Benefield: Maria Carrillo grad Alia Gray will bid for spot on Olympics team

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.

It’s working. She’s getting faster.

It was a 30-second PR that rocketed her to 12th place in the trials standings for Saturday’s 10,000-meter final.

“All of those women on the list, I recognize,” she said. “I’m confident that it’s an incredible field and I’m really honored to be part of that field. They are women I have seen before; it’s not as intimidating as it once might have been.”

One racer Gray has definitely seen before is fellow Santa Rosan Kim Conley.

Gray sits at 12th with a qualifying time of 31 minutes, 59 seconds. One slot ahead of her at 11th? Conley, a Montgomery High School grad in 2004, is a strong contender to make her second Olympic team. Her qualifying time is 31:58, but her personal record is 10 seconds faster than that.

How rare, how remarkable is it for two women who graduated three years and four miles apart to be toeing the line together for two of three spots on the U.S. team?

“It’s pretty amazing when you back up and look at the whole map of the United States,” Fogg said. “It’s very amazing. Two from the same town?”

And like Conley, Gray is a relatively late bloomer - a runner whose name appears among the All-Empire prep bests, but never at No. 1.

“Until Kim and Alia, I don’t think anybody has been able to continue that trajectory for almost a decade, with constant improvement,” Fogg said.

“I think Alia has a long career ahead of her,” he said.

Although primed for a good showing Saturday, Gray has her sights set on the marathon at the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo.

Her top-10 finish in this year’s marathon trials showed her a glimmer of what she can do at the longer distance.

“I would say that was a breakthrough day for me,” she said. “It was a really hot day. I don’t think I was expected to be in the mix.”

Her time of 2:39:43 is best among Empire women. Her half-marathon personal record of 1 hour, 13 minutes, 34 seconds is second only to Sara Hall (nee Bei).

“To me, not that it wasn’t validated before, but I feel like I’m still decently young in the sport,” Gray said of the marathon.

L.A. was only her third go at that distance.

“I feel like ultimately that will be my best event,” she said. “I’ve just always known that my longer distance events, I tend to be more relevant in that.”

But Gray is clearly relevant now.

And that reality is settling in with her.

“For a long time, I identified as a middle-of-the-pack runner, where I was chasing time and trying to get faster,” she said. “Now, this last year in particular, I’m exploring this new territory where my times on paper are fast enough, it’s changing my mentality.”

No more “Alia who?”

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 526-8671 or, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield. Podcasting on iTunes “Overtime with Kerry Benefield.”

Kerry Benefield

Columnist, The Press Democrat

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