You never know where Grayson Murphy is going to turn up. Here she is in the mountain running world championships in Argentina. There she is in the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials in Oregon. Here she is in the USATF 1 Mile Road Championships in Iowa. There she is in a half-marathon in Mississippi. From the trails to the roads to the track, Murphy takes on the sport of running in all its forms. Later this week, she will return to her hometown to race in the annual Deseret News 10,000-meter road race for the third time — a race in which she finished first in 2019 and second in 2018.
The 26-year-old Murphy, who didn’t even take up running until she was 20, might be the most wide-ranging runner in the world. “… She wanted to forge her own path and race on her terms,” says Kyle Kepler, who coached her at the University of Utah and again this spring. “… Like her entire story, it’s not a normal setup.”
After completing her collegiate eligibility in 2018, she turned to professional track and field, but a year later she was burned out and turned to the mountain-running circuit, virtually disappearing from the track scene. This spring she returned to the track in a big way.
“I had been away from track long enough and I wasn’t so burned out,” she says. She decided to take a crack at the U.S. Olympic Trials, specifically the 3,000-meter steeplechase, her best event as an athlete at Utah. She went in search of a qualifying time of 9:55 and crushed it. She clocked 9:37.25 in the Drake Relays in Iowa — an 11-second improvement over her best collegiate time — then 9:33.79 at the USATF Golden Games in California. At the Olympic trials she stunned everyone by winning her semifinal heat with a time of 9:25.33 — a whopping 23 seconds under her collegiate best. In the final she placed sixth in 9:25.55, missing a spot on the Olympic team by three places.
Her improvement has been remarkable, but then she reminds us that she didn’t begin running competitively until 2014. “I just got stronger, older and fitter,” she says. “It was a natural progression, more lifetime miles.”
Murphy grew up in Utah and attended West High — and never ran a race. She played for the school’s soccer team and resisted the efforts of coaches who urged her to run cross-country and track. “People would say I should try running,” she says, “but I thought, why would I do that? It never seemed like that much fun compared to soccer.”
She enrolled at Sweet Briar College in Virginia to study engineering and played for the school’s Division III soccer team. A year later she left the school and was done with soccer. “I just didn’t like the team and didn’t want to play soccer anymore,” she says. “It wasn’t what I thought college soccer would be like. It wasn’t fun.” She transferred to Santa Clara University, which awarded her an engineering scholarship. Before arriving there, she emailed the track and cross-country coaches, asking for a tryout.
“I had grown up playing sports my whole life,” she says. “I didn’t know how to make friends outside the sports environment. I wanted that team culture.”
Murphy joined the cross-country and track teams, but knew nothing about competitive running. She had never even seen a cross-country race. She was riding the team bus to the season’s first competition when she asked the coach, “So, how do we start? Are we in lanes? Are there heats?”
When she asked for tips about pace, she was told simply to stay with her teammates. She did that, but near the end of the race, she turned to a teammate and asked, “Can I run faster?’” The teammate said, “Yes, go.” She was the first finisher for her team in that race and the remainder of the season. By the end of her second season, she had qualified for the NCAA regional championships and finished 19th in the steeplechase and 34th in the 5,000-meter run.
“It was fun,” says Murphy, a fine-boned 5-foot-3 petite woman. “It was a challenge and I was improving. My coaches and teammates were great. They answered all my questions about this new sport.”
She planned to remain at Santa Clara one more year to finish her undergrad degree in engineering and then pursue a master’s degree at another university. With Santa Clara’s blessing, she contacted coaches at other universities; they told her they would give her a scholarship that not only would cover grad school but also the balance of her undergrad degree if she transferred immediately.
She enrolled at Utah and set school records in the steeplechase, and the 5,000- and 10,000-meter runs. After just four years in the sport she was a five-time All-American. Her improvement came in chunks. She was 53rd in the 2016 NCAA cross-country championships and eighth a year later. She finished third in the 3,000-meter run at the 2018 NCAA indoor championships and sixth in the steeplechase at the outdoor championships.
She moved to Arizona and joined the Northern Arizona Elite running club as a professional. A year later she was back in Salt Lake City. “I was kind of burnt out,” she says. “I wanted to try something different.”
She joined the trail and mountain running circuits. Any race that is held on an unpaved road is considered a trail run. Mountain running consists of trails, but most of them are rough and technical, taking runners through loose rocks, mud, rivers and other challenges. Murphy found instant success. After winning the U.S. championship, she won the world championship in Argentina. Meanwhile, she also mixed in a road-racing career, along with track this year.
“I like pushing myself and seeing what I can do in a lot of different ways,” she told the Runspirited website. “I don’t like feeling like I’m stuck in a box or only a track runner, or only a mountain runner. I like to see what translates and what doesn’t and just experiment. The races are all pretty fun. They have their own unique parts about them so it’s kind of FOMO — Fear Of Missing Out. I don’t want to miss out on a really cool race so that’s why I’ve been trying to do a lot of different things.”