When you get to the elite level of any sport, the same names start to stand out. Spectators and fans become increasingly familiar with what those athletes can do.
But even the most ardent running fans may still be unsure — or perhaps even unaware — of what Alia Gray can do.
Gray, 27, qualified to compete in both the 5,000 meters and the 10,000-meter races at the Olympic Trials at the University of Oregon starting Saturday. She also finished 10th at the marathon trial in Los Angeles in February — off the target of top three, but well within the range of the nation’s best.
Opting to forgo the 5,000-meter race, she’s ranked 12th going into the longer course, ready to see what she can do on what is most likely the biggest stage of her career thus far.
The road she ran to get there makes her lofty position all the more remarkable.
Gray, a 2007 Maria Carrillo grad who went on to run at Chico State, wasn’t a national or even state champ in high school. She finished fifth in the North Bay League cross country finals her senior year. She was never the fastest one on her team and didn’t even compete all four years in high school.
“Everyone is like ‘Alia who?’ ” said Greg Fogg, Maria Carrillo’s track and cross country coach who was assistant coach when Gray ran for the Pumas.
Among the names most associated with phenom success from these parts — Julia Stamps, Sara Bei, Amber Trotter — Gray is not among them.
That seems to be just fine with Gray. She describes herself as “green” coming out of high school.
Fogg called her feisty. He also said she’s got the ingredients that make a good runner great: drive and commitment.
“(She’s getting) faster and faster and she keeps grabbing chunks,” Fogg said. “Most people have a couple of good years and then they settle. Alia hasn’t settled. My takeaway based on the way I know her is that she is just very committed.”
Gray has had a unique journey with running. Her participation in high school was limited. She didn’t run her freshman year and later sustained a torn-up knee from soccer. She missed her junior track season with an injury, so when it came time to sell herself to college coaches, she admitted, “Not many college coaches had much to go off of.”
So she sold her work ethic.
“You just kind of talk about your experience with running, even if you haven’t been in the sport very long,” she said. “To me, it was more that ‘I just started and I can’t tell you what I can do but I don’t feel done and I think I can get better.’ ”
At Chico, she led the Wildcats to four consecutive California Collegiate Athletic Association cross country titles and was named CCAA Runner of the Year as a senior after crushing the nearest competitor in the championship that was at Spring Lake. She was conference champ in the 5,000 meters and was an All-American in both cross country and track.
Since graduation, Gray has worked as a freelance copy writer and tried to make a go as an elite runner, joining up with Roots Running Project in Boulder, Colo.