SACRAMENTO, Calif. – Gabriele Grunewald had what she called “a little bit of a scare” Sunday.
She went to the emergency room in Minneapolis with a low-grade fever, which can be dangerous for people like Grunewald who are undergoing chemotherapy.
Doubt flickered in her mind. Would she still be able to compete at this week’s 2017 USATF Outdoor Championships?
The fever quickly subsided, but Grunewald’s competitive fires burned as brightly as ever.
Thursday night she’ll race in the first round of the women’s 1,500-meter. The long, curving purple scar on her torso is the only visible sign that Grunewald is a three-time survivor of a rare form of cancer that first appeared in 2009. A scan in late March showed that the disease was back for a fourth battle.
When she toes the starting line, Grunewald said, “I hope I can smile and enjoy the journey that has brought me to that spot. Also, I just want to leave it all out there. It may be a while before I get to race again, honestly, so I just want to take advantage of the moment and try to stick in there and see what happens.”
She has no illusions about making the team that will compete at the IAAF World Championships in London in August. That was her goal when she thought she was cancer-free. Now the athletes who make Team USA will join in her fight against cancer.
On Wednesday, USA Track & Field announced a partnership with the American Cancer Society called “Together: Nothing is Impossible.” The fundraising effort will encourage Americans to pledge money for every medal won in London, with 75 percent devoted to cancer research and the other 25 percent funding the next generation of Team USA athletes.
“The medals will mean more,” said Grunewald, the 2014 national indoor champion in the 3,000-meter who missed the 2012 Olympic team in the 1,500 by one spot. “I think there are a lot of people in the track and field community who have been touched by cancer. Most Americans have. As athletes, we’re doers and we’re helpers and we want to get things done, and I think it’s a great way to support the very important mission of the American Cancer Society.”
For the last few years, the relentlessly upbeat Grunewald has shared what she calls her “running from cancer” story.
During this outdoor season, Grunewald and her husband, Justin, have been accompanied by a camera crew as she tried to meet the automatic qualifying standard for the national championships. On Wednesday in Sacramento, her shoe sponsor hosted a viewing of the documentary called “GABE,” the name she often goes by.
Grunewald watched the film for the first time with Justin, a doctor who recently completed his residency in internal medicine, and about 40 other people.
“It makes me feel emotional,” said Grunewald, who spoke in the movie about her dismay at eventually losing her hair during chemo and her hopes that the treatment would not jeopardize her desire to start a family. “It’s surreal to watch a little sad movie about yourself that has an uplifting message -- but overall is sad.”
Although Grunewald did not meet the automatic qualifying time of 4 minutes, 9.50 seconds, she was relieved that her time of 4:11.86 from last year was good enough to get into the meet. Her fastest time this season of 4:12.29 would also have qualified.
“If I feel unexpectedly great, then maybe there’s a miracle that I could squeak into a final,” said Grunewald, recognizing how challenging that would be. “I’m just glad that I’ve been able to run and train as much as I have and this seems like a good place to wrap up my season with the hope that I’ll be back next year and not be on chemo next year. After this I’ll move on and focus on my health. I’m looking forward to my summer of hopefully killing this cancer.”
Grunewald will celebrate her 31st birthday on Sunday, the concluding day of the championships, which is part of the Team USA Summer Champions Series, presented by Comcast.
Two days later, she’ll start her second round of chemotherapy. She expects at least four rounds and as many as six.
“I have been running and training as much as I can through chemo,” said Grunewald, who started the treatment on June 6. She considered waiting until after nationals, but wasn’t comfortable putting it off too long. She even raced four days after her first infusion.
“Some days I feel completely normal,” Grunewald said. “Some days I feel like I have more symptoms. Fatigue is the thing that I’m fighting the most right now that will affect my running the most.
“Running at a super-high level is obviously a tall order for someone in my situation, but some of my workouts I’ve done well. I’ve still been able to get in some work. I’m just doing a bit less volume than I might normally do. Things are just harder. It’s not like I can’t do it; it just takes more of my energy than it used to. It is day-to-day how my cell counts are recovering and changing.”
Grunewald felt fine in March, six months after undergoing surgery for metastatic liver cancer that removed half of her liver and a large tumor.
A routine scan showed smaller tumors in the liver. “I was definitely bummed hearing that,” she said. “Here we go. We’re right in the middle of the fight. It’s definitely important for me to keep running and stay positive and I’m hopeful that I can get through this and knock down these tumors to a point where they’re either gone or just stable and get some treatment-free time next year.”
Grunewald said her doctors aren’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.”
Grunewald said it is “deeply satisfying” to have the outlet running provides.
“With where I’m at in my life and my health, nothing’s guaranteed,” she 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.”
She said she believes being an athlete has helped her beat back the disease. “I think you want to be as fit as you can and as healthy as you can be going into any cancer fight,” Grunewald said. “It’s hard to quantify how much it’s helped me. No doctor could even tell me, but I know that I get through these treatments a little better than I would if I were completely sedentary. I recover from surgeries faster. It doesn’t hit me as hard and my quality of life is higher.”
She believes research will continue to show the benefits of cancer patients being physically active, but adds ruefully, “my cancer doesn’t seem to be fully responding just to running, because clearly it’s sticking around even though I exercise a lot.”
Grunewald plans to run at least every other day as she continues treatment or cycle alongside Justin if he trains for a fall marathon.
“I never want running to be taken away,” Grunewald said.
As the subject of recent widespread national media attention, she’s grateful for the chance to bring awareness to adenoid cystic carcinoma, which began in her salivary glands.
“I appreciate everyone’s interest,” said Grunewald, who plans to take a media hiatus after the meet. “I welcome the opportunity to share my story, but it’s been exhausting. It makes my journey more meaningful that I can share it with other people and hopefully inspire them.
“There are a lot of people going through hard things – it might be cancer, it might be something else. But just to keep carrying on and do your best to persevere, that’s what my story is about right now anyway.
“Hopefully it might be about running fast again someday.”