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Justin Grunewald: “Gabriele always was and always will be my North Star”

In an exclusive essay, Gabriele Grunewald's husband Justin reflects on loss, struggle, and resilience on the one-year anniversary of her passing.

In life, you will inevitably endure loss. Oddly enough, I didn’t really lose anything until I was 33 years old. But at 33, I lost everything.

A year ago today, I lost my love, my best friend, my favorite conversationalist, my training partner, my travel buddy, my inspiration. You would assume I had lost a bunch of people with a list like that, but it was just one who took on all those roles for me: My wife, Gabriele Grunewald.

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A year ago today, I lost everything. The reason I wake up in the morning, the reason I go to work, the reason I lace up my shoes to run. I lost my best friend, my travel partner, the person I go to when I need to talk, the person that could look at me and know exactly what I was thinking or exactly what I needed. Over the ensuing year there have been ups and downs. Some moments that felt unsurvivable, some moments that brought a smile I never thought I’d make again. Every time I got lost in the woods, thought I might drown, picked a trail I wasn’t prepared to finish, you’d find me and show me the way. Whether it was the orange tree, the countless rainbows, the shooting star, or the deer that showed me the path. I know you’re still watching out for me. In time it’s gotten easier. The pain is still there every day but it’s a controllable and redirectable pain. Sometimes it’s paralyzing but sometimes it gives me strength. I love you G, I can’t wait for all of our encounters in the year ahead 💙. When life gets really hard, there’s always Disney World; you taught me that. #bravelikegabe #runningonhope #relentlessforwardprogress

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The biggest thing I learned in the last year is that you can lose everything in one day, but it doesn’t mean everything will be gone forever. As time passed, those empty slots have been refilled. Not in the same way, but in different ways. Gabriele always was and always will be my North Star. It’s wonderful being guided by a strong woman and I’d have it no other way.

Over this past year, there have been ups and downs. Some moments that felt unsurvivable, some moments that brought a smile I never thought I’d make again. The pain is still there every day, but it’s a controllable and redirectable pain. Sometimes it’s paralyzing but sometimes it gives me strength.

The Brave Like Gabe team and I have been incredibly grateful for all the support the foundation has received from people around the world. For many, it has become a staple of hope and bravery. For me, it’s been the best community. It’s a group of people that encourages you to keep going when you don’t think you can, it’s a group that spreads hope when the world is full of despair. It’s incredible how the messages of #bravelikegabe and #runningonhope have resonated with so many people.

Gabriele created this group a couple of years ago to show the world no matter what the circumstance, your dreams can remain larger than your fears. When others were up against the odds she’d message them and encourage them to press on. When she wasn’t well, she received thousands of messages of encouragement. It’s been the same for me—in hard times, this community has kept me going.

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For me, this will always be my favorite moment in sports history. . After her first battle with cancer, @gigrunewald wanted 2 things: A Big Ten Title and All-American honors. . I drove to Bloomington, Indiana to watch the Big Ten Championships with Gabriele’s parents and my buddy @dilloncj1. . The prelims went smoothly and it was onto the finals. In my nervous ways I paced the backstretch as the gun went off. . It was the perfect race, sitting smoothly in the front of the pack until the bell when Angela Pflugrath (née Bizzarri) and Gabriele pulled away. . On the home stretch as they sprinted the final 100 meters stride for stride, I was sprinting the backstretch trying to get a glimpse of the outcome (probably the fastest 100m I’ve ever run). . To this day, I still think Gabriele got her. Per the photo, Angela had edged her by thousandths of a second. . I’ll always consider this to be the start of @bravelikegabe. A young girl who wouldn’t take no for an answer. She lived this way the rest of her life (I still think she’s living this way in a better place). . Despite the odds being against her from the start, she gave her all every day and never stopped showing up. She never gave up. . A couple weeks later, instead of becoming All-American, she got 2nd place in the NCAA 1500m final and signed a pro contract with @brooksrunning. She would have never dreamt of running professionally pre-cancer diagnosis. The adversity made her better. . I miss her 💙 #bravelikegabe #runningonhope #dontgiveup #keepshowingup

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Whether people are struggling with motivation to run or running out of hope due to any number of life circumstances, I feel they will always be able to turn to a quote from Gabriele and find inspiration to make the most of their situation. Life threw many obstacles in her way repeatedly but she still lived it to the fullest and never, ever gave up. She gave her all every day and never stopped showing up. Gabriele would have never dreamed of running professionally pre-cancer diagnosis. The adversity made her better. I try to remember that lesson now. 

No matter how hopeless that day feels. No matter how long you want to lay in the road and cry assuming a car will come eventually, if you get yourself up, there will be better days to come. They might not be the same as the days you previously had. You might (and likely will) miss that person forever, but that person will still find you. They will help you when you need them. Lift you up when you fall down. You just have to keep moving forward and keep finding beauty in your surroundings. There will always be another sunset, another shooting star, or another rainbow. You just have to keep looking out for them.

And whenever it gets tough, because of course it does, I just remember what she always told me: “It’s okay to struggle, it’s not okay to give up.”

Editor’s Note: To make a donation to the Brave Like Gabe Foundation or find out more about its mission, visit the website.