‘Brave Like Gabe’: Remembering the Runner Who Never Gave Up in the Face of an Unbeatable Opponent
On a June night two years ago, I went to dinner with Gabe and Justin Grunewald at a casual, funky place in downtown Minneapolis, a place with a solid draft list and an unpretentious menu. They picked it out, because I was the visitor. Gabe ordered the pulled pork sandwich and devoured it. Justin and I each got a beer and a burger, both of which were excellent. On TV screens around the room, the Warriors were finishing off the Cavaliers in Game 5 of the NBA Finals. It was a fun night, even with my phone in the middle of the table, recording everything. Even with my notebook at the ready. Even with the subtext of our presence in each other’s company, which was that Gabe was fighting a terrible cancer and I was writing a story about that fight. The best interviews are like hanging out with new friends of whom you can ask anything; this was like that. Somehow.
That dinner was on the fourth of five days I would spend with Justin and Gabe. I first met up with them in Boston, for a race that didn’t go well for Gabe. And then in Nashville, for another race that also did not go well. Gabe was in the early stages of a chemotherapy program which would not be shown effective at improving her health but was hell on her training and racing. I followed them back to Minneapolis, doing my reporter thing. On a warm, hazy Sunday evening, they ran together along the Mississippi River and back and forth over a few of the bridges that cross it. Long past my running prime, I rode along on a mountain bike and asked questions. We spent a chunk of the next day with Gabe’s family—her father Kim, a physical therapist; and her mother, Laura; a brother and a sister. Gabe sat across from me at a high table in her and Justin’s apartment in the shadow of the Vikings’ U.S. Bank Stadium, and explained every detail of her eight years battling adenoid cystic carcinoma, a rare cancer with no course of treatment and no cure. Yet.
In all of this, Gabe—born Gabriel Anderson because her mom loved Biblical names, and which Gabe later lengthened herself with an “e” on the end, because she liked that even better—was an unflinching narrator of her own journey. This was a decision she had made, to share the details of her illness and her fight, in hopes that it might help shine a light on diseases that don’t come with pink bows or 5k runs and that others might draw strength from her strength, though she would never have phrased it that way. It wasn’t easy for her. “All of this talking is so far out of my comfort zone,” she told me. “I was conflicted about how much I wanted to share, like if didn’t talk about my cancer maybe it wouldn’t come back.”
She told me about growing up in Perham, Minnesota, where she learned that the best way to circumvent small town sports politics was to run, because the watch does not lie or discriminate. (She remained miffed about getting left off the Homecoming Court. “That was cutthroat,” she said, jabbing her index finger in the air as she ran.) She told me about winning a scholarship to the University of Minnesota, after stubbornly waiting months for her home state school to finally offer. She told me about the first time she learned she had cancer, while staying at a hotel in Arizona as a senior in college, waiting to launch the best season of her career, and about Googling ACC and seeing the word “incurable,” and thinking: Well, that’s not good. What happens? People get this disease and just succumb to it? She told me about coming back a year later, determined to run fast again, but also to party a little harder because she had never done that in the past and who knows? “Sometimes those nights ended in tears and drama,” she said. “Because I would get emotional about everything.”
She and Justin told me about what happened in 2016, when the ACC came back, and doctors found a volleyball-sized tumor that devoured two-thirds of her liver. About screaming out loud to get the tumor out of her body, even though it would be many days before that could happen. And about how, even after the tumor was removed, only six months later the cancer came back again, this time in 12 small tumors on her liver. Gabe talked about everything, like no one I had ever interviewed. I’m supposed to say that in these interviews I nearly cried, or did cry, but that would not be truthful. But I did laugh, because of the spirited way in which Gabe could tell even the most ominous tales. She seemed fearless.
