By Jonathan Gault
October 17, 2017
On August 28, the oldest American record in an Olympic track discipline — Johnny Gray‘s 1:42.60 in the 800 meters — turned 32 years old. The record is so old that the country in which Gray set it (West Germany) no longer exists.
Gray put together an incredible career in the 1980s and 1990s, a time when few Americans were mixing it up on the global level in the distance events. In 1992, at 32 years old, he became the oldest Olympic 800 finalist in 40 years and took home a bronze medal. Four years later in Atlanta, he made the final again at the ripe old age of 36 (his fourth straight Olympic final) and he went on to become Pan American Games champion at age 39 in 1999. He went sub-1:44 a staggering 26 times (third all-time), including four times in eight days in 1985, culminating in his American record in Koblenz, and went sub-1:45 an amazing 14 years in a row from 1984 to 1997, a feat unmatched in history. Gray also holds the 600-meter world record at 1:12.81, a mark that has stood for 31 years and counting. Since his retirement in 2001, he has taken up coaching, guiding Khadevis Robinson to many US titles and a 1:43.68 pb and Duane Solomon to a 1:42.82 fourth-place showing at the 2012 Olympics, the closest any American has come to Gray’s record; Gray also coaches the women’s cross country and distance squads at the University of Central Florida.
I spoke with Gray on the phone in August and we discussed his American record, doping in the sport (and why he considered doping himself), the origins of the “Gray Zone” (Gray was famous for taking races out super hard which people started to refer to as “taking it to the Gray zone” in honor of Gray), his training under the Igloi system, and current U.S. stars Donavan Brazier and Ajee Wilson.
What are your memories of that race when you broke the American record?
Well actually, before the race I was trying to talk my coach into allowing me not to run because I had just come from running a big race in Zurich and I was kind of tired. I had just run a 1:43-low and then most of my competitors who were just as good were sitting, waiting on me to arrive, and then I would have to race the next day. So I didn’t really want to run at a disadvantage but we got paid and my pay was already given to me and sent back to the States. So my coach (Merle McGee) said in order to have a roof over my head, you need to run, hypothetically speaking. So I said okay, I’ll run.
So I didn’t take the original approach to my race that I usually do, which was front-running, because [Olympic champion] Joaquim Cruz was in the race. And it was like, 20 guys in the race. They were doubling up the lanes. And I recall not really being aggressive the first 300. I was almost in last place, might have had one or two guys behind me. And then right after 300, I started making my move because the field sort of spread [out], so I was taking them one at a time. And then I found myself catching Cruz right about at the 500 mark. And so I started going after Cruz. And I went out in 51, if I can remember, my first lap was 51.3-something and I came back with a 51.2-something. And it was a new American record and I was shocked.
And I didn’t win, either, that’s the crazy thing about it! It was a photo finish between Cruz and myself. He ran 1:42.59 and they gave me 1:42.60 (Editor’s note: All-Athletics and All-Time Athletics both list Cruz’s time as 1:42.49). And it was a new American record. It was one of the easiest 1:42’s I’ve run and it was different running from the back, having to go after people rather than trying to hold on to prevent people from catching me, so I kind of enjoyed that part of it.
Why do you think your record has stood this long? You set it in 1985, now it’s 32 years later, it’s still here.
Well, I’m shocked that it did, but 1:42 is not easy to run, especially back when I was running, it was very few people that were doing it. When I first ran 1:42, I think there was only four or five people in the world had ever broken 1:43 (Editor’s note: Gray was the fourth man in history to break 1:43). But now you have many people that break 1:43. I mean you have 17-year-olds that broke 1:42, which was incredible to see (Editor’s note: Nijel Amos was actually 18 years and four months when he ran 1:41.73 in London in 2012).
But I don’t know. Everything I say will just be insinuation, but I think people focus more on what [supplements] they can take and high-altitude tents. They’re thinking about all this modern stuff where it works and it might work one time for you, but the consistency of it is hard. I mean with me, I just know that I worked hard. That’s the only thing I know. I worked hard.
And I know I ran against druggies. I know I ran against guys that took drugs because I had a few of them approach me and even admitted to me that they were taking it. They had asked me to take it. They said, Johnny, you should take it. We want you to take it because you’ll be the first man to break 1:40. And I thought about it, I’m not gonna lie. Because I would run with some of them guys that I knew were dirty and would beat me and I would get upset. And I would tell my coach, I’d say, “Coach, if they’re taking it, I’m [going to] cheat too because I’m tired of losing to ’em and them cheating and not getting caught. I’m [going to] cheat too.”
