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Joe Gray cooks up success on variety of terrain

(Photo credit: Red Bull)

For Joe Gray, diversity is the spice of life. While there may be faster runners or those who can go longer distances, perhaps no runner today has found success in the variety of races that Gray does throughout the year.

As a foodie, Gray also acknowledges a similar type of variety in his cooking experiences. “I like a wide range of foods,” he says. “I try to cook a wider range of different foods from different countries. I'd say the countries that I mess around with the most in terms of in the kitchen is probably Japan, then Italy. I really love Japanese food, and I really love Italian food.”

But before Gray could excel as an athlete or cook, he needed the discipline required in both activities.

His first mentor

Gray readily admits that he got into trouble in middle school.

Thankfully, gym and special ed teacher Mark Brinkhaus stepped in as a mentor and guided Gray toward making better choices. “He had a lot of time with me because one of my classes was helping the kids at special ed classes,” Gray recalls. “It was kind of like a leadership class. We had a lot of time to talk, and he kind of saw the guys that I was hanging out with, and messing around in school and just not really being serious.”

Brinkhaus persuaded Gray to run on the track team.

“I had really good success right away, won a lot of races,” he remembers. “I hadn't lost any races, and then finally I think when I really got addicted to the sport was the first time I lost. Then it kind of showed me that you got to really be focusing. You got to really train and put in the work, if you want to be good at this sport. It's not just something you can wake up and beat just anybody.”

But it was more than the physical aspects that set Gray on a new path. He learned valuable lessons along the way. “It kind of opened my eyes to work ethic, in the sport of track and field, and cross country.”

Gray went on to run for Oklahoma State University, where he received his bachelor's and master's degrees.

At OSU, he qualified for nationals a half-dozen times and was named an academic all-American.

“I had really good grades in college, I don't think I was the kind of guy who was going to win any national titles,” he says. “I was having a little bit too much fun in college. Living the whole college lifestyle, partying and drinking, that kind of stuff. College was a place where I learned about what it would take and what it looks like to compete with the best guys in the world.”

There were times at Oklahoma State where the elite runner was humbled.

“When you're in high school, the pond is really small, and you're a big fish,” Gray says. “And college kind of humbled me a lot. It humbles, I think, every athlete because you go there and all of a sudden the pond is really big, and you're a small fish. You're losing a lot more than you are winning races. So it was kind of just a period of time for growth in the sport for me personally.”

‘The American dream’

(Photo credit: Richard Bolt)

After obtaining his second degree from OSU, Gray returned to Washington state, where he picked up a couple of smaller sponsorships for running. Technically, he was a professional athlete but he sought more.

“I made a decent amount of money where I could live off of it,” he says. “I didn't want it to be just something I was living off of. I wanted to be able to obtain the American dream. Get a house, get a car, save money, and things like that. That kind of worked a little bit here and there in my first few years out of college.”

Then around 2008, he signed his first footwear deal.

“It was just a small deal,” Gray says. “Then from there, I got the results and accumulated some good finishes, and some national titles, and some Team USA representations at Global Championships and things. Then I kind of moved up from there. I was able to attain major contracts. It finally got to the point where I was running professionally, and had attained that goal of attaining the American dream while pursuing my passion of running.”

Gray’s resume is impressive — 16-time USA national champion, eight-time USA Mountain Runner of the Year, 2016 Olympic Trials qualifier in the marathon, four-time Washington state road running champion and more. He’s won mountain races, cross-country events and even a snowshoe world championship.

What makes Gray somewhat unique is not just the championships but the varieties of races in which he excels. Mountains, cross-country, roads, trails, track. Balancing the different disciplines is something that separates Gray from most other elites.

“At the core, obviously there's a skill set that you need to learn,” he explains. “You need to be able to practice on the terrain that you're going to be racing in. I think the bigger reason why I have been successful at that is just because at the heart of who I am — I really like to compete. There are times where, maybe I'm in a race where I'm at a disadvantage, but my passion for competition I'm able to kind of maintain a competitive level with whoever I'm competing with, no matter where we're racing.”

His training plan

For his training, Gray says he runs trails and mountains throughout the year.

“Once mountain season is over, I get my mind mentally ready, a switch flips, and also my training flips,” he says. “I'm not spending as many hours in the mountains, if I'm trying to run fast on the flats. My long runs and things like that start to change from being mountain to being more flatter terrain, and just getting my body used to running that type of grade.”

Gray also incorporates specificity into his workouts. He minimizes technical terrain when gearing up for roads or cross-country season.

I asked him if he were presented with one final race in which he would compete, which type of course would he prefer?

“Oh wow!” he says. “I'd probably want to go out with a bang with mountain. But I would say cross country is probably my favorite genre.”

Cross country is the best of two worlds for Gray. It's a combination of being outdoors and engaging in the competitive nature of a road race.

“A real cross country course, where it's pretty tough, is on the verge of being a trail race, per se,” he explains. “I think what I like about it is, the cross country races are really competitive. It has this level of competition that you don't see in a lot of the mountain races around globally, except, maybe in the world championships. It has a level of competition, but also, you're kind of battling. There's really no point in the race where you can lag or get comfortable. You're really focused on racing and I love that about cross country.

