th Medical Command in Heidelberg, Germany, and there the Grays blended with the diverse families that are common on U.S. military bases. Gray says that he and his friends knew no racial divisions; they’d gather in a pack and race through the base’s forest playing a tag game called Manhunt. “There were no trail signs, no directions,” he recalls. “You’d have to figure out where you were. Those kinds of adventures were the foundation for my running interest later in life.”

Thomas made sure to teach his son about Black cultural heroes, feeding him a steady diet of their biographies. Joseph took an interest in three in particular—Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and Nat Turner. “Don’t get the wrong idea about me and Nat Turner,” Gray says now. “Yeah, he hated white people, but I admired him because he was defiant and fearless, unafraid to do what was necessary.”

These stories gave Gray “an understanding that our history was about more than slavery and captivity.” He adds that not all of the kids he grew up with felt the same. “There was one kid, he didn’t have a father teaching him Black history. So he only learned blips of it, negative ones, and he saw himself as inferior. I understood that we are descended from kings and queens—not just those who came off of slave ships. It helped me to understand that I wasn’t lesser than a white person.”

Another hero he worshipped was Jesse Owens: “He shows up in this stadium where people are doing Nazi salutes and clearly disrespecting him. He doesn’t respond, doesn’t call anyone names, he just handles business,” Gray says. “He got the job done and came home with medals.

By 1992, the Grays were back in the States, now living on a base in Tacoma, Washington. Joseph’s racially diverse childhood continued there, but he did get a taste of the inner city when he spent summers with extended family in Baltimore. “Where I came from in Tacoma, I felt like I was Billy Badass,” he says. “We’d fight, and a lot of times I’d win those fights, and people would be afraid. But in Baltimore I was the outsider and I took some ass-whoopins. It humbled me. But another thing I got very quickly was that people aren’t the same everywhere. I’m very grateful for my travels and exposure to different people. I’ve never had racism in my heart because I was taught never to judge people based on the color of their skin.”

Exposure to racism would come soon enough—once he started running.

Gray is a perennial U.S. national titlist and won the world title in 2019

© Chip Kalback

By middle school, Gray was a troublemaker, quick to engage in a fight. Coming up in lower-class neighborhoods, he says, “You have to have thick skin and be tough. If you’re weak you’re gonna get slapped.” It was the mid-’90s, gangs were big, and if someone disrespected you, you jumped them. Fortunately, a coach named Mark Brinkhaus saw Gray’s potential when he tried out for the track team in 7th grade.

That school was also very diverse. But Gray stood out. “He was very talented, one of the kids who by the end of the season was running five and six miles,” Brinkhaus recalls. “He was motivated to do whatever workouts I gave him. And he was very committed.”

Gray liked how every race resembled the end of a close basketball game. “With running, it could be like that every moment,” he says. “Every race was on your shoulders. And even when the people you’re racing aren’t going to beat you, you challenge yourself because it’s you against your expectations.”

If you are a person who has a platform and you are silent, you are being selfish

Joseph Gray

High school was tougher. Suddenly he was the only Black runner on the cross-country team. “I didn’t have anybody who grew up like me or understood what my life was like,” he says. And the white runners found external inspiration where he didn’t. When they looked in the media, everyone in distance running resembled them, at least in the U.S. “It’s not that I didn’t get support,” he says, “but I didn’t have that same inspiration.”

Yet he channeled Jesse Owens and kept at it. “It was a strange feeling being the only Black guy out there, but it gave me fuel for the fire. I was the outsider, so I made sure I handled business,” he says. He eventually beat the best runner on the team. But it didn’t stop a kid in the stands yelling the N-word at him after a race. Gray felt the most rage he’s ever felt in relation to running when that happened. “It really got me going. I was so pissed.

His friends corralled him onto the team bus. The experience was a revelation. “I said to myself, ‘People aren’t happy seeing a Black athlete in a predominantly white sport.’ I told myself, ‘If you keep running, these things will happen.’ I said, ‘Do you love it enough to keep doing it?’ And I answered, ‘Yes. I love it. Just because someone calls me a name I’m not going to stop.’”

As an upperclassman, Gray helped his team win a state title by podiuming in the 2-mile, and he finished second in the state cross-country meet. He was near the top of his class academically. He was strong, fast, wisened—and committed to a life of running.

