The Drive Inside: An Interview with Joe Gray
As one of the most versatile runners in the U.S., Joseph Gray has his fingers in many pies. Here’s a guy who can win the U.S. Mountain Running National Championships, place in the top 10 of huge international cross-country events, and, then get on the road and blast to 17th at the Boston Marathon. I caught up with Joe to dig a little into what makes him tick.
iRunFar: You’re in Maryland for a race right now, Joe. How are things there?
Joe Gray: It’s good. I’ve been with relatives most of the time and I just got to the race site today in Washington, D.C.
iRunFar: What’s the race?
Gray: The race is on Sunday, it’s the USATF 10-Mile Road Championships. So it’ll be fast. [Editor’s Note: The race took place on Sunday. Joe finished seventh in 48:04.]
iRunFar: Cool. You’ve been running and competing a long time. Let’s talk a little about how you got into it in the first place. Where did you grow up? Have you always lived in Washington state?
Gray: I’ve been running since middle school so it’s been a while. I bounced around because my dad was in the military, but for most of my school career I was in Washington.
iRunFar: How was it moving around so much? Did you find it tough or was it exciting to move around?
Gray: When you’re a little kid, you’re sad when you move and lose a good friend and then you forget about them in about three days. [laughs] It was like, ‘Oh, I have a new friend!’ It was always exciting.
iRunFar: That’s great. So you had a teacher in middle school that recognised that you–you were a little bit of a troublemaker at the time–had some talent for running. Can you tell me a little about that?
Gray: Yeah, I was getting in trouble and hanging out with the wrong kind of kids for a while. Then this guy, who’s a good friend of mine to this day—he’s almost like family—but he saw me in P.E. class and he told me I needed to come out and try distance running. That was the first I’d even thought about something like that. He talked me into it and I was winning all these races. Then it started to be not so much fun for me anymore, because you get bored as a kid. I think when I lost my first race is when I was hooked on running.
iRunFar: Okay, so it took that defeat to get you even more motivated?
Gray: Yeah. I’m competitive and my dad, he’s a strict guy, he was a soldier. Whatever it was that he asked you to do, it needed to be done to perfection—whether that was cleaning your room or washing the dishes, it needs to be done in a good manner and promptly. When I lost, I realised that, ‘Ah man, I’m not the best out there.’ I thought I was and I just got a taste of reality right there.
iRunFar: I guess at the time, when you’re a kid, it’s not so much fun when your parents are super strict like that. Now though, do you think that it’s helped you in some way to become the runner that you are today?
Gray: Yeah, definitely. I think when you’re raised in a family like that, they want you to be accountable and they push you to excellence—you learn to appreciate it when you’re older. Obviously, you hate it at the time, but it helps you to become a more disciplined athlete.
iRunFar: Was the troublemaking and hanging around with the wrong kids a little spark of rebellion?
Gray: A little and, also, at the time, I was a basketball player. Basketball players and runners have very different personalities and different things that they like to do in their normal day-to-day lives. I think just being around different kinds of kids and different groups of kids obviously changed things as well.
iRunFar: Cool. How did your running progress after that first defeat and, consequently, how did you become hooked? What races were you running in those early days?
Gray: In middle school we had up to the mile. The mile was the premier distance in our area. Then, when I went to high school, it was the two mile. It just progressed from there. Once I got to college, with my background in basketball, I was good at jumping. So I was naturally drawn to steeplechase because you could see the athleticism that was necessary to compete in it. I just kinda’ fell into it, in a sense, and decided to try it out and try to make my first national team. And I did, I made my first national team in steeplechase.
iRunFar: Okay, so up until that time was there any big race or moment that you would consider a big breakthrough for you? Maybe where it dawned on you that you could possibly make a career from running?
Gray: Yeah. My first high school that I went to, I had a coach who didn’t know too much about distance running. I transferred to our rival school because my parents moved and we moved closer to this other school. I was in a new school zone, so I ended up going to my rival school. They had a history of decent runners—especially for that area where we were from, there wasn’t a lot of great distance runners from that area per se.
