Joseph Gray nearly collapsed as he crossed the finish line at the summit of America’s Mountain. The world-class trail runner bested a large contingent of quality runners in the Pikes Peak Ascent, winning the prestigious race for the third time on Saturday, but he failed to achieve what has become an elusive goal for him.
Gray said he was happy with the wire-to-wire victory—a challenge that began at 7 a.m. in Manitou Springs and culminated when he finished the 13.32-mile trek up rocky Pikes Peak—but he won’t truly be satisfied until he owns the Ascent record.
“This is probably the least satisfying win I’ve had here,” said the 35-year-old Gray, a Colorado Springs resident who also won the Ascent in 2016 and 2017. “I wanted to run a good time and I didn’t get that.”
The Ascent course climbs 7,815 feet and finishes at the 14,115-foot summit of Pikes Peak. Gray, the 2016 World Mountain Running Champion, boasts the sixth-fastest Ascent time of 2:05:28, clocked in 2016.
This time he finished in 2:08:59, nearly eight minutes behind Matt Carpenter’s Ascent record of 2:01:06. Carpenter, a Manitou Springs resident, amazingly established the Ascent record in the same race that he set the Pikes Peak Marathon record of 3:16:39, back in 1993.
“It’s a little frustrating when you have a time in mind and don’t get it,” said Gray, who has entered the race four times. “I wanted the record.”
Fourth-place finisher Lindon Powell isn’t sure anyone will eclipse Carpenter’s records, either for the Ascent or the Marathon. Spain’s Kilian Jornet, who runs for the elite Team Salomon and is perhaps the world’s foremost trail runner, will take his best shot at both marks Sunday.
“Depending on what Kilian does Sunday, we’ll see,” Powell said. “When Carpenter set the record, the trail was in better shape and he didn’t have to pass as many people (still going up in the marathon) on his way down.”
Gray was virtually unchallenged en route to his victory.
“He was gone when we hit the dirt,” about a mile-and-a-half into the race," said runner-up Seth DeMoor. “I knew what Joe can do, so I didn’t try to keep up.”
DeMoor, from Englewood, Colo., finished in 2:12:45, with Galen Burrell of Louisville, Colo., third in 2:25:44. Powell, from Ashland, Ore., crossed the finish line in 2:26:47 while Kieran Nay of Monument, Colo., was fifth in 2:27:55. George Foster of Great Britain was sixth in 2:30:13 with Devin VansCoy of Eugene, Ore., taking seventh in 2:33:10.
Gray, who ran collegiately for Oklahoma State, led DeMoor by 88 seconds when he reached Barr Camp, and never looked back. He had jumped to the lead at the starting line and led the lead group up Manitou Avenue.
Asked if he was ever really challenged during the race, Gray said, “Not really.”
He proclaimed himself in “good fitness” but said he made some mistakes in his training leading up to the race.
“I came in a little over-cooked,” he said. “I had missed a lot of volume coming in and tried to make it up too close to the race—and I paid for it.”
The weather was good, with sunshine and 43 degrees greeting the runners at the summit. But it was windy, with a steady 30 mile-per-hour wind at the top of the mountain.
“It was by far the worst wind I’ve seen for this race,” Gray said. “The wind made it hard on everybody, but it was tough above A-Frame. The wind didn’t do us any favors today.”
DeMoor echoed that sentiment.
“The wind definitely hit us hard above the tree line,” he said.
Still, DeMoor was “very satisfied” with his third Ascent, having run in 2010 and 2017, when he finished third.
“I was hoping to maybe get under 2:10 but I have no excuses,” he said, after missing that mark by less than three minutes. “I was about nine minutes better than my previous (best time in the Ascent).”
Gray felt he could challenge Carpenter’s record when he won in 2016, but was four minutes off the mark. He followed that with another victory in 2017 in 2:08:19. That made him the first male repeat winner in the Ascent since Carpenter in 2001-02.
Gray, who is married with a 1-year-old child, is headed to Europe for his next two races, a World Cup event and a Red Bull team event, where he runs about 13 kilometers while his teammates are a mountain biker, paraglider and kayaker.