Eight weeks ago, elite runner Gabriele Grunewald was on the phone with me describing matter-of-factly how the new medication she was trying in her latest treatment of adenoid cystic carcinoma was making her feel more fatigued than ever. One of the tumors in her liver had grown so much at the beginning of 2019 that she couldn’t run without pain. Also, her stomach couldn’t tolerate coffee, which was almost as devastating as anything else, she said with her signature laugh.
She was tired, she admitted, but hadn’t lost her sense of humor. She wasn’t giving up—not on her work with her newly formed nonprofit organization, Brave Like Gabe, not on running, not on life. She was fueled, she said earnestly, by the cancer survivors and runners she was reaching by sharing her story, the struggles and all.
“Sometimes I don’t know how much it means to people, but when I hear these messages it really encourages me to keep going, especially at a time right now when I’m not feeling particularly hopeful,” Gabe said. “It causes me to pause and try to stay open to things going a little bit better. I’m still trying to remind myself that the 2020 Olympic Trials are still pretty far away. Who knows what could happen between now and then? That’s my ultimate goal. I’d like to think there’s a chance I could get back out there.”
Gabe died on Tuesday in the Minneapolis home she shared with her husband, Justin Grunewald, from complications of the cancer she was diagnosed with 10 years ago. She was 32.
It’s difficult to reconcile how a woman who was eight weeks away from dying of a rare disease that has no cure could still openly dream about the 2020 U.S. Olympic Track & Field Trials. It’s also difficult to imagine Gabe not dreaming of the 2020 Olympic Trials. We all pulled for her to be on the starting line of the 1500 meters a year from now—the healthy, fit, competitive version of herself ready to mix it up with the nation’s best.
Her spirit and memory will no doubt be there, as it will be throughout the running community for years to come. As the tributes to this adored athlete rolled in this week, I pondered why Gabe so genuinely touched and moved all kinds of people. At the risk of sounding trite, she didn’t have the privilege of hiding her vulnerabilities. She exposed them like the scar on her abdomen from surgery to remove a tumor from her liver. In turn, she showed us that life is never going to be perfect, but you can choose to make the best of what you have in the time that you’re given.
“I’m open to miracles,” she said, during that conversation in April. “I’m open to the possibility. If I get a chance to run, I’ll 100 percent take it.”
These are a few other gems I’m stealing from Gabe:
Use your voice. We know that Gabe used her platform to draw attention to rare cancer research. It wasn’t a selfish motive—she wanted patients who come after her to benefit, even if she didn’t.
She continually implored us to be brave, too, and exemplified that long before her final recurrence of cancer. She used her voice in the sport. In 2014 when she won the 3,000 meters at the U.S. indoor track and field championships, a protest was filed against her for alleged interference during the race. Initially disqualified on the basis of what most people deemed inconclusive evidence, Grunewald did not back down. She appealed the decision and her fellow competitors protested in support of her. Eventually she was reinstated as the U.S. champion and went on to compete at the world championships.
It was an unpleasant experience that took away the joy she had hoped to feel after winning a U.S. title, Gabe said, but reflecting on it four years later, she realized it also exposed some of the inside politics that can influence the sport at the highest levels, which made it worth it to her.
“I look back and think that maybe it was for the greater good, because it shed light on some important things in our sport,” she said. “I think it raised people’s awareness of just what was going on, and maybe higher scrutiny is what the sport needs.”
Be open to change. The day after the first Brave Like Gabe 5K in St. Paul, Gabe and Justin had a condo full of leftover race shirts and giveaways, a list of follow-up tasks that had to be completed, and a car that reeked of day-old bananas. Putting on the first charity run was hectic, fun, and for Gabe, it was also eye-opening. Having spent the majority of her life only seeing running as a competitive endeavor, she enjoyed getting to know a new side of it.
“I’ve got my foot in elite running, but the rest of my body is into charity running and reaching a community that doesn’t care about my PR,” she said. “I was squarely focused on my Olympic pursuits, so it’s been an evolution and I’m entering the community with a different perspective. I am grateful for it, because I think that there are really special things about activating the community and talking to a person who’s never run before.”
Running on hope is not a cliché. It wasn’t a catchphrase or a corny mantra to Gabe, nor should it be for the rest of us. She led a life of hope because she had to—she constantly spoke of rare cancer research developments and breakthrough treatments that might extend her life, if she could survive long enough to give scientists time to develop them. Every day, week, month, and year allowed Gabe to gather optimism.
She extended that philosophy to all aspects of her life, even when she had no ability to reliably predict what might come her way.
“It’s so hard to plan anything in my current state of health and I know that it can go a number of directions,” she said in April. “All it takes is finding one treatment that works for you. Even if it’s a sliver of hope that helps be get through my day and inspires me to tie up my shoelaces one more time, that’s what I’m looking to.”
To make a donation to the Brave Like Gabe Foundation or find out more about its mission, visit the website.