Running Through Life’s Obstacles
When Gabe Grunewald announced that she had penciled in two races for late summer, those familiar with her story grew excited by the thought of her return. The national champion has for years been proving her aptitude on the track at distances ranging from 800 meters to 5,000m and was a regular at the USATF indoor and outdoor championships and U.S. Olympic Trials until 2016, when her most recent bout of adenoid cystic carcinoma came in full force. Grunewald, who was on the cover of our 2017 October “Game Changers” issue, has often cited running as imperative to her physical and mental well-being. “Lacing up those shoes — always! It seems so small, maybe even insignificant, but this simple act has consistently been my saving grace as a cancer patient and survivor,” Grunewald wrote in an Instagram post last week. Just two weeks prior, Grunewald’s anticipated return to the track for those two races was cancelled, due to an Achilles injury that cropped up during pre-race workouts. Though disappointed by the change in plans, Grunewald remains positive and upbeat, determined to keep her training on track and potentially shoehorn at least one race into the remainder of the 2018 season.
Grunewald called in to touch base with Women’s Running shortly after landing in New York City last Friday. In town to speak on the New York Road Runners Runner Con “The Benefits of Running Through Cancer” panel alongside Jessica Scott, Ph.D., an assistant member in Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center’s Exercise Oncology Research Laboratory, Grunewald was also looking forward to cheering on her friends and sister at the New Balance 5th Avenue Mile the following day, an event she’s eager to race in years to come.
How are you feeling these days?
I am doing well. It’s been a good summer. I definitely have been happy to get a little more running in this summer than I did earlier this year. My plans to start racing again were foiled by a small injury that ended up being more serious than I thought it was. I’m recalibrating with training right now.
I had tweaks in my Achilles in August. It’s definitely healing, and I’ve started running easy again now, pain-free. [The injury] happened during one of my key workouts. I was so eager to get back to racing. My coach and I were trying to find a way to train on it, do some cross-training and see if I could get through a couple of races, but that didn’t end up working out. I couldn’t run with a low enough amount of pain to have a good race. It’s not a rupture or a tear or anything, but I definitely damaged some tissue. I’ve taken some time off from running, and I’ve begun to get back into running 3 to 4 miles.
What are your current plans to return to racing?
I really want to get back out there. Sometimes that desire has been tough; it’s been tough to get consistent training in. I had my last treatment at the end of July, and I was forced to take off five to seven days of training around that. It doesn’t ft into my plan on how to ramp back into training in a smart way, where I’m not going to get injured easily. The good thing [about this injury] is that it’s something I’m already able to run on.
I’m still holding out hope that I’ll be able to get a race in before the end of the calendar year. I’m pumping the brakes on putting firm races on my schedule. It takes three months of consistent training to get to the point where I can race. This winter and summer, I was trying to condense those three-month windows, and it hasn’t been going great for me. If I can come off of this smoothly, it’s not out of the question to hope to race in the USATF 5K Championship in early November. I would be open to doing a 5K, like a turkey trot; one of the more competitive Thanksgiving races that the pros do. Once we get into December, I’m hoping there will be some more exotic race locations I’d be interested in.
Earlier this year, you trained Fixer Upper’s Chip Gaines to the finish in the Silo District Marathon, his first marathon and an event that he launched to raise money for cancer research. What was that training process like from your perspective? Is coaching something you’re interested in doing more of in the future?
It was totally a fun experience, something that was unexpected and random. I never expected to coach someone who had never run a marathon or a race before. It was super fun to see running through the eyes of someone who was so new to it.
It’s been a long time since I was in that situation, and a lot of the people I’m around on a daily basis have been runners for decades. It was fun to experience the anxiety and excitement that goes along with first discovering running. Chip went all in with his goal of 26.2, going big from the start. My main concern as his coach was to give him confidence to complete the distance without getting overwhelmed or injured in the process. We had a short timeline; he is an athlete and a natural runner who improved a lot from the beginning, but a 5-mile run felt long for him at first.
I love sharing my joy of running with other people, particularly with racing. Even though I’ve been trying to compete with the best people in the world, it’s fun that someone just starting out can have the same experiences at the starting line as me. I’m open to coaching, and I’ve gotten opportunities to do that.
Regarding your Runner Con panel discussion, how has running helped you physically and mentally over the years as you’ve undergone cancer treatment?
It’s the first time [NYRR has] had this Runner Con event, and I feel like NYRR have been really cool in trying to find a way for me to share my story with running and cancer. Even if I can’t race, to be part of these events is cool. I’ve raced [in New York City] as a pro runner, but I’m also a patient here and have relationships with Cycle for Survival and other cancer research organizations. Any time I can engage with that community is awesome.
Getting back to the track when I was first diagnosed [in 2009] was my biggest goal. I always have the expectation that I’ll return to running, and that helps me so much to envision what it’ll take to get there and taking the steps each day to get there. I feel thankful to have been a runner through this. The physical benefits are real. It has improved my performance. The healthier I can be overall outside of my cancer, the quicker I can overcome the procedures—as an athlete and as a patient.
On a day-to-day basis, it helps me the most mentally. I get a big boost from the endorphins that I feel on a run, even if it’s not a perfect run. There’s hope that I feel when I’m out on a run. It helps me feel like myself.