Running will always be where Ladia Albertson-Junkans feels closest to her best friend and former University of Minnesota teammate, Gabriele Grunewald, one of the country’s most promising middle-distance stars who died on June 11, ten years after she was first diagnosed with a rare cancer called adenoid cystic carcinoma.
“Running is really where our friendship started and how it blossomed—it’s where we learned to lean on each other and empower each other,” Albertson-Junkans said, during a phone interview with Women’s Running on Monday. “Running with Gabe will always be one of my most favorite things to do.”
Tuesday was Grunewald’s birthday—she would have turned 33—and the state of Minnesota celebrated the official designation of “Gabe Grunewald Day,” with remarks by Governor Tim Walz and Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey, as well as a 1.405-mile run at B.F. Nelson Park (1405 was Grunewald’s favorite number).
On Saturday, Albertson-Junkans, who lives in Snoqualmie, Washington, will line up at the Western States Endurance Run to cover 100 miles from Squaw Valley to Auburn, California. She’s asking runners everywhere to join her by logging a few miles virtually in honor of Grunewald—and if anybody feels inclined, to also make a donation to the Brave Like Gabe Foundation, which Grunewald started in 2017 to raise money and awareness for rare cancer research and patients.
“In the past weeks and months, my running has been more about just spending time in nature and being with my own thoughts and also just holding Gabe in my heart,” Albertson-Junkans said. “I guess I’ve been using running as prayer, more so than training. I’m still really happy with the amount of miles I’ve gotten in, all things considered—it was a lot slower and lower intensity than it would have been had training been a priority.”
Some of those miles were simply laps around Abbott Northwestern Hospital, in Minneapolis, where Grunewald was treated before her family took her home on June 9 to the condo where she lived with her husband, Justin.
“In the morning, I would just run continuous laps around the hospital. I don’t really know why. It felt like I was giving her strength in the only way I know how,” Albertson-Junkans said. “I was surrounding her family with love and support in the only way I knew how to do, because really in those moments, everybody is helpless—there’s nothing tangible we can do other than be present.”
It will be Albertson-Junkans’s first attempt at the 100-mile distance. She has a strong crew of friends from Minneapolis and the Pacific Northwest to help out and her husband, Adam, will run the final 20 miles with her. She talked with Grunewald about the race over the past few months.
“We were both very excited about her and [Grunewald’s husband] Justin coming out to watch, but I think we both started realizing that wasn’t going to be possible around February,” Albertson-Junkans said. “Things were just getting really, really tough. But she’s always been with me in spirit. Every time cancer interrupted her life and her training, she was still so supportive of the entire running community—and especially her fellow pro runners.”
The duo actually met in high school at a track meet. Albertson-Junkans had forgotten her spikes and was frantically asking around to see if anybody would lend her a pair. Grunewald was the only one who offered.
“Then we became teammates the next fall on the Minnesota cross-country team—right from the beginning on the first day of training camp we ran to the front of the pack, probably stepping on the seniors’ toes, but we loved running so much,” Albertson-Junkans said. “Finally, a girlfriend who loved it as much as I did and was as dedicated to being the best at it as I was.”
Grunewald didn’t let her friend quit after college either, at a time when Albertson-Junkans was burned out and uninspired. It was Grunewald who continued to see the potential and encouraged her to continue running in whatever form was fulfilling.
When Albertson-Junkans moved to Washington, she discovered a love of the trails, the community who ran on them, and an attraction to ultra distances. And she knows that on Saturday, when she’s wearing her white “Brave Like Gabe” singlet and “Running on Hope” hat, her best friend will be with her in the mountains, canyons, and toughest moments along the way.
“She wanted everybody to know that you are enough as you are,” Albertson-Junkans said. “You don’t have to emulate anybody—find your own way of being brave and spreading that hope and positivity into the world. When you hit a hard moment in a run or a race or in the middle of your work day, remember that Gabe found a way to move forward and extend her hope and gifts to others.”