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A few days ago, Justin Grunewald posted a photo of his late wife’s grave. Flowers resting at the headstone under a bright Midwestern late-spring sky.
“Probably the most peaceful place in Minneapolis right now,” Justin wrote.
As the protests against police brutality—the fight for racial justice—forge on throughout the city and the country amid a pandemic, it’s difficult to fathom just how much the world has changed since Gabriele Grunewald died on June 11, 2019, in the home she shared with Justin, steps from the the path where they ran thousands of miles together along the Mississippi River.
Grunewald had lived with adenoid cystic carcinoma (ACC) for 10 years, a rare cancer for which there is no cure. She was a track star with a 4:01.48 lifetime best for 1500 meters, an indoor national champion in the 3,000 meters, who died at age 32. But beyond her professional accolades, she was a beloved member of the running community, inspiring bravery and hope through her story on the track and off it.
As the one-year anniversary of Grunewald’s death inched closer, I decided to listen to a recording of the last conversation I had with her. It was about eight weeks before she died and I wondered what I had missed in that interview. I always joked that I could hear her smile through the phone—something about the way she spoke even when you couldn’t see her, combined with the easy laugh she almost always inserted into every conversation. It usually led me to think she was feeling more upbeat than perhaps she was.
Grunewald could make anyone believe that the best outcome was always possible. She didn’t put too much stock in the odds. And listening now, that’s what she was trying to do that day we talked in April 2019. Now I realize she was dropping hints that I refused to hear at the time—they are glaringly obvious in retrospect. The side effects of the new drug she was trying were making her feel sick and weak. The woman who so rarely stopped training even in the thick of treatments said the tumor in her liver had grown so large, it hurt to run. She was still trying to break a sweat every day, riding a bike next to Justin while he ran or taking walks with her mom.
“I tend to feel better if I get some fresh air,” she said, welcoming the end of the brutal Minnesota winter. “It’s interesting because I’m not used to walking. It’s a different feeling, slowing down.”
She told me she was conserving energy to plan the next Brave Like Gabe 5K, a race that raises funds for the Brave Like Gabe foundation she started with the help of her friends, to raise money and awareness for rare cancer research, as well as empower cancer survivors through physical activity. The nonprofit became her labor of love, the thing that inspired her to persevere—and she was a gifted fundraiser, already focused on the most effective ways to disburse the donations pouring into the organization.
“We’re just trying to be good and prudent stewards of the funding and give hope to patients who have found me on social media,” Grunewald said. “Sometimes it takes me a really long time to get through all the messages, but I read them all. Hearing what people have gone through is really overwhelming, but it helps me try to keep going even when I don’t feel great. My work now is Brave Like Gabe and it means a lot to hear these messages.”
But as it always did, the conversation quickly switched back to her first love, running. She started doing quick calculations about how she still might qualify for the 2020 Olympic Trials. Grunewald concluded that it was still possible. If the new treatment stabilized her cancer and she could take a break from it, why shouldn’t she take another crack at Team USA?
“I’m trying to stay open to that. I know I can inspire people in other ways, not just through running, but I do miss running,” she said. “Even if it’s just a sliver of hope that helps me get through my day and inspires me to tie up my shoelaces one more time, that’s what I’m looking to. I can’t throw in the towel now—it’s too far away.
“Who knows what could happen between now and then?” Grunewald said, punctuating her dreams with that laugh.
It’s then that I want to tell her that the COVID-19 pandemic will stop everybody cold, with no track season in sight. That the 2020 Olympic Trials will be postponed. That even the Olympics will be pushed off for a year. That her city will spark a worldwide movement for racial equality and police reform. That her message of bravery will be more critical than ever in 2020, in ways she could never imagine.
I want to tell her how Justin and her sister, Abigail Anderson, and her best friend Ladia Albertson-Junkans will show us all how to keep “running on hope,” even in times of unthinkable grief and fear. That they’ll allow us all into their pain and show us how to turn it into strength. How they’ll run in her honor all around the world, conquering Fastest Known Time goals on far-flung trails, finishing 100 miles from Squaw to Auburn, California, clocking a huge personal best on the streets of New York. That they’ll uplift her life and legacy in ways she’d be so proud.
It’s then that I also want to tell her that the world will also feel dark and broken in a year. That what she envisions won’t match the reality. But I realize that if we had the chance to warn her, she’d probably implore us to focus on what’s still possible, instead. Maybe she’d welcome an additional year to train and sharpen her fitness. Maybe she’d point out that we face opportunities to make real, meaningful changes that have been a long time coming. Maybe she’d use her platform to help her sister’s efforts to support Minneapolis’s most vulnerable people during a time of unrest and uncertainty.
And most likely she’d remind us all of her mantra: “It’s okay to struggle, but it’s not okay to give up.”
Everything has changed in the year since we lost Gabriele Grunewald. But going back to that last conversation, what strikes me is that she’d try to find the purpose and meaning in all of it. That’s what she was doing eight weeks before her death—still finding hope in her circumstances.
“I’m open to miracles,” she said, “I’m open to possibility.”
In running and beyond, she always gave us words to live by.
To make a donation to the Brave Like Gabe Foundation or find out more about its mission, visit the website.