Photo by Ben Blair
Gabriele Grunewald, Gabe to her friends, is a professional runner and three-time cancer survivor.
Yes, you read that correctly. In fact, it was her first bout with cancer that inspired Gabe to see how far she could go in running. Before that, she never really thought a professional running life would be possible for her. But surviving cancer made her focus and she adopted a “Why not me?” attitude. We’ve been so inspired by Gabe’s courage, openness and determination in despite of all her obstacles and we know you will be too!
Gabe, now 30 years old, from Perham, MN, is a middle-distance specialist on the track. She began as a walk-on at the University of Minnesota, running for the Golden Gophers under her coach Gary Wilson. In her second to last college season, at just 22 years old, she received her first cancer diagnosis.
Gabe beat cancer, and went on to run for Team USA Minnesota and Brooks Running after graduation. Two years later, and after another bout with cancer, she placed a heart-breaking fourth in the 2012 Olympic Trials in the 1500m. In 2014 she won the 3,000 meter USA indoor championship, before controversially being disqualified and stripped of the title after Jordan Hasay and her coach, Alberto Salazar, appealed her victory due to physical contact between Gabe and Jordan during the race. Hasay and Salazar later withdrew their appeal and Gabe was reinstated as champ.
After placing 12th at the 2016 1500 meter U.S. Olympic Trials race in July, Gabe received her third cancer diagnosis. This time doctors found a cancerous tumor on her liver. In August, doctors removed the nearly six inch tumor and a large part of her liver.
Gabe: I was encouraged to participate in lots of different activities as a kid and fortunately I found running through a school program (5th-6th grade) and I really enjoyed it. At first I was attracted to the social aspect of it as some of my best friends were joining the running program, but I quickly fell in love with the simple act of running and how it made me feel. I always enjoyed being a part of a team but running was different from the team sports in that I had to be accountable for my own performance. I liked that I had to depend mainly on myself for my results, I didn’t have to compete for playing time or a certain position.
If not for running, I’m not 100% sure what I’d be doing! It definitely would have changed my career trajectory, I may have pursued a law degree, or I’d be working in local government or nonprofit with my public policy master’s degree. Coaching may have called me sooner, and is something that I’m planning to get more involved with in the future.
T: Why did you decide to focus all your energy into running and pursue a pro career? What drives you to succeed and stick with it despite everything you’ve been through?
G: My first cancer diagnosis [at age 22] really shook me and scared me in a powerful way. In some ways I struggled but after getting through the hard stuff like surgery and radiation treatment, I was just really grateful for my health and I wanted to channel that in my running. Getting back to the track motivated me to stay positive and future-focused during my recovery, which was so important for me. At first I was just happy to be back running and training with my teammates, but once I got out there competing again it really opened up my eyes to the possibility that I could be faster and achieve more (on the track) than I ever thought was possible before cancer.
Instead of being afraid of failure, I was thinking, Why not me? It changed the way I viewed myself and my opportunities, and my first season of racing after cancer opened the door to professional running — something that was nothing but a pipe dream prior to that year. I think I was especially motivated to end my college career in a positive way, and letting cancer take that away seemed unthinkable to me. I loved competing for the University of Minnesota and I felt very supported and encouraged through my diagnosis and treatment. I was very lucky to have my team around me during that time. So I just wanted to get out there as a way to say thank you to everyone who supported me, and to show them, and myself, that I was okay.
One of the main things that drives me to keep going and pursue my dreams, on and off the track, despite all the adversity, is just the belief that we have to fight for the things that make us feel alive, that make us feel like ourselves. Running is one of those things, for me, and as long as my body and health allow me to do it, I’m going to do what it takes to get back out there. I’m also motivated by the idea that maybe, just maybe, other people out there can see my fight and my positivity and be inspired to tackle the challenges in their own life. I really needed inspiration when I became a 22 year-old cancer survivor and I found it in unique places, from people I knew who were overcoming challenges to celebrities sharing their fights. I just want to keep my story as uplifting and positive as possible, even though I’m dealing with a very real and serious disease.
T: Gabe, you are only 30 years old and have had now three bouts of cancer. Most recently, you had part of your liver removed from metastatic adenoid cystic carcinoma, which left you with one hell of a scar! How much of the liver was removed, and how does that play a role in your daily life? How has each bout of cancer changed your outlook on running and life?
G: About half of my liver was removed in August due to a metastatic tumor. I was really, really hoping that cancer was in my rearview mirror and I believed that was possible, so it was extremely tough to have to deal with it again. It brought up a lot of my old feelings and anxieties about my health but I am feeling better everyday. It has been a reminder that I can’t take my health for granted and again reprioritized my life to bring the important things to the forefront.
I feel very fortunate that my tumor was resectable (able to be surgically removed) and very grateful to the liver, which has the ability to regenerate and fully function even after such a major event. The recovery was definitely tough but in the last few weeks I have turned a corner and I’m feeling really good. I think that this surgery, more than the others, has caused me to ask myself if I’m doing enough for the cancer cause outside of just running.
Now that I’m recovered, I’m planning to ask more of myself in 2017 and beyond to get involved with the bigger fight against cancer, and rare disease in general.
