Joe Gray has three wins of the US Mountain Running Championships to his credit and is back to try his hand at a fourth this weekend. In the following interview, Joe talks about how he mixes up disciplines, how he still tries to improve after running at such a high level for many years, and why he likes the community and travel associated with trail running.
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Joe Gray Pre-2015 US Mountain Running Championships Interview Transcript
iRunFar: Bryon Powell of iRunFar here with Joe Gray before the 2015 US Mountain Running Championships. How are you doing, Joe?
Joe Gray: I’m good, man. Thanks for having me out here.
iRunFar: It’s great to finally meet you in person. You’ve run a lot of US Mountain Running Championships. Do you even know how many you’ve run at this point?
Gray: I know I started… I think 2008 or 2007 was my first one. I’ve just kind of kept it going since then.
iRunFar: You’ve had a couple wins in there? How many?
Gray: Yeah, I’ve got a couple… three total in the mountain running.
iRunFar: That’s got to feel pretty good.
Gray: Yeah, definitely. It always feels good to come out and win a title against some of the best guys in the States. It’s not easy to win them. I’m very thankful.
iRunFar: Have you won them in both up and down and up only years?
iRunFar: How do you get that diversity of skill? Some people are definitely way better at one than the other.
Gray: Oh, for sure. I don’t know that I’m that much better in one compared to the other. The biggest thing for me is that I just like to race. I don’t know. I’m really drawn to getting out there and being competitive and fighting someone out there. Whether it’s up and down or just up, I just want to be competitive. I don’t know. It’s hard to say which one I’d be better at.
iRunFar: You’ve run all sorts of stuff. You’ve won some national championships in mountain running, but if there’s a championship name on it, you’ve probably run it, right?
Gray: Yeah, I try to get out of my comfort zone and be diverse and just try some road races. I’ve won some titles on the road, some in cross country, some on the trail not mountain running. Yeah, I just like to try and mix it up, see what I can do, and get out of my comfort zone.
iRunFar: Do you… you like mixing it up and competing, but is there one of those disciplines that you just enjoy the most and brings you that joy?
Gray: I get that question all the time. I think when you’re at the end of one season you start to like the other one more. At the end mountain running, I start wishing for cross country and road. At the end of road, I start wishing for mountains. I think I’ve got equal love for all of them. I like getting involved with both. It’s really hard to say.
iRunFar: When did you kick off your trail season this year?
Gray: This year I started in May which is about… I usually will start pretty close to that. I had a little bit of health issues after the Pan Am Games, so my season got off to a little slower start. I would have like to start a little sooner this year, but it didn’t work out. I’m happy with where the season is at so far.
iRunFar: Are you feeling pretty strong?
Gray: Yeah, I feel good. I feel like I’m building still, still building fitness, and trying to improve on everything.
iRunFar: How do you do that after all… you’ve been running US Mountain Running Championships since 2007. You’ve been running for a long time. How do you keep trying to get better?
Gray: I don’t know. For me, I look at it in the bigger picture, and I try to progress in it. I realize there was something I wasn’t focusing on in my running whether it had been I didn’t have enough volume, or I didn’t do enough quality, or my form was bad here. I try to add something in every so many months and make sure I’m focusing. I think as you age, you get more experience which makes you a more competitive runner. I may not even be faster than I was three years ago, but I’m more experienced and I don’t make stupid mistakes in races. I still do, but…
iRunFar: Not as may.
Gray: Right, not as many. I think that’s a big part of it, just more experience and getting wiser.
iRunFar: Building some endurance base along with it.
Gray: Yeah, hopefully get that old man strength.
iRunFar: A little bit of that going. How do you keep that speed? Especially with something as short as 12k mountain running, how do you keep that speed? How old are you right now?
Gray: I’m 31.
iRunFar: You’re 31.
Gray: I work with Scott Simmons with the American Distance Project. During my road and cross-country phases of the year, I’m getting dropped left and right from the guys in my group. It’s a tough group of guys, and they work together. It definitely allows me to keep some turnover throughout the year and obviously some level of humble, humility, to my running.
iRunFar: You can come out here and win these things—you don’t win every year—but when you’re training, you’re getting to have a beat down.
Gray: Even when it comes to mountain-running training, I work out with Zach Miller sometimes. He’s also in the Springs [Colorado Springs]. Zach has dropped the hammer on me a few times and made me go home with my tail between my legs. Yeah, it’s humbling, but it’s beneficial.
iRunFar: Is that guy always head down charging as hard as he can uphill because he always looks like that in ultramarathons?
Gray: He’s a gritty… that’s what I tell people, Zach’s a gritty runner. He’s a tough guy. He really digs in. He’s a tough guy to race because he’s going to make you hurt.
iRunFar: It’s interesting. I’ve followed the US Mountain Running Championships from afar—These people are running and I’ll see the results afterward. But is it always people added or people jumping in at the last minute? It seems like the last week a couple guys came in and a lot of women came in the race. Is that normal?