And my coach said something to me that stuck with me. He said, “Johnny, you’re running 1:42 clean. They have to take drugs to run with you.” And when he said that, that registered to me that, hey, you know what? You’re right, coach. I would hate to take something, get caught and then taint all the stuff that I did naturally.
You mentioned people offered you drugs. Was this athletes? Agents?
They were athletes. They were my competitors. They didn’t have no shame in letting me know they cheated. I knew they were cheating because the coach that they were with was known as a cheater. I’m not even going to say names, but in fact, he got banned for life because majority of his athletes cheated and he got caught. So he got banned for life. And this particular athlete was under that coach.
Was this a European?
Not to throw Kenya under the bus, but this particular athlete was a Kenyan athlete. You put the pieces together, you’ll figure it out. I just don’t want to say names. And I’ve said his name before, I’ve told this story a thousand times, I’ve said his name before. I don’t want to say too much more because stuff happened that was personal and I don’t want to [inaudible] on them wounds. He did what he did and paid the price for what he did. But at the same time, you steal from other athletes when you cheat. That’s the thing we’ve gotta try to fix in this sport. Because you have athletes that want to try to make a living and want to try to do well with hard work but then you have these athletes that cheat and they get caught and then they get a weak ban of one year, two years, whatever the ban is, and then they come back and they just find a better way to cheat and they get away with it again.
You were famous as a front-runner. When and why did you decide on that approach?
Well, I’m 6-4, I have long legs, and I have a high back-kick. So when I would get caught in the pack, I would get my foot clipped, I would get tripped. I would fight so hard just to stay out of trouble that I would fatigue myself. And when I was sitting in the back, I would get boxed in as well and I would lose contact with the leader. So I just said, to keep it simple, my coach and I, we started training on more aggressive pace and we’d run aggressive, which I ended up calling the “Twilight Zone” but everybody kind of changed it to the “Gray Zone.” But it was the “Twilight Zone.”
And the reason why I called it the “Twilight Zone” was I used to love this show that used to come on called The Twilight Zone. And when it comes on, he tells you how everybody’s going to be taken to this zone. And I feel we all, as runners, we’re going to go through a zone. And only way you’re gonna see who practiced or prepared the best? They have to make it through that zone. So I know that I can get through that zone, so as a competitor, I tried to take my competitors through that zone. We’re all gonna hit it. I know I’m gonna hit it too. But I know what I’ve done. So I get through the zone and do the best I can to get through, and if you didn’t prepare right, then you’re not gonna make it through the zone. And if you did prepare right or you took the right pills, you might make it through the zone. I’d rather fight the ones that did prepare rather than get in the back and get slowed down by those that didn’t prepare.
You trained in the Igloi style, is that right?
I’m somewhat familiar with it, but can you give a brief explanation of what that entails?
Well rather than run against the clock all the time, we used these sayings. Like when I warm my kids up, like a two-mile warmup and then they do 100’s. And we don’t believe in a lot of stretching. We do the two-mile warmup then we do the 100’s where you do one easy, one “good swing,” one easy, one “good speed.” And the good swing is just lifting the knees high. The higher you lift the knees, the longer the stride. And the speed is quick turnover. So by doing that in the warmup, the two miles will warm them up and the different rhythms will stretch them up. So that was the way my coach believed in stretching and preparing the body. Now if you felt something was still a little tight, you can kind of cross your legs and do a little stretching, just to get that tightness out of you if need be, but we didn’t believe in stretching, nor did we believe in weightlifting.
Really? So you never lifted weights.
Never lifted weights. I might have done core, did push-ups and sit-ups, but I never lifted weights. Of course, you can look at me, I was skinny as a rail, that proves I didn’t lift weights. And we’d run good swing, good speed.
Perfect example: if my coach gave me, in the fall time, 10 x 400 good swing, the first week of training, my good swing might be 59-60 [seconds per rep]. Now if he gave it to me 59-60 by saying “Run 59-60,” I’m gonna focus on trying to get around there in 59-60. And I’m gonna need a split at 200 and the first 100 to make sure I’m running the pace. But when he says good swing, I don’t focus on anything but the stride pattern in good swing. So I might hit 59, 58, 59, 58, but my coach isn’t going to tell me. He’s just going to say, “Good job.” But he’s writing down what I ran. Then the next week, if he was telling me run 59-60, I’m still gonna be running 59-60 because I’m gonna be focused on hitting the splits, I’m gonna hit 59-60. But if he don’t tell me that, if he just tells me to go good swing, then now my shape is better, so I might start hitting 55-56 now. And all he’s gonna do is tell me, “Good job.” But he’s seeing the improvement. I’m still feeling good swing. Although I got better, my times got faster, I’m still feeling good swing. But if he was giving it to me on time, 58-59 is gonna always be 58-59 and the mind is being programmed to run 58-59. But in good swing, you’re being programmed to run good swing, and as you get stronger, you allow your body to grow.