This coach had a lot of good runners that had come through that school and it was close to a better area for running. Once I went there and started to get a dose of what real training was like, I was competing a lot better at the state level and, eventually, I went and did some racing at the national level. At that point I realised that if I really focus on running and stop messing around with other areas of my life, I could be a pretty decent runner. That’s when I decided to pursue it. I was receiving college letters and things like that, showing interest in my running and trying to get me to come to their school. It really started to shift my view from basketball and other things in my life that were not conducive to running fast. I started to focus on running more.
iRunFar: Fantastic. These colleges were offering scholarships?
Gray: Yeah, I was offered scholarships and that was a big deal in my family, because in my family nobody had graduated with a Bachelor’s or anything like that. So it was a big deal to get a letter to say that they want you to come to college—in my household it was a moment of happiness. I went to Portland first and then transferred to Oklahoma.
iRunFar: What did you study there?
Gray: My undergrad was in in sociology and my Master’s degree was in criminology.
iRunFar: Sounds interesting… and tough.
Gray: Yeah grad school was tough. We had some people in the sociology department and teaching the criminology courses who really took their jobs seriously. They really wanted us to leave with something and they taught us a lot of different things. We learned about the mathematics and the psychology aspects behind crime—it was really neat. We also learned a lot about why people do the things that they do. You get to look at the society and see why certain people end up with certain types of lifestyles—it was interesting to see that. I had come from a background where I’d seen people come from all walks of life and it’s neat to see why and how these things happen.
iRunFar: It sounds really interesting. You’re a full-time athlete now, right?
Gray: Yeah, I became a full-time athlete a couple of years ago.
iRunFar: How is your life as a full-time runner? Do you have more pressure to win, and has it been a fully positive experience?
Gray: For me, it’s a positive experience because there are a lot of things that I like to do external to running. So as a runner you have a lot more free time than, say, if you worked an eight- or nine-hour day. I get to do those things and I’m also able to keep in touch with family—that’s the one thing I really like about it. I have time in the middle of the day to call some of my family on the East Coast or friends in Europe that I can Skype with. That’s one of the things I truly value, because when I was working a lot, you lose touch with a lot of people.
iRunFar: Let’s talk about trail running. You’ve had success at a huge variety of distances, on track, on road, cross country as well as mountain and trail races, too. Are the trails what you’re drawn to the most?
Gray: Yeah, I love off-road running and am definitely looking forward to mountain season this year. I like to be a versatile athlete. It’s something I value personally. I like being able to mix it up with other competitive athletes and not just be a trail runner. I wanna be a competitive road guy and a competitive cross-country guy, so I break it into seasons and segment my racing schedule. It’s kinda’ neat to get out there and experience different crowds, different social experiences with runners from different backgrounds, different types of terrains. It’s neat to see that.
iRunFar: Sweet. So having experienced the social scene around both trail and road running for years, how do you feel the vibe differs at each? Are there big differences?
Gray: I would say in the States, definitely. I think, for me personally, when you’re around the road crowd, people are a little more reserved. When you’re around the off-road racing environments people are generally more talkative, more open. You meet a lot more wild characters doing off-road racing compared to doing road racing where we don’t meet so many nature lovers.
iRunFar: Have you noticed a change though, on the trails at the elite level? Has it been getting more competitive, more serious?
Gray: Yeah, at the elite level. It’s very similar to road racing nowadays because it’s so competitive. It’s changed a little bit, people at the elite level are not as talkative as they used to be. Now with it being so competitive and with so much at stake, people are maybe a little nervous, or maybe they just want to focus and not socialise a lot.
iRunFar: How do you feel about that? Do you feel it’s losing its soul a little bit or do you feel that it’s just a natural progression for the sport?
Gray: It’s funny you mention that, because I’ve been thinking a lot about that lately. You look at the contracts of people like Usain Bolt. People sometimes say to me, ‘Usain Bolt, he’s making seven figures, why are there no trail runners making that kind of money?’ I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that we keep it so… [long pause] unprofessional. Maybe that’s not the right word, unsanctioned maybe… when it just kind of flows. The biggest thing is that you can lose the competition level when you make a race that’s not super professional.