Gray decided in high school that he wanted a life built around running

© Chip Kalback

For college, Gray headed to Oklahoma State University in Stillwater. OSU had seen some recent racial blemishes, including a 2002 incident in which three students were photographed at an off-campus fraternity party appearing to depict a Ku Klux Klan lynching. Gray, who started school there in 2004, was unaware of the episode. “My college experience was mostly drinking, partying, chasing girls, studying and running a lot,” he says. “I did, however, understand that being in Oklahoma and talking politics was asking for an argument if you had views outside of a conservative perspective.” He also avoided entering restaurants in small towns near Stillwater. “I remember walking into one town where everybody looked at me like, What the hell are you doing here with a white girl?” he says. Gray waited outside while the girl went into the restaurant to order.

Once he was racially profiled. An officer had stopped a car that his friend was driving. As the lone Black man in the vehicle, he says he was singled out. “He looks at me in the back seat and says, ‘You going to call your gangster homies on me?’ He makes me get out and he’s being very aggressive. There’s a crowd watching, and I say, ‘You only said that because I’m Black.’ With the people watching and listening, sure enough, he let me go.”

When he ran, everything was different. He still stood out in a nearly all-white field, but he was dominant in most races. He was close to a 4.0 student and an Academic All-American who made it to nationals six times. He decided he would pursue a career as a professional runner.

That changed when he was in grad school at OSU. Simon Gutierrez, a three-time winner of the Mount Washington Road Race, invited him to a trail race up a mountain in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. Gray took Gutierrez up on his offer. On that day in 2007, he discovered a running discipline in which the major component is significant elevation gain or loss. The sport is further defined by surface, distance and terrain. A mountain run can be on paved surfaces as long as significant elevation change is present. And distances range from a vertical kilometer to ultramarathon distance.

In that first race, he ran horribly: He wasn’t smart; he wasn’t ready for the altitude or distance. But it was an eye-opening experience and he soon fell in love with the physical, technical and tactical challenges. The next summer he’d do the national championships on Mount Washington. He’d finish fourth, good enough to make the national team.

People don’t like you challenging the status quo. But things can’t change without structural and policy changes

Joseph Gray

Richard Bolt met Gray a year later at the Northwest Mountain Running Championships in Mount Hood, Oregon. Bolt had been the team leader for the U.S. Mountain and Trail Running Team since 2003. He initially thought of Gray as “another talented young runner eager to learn and make the transition from trail to mountain from a strong cross-country and collegiate background. I never thought about his color.

Yet Gray stood out in the cosmos of his new sport. “Black runners and African runners are extremely common in track and field and marathons,” says Bolt. “But in mountain running it’s extremely unusual—there have been racers from Uganda, Ethiopia and Eritrea and some European teams with some non-white runners, but the fact that I can name them on one hand proves that it’s very unusual to find a Black runner at our sport’s highest level.”

“People don’t like you challenging the status quo,” says Gray

© Chip Kalback

In 2008 in Switzerland, Gray became the first Black American to make the USA Mountain Running World Team. The next year, he won gold in the U.S. Mountain Running Championships. More trail and mountain running national titles followed—several dozen between 2009 and 2019. His secret to winning, he says, is “constantly falling in love with personal challenges. I was extremely motivated to continue after finding success. I had goals in mind and I knew, as my dad would say, “Anyone can win once or twice.’ So I wanted to keep going and pushing toward bigger goals in the sport.”

For some elite athletes, the excitement, glory, money and relative fame would be enough to keep them striving to maintain their standing in the game. But there came a time, around 2014, when Gray started to face the painful truths of being a Black man maneuvering his way through the world and a Black runner in his nearly all-white sport. His life experience had included marginalizing, singling out, racial slurs, racial profiling and a consistent feeling of unease simply because of the color of his skin. But up until that point, he now says, he was “afraid, a coward in some regard” to tell his story, or speak out about racial injustice.

Gray’s greatest fear was losing sponsors—his means of supporting his family—and not without reason. He says that with some executives, “I’d show up to a meeting and quickly understand that I should keep my mouth shut about certain matters. I knew with one person that it was not in my interest to talk about political things. It was like [Fox News host] Laura Ingraham telling LeBron to ‘Just shut up and dribble.’”