So I’m saying that to say this: if you run [against] a clock, the clock can slow you. But if you run the swings and the speeds, you allow your body to first of all, not run so hard to where you hurt yourself, focus on the rhythm and the rhythm allows you to get better. But in the mind, you still think you’re running easy. So that’s why I was able to go out in 48, because in the mind, I was going out in 53! And I was able to come back and hold it.
When [did you start running]?
I started in 11th grade. In 11th grade, I was sitting in the stands. My brother was a triple jumper and was running track and I went to practice with him. And Coach McGee, who ended up being my coach, saw me and said, “Hey, would you like to run track?” I said sure. The only thing I can remember when I did run [before that] was running a 3k against one of the teachers at my school who challenged us and I ended up beating him. So I said, okay I’ll run the long stuff.
So I ran the 3200 and I won every 3200 but didn’t run fast. I was winning in like 10:12, 10:20, winning everything from start to finish. And then I just got tired of running eight laps and I had a buddy, Jeff West. You might remember Jeff West, he was the national high school record holder at 1:48.3 or something like that back in the ’70s. And he was running the 800 and he was really good and he was built like me. So I said, I’m going to run the 800 since it’s only two laps.
But I wasn’t good. I ran 2:17 in 11th grade. And then my coach said run cross country the next year to make me better. And I went from 2:17 to 1:51 my senior year.
Your big breakthrough was 1984, going from 1:45 down to 1:42 and the Olympic final. Was there anything special that happened that year? What allowed you to make that breakthrough?
Well my PR going into the Olympic Trials in Los Angeles was 1:45.43. And we went to the Trials and I didn’t really have a way of running yet. And as I was going through the Trials, James Robinson was in my heat. I said to myself, I’m just gonna follow James, I know he’s gonna be there at the end, so if I just follow him, I’ll let him take me to the finish line. And when I got on the backstretch, I passed him. At the 500 mark, I went. I remember going down the backstretch and I passed him. And then I started catching everybody. And then Earl Jones was leading. I went after him, and I was running him down as well. Right at the tape, we tied, 1:43.72 (Editor’s note: It was actually 1:43.74). And I thought the clock broke. And when they said that’s a legitimate time, that race gave me the confidence to know that hey, I can run this race.
1988, you had a really great year that year. A lot of wins internationally, but only fifth at the Olympics. Were you disappointed with that? What happened in Seoul?
Well my Olympic experiences were always frustrating, the reason being is because we would go through the Olympic Trials running four rounds of 800’s. And most of my competitors back then didn’t have to do that. They would peak for the Games; I had to peak for the Trials. We’re running in heat — I went through rounds of the 800 in heat that was over 99 degrees outside and running 800’s and dehydrating myself and fatiguing myself and then I’d have to come back and peak again for the Games. And I was always tired by the time I got to the Games. I did everything in my power to the best that I could do, but I was always tired by the time I got to the Games. And I’ve always felt mentally, I had a disadvantage because the runners that I really knew that I had to compete against were fresher than me.
Right now, there are three really big U.S. talents in the 800: Donavan Brazier, Clayton Murphy, Boris Berian. Which one do you think will have the most success from this point forward?
I think Donavan Brazier will. And I’m saying that because number one, he’s younger. But I also like Clayton Murphy because he has that 1500-meter strength. Now I know Donavan Brazier somewhat because he came and attempted to train with me for a couple weeks [last year]. Then Texas A&M decided to welcome him back and then he went back there. Which was a good move because I was kind of skeptical about working with him because I didn’t want that pressure of everyone [saying] Oh, he shouldn’t have left Texas A&M. I didn’t want that pressure. He established himself as a great runner with Texas A&M and I think that’s where he belongs. If they made you, don’t leave. I never could understand when an athlete [would have success] under a coach and let people talk them out of training with that coach and come with them and then they’ll never run well.