Obviously, marketing and media going into a race will change the personalities of the athletes competing in it. That can be a good thing and a bad thing. I’m a talker. I like to socialise with my peers and other runners, so I think it could be a bad thing because you don’t want to lose that at a race. At the same time, if we could have our cake and eat it, too, we would have a more professional sport, where there’s more money, better funding, better drug testing at more trail races. People would take it more seriously and, then, it’s more legitimate and people would be happy with that, I think. But, then, the social aspect might get lost. It’s kind of give and take.
iRunFar: You make some interesting points, Joe. You touched upon anti-doping there. It’s something that you have always been very passionate about. You’ve raced road and track where, let’s not kid ourselves, doping’s going on. Do you think it could become a problem in trail running, too? What’s your view on that?
Gray: When it comes to doping, because it’s such a problem for me—I just have a big internal problem with people who use drugs. I feel like it’s a problem if one of every 300 races has a doper. Some people might be like, ‘Oh, that’s not a problem. That’s just a rare occasion.’ But it’s like if you actually tested those 300 races you might find that it’s a problem.
Personally, I think it’s a problem and it’s a growing problem and it’s going to be very costly to fix it. Also, it might invade a lot of our privacy as athletes, but I’m willing to give up my privacy so we can protect our sport and preserve it for clean athletes. Athletes who want to be clean and compete with their god-given talent. There are athletes that don’t like it; they don’t like the testing pools and things like that. I think it’s a good idea and I think trail running needs to mimic this. You know you can make a living off trail running and you can make pretty good money doing it. We have to try and preserve the sport or else it’s going to end up like cycling or some of the bigger road or track races. Wherever the money is, people dope.
iRunFar: What’s your stance on the bans that dopers get?
Gray: I would like to see them customise bans–the system of suspension–a bit better. For example, I don’t think it’s a good idea to say that, ‘If you use a drug, any drug on the banned list, you get two years.’ I think there should be different types of bans for different types of drugs and, also, there should be certain types of races that you’re never allowed to come into if you used a certain type of drug.
There are guys who get in trouble for marijuana—I don’t think you need to ban somebody for two years for smoking a doobie. If they want to smoke a joint, then so be it—they’re not going to break a world record by smoking a joint. Then, you have someone on EPO and they’re only going to get banned for two years. What the hell! Somebody’s made a clear, obvious decision to use something that is clearly banned and they’re only going to get two years. You have to penalise them so that they won’t ever use it again. It’s not fair to the other athletes who are clean.
iRunFar: You’ve mentioned previously that you would be interested in working with anti-doping in the future. Is that something that’s still a goal for you?
Gray: Yeah, definitely. I did focus a lot on anti-doping and drugs in a sense when I was in college. It’s always been something that’s of interest to me, just because I’ve seen how drugs can affect a community—other types of drugs, not performance-enhancing drugs. I also know how performance-enhancing drugs can affect our society, federations, and the future of athletics. It’s something that needs to be brought to a lot of people’s attention.
I think the general population doesn’t really understand it. If I go and meet a random guy on the street and we’re having a conversation, people will bring up Lance Armstrong like it’s not a big deal. They don’t understand how much money he made from [the cheating] and how much money he took from the people he was competing against. I think we have to bring it to the attention of the general population also. It has to start at the core. Kids need to know about it. Parents need to know about it and the risk involved—that they don’t won’t to have their kids messing with these things.
iRunFar: I think it’s really cool that you’re so outspoken about it. Going back to your own running, you’re very competitive, train a lot, and are a full-time athlete now. But is it important for you to get onto the trails from a pure enjoyment point of view, just for the sake of the view or floating a nice ribbon of trail?
