Taylor Gray is enjoying herself in cross country, but her favorite races go quite a bit faster.
Gray emerged as the Mercer County girls’ top runner in only her second season on the team, and she’s looking forward to climbing even higher in a sport that is still relatively new to her. However, the freshman already has a handful of championships in dirt bike racing, a sport she found as a fourth-grader and one that she hopes will be part of her life well into adulthood.
“I think it’s one of the best sports ever,” Gray said. “I love it because it’s real competitive and everybody’s real fun and real loving in the sport. I’ve made a lot of friends there.”
Gray is starting to feel the same way about cross country, especially now that more success is starting to come her way. She ran the best 5-kilometer time of her career (21 minutes, 50 seconds) in a Sept. 24 invitational at Berea where she finished 10th.
She followed that up three days later with her best time (22:34) at Anderson-Dean Community Park — Mercer’s home course — and an 11th-place finish in the Central Kentucky Conference Championships. She has finished third in an all-comers meet on the same course a week earlier, but her time in the CKC was a full 30 seconds faster.
“It’s been a lot better than last year. Last year was my first year, but I’m looking to get even better this year,” Gray said.
She said she thinks she is faster in part because she is taller — she has grown 2 to 3 inches to 5-4 1/2 since last year — and stronger than when she came out for the team after hearing about it from older sister Tori, a junior who has been on the Mercer track and field and cross country teams but is not running this fall.
“My sister did it, and she said it was a lot of fun. I hadn’t really done much running — I did it once in sixth grade in track and it was OK — and I didn’t have much to do in the fall besides dirt bikes, so I thought why not give it a shot,” Taylor Gray aid.
Gray was Mercer’s top runner in the postseason last year, finishing 19th in the Titans’ Class AA regional at Wayne County and 65th in the AA girls race at the state meet. Her state meet time was 22:23, and she surpassed that with a performance at Berea that she said has encouraged her.
“It definitely motivates me a lot more,” she said. “I’m already where I was last year. That makes me feel like I could get a lot better, so I’m ready.”
Gray gave up track and field but has still stayed busy in the past two spring seasons as a member of the Mercer tennis team.
“I think I would’ve enjoyed track, too, but I like tennis a little better than track,” she said. “I’m not the best tennis player, but it’s fun.”
Her favorite sport by far, however, is dirt bike racing, a passion that she can trace back to her preschool years.
“When I was 4 or 5 I used to ride four-wheelers and I loved that, and I started getting on two wheels too much so my dad got me a dirt bike. And I said I wasn’t ever going to race dirt bikes, but I ended up doing it,” Gray said.
She said she has been riding dirt bikes for about eight years and racing for six years, competing in a circuit of tracks within an hour or two of her Harrodsburg home, including a local course on Alford Road in Mercer County.
Gray won her super mini class in each of her first five years in the sport, though she said this season has been less successful. But that hasn’t dimmed her enthusiasm for racing.
“I love the people, and I just love dirt bikes. It’s fun to ride, and I love the competitiveness,” she said.
And of course, she loves the speed.
It’s definitely great when you get on a big, long straight stretch and you can just let it rip
The courses she rides go up and down wooded hills and through mud and rough terrain, but every so often there’s the chance to open up the throttle.
“It’s definitely great when you get on a big, long straight stretch and you can just let it rip,” she said.
And now that she is increasing her running speed, she is starting to develop a greater appreciation for that type of racing as well.
“It’s very rewarding,” she said. “When I’m running it can get kind of stressful at times, but after I’m done I feel good about myself.”