Newcastle runner conquers difficult trails

August 5, 2011

By Quinn Eddy

When Newcastle resident Joseph Gray, 27, goes out for a run he doesn’t just jog around the block. Being a professional mountain trail runner, Gray runs 80 to 90 miles per week depending on the time of year.

Recently, Gray returned from Ajijic, Mexico, in the state of Jalisco, south of Guadalajara. Here, he won his third North American, Central American and Caribbean Athletics Association event.

Joseph Gray crosses the finish line July 17 for his third North American Central American and Caribbean win in Ajijic, Mexico, in a record 1 hour, 16 minutes, 44 seconds for the 13.8K, or 8.6 mile, course. Contributed

With this win Gray is now the first athlete to have broken every record in every event for North American, Central American and Caribbean Athletics Association in all three countries — Canada, the United States and Mexico.

Ricardo Mejia, who the Mexicans refer to as, “the best Mexican mountain runner of all time,” had held the previous record since 2001. Gray had smashed his record by three minutes.

“He was very humble, very nice and full of jokes,” Gray said, referring to Mejia.

The second-place runner, Ranulfo Sanchez, also beat the record by about 39 seconds.

“I thought I was going to have to settle for silver because he kept distancing himself further and was able to make moves in certain areas that I didn’t expect,” Gray said. “He was really strong.

According to Gray, it was keeping up with Sanchez that pushed him into a faster pace, allowing him to break the record.

Gray describes the Ajijic course as crazy.

“You could die on it,” Gray said. “There were parts where right next to the trail was a cliff.”

Originally from Lakewood, Gray graduated from Lakes High School. From there he went on to Oklahoma State University where he received his bachelor’s degree in sociology and master’s degree in criminology.

In high school, Gray ran both cross-country and track. Pushing him into the sport was his coach, Mark Brinkhaus.

“I was always getting into trouble and my coach could relate, he saw me in PE and had me come out to track,” Gray said. “He took me on trail runs and ever since then I’ve been a good cross-country runner.”

According to Gray, losing his first middle school race was a major turning point.

“When someone beats you one-on-one it does something to you mentally,” Gray said. “It set a fire inside of me, which caused me to not only focus more on running, but also school. I became a better person.”

Gray credits his father as his biggest fan and biggest supporter for supporting him throughout his career,.

“Whenever I’d lose a race it was always him reminding me to stay focused,” Gray said.

Gray made his first national team during his freshman year at Oklahoma State. There, he represented the United States at the Pan American Games in the 3K steeplechase.

The steeplechase features 35 barriers, seven of which are water pits. Throughout the race, the racer must jump over these barriers.

“This was different from what I was used to, suddenly you’re not the best guy on the team,” Gray said.

Throughout college, Gray found it difficult to focus on school and running. Deciding to focus on school, Gray didn’t make another national team till 2008.

Of his many accomplishments, Gray is most proud of his race last year in Slovenia. There, he led the Americans to their first-ever silver medal at the World Mountain Running Championship. His 10th-place finish was the highest finish of any American since mountain running has become an International Association of Athletics Federation world-championship event.

“The Africans were supposed to take all the medals,” Gray said. “A lot of guys stepped up so we held our own.”

Being about 12 kilometers uphill, the course gained about 1,000 meters, or 3,000 feet, in elevation. Gray’s biggest challenge during the race was having to get out of his comfort zone and push himself early on in the race.

“You have to be mentally tough,” he said. “I love the high stress and thrive off the big races. That’s when the best of me comes out.”

Sometimes running twice a day, Gray trains by running around Newcastle, and Cougar and Tiger mountains.

“I try to avoid the treadmill. It’s hard to enjoy running on a treadmill, because it loses its element of adventure,” he said.

When it comes to diet, Gray tends to take a very loose approach. He eats a lot of green “superfoods,” fruits and vegetables, but admits a weakness for Key lime pie and pizza. During the off-season, he takes between three and four weeks off.

“My biggest advice for someone starting out is to stay consistent and start slow. There’s no reason to rush into it,” he said. “Stay balanced mentally, physically and spiritually.”

Luckily, throughout his career, Gray hasn’t faced too many major injuries. His biggest injury came leading up to the world snowshoe championship in Japan. Originally starting out as a groin injury, this soon developed into a damaged sacroiliac joint in his lower back.

“It hurt leading up to the race and I had to take a lot of time off,” he said. “It was a very serious injury, I probably shouldn’t have gone.”

Despite his injury, Gray won first place in the sprint and second in the distance race.

Gray’s next event will be the 8K Seafair Torchlight Run. After that will come the Sierre-Zinal Mountain Race in Switzerland.

“This race will be very similar to the one I just ran in Mexico,” Gray said. “The major difference is that the Switzerland race will be less technical.”

For his accomplishments, Gray has earned sponsorships from several prominent businesses. Furnishing his apparel needs is the Japanese company CW-X. His footwear needs are met by Inov-8, a shoe company originally from the United Kingdom. Other notable sponsors include BeHive Massage Therapy, Bellevue’s Sports Reaction Center and Mio Watches.

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