I think the point of human nature is to be selfless and bring one another up

Joseph Gray

There were more reasons to start speaking out, and Gray finally did. It was in 2015, when he and his cousin were having deep conversations about their lives. “We spent a lot of time talking about social and political issues. My cousin told me, ‘You should talk about this—you feel heavily about it.’ I was afraid of how people would take it, but when I started to have a consistent level of success, I noticed that I didn’t get as much exposure for my accomplishments as non-Black folks did.” He started saying things—on his Instagram feed, in magazine interviews, on podcasts—about his life and running experiences.

At first his posts were gentle. In 2015, on his Instagram page, he wrote, “When thinking about Martin Luther King. WOW, what a courageous, selfless and loving man! Despite an ugly last few months in terms of racial issues in our country, I’m optimistic our country will let his dream live on!” As time went on, Gray’s statements got more pointed, more outspoken, more political.

Predictably, feedback was mixed, a lot of it negative. In particular, he got flak for saying that trail running needs more diversity. He posted a video in collaboration with shoe brand Hoka One One, in which he says, “Sometimes I feel like people are not happy seeing a Black guy winning in a predominantly white sport.” Commentators wrote back, “Running a white sport??? Hello? Anyone checked the front pack of just about every city marathon in the world?”

Gray was ready for it. “People don’t like you challenging the status quo,” he says. “Do it and they start saying you’re playing a victim. I just say how are we supposed to progress if you tell me that I wasn’t a victim and then don’t acknowledge the problem I’m presenting to you? It’s tough because it’s like we have the stats, the data, the history. We’ve seen things like Jim Crow laws. But things can’t change until we make policy and structural changes.”

These sometimes confrontational conversations solidified changes he already was making. “My main thing with negative comments wasn’t that they hurt me but made me angry,” he says. Up through his adolescence, he’d relied on his fists to settle debts. Now a softer, more tender side of himself needed to emerge.

Certain things made this easy. Like one letter he received from a Black high school distance runner from Kentucky. The boy wrote about how his team treated him unfairly, how he was never invited to group outings. How they made Black jokes in front of him and he couldn’t say anything. “That kid’s story struck a nerve in me,” Gray says.

Perhaps the most important thing that story, and others like it, did was inspire Gray to create Project Inspire Diversity. It came together after years of him witnessing shortcomings regarding racial diversity within his sport and years of the media and running-related journals excluding Black American trail runners from their coverage. “How can I or other Black athletes inspire the next generation of Black trail runners if we aren’t seen?”

In that vein, Gray wrote an op-ed in 2019. “Being that the media controls what’s ‘trending’ in the sport, it’s safe to say less Black athletes receive assistance from a grassroots level to help them further develop into athletes following collegiate careers. Part of my project is bringing this issue to the forefront and using a few of my sponsors to provide running-product support to a few young up and coming Black American athletes who compete in distance events.”

Those sponsors, including Hoka, make up a “rainbow of faces.”

“When you’re a minority and you sign to a brand like that you have confidence, you feel the appreciation,” Gray says.

Maybe the cultural landscape had changed with a Black president, with NFL players kneeling, with the Black Lives Matter movement, but it’s more complex than that. If you look back through history, you can also see many instances where Black athletes spoke out and then endured enormous friction and threats from teammates, fans, media and political leaders. These are the people Gray nods to even more than sponsors when he steps into the spotlight of our current cultural and political landscape and takes a stance for diversity and racial equality.

Right now, as we stare into our ongoing racial divide, Gray says lots of people are reaching out to hear his thoughts, ask for ways to improve diversity, have him pen op-eds, invite him to speak on panels. Without a doubt, he is up for the task. “I realize that if you are a person who has a platform and you are silent, you are being selfish,” he says. “I think the point of human nature is to be selfless and bring one another up. So if you aren’t making efforts toward peace and equality, what are your efforts going toward?”

His extra efforts are clearly going toward being the most dominant force in mountain running, Black, brown, yellow, or white. And to attempting to make the world a safer, more equal and more just place for all colors. The sad fact is that this may be harder than running the fastest-known times on endless peaks day after day after day. But Joseph Gray is going to keep on trying.