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Subject: Gabriele "Gabe" Grunewald, runner

She was 32
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Date Posted: Wednesday, June 12, 04:34:53am

Gabriele Grunewald, who was once one of the country’s best middle-distance runners and inspired legions of fans with her courageous, public fight against a rare form of cancer, died on June 11 in Minneapolis. She was 32. The news was shared by her husband, Justin Grunewald, in a post to Instagram.

She raced and ran as long as she could, including making an emotional tour of the pro track circuit in 2017 that left people in awe of her strength, even as she trailed far behind the other elites in those events. She helped found two new races to raise funds and public awareness for research into rare cancers, granted numerous media interviews, and communicated with her more than 72,000 followers on Instagram, providing frequent updates on her condition, almost always with hopeful messages.

Grunewald (née Anderson) was first diagnosed with adenoid cystic carcinoma, a cancer that’s usually found in the salivary glands, in the spring of 2009, when she was a fifth-year senior at the University of Minnesota. She endured surgery and radiation that summer, and applied for an additional year of eligibility from the NCAA, which was granted.

The next year, she made huge improvements, finishing second at the NCAA outdoor track & field championships and in total cutting 10 seconds off her personal best in the 1500 meters, running 4:12.06 at a meet in Belgium that summer.

After college, Grunewald signed an endorsement deal with Brooks and continued training as a professional. In October 2010, she faced cancer for a second time, in her thyroid. Following surgery to remove the thyroid and additional therapy, she returned again to the track.

From 2012 to 2015, she ran a series of personal bests in events ranging from 800 to 5,000 meters. She recorded a 4:01.48 in the 1500 in 2013 in Monaco. She currently ranks 12th all-time among American women in the event.

At the U.S. Olympic Trials in 2012, she finished fourth in the 1500, just missing a spot on Team USA heading to London. It was the closest she came to making the Games. She did win the 2014 national indoor title in the 3,000 meters and represented the U.S. at the 2014 world indoor championships in the event. She made the final and finished ninth.

She again appeared at the U.S. Olympic Trials in 2016, in Eugene, Oregon, where she spoke to Runner’s World about how she frequently fielded emails from young people in their 20s, who were coping with a life altering diagnosis. “I hope they can be positive looking at my story and seeing that there’s still a lot of life to be lived,” she said.

She didn’t know it at the time, but her cancer had already returned in her liver. Grunewald was qualified for the 1500 and the 5,000 meters at the Trials. In the opening round of the 5,000, she said she felt flat and failed to advance to the final. But she got some snacks with Justin, and a few hours later she raced the 1500, making it onto the semifinal and then later advancing to the final. In that race, she was far behind the pack, finishing last in 4:18.73.

A few weeks later, while the track world’s attention was focused on the Olympic Games in Rio, Grunewald announced her somber news on her Instagram page.

In a post dated August 16, 2016, she wrote that she had a large tumor, a “metastatic recurrence of adenoid cystic carcinoma that I was first diagnosed with and recovered from in 2009. When you’re a cancer survivor, denial is not a river in Africa. It is a place you must live in order to keep going with your life: positively, optimistically believing that it will never come back and that you’ll live a healthy, long, uninterrupted life.”

She had surgery soon thereafter, which removed more than half her liver and left her with a long, curving purple scar that bisected her midriff. As soon as she was able to that fall, she resumed running and trained through the Minneapolis winter with an eye toward the summer track season.

In March 2017, however, she learned that several small tumors had grown in her liver. That did nothing to deter her from racing, and in the spring of 2017, she crisscrossed the country, racing at top meets from Palo Alto, California, to Nashville, Tennessee, back to Eugene, Oregon, and then to Boston. Justin, a physician, traveled with her to make sure it was safe for her to race.

Each time, she wore a yellow Brooks top and blue racing bottoms, her long scar visible as she made her way around the track. As the effects of the chemotherapy accumulated, she finished farther behind in each race. But the fans kept turning out to see her, drawing inspiration and hope from her efforts.

“I do feel like my story has reached a different demographic than elite runners,” she said in an interview with Runner’s World that summer. “It’s cool, overwhelming at times. It puts a little bit of pressure on me; I need to show people this is possible. But to be able to be an inspiration for people is awesome.”

At the 2017 U.S. outdoor nationals in Sacramento, Grunewald competed for a final time, finishing last in her preliminary heat in 4:31.18.

That fall, as she traveled between Minneapolis and New York, where she sought treatment from a team of experts, she had a chance meeting in Central Park with Chip Gaines, the star of the HGTV show Fixer Upper. He took an interest in her story and began running under her guidance. In May 2018, he hosted the Silo District Marathon in Waco, Texas, with proceeds benefiting the Brave Like Gabe Foundation, Grunewald’s nonprofit organization, founded in 2018 and dedicated to supporting rare cancer research and empowering cancer survivors through physical activity.

The first Silo District Marathon drew 18,000 runners for a marathon, half marathon, and 5K, raising $250,000. Grunewald won the 5K in 19:46. (Gaines finished the marathon in 5:21:24, wearing long pants and his toolbelt. The 2019 race raised $300,000.) Two weeks after the first Silo District event, Grunewald hosted her own race, the Brave Like Gabe 5K, in Minneapolis, which drew about 1,500 finishers and virtual runners and raised an additional $60,000.

Throughout the months, she kept fans updated on her progress. She posted pictures to Instagram showing her receiving intravenous immunotherapy, and she wrote about the results of scans, whether the news was good, bad, or mixed. She went to weddings with Justin, took vacations, ran in beautiful places, she shared wry wisdom and humorous tidbits with her followers, offering in short paragraphs a road map for dealing with the uncertainty and sadness of cancer.

On September 27, 2018, she wrote, “I can’t claim flight, healing powers, super strength, or invisibility, though I kind of wish I could! The one super power that I can claim is simply #resilience: adapting through challenges in life, bouncing back from adversity. Developing resiliency over the years has been a bit more of a survival instinct than a choice for me, but has been critical for me moving forward in my life with cancer.”

As 2019 began, the posts became less frequent. She mentioned an emergency room visit. On April 10, she marked her 10th anniversary of life with cancer and wrote an update on her latest treatment, thanking everyone for supporting her. In an interview with Runner’s World on April 22, she expressed hope she could still return to the track and qualify for the Olympic Trials in 2020.

She jogged the second annual Silo District Marathon 5K in April, but she was hospitalized with an infection the night before her Brave Like Gabe 5K and unable to attend. That was her last post to Instagram.

On June 2, Justin posted to Instagram on his own page that his wife had nearly died in the intensive care unit of Abbott Northwestern Hospital, and he had made the decision to move her to comfort care. She then staged a miraculous recovery and was eating a Shake Shack burger.

On June 7, he posted she had returned to the ICU due to septic shock, but three days later, she had received the first dose of a different drug for ACC and they were “accepting all prayers that [the drug] is another miracle for us.” On June 9, he wrote that again she had been moved to comfort care. Tributes from runners around the globe began pouring in, citing Grunewald’s strength and courage, and elite athletes recounted the funny moments they shared with her on the track circuit.

Grunewald leaves behind her husband, her parents, four siblings, and thousands of supporters in the running community.


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