Did you get to see the 800 at the World Championships this year?
Yes. I saw it. He doesn’t have a consistent way of running. What happened with Donavan is what used to happen to me. I would be aggressive and lead, but then when I would get to the Games, like I told you, I would go through the rounds — we had four rounds to get to the final in the Games too — so by the time I would get to the final, I’m fatigued. When I’m fatigued, I don’t have that strength to get out front in the beginning because I’m trying to find that power as I build up and I get in trouble a lot. And that’s what happened with Donavan, he just didn’t get out and lead. He got in trouble, and when he got in trouble, he was no longer running what he’s comfortable doing. He was doing something totally different and the body can’t handle that. And mentally, he broke down. But he’s young. He’ll get over that.
There were a lot of people who, just looking at the field as a whole, were critical of the 800 this year. Only two guys broke 1:45 in the final. Do you agree with that?
Well when Duane Solomon (whom Gray coaches) was running (in London in) 2012, the way those 800-meter runners were running then, I’m shocked everything went backwards. And it went backwards because people were cheating. And when they start seeing athletes get caught, they get scared and they back off. And that’s why you have the inconsistency: because people are cheating. When they feel it’s free to cheat, they’ll cheat and get away with it and run fast and then all of a sudden, they’ll back off. And the cheats are glowing like a white shirt in a black light. It’s glowing. Because you can see the cheats with your eyes.
I don’t know why they can’t catch them because a lot of athletes, I can look at and tell who’s cheating. Just by the way they compete, I can tell they’re cheating.
What are the telltale signs to you?
Well, the telltale sign is they start doing things that are not human. I know 1:42 is not easy to run and I’m not gonna say that other people can’t just come out and start running 1:41’s consistently. But look at Rudisha. Rudisha is fast, but Rudisha is human. You see Rudisha get tired. You see Rudisha have a bad day. You see Rudisha lose sometimes. So I have the utmost respect for what he can accomplish.
But then you have these half-milers, and I don’t want to say names of the ones I’m thinking that are tainted until I know for sure, but they’ll talk crazy, they run crazy. The cadence don’t look right. Everything they just do stuff that doesn’t look right and you can tell. And it sounds asinine if you were to listen to me because I don’t have no proof of what I say, but my experience throughout the years and knowing what it takes to do certain things when it comes to 800 meters, I can tell the ones who have cheated.
And I guarantee you, if I was working for USADA or whoever, I can bust ’em. I can bust ’em. I can point out the ones you need to watch out for and you can follow ’em around, and I guarantee you, if you follow ’em around, they’re going to not run fast. These athletes have ways of going to the moon and hiding out and they get away with it. I don’t know how they get away with it. The athlete that used to tell me he was cheating, I sat in the drug testing with him and watched him test and he don’t get caught. But he told me he cheated! I would race him one week and he’s struggling to run a 1:53. And then two weeks later, he’s running 1:43 at the World Championships, to win it. I’m like, You were just out of shape three weeks ago and now all of a sudden you’re in shape running 1:43. If I’m running a 1:53 struggling and dying, and I’m telling you, Oh I’m just starting, I’m not in shape, no way in the world three weeks later I’m going to be running 1:43. It just don’t happen that way.
What would you say is the proudest accomplishment of your career?
The proudest accomplishment of my career was when, and I know what it is too, I gotta remember which one it was, was when I got the bronze medal in the Olympics. In ’92, I think it was. And that the proudest because the night before the final, I had a temperature of 106 and they said I need to go to the doctor, I shouldn’t run tomorrow. And I had a fever and I was panicking because I’m like, Man, the finals are tomorrow, I can’t be sick now, I know I can’t. And then my coach told me just go and run the first lap because you at least worked hard enough to get here and have a right to show your face in the finals. And just run the first lap, and whatever happens, we’re proud of you.
I ran the first lap, I was still not feeling great. I went out kind of slow — to me, 50-point something is still kind of slow. 49.9, whatever it was was slow for the Olympics for me. And I ended up getting the bronze. And I got tripped. Nobody never mentioned anything about me getting tripped with 150 to go. But Jose Barbosa tripped me. The announcers were so busy talking about everybody else, they didn’t even notice me getting tripped. And I almost fell, I took two long strides and lost my composure and that is what made me tie up. Because I wasn’t tied up at that point. I was ready to hit a gear and go for it, but then when I got tripped, I went into panicking mode and the two Kenyans, William Tanui and [Nixon] Kiprotich, they ran up on me and we battled from 120 all the way to the end of the finish line and I came up short. I got the bronze, but still that was one of my proudest moments because I had a lot of adversity facing me and I overcame it and I finally got my Olympic medal. So I was happy with the bronze.
