Gabriele Grunewald speaks at a press conferences at the 2017 USA Track & Field Outdoor Championships on June 21, 2017 in Sacramento, Calif.
The track and field world mourns Gabriele Grunewald, who shared her heroic “running from cancer” story for a decade, raising funds to fight the disease and inspiring people from all walks of life.
Grunewald died Tuesday night, two weeks shy of her 33rd birthday. Her husband Justin said on Instagram that she was in comfort care at home, surrounded by family and friends.
Distance runner Sara Hall tweeted, “The running community lost one of our heroes today, but we will never forget you @gg_runs!”
Justin had been updating his wife’s condition on social media. After her condition worsened, he asked people to “send her one last message here or on her wall or on her phone before she heads up to heaven” – and they did.
Heather Kampf, an elite runner and former teammate at the University of Minnesota, called Grunewald, known as “Gabe,” a “contagiously hopeful fighter.”
On Instagram, Kampf wrote, “It’s a testament to who she is that made it seem like this time would never come. Even on her worst days she would leave a room brighter and more energized than she found it. If positivity, grit, grace, and love could win the fight against cancer, Gabe wouldn’t have just beaten it, she’d be lapping it.
“But I want to be clear when I use a word like ‘winning’ because I don’t think this signifies a loss, not for Gabe anyway. She has, and always will be a champion. She fought the good fight, did more than most people could pray to do in a lifetime to inspire others and to serve a meaningful purpose. Gabe gave everything she had, to everything she did – she lived boldly and indeed, bravely.’”
Olympian Kara Goucher had tweeted at Grunewald, “I love you so much @gg_runs! Thank you for showing me what bravery looks like. Always love your way.”
After news of Grunewald’s death broke, Goucher posted five broken hearts.
Grunewald’s foundation, Brave Like Gabe, raised money for cancer research and awareness through races and under the banner “Rare. Resilient. Running on Hope.”
Grunewald was diagnosed with a rare cancer called adenoid cystic carcinoma, which appeared in her salivary glands in 2009 while she was in college. She came back from that, running better than ever, but was diagnosed with thyroid cancer.
Again, Grunewald prevailed, just missing the U.S. Olympic team in 2012 in the 1,500-meter by placing fourth at the trials. She ranks 12th on the all-time U.S. list.
But she did not perform well at the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials for Track and Field, unaware that the adenoid cystic carcinoma had returned. Grunewald required surgery that removed more than half of her liver.
Yet the cancer was back again in 2017. Grunewald continued to compete, even through chemotherapy, exposing the long, purple scar on her torso as she ran.
Her last competition was the 2017 USATF Outdoor Championships in Sacramento, California, the crowd cheering as she finished last in her heat.
Grunewald told TeamUSA.org before the meet that her doctors weren’t sure what to make of her status as an elite runner. “No one has told me specifically not to race,” she said, “but they sort of look at me sideways.”
She added that it is “deeply satisfying” to have running as an outlet.
“With where I’m at in my life and my health, nothing’s guaranteed,” Grunewald said. “The next year’s not guaranteed. I don’t know what’s going to happen. I hope everything works out and I hope I’m cancer-free soon. But if this is the last opportunity that I have to really race and do this, I want to do it, even if it’s not at the highest level that I’ve been at.
“It’s important for me to try to maintain that part of my identity and myself when it’s been a lot about just being a cancer patient lately, unfortunately.”
Despite her setbacks, Grunewald conveyed optimistic messages to her more than 80,000 followers on social media, such as, “Being brave, for me, means not giving up on the things that make me feel alive.”
She called herself a “lover of life.”
She even harbored hopes of qualifying for the 2020 U.S. Olympic Trials for Track and Field.
Grunewald posted for the last time on May 4 from her hospital bed in Minnesota. An infection forced her to be admitted on the eve of her @bravelikegabe 5K in St. Paul, and she underwent a procedure the following morning while runners were getting ready to race in her honor.