T: How has your recovery been this time? Looks like you’ve been running! What’s it like returning to running after a major surgery? Are you planning on returning to racing in the near future?
G: This surgery was bigger than my previous neck surgeries and also more directly involved with muscles that need to be healed and strong in order to be able to run. I had a 13-inch incision across my abdomen and I needed to respect that and be patient before jumping into running. I’ve learned through each surgery that listening to your body is critical, so fortunately I had some experience with that. It was still frustrating because I “felt” ready to run quite a bit before my body was truly ready. Between weeks 4 and 8, I was on & off with running, I tried to embrace some cross-training and even the downtime from intense training.
One important lesson I’ve learned through my surgeries and “forced breaks” is that we all need breaks every now and again. I did what I could to convince myself that I “needed” the break and that I could be faster than ever after this — just like after my two previous cancer surgeries. I am hoping to gradually add intensity to my training this winter and plan for a full track season in 2017. I won’t rush my first race, May seems like a realistic time to begin racing again. We’ll see how training goes, but I plan to chase PRs and the World Championships in London just like everybody else!
T: Your husband, Justin, is a medical doctor and is an avid runner who also ran at the University of Minnesota, right? How has he helped you in running and in your recovery?
G: Yes, Justin has been a huge source of support and encouragement during this difficult time. He is an internal medicine physician finishing his residency so even though he is still quite busy, he always makes time to run with me and cheer me up when needed. He understands the body and is very optimistic about its ability to heal, thus my ability to get back to regular life and ultimately running. He is my rock and the person who always lifts me up when I am feeling down. Running and training together is one of our favorite activities and we couldn’t be happier that we are doing that again. I know he’ll be as excited as me, maybe even more, when I finally get to race again.
T: Most casual track fans probably know you as the runner who, back in 2014 at the USA Indoor Championships, was disqualified from the 3000m after Alberto Salazar’s protests. You were eventually reinstated as the champion, which allowed you to advance to world’s, but what was that like? Is it hard to line up against Salazar’s runners now? Did this incident have any lasting impact on you?
G: The 2014 DQ drama was tough to go through but I mainly felt very supported by fellow runners and fans. It took me a while to fully let go of controversy and negativity to fully enjoy racing again, but I think I’m there now. I try to look at it as an important event for USATF to bring attention to some of the problems and inconsistencies in our sport here in the US that can be improved going forward.
T: You have a sponsorship under Brooks, but who do you train with while living in Minnesota? Do you typically train alone?
G: I’m very fortunate to have support from Brooks, the company that has been there for me since I first became a professional runner in 2010 and a partnership that I’m excited will continue into 2017. This year I plan to train with my husband Justin here in Minneapolis, which I have done for the majority of my career. I haven’t secured a coach yet but I will be looking to do that early in 2017.
T: How does your training differ as a professional runner from your training in college at the University of Minnesota?
G: The calendar of training and competing is probably the biggest difference, I race much less as a professional but my training is much more intense. I’m looking to peak in June through August rather than having those months as my “off time” in college. I also find that as a pro runner rather than a collegiate runner, you really have to be self-motivated and be ready to get your “work” done — whatever it takes.
The motivation for me was easy when I was part of a team at the University of Minnesota, sometimes it’s a little harder to feel your running is important when you’re just doing it for yourself as a professional. In terms of actual training, I do both higher intensity and volume now than I did at Minnesota. Since I race less than in college, I have to find that higher intensity in a training setting more often.
T: Do you think women track athletes are treated equally to men when it comes to coverage and sponsorship opportunities?
G: That’s a tough question to answer without knowing exactly how many dollars in running are going to women versus men. It seems to have become closer to equal over time and certain companies are really seeing the value of having women as a part of their brand, which is great to see. Usually when I go to races the male and female prize purse is exactly the same, which is also encouraging. Media coverage seems to be a bit less equal and I think we could absolutely stand to see more women held up as strong, healthy role models in sport and beyond. There are many women in track & field with inspiring stories that we should hear more about, definitely.
[pullquote]Instead of being afraid of failure, I was thinking, Why not me? [/pullquote]
T: You seem to have been very empowered by running. How can elite athletes, running media, or adult runners use running to empower more girls and women?
G: I think running is a very powerful way for women and girls to learn to love their body and respect it for its strength and uniqueness. An active lifestyle through running can help girls with self esteem and body confidence that will transfer over to other areas in her life. Encouraging girls to find a physical activity they enjoy is a great place to start, as well as supporting programs to encourage young girls like Girls on the Run. With social media, athletes and media alike have an important duty to project positive, healthy messages about running and physical activity with so many impressionable young eyes and ears following us.
Thanks so much to Gabe for her time answering our questions, especially during the recovery process she is currently going through. We will continue to pray for a healthy recovery for her, and if she begins racing this year, we can’t wait to see what she pulls off next!
If you’d like to reach out to Gabriele, or show your support, visit her website here.
[Editor’s note: Gabe passed away on June 11th, 2019, a great loss for the running community at large. Her foundation is still collecting donations for rare cancer research.]