Eat what you want

In an era of endless diet trends — paleo, vegan, low fat/high carb, pescatarian, etc. — Gray simply eats what he likes.

“If a nutritionist evaluated my health, they'd probably say I'm getting everything I need, but it's probably not the healthiest diet in the world,” he admits. “Life is so short, you really got to enjoy what you're putting in your mouth. One minute they say this is good for you, the next minute it's not. Just get a wide variety of things — your vegetables, your healthy fats, your protein, your meats, your cheeses, your breads, everything. I feel like if you're happy, and happy with what you eat, then you're happier feeling in the body. Usually that will equal good performances.”

Even when race day nears, Gray eats what he likes

“I don't have a regimen, so there's not something that is a staple in my diet in terms of just food,” he says. “I have a lot of recovery products that are a staple, but in terms of food, it could be burgers one day, it could be steaks, it could be pizza, it could be pasta. I try to keep a really diverse palate, in my diet just because what I've found is when you get really used, and you're a habitual eater, the problem is when you travel and you start competing globally or internationally, you'll find that there's a lot of countries that don't eat what you want to eat. So if you're one of those people who's really type A about what they eat, you're going to have problems on the road, and you're going to have to find these ways to compromise, or to eat something that's really bland or boring.”

When Gray travels to a foreign country, he feasts on what the locals are having.

“I always like the local food, no matter where I am,” he says. “I want to know what they're eating and what's special for that region or that part of the world. And check out what works for me. I've been fairly happy with most of the food I've tried, the local cuisine.”

In the kitchen

Gray credits his older brother for his own approach to cooking.

“When I was younger and my brother was watching me, he did a lot of the cooking,” he recalls. “My brother was one of those guys who would take a little bit of this, a little bit of that, and just make these random weird looking concoctions. But they'd be good. I think that kind of piqued my interest, and as I grew up I'd do the same thing.”

After leaving college, Gray began experimenting more in the kitchen. He pored through cooking magazines.

“I was like, ‘Man am I getting older, or am I just a hungry person?’” he remembers. “I don't know what's going on. For me, it just kind of stuck, and when I travel places, if I eat something that I really like, if I'm at a restaurant I won't be hesitant to compliment the chef, but also ask him if he's willing to share his recipe. Nine times out of 10 if you really like something, they're really happy and they're more than happy to show you exactly how to do it.”

One of Gray’s favorite dishes and experiences was when he was in Milan, Italy, and learned how to make gnocchi ai quattro formaggi, a four-cheese gnocchi.

“It was amazing!” he says. “The way the sauce came out was just perfect. I don't know any other way to put it. I talked to the chef a little bit. He spoke a little bit of English. But he could speak real good Spanish. And I can speak a little Spanish, so we ended up talking, and I wrote down how he did it, when he did what, and what cheeses he used. That was a really cool experience. I think that was the first time I had ever done that.”

A life of inspirations

Gray has always been a fan of the outdoors. He naturally gravitated from running competitively in high school to a Division I school and then to trail, ultra and mountain running. “When I found out there was a sport, when I got out of college, it was an easy decision to make. I fell in love with it immediately.”

He has also been fortunate for finding inspirational mentors who helped shape his life. As an African-American, he is in a unique position to inspire young black men to participate in endurance events where there numbers are low. But, as he notes, it will take more people to enact notable change.

“In terms of inspiring that next generation of black Americans, and even minorities, I think the bigger issue is not so much what I can do,” he says. “I feel like I’ve inspired a lot of young athletes and other black athletes. People have sent me messages and stuff like that. But these are grown men, typically. And there's some kids in college, or on the rare occasion some younger kids. I think the bigger thing is the media really controls who's going to be inspired. You look at the media, there's not a lot of support for black athletes in mountain, all terrain and trail.”

For Gray, he believes the highest caliber of mountain racing is the World Championships where east Africans are competitive.

“Sadly, it's rarely covered in the media,” he concludes. “A lot of the media outlets that you do see with our sport, they're really not focused on making the sport diverse. That's pretty obvious. I think it has to start there.”

Speed drill

Name: Joseph Gray Hometown: Lakewood, Wash. Number of years running: 20 How many miles a week do you typically run: Depends on the season since I do a lot of off road racing where time is more important than distance. Point of pride: Representing my country at international competitions and championships! Favorite race distance: 1 mile to 50K mountain; road and track Favorite pre-race or training food/drink: Fuel 100 Electrobites pre and post. Cherry Juice Performer post run Favorite piece of gear: One of my pieces of footwear from Hoka. I’m a shoe geek! Favorite or inspirational song to run to: Drake, Nipsey Hussle, Earth Wind and Fire, Miguel or Travis Scott Favorite or inspirational mantra/phrase: No favorites really as certain mantras make sense at certain times depending on the challenge. Where can other runners connect or follow you:

Instagram and Twitter: @joegeezi


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