1992 Olympic 800 final (you can see Gray get clipped from behind at the 1:53 mark)
What is the greatest regret from your career?
The greatest regret was when I ran the 1992 Olympic Trials and I looked back 10+ times the last straightaway and I held my hands up before the tape.
Why was that?
Because I felt so great, I wasn’t worried about time, I was just worried about making the team. And when I looked back and saw I knew I was gonna win, I said, I made me another team. And I was just running and happy I was winning. Had I run the race aggressively coming home, I might have run 1:42-low or 1:41-high (Editor’s note: Gray ran 1:42.80). That was the best race in my life, which should be a proud moment, but like I said the ’92 Olympics is my proudest moment. But that is my biggest regret because I did a lot of things wrong and the race went so right.
Johnny Gray demolishes the field at the 1992 Olympic Trials
Now that year in ’92, I was looking this up before the interview, you were the oldest Olympic 800 finalist in 40 years [at age 32]. And you medalled. And then since then, the only person older than you to make an Olympic final was when you did it again in ’96. How did you maintain your longevity in the 800, which is the ultimate young man’s event?
Well I tell my kids the five P’s: proper preparation prevents poor performances. And I had children that I take care of and I was taking care of them through track and field so I had to take care of myself, I had to train, I had to make sure that I did what I needed to do to keep my contracts and stay competitive in the sport so that I could make money. And it’s just by being blessed. God blessed me, man. It was something I was just blessed with, the genes to do it. And what’s crazy is when I was 40, I still had it in me, I just got tired of running (Editor’s note: Gray ran 1:49.10 and placed 3rd at USA Indoors as a 40-year-old in 2000). I could have probably run until 45 or 46 if I felt like training that hard again, I just didn’t want to work that hard anymore.
Is there anything else you wanted to mention, something that we talked about and you wanted to share or anything that I didn’t ask you that you think is important to know?
The drugs is still a problem. If you have drugs, you have people who get caught, and then we have this rule where if you get caught, you’re supposed to be kind of done, really. But now athletes are coming up with, Oh, I was in the room and I sniffed it. Somebody was spraying paint and it must have been in something I sniffed and that’s why I failed the drug test. They’re coming up with all these weak excuses.
I just know you don’t fail that easy. Because I never paid attention to anything I ate, drank, anything — and I wasn’t a liquor drinker, I’m talking about juice, whatever it is — and I never failed a test. I never failed a test. And I don’t understand how these athletes are using these weak excuses for why I failed this test. Oh, it was this in the meat that I ate. Do you know how much meat people eat and that never happens? And then all of a sudden, you had something in your meat that made you fail a test. They have to be smarter than that. If it was that easy to make an excuse, then if I had to do it all over again, I would cheat and then make an excuse if it is was easy to make an excuse.
It’s interesting you say that because Ajee Wilson has just had basically the greatest season ever by an American 800 woman — bronze medal, American record — and she had the positive test [in February]. Are you suspicious of that?
Yes! I mean, I love the girl and she’s a great talent. We know how good she was in high school. It’s the same thing I said when I told my coach I wanted to cheat. Had I cheated and got caught, then everything I’ve accomplished would have been tainted. And then not to mention, the young lady that came to run with her (Charlene Lipsey). All of a sudden, she’s great. I mean, stuff can happen, but it don’t happen like that. This one young lady that’s running with her, she was an athlete, but she wasn’t doing like she’s doing now. She’s a beast now. And you can just say, I’m gonna get my head right and train hard. That can happen. And she might be young enough to where her greatness is starting to take effect. So I don’t want to really say much about the young ladies.
But when it comes to drugs, I don’t like to say names. I just like to say all these excuses about it’s in this meat, it’s in that meat — I’m sure whatever she ate, the young lady that trains with her was probably eating the same thing. They live together and hang together and do everything. So I mean, I don’t know. It’s just ironic that whenever they get caught, they always find an excuse. And the excuse makes you laugh.
More Johnny Gray: Discussion from 2007: Why Johnny Gray was so good
*Profile in Chicago Tribune by Philip Hersh Before 1996 Olympic Final
*Plus this from the LRC archives:“Johnny Gray Bows Out on Great Career” from 2000, must be one of the first LetsRun race recaps ever.