Gray: Yeah, I think it’s very similar to the road-running world. People see a great opportunity and they want to jump in. There’s a worlds team at stake. It’s in a really beautiful country. People want to be on that team.
iRunFar: It’s Wales this year, right?
Gray: Right. A lot of people want to be on it. It’s prestigious to make a national team. You get to toe the line with the best guys in the nation. So, it’s a great opportunity.
iRunFar: Does it still feel like an honor to represent the country because it’s something you’ve done a lot of times now?
Gray: Yeah, every time. I’m grateful and thankful every time I get to wear that jersey. Every time I make a national team, it’s a huge deal for me. I’m patriotic for one, and secondly, I just love competing at a world championship or international event. I love meeting new people and trying new languages and trying new food. For me, it’s just… nothing beats it.
iRunFar: You enjoy the travel and not just the competition aspect?
Gray: Yeah, I think part of my love for the sport, and a lot of people as it should be, is the social aspect behind running. People look at runners and we’re stereotyped as being very quiet, shallow people.
iRunFar: I don’t get that from you.
Gray: No, I’m maybe less of that, but I think that’s a beautiful thing especially with mountain running. People talk. We’re very social. You go to another country and people want to show you, “Oh, you’ve got to try this! You’ve got to try this!” It’s an amazing feeling and an amazing experience.
iRunFar: In that social aspect, do you ever trade jerseys?
Gray: At this point now, I’ve accumulated quite a bit of gear, so typically I just kind of give it away and maybe take one piece or article from someone. Now, I’ve got pretty much all the countries I’d want.
iRunFar: Is there a coolest one out of that group aside from the American one?
Gray: I’d say the most special… I have a really special one. Jon Tvedt was really one of the best Norwegian mountain runners and in terms of technical ascents, one of the best. You may never hear about him but that’s because Norway is a smaller country. He passed away some years ago, and he gave me a Norway jersey the year before he passed. That jersey is still pretty special to me. I really like Norway as a country.
iRunFar: You’ve done a lot of traveling even this last year. Were you down in Mexico for a couple weeks this past year?
Gray: Yeah, we were down in Mexico—wedding, honeymoon, and race some months after that. Mexico has been a special place, too. I’ve got a lot of Mexico gear.
iRunFar: This year the race is in Wales. When you go to a race like that, are you going for your best race? Are you shooting to win? Are you shooting to get the best performance for your country? They are all sort of different goals.
Gray: Yeah, I think those goals have to fluctuate a little bit. You come to the start line and you’re not feeling good, you’ve got to suck it up and say, “I’m one of the guys who should be scoring for this team. I’ve got to make that happen.”
iRunFar: You might not be top 10 that day, but if you can make 15th…
Gray: Yeah, you’ve got to do something for the team. If you’re feeling great and you come to the line, you don’t want to think too individual because if you go out there and burn out and you let your team down because you lost 10 points because you decided to be superman… For me, team comes first. If I can get a gold medal or a medal individually, I’m going to do it within my limits. I’m not going do something stupid that’s going to hurt my teammates in the long run. We all traveled pretty far. We all want to come home with something. I don’t want that to be on my hands that we didn’t get anything. Team is definitely first for me when it comes to the world championships.
iRunFar: Speaking of teammates, this year you’re running in Bend here. One of your teammates, I’m sure, from a bunch of national teams, Max King, has been part of making the course. Do you think that gives a little hometown advantage to that?
Gray: I think he made the course definitely… after seeing some of it, I think it’s definitely suited for him.
iRunFar: He did a good job on that?
Gray: I don’t blame him. If you’ve got your hand in the mix, you might as well do it. I think he’s going to be tough. He’s going to be tough on this course. Hopefully we can be teammates again.
iRunFar: Best of luck out there. Have fun out there, Joe.
Gray: Thanks, Bryon.
iRunFar: Bonus question for you. I haven’t been on the course yet, but it’s a really short race. Do you go in trail shoes which tend to be built for longer trail races, let’s say. Or do you go in a road flat?
Gray: I would probably not recommend a road flat on this course. It depends on how comfortable and how strong your feet are. I think you could step on… It’s a pretty decent trail, nothing really crazy. But at the same time, if you’re not ready for that kind of descent for that long, I still think a trail shoe comes in handy. You’re not necessarily going to need a rock plate, but that could come in handy if you like to run aggressive.
iRunFar: So what is that going to be for you?
Gray: I’m going to make that decision tomorrow, but they’re two trail shoes. One is a little bit different than the other. I’ve got to figure out which one. I’m still debating.
iRunFar: I’ll check it out on Saturday morning and see what you have. Great talking to you, Joe.
Gray: Thanks, Bryon.