“It’s not lost on me that maybe this is one of the most poignant ways to show just how critical research is,” Grunewald wrote. “Cancer is nothing if not incredibly inconvenient and we need more options. I wish I didn’t have to show it in this way because there’s so many people I’d love to meet and catch up with tomorrow (including my grandma who I don’t see very often). But I’m gonna be brave and fight these fevers and hopefully the procedure will help me out big time.”
But she was running out of time.
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More than 10 years ago, my friend @gigrunewald was diagnosed with an extremely rare form of cancer. I understand that Gabe is not a patient at @StJude, but right now, she is fighting for her life. Cancer is ugly and it is mean and it doesn’t fight fair. This has gotten extremely personal.. so here’s what I’m going to do about it: I want us to hit that $500K mark by midnight tonight. So I will be personally matching all #ChipInChallenge donations made between now and midnight. ON TOP OF THAT, I'll also be matching that amount in the form of a donation to the #BraveLikeGabe Foundation, in Gabe's honor. That is 3x the power of your generosity in the fight against cancer.. and all YOU need to do is donate whatever you can to the #ChipInChallenge (link in bio) between now and midnight CT. I’ll take care of the rest. Together, we’re going to fight for those who are fighting for just one more day. This is for those precious kids at St. Jude.. we are pulling for you! And to my beautiful friend Gabe.. we love you and we are here for you every step of the way.
Justin, who is a physician, wrote, “Over the last few years, Gabriele knew she would not be on this Earth forever. Her main goal was to give future generations of people diagnosed with cancer more treatments and better treatments while remaining hopeful and brave.”
She achieved that goal through fundraising, thanks in part to her friendship with Chip Gaines of “Fixer Upper” fame. After they met in 2017, Grunewald helped Gaines train for a marathon, which he ran while wearing his toolbelt.
Gaines hosted the Silo District Marathon in Waco, Texas, raising $250,000 for Grunewald’s foundation in 2018 and $300,000 this year.
Gaines also created the #ChipINChallenge, vowing to personally match all donations to St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital and Brave Like Gabe. As of Wednesday morning, Gaines had raised nearly $1 million for St. Jude’s, far surpassing his goal.
Grunewald was aware Gaines was raising money in her honor, and Justin said he could feel his wife’s “happiness building” and could see she was “ready to head up to heaven.”
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At 7:52 I said “I can’t wait until I get to see you again” to my hero, my best friend, my inspiration, my wife. @gigrunewald I always felt like the Robin to your Batman and I know I will never be able to fill this gaping hole in my heart or fill the shoes you have left behind. Your family loves you dearly as do your friends. When @chipgaines made the final push in his #chipinchallenge I could feel your happiness building and could also see that this made you ready to head up to heaven. Chip thanks for helping her to go up so peacefully with no suffering. To everyone else from all ends of the earth, Gabriele heard your messages and was so deeply moved. She wants you to stay brave and keep all the hope in the world. Thanks for helping keep her brave in her time of need 😪🙏🏻 #keeprunningonhope #bravelikegabe 📸 @pixelcrave 📷 @kohjiro_kinno
After Grunewald passed away, runner Carrie Tollefson posted a photo of them together.
“This right here is how I will feel every time I think of @gigrunewald! Just right there shining down like the bright light that she has always been and will always be! Even through the tears there will always be a smile. You and @justingrunewald1 would want it that way! So that is what we will do!”
Olympian Molly Huddle also spoke for the running community when she posted on Instagram, “We love you Gabe. Thank you for not being afraid to use your voice, for not being afraid to grip a slippery thing like hope and ride it for years, for not being afraid to show your scars or race while on cancer treatment or start something new and big like the Brave Like Gabe Foundation or to speak to rooms full of people about your story or for not letting fear stop you from doing anything really. You are a warrior woman and you’ve touched countless hearts. It’s an honor to share not just the running world but this time on the globe with you. I salute you with every spiked stride on the track.”
USA Track & Field posted a photo of Grunewald crossing the finish line in victory at the 2014 national indoor championships, her arms outstretched and a huge grin on her face.
“@gg_runs embodied true determination, dedication and commitment in every facet of her life. She will be remembered as one of the bravest athletes we knew. Her legacy lives on as she inspired a world of people. #BraveLikeGabe.”