Colorado Springs runner Joe Gray will attempt to win his third consecutive, and fourth overall, U.S. Mountain Running National Championship on Saturday at Bend, Oregon. We sat in the shade last week at Memorial Park in Manitou Springs, and I turned on the tape recorder.
Gray, 31, is U.S. mountain running's brightest star. He has competed on 18 U.S. teams and could qualify for another in Bend, where the top runners earn berths to represent the U.S. at the world championships Sept. 19 in Wales.
He is confident and opinionated, and the first African-American runner to win a national mountain running championship and gain a berth on a U.S. mountain team. These are the highlights of a rambling conversation.
Indy: What does it mean to qualify for the 2015 U.S. Mountain Running Team?
Gray: It was always a goal of mine, from the time when I first started running professionally. I wanted to be the guy that represented his country. I wanted to have the U.S. flag on my chest, and I want to make my country proud and give our country some notoriety for my sport.
What brought you to Colorado Springs?
I like the people here, the culture of running and athletics and the lifestyle. The people are down to earth. There are a lot of places to eat here. I'm not like a health nut. I wouldn't want to go to, say, Boulder, where everything is organic and you can't get, like, a really nasty burger or pizza. I need to have diversity in my food. You can go super-unhealthy or super-healthy.
You can meet the most liberal person or the most conservative person here, and I like that.
Of all the athletes I know, you are the most outspoken about doping. Why is that?
There are a couple of things I'm upset about. In America we have prize money, and people come from other countries to race here to make money. I don't have a problem with that.
I do think it's a problem when your country doesn't take testing seriously. So you leave your country and come steal money here and go back to your country.
And also the abuse of therapeutic use exemptions [which allow the use of banned medications to treat athletes with specific medical needs]. There are a couple of coaches, very intelligent, and they realize there's a loophole — let's exploit this.
I think it has really messed up our sport. I can't tell you how many records I believe are tainted, maybe not from clear-cut doping, but from abusing the therapeutic use exemptions.
Is there a need for more testing in mountain running?
Yeah, it would be nice. But then again, there is the problem of funding. What happens to the sport at that point? Do we lose money as athletes?
But I've had discussions with people in other countries; their thought process is very different than mine. It was almost like, "If I could get it, I'd do it." You meet people, they're win at all cost. My dream would be that we can teach kids at a young age that natural athletics is the way to go.
You're the first African-American to make the U.S. team and the first to win a U.S. Mountain Running title. What does that mean to you?
Being African-American in a sport that is predominately European and white, I feel like I have to work really hard to make a name for myself because you're not going to get as much recognition as you would if you were white. You have to earn your keep. So it's special to me to be the first African-American to pave the way through that.
Has anyone in the mountain running community been blatantly racist toward you?
They haven't called me anything, but I would question if they're racist based on their actions. Saying no to me and yes to someone else. Or giving me this and giving him that. Or not giving me publicity for this, but giving some publicity for a much smaller feat.
You have to wonder, is it because I'm black that they don't care so much for what I've done? But years ago my dad taught me, you don't do things for fame. You work hard, you do it for your passion, and you don't worry about fame. I do it because I love to win, to compete. In the end, having results is all that matters to me.