Gray: Oh yeah, definitely. I will always keep that aspect no matter how fast I’m running. I will always enjoy just taking a run out there and enjoying nature and not be worried about time or effort. At heart, I love just being outdoors on trails and mountains. I love to just run. For me, that will always be something that I’ll do. If you think about longevity, if you’re only doing it for one purpose and not many purposes, and you don’t really enjoy it, then it’d be hard to stay in the sport long. There are a lot of guys that are really good, you see them at 24 or 25 years old and they’re really great runners. Then they’re out of the sport and you have to wonder, did they really love it or was there something else? Did they just want money or wanna’ run fast? There has to be more than just those things.
iRunFar: Absolutely. Speaking of longevity, you’ve recently turned 30—how was that? It didn’t bring on a crisis or anything? [laughs]
Gray: [laughs] No, I think you see guys like Jonathan Wyatt—he’s always a guy I really admired you know, great guy, great runner. I’ve seen guys like him and I had a really good Norwegian friend, Jon Tvedt, who passed away—he was a great mountain runner in his forties who was whipping all these young guys. So, for me, when I turned 30 obviously it was a shocker because you’re 30, but I look at those guys and don’t really think I should feel like I’m old yet. I’m running faster than I was a couple of years ago for sure.
iRunFar: You’re only a young fella’. [laughs] So SCOTT, your sponsor, has recently been announced as one of the partners for Skyrunning. Will you be giving some of their races a go this year?
Gray: I’ll do a few this year. I’ll definitely do Sierre-Zinal and I might try a few others. It just depends on timing and finances. So definitely Sierre-Zinal. It’s one of the biggest races out there and I’d like to try my hand at it again. I never really trained for it or been at altitude to train for it before, so this will be the first time being able to prepare for it properly.
iRunFar: It’ll be nice to travel, too. That’s another passion of yours, right? You impressed me with your Norwegian when we emailed the other day! You’ve traveled there, too. How did your love affair with Norway start?
Gray: [laughs] It kind of began with a love affair. [laughs] I was racing up there for quite a bit, too, and traveling around. It’s a really beautiful country and I tried to pick up some of the language a little, here and there. I’ve lost a lot of it, but I still have my reading material just in case I go back—and I do want to go back.
iRunFar: You mentioned earlier that it’s important for you to have other interests outside of running. Traveling is one. You also like cooking and writing poetry, right?
Gray: Yeah, I love to cook. The way I cook is that I come up with an idea—sometimes a very bizarre idea—then I write my own recipes and, then, try it out and see how it works. I love meeting people when I travel abroad and finding out their recipes and the things that they make and trying to mimic that. So cooking is definitely one of my big passions and I also try and write a little poetry.
iRunFar: How did you first get into them?
Gray: Cooking, I guess firstly from watching my mother and father—they’re some pretty good cooks. The creative side of it is probably from my brother when I was younger. I wouldn’t say he knew how to cook, but he used to grab a bunch of random stuff and make it work. I always thought that was pretty cool when I was little. I was first inspired by him.
With poetry and music, it was my parents. They always played the oldies when I was growing up and that was a good era of music. I’ve always just been interested in listening to music and adding my own words. So poetry just came naturally.
iRunFar: Cool. Away from the trails Joe, you ran Boston Marathon last year and finished in 17th place, 2:18:45. You have your eye on the qualifiers for the 2016 Olympics. What’s your race calendar looking like for this year?
Gray: I don’t have a calendar, but thereare a couple of races that I do plan on doing. A marathon for sure, but I haven’t figured out which one yet—probably Chicago. They have one of the better structures for bonuses and stuff. I’ve already qualified for the Trials with a half marathon, but I want to get the A-standard. You can only get the B-standard with a half marathon, so I definitely want to get the A-standard.
Mountain-wise, I’ll probably open with the GoPro Mountain Games and won’t open my Euro season till July or August. Then, I’ll run the U.S. Mountain Running National Championships and try and defend that title—there’s a pretty good field of guys coming this year—and make the world’s team. Try and bring back some hardware for the country if I can, even as part of the team.
iRunFar: And finally Joe, what about longer ultra distances like 50-mile and 100-mile races? Is it something that interests you?
Gray: I think as it gets bigger, maybe I’d think about it. The aspect of competition is important for me. I like the idea of coming into the last mile and still having a pack of guys. That’s one of the biggest draws for me for shorter distances. Typically, when I’ve done ultras and seen ultras, it’s not as competitive and there’s a lot of gaps and times between the runners. It’s rare that it comes down to pretty close finishes. It’s something I will do, but whether I do it at an elite level or when I’m retired from running competitively, that’s the question.