During the final run that Abigail Anderson shared with her sister, U.S. track standout Gabe Grunewald, they circled the reservoir in Central Park. It was a route they took often when the Minneapolis-based siblings found themselves in New York for treatments and fundraising events related to Grunewald’s rare cancer diagnosis.
That last run was in March, three months before Grunewald died at age 32 from complications of adenoid cystic carcinoma (ACC), an incurable cancer with which she was diagnosed in 2009. Now Anderson, 28, is returning to the city, this time to run 26.2 miles on Sunday in Grunewald’s honor.
“Some of my favorite memories with Gabe are in New York,” Anderson said, during a phone interview with Women’s Running on Friday. “We’d run in Central Park together, go shopping in SoHo, go to Other Half brewery in Brooklyn. To be back in the place where we had so much fun and bonding and running, it just seemed like the perfect place to be my next marathon.”
Anderson is joining a group that’s racing the New York City Marathon to raise funds and awareness for Brave Like Gabe, the foundation her sister started to support rare cancer research. Following Grunewald’s death, many runners across the country have gathered donations while training for various events, and the community at large has continued using the #BraveLikeGabe and #RunningOnHope hashtags to keep Grunewald’s spirit alive.
“I know Gabe would be floored and astounded—I don’t think she knew the impact she was having on people,” Anderson said. “I’m grateful for everybody who has been considerate and thoughtful to take Gabe’s message to heart. All she really wanted to do, if she couldn’t do anything else, was make people’s lives better. This is a way for people to look at their own lives and be brave themselves. People finding that motivation in her is just really telling of her character.”
Grunewald was a middle-distance Olympic hopeful, as well as the 2014 indoor national champion for 3,000-meters. She was running for the University of Minnesota when she first learned she had ACC. During four recurrences throughout her young adulthood, Grunewald continued to compete at a high level and spoke about qualifying for the 2020 Olympic Trials, even in the final months of her life. Although her performances during her last races weren’t what she wanted, she said she was compelled to show the importance of staying active and pursuing goals despite life’s challenges.
Growing up in Perham, Minnesota, Anderson remembers the earliest days of her older sister’s running career, falling asleep in the backseat of the car on the way to far-flung cross-country meets where the family would cheer Grunewald on. It eventually rubbed off—Anderson started running as a kid, too, at the encouragement of her big sister. Training for the marathon this year has been part of her mourning.
“When I run now, it’s just a reminder where I come from and it’s an echo of Gabe’s impact on my life,” Anderson said. “In my grief and not really knowing what to do with all these emotions and frustrations, going out for a run and having that control and release has been a huge part of the healing process. I’m just trying to take a cue from Gabe and find a positive thing I can do when I don’t really have control over the situation around me.”
Putting in the training hasn’t always been easy. Anderson is a pediatric nurse who works with patients who have neurological disorders. Sometimes her 12-hour shifts have made preparation for New York tricky, but she’s remained dedicated, she said.
“Some people think I’m crazy because I’d get home from work at 7:30 a.m., go to sleep until 1 p.m., then go run eight miles—albeit pretty slowly—prior to going into work again for another shift,” she said. “Then the next day I’d just run 30 minutes or sleep. I just tried to listen to my body.”
It will be Anderson’s second marathon—her first was the 2018 Twin Cities Marathon, where Grunewald, of course, was out on the course cheering her on. This year, Anderson hopes to beat her time of 3:24:34 and her long runs indicate she’s ready to chop several minutes from it. She’s also set a goal of raising $3,000 for the Brave Like Gabe foundation, which she hopes to accomplish before Sunday.
Whatever the outcome, Anderson said she will give it her best effort, because her sister would have insisted on it.
“Not a lot of people in my running career believed in me as much as Gabe—she would even get mad at me in college when I didn’t do well and say, ‘You’re better than this,’” Anderson said. “That’s a big motivating piece for me. I’m finally believing in myself the way that she wanted me to. I’m excited to show her what I can do.”