The other reporting I did before writing about Gabe was far less encouraging. An oncologist treating Gabe in Minneapolis said her cancer: “Is characterized by coming back.” A specialist in New York, who came to treat Gabe later, said, “As with every cancer, your chance of curing it is highest when it first presents. When the disease comes back, the likelihood is lower.” After my story on Gabe was published in SI in July of 2017, a doctor I know and who has been a resource for me on other stories emailed me to say: “What an inspiring young woman. I hope you understand how her story ends.”
Nevertheless, having been in the presence of Gabe’s ebullient determination and Justin’s quiet strength (he is not only an excellent runner, but also a doctor), I came to imagine the next story I might write about Gabe. It would happen in Eugene, in the summer of 2020, when a healthy Gabriele Grunewald, aged 33, ran the 1,500 meters at the U.S. Olympic Trials. I imagined watching that race and interviewing Gabe afterward, watching her contort her face in that way she liked to do, making a joke about the success or failure of her performance and then turning serious to explain her survival and to encourage and inspire others. I imagined fighting back tears as I punched the keys on my laptop. I couldn’t wait to write that story. In August of 2017, I exchanged texts with Gabe. She had by then ceased chemotherapy, because it had not been working, and switched to an immunotherapy program.
Gabe: I appreciate the time you took covering my story, and I’m so glad people have been touched by it. Fortunately immunotherapy has had me feeling good (hoping for good results, too) and I’m feeling a lot better running than I did in June. Thanks again, and keep in touch!
Me: Good news, Gabe. Always thinking the best for you and Justin and your family. I’m in line to tell your comeback story.
You know by now that I will never get the chance to tell that story. I suppose I was silly to hope, but that is the way Gabe affected people, even cynical journalists who can always find the darkness in a sunny day. Gabe willed people to believe in the impossible. You joined or you got out of the way.
On Tuesday night, Gabriele Grunewald, known to the running community and far beyond as Gabe, died of complications due to adenoid cystic carcinoma. She was 32 years old, far too young and far too strong to die. Far too beloved. Yet cruelly, far too sick to live another day. Gabe died in the presence of family and friends, in a new apartment into which Gabe and Justin had recently moved, still close to the football stadium but with big windows, welcoming sunlight and a view of the river. Gabe had been moved into end of life care on Monday morning. I talked to Justin that afternoon. “We’re sitting and cherishing memories and holding her hand,” he said. “We’re a people with strong faith, so we believe there is a place beyond this world. And if Gabriele doesn’t get in, none of us are getting in.”
Justin had gone public with Gabe’s condition in the last days before her passing. On Sunday, June 2, in a long Instagram post, he described Gabe as having lab work that was “incompatible with life,” but then, “Shortly after I told her she was dying, she took a deep breath and yelled NOT TODAY.” Five days later in another post, Justin wrote that Gabe was back in the hospital on June 4, with septic shock, and “told me she was ready to go heaven. This time it was me asking her to wait a bit longer and she agreed.” Then on Sunday night, June 9, Justin posted again: “It breaks my heart to say, but overnight Gabriele’s status worsened with worsening liver function causing confusion. Wanting to do her no harm, we have made the difficult decision to move her to comfort care this afternoon.”
When I talked to Justin on Monday afternoon, he said, “It’s obviously been a long, long road. But in the last few days, Gabriele and I came to a peace with everything.” He said he received more than 5,000 messages in less than 24 hours after his announcement that Gabe was being moved, in which he also wrote: “I wanted to let you all know, while she is still alive so you can send her one last message here or on her wall or on her phone before she heads up to heaven.”
In the two years since I met and wrote about Gabe (and Justin), as the story I had hoped to write about her miraculous comeback became increasingly unlikely, Gabe lived another story altogether. She became a woman—a wife, a daughter, a sister; a runner, a teacher, a mentor; an activist—who simply would not give up in the face of an unbeatable opponent. As a runner, Gabe was a kicker, always full of run at the end. Her coaches always tried to get her to stick her nose in the race a little earlier. She stuck her nose in this one from the gun. Even more, she dragged the rest of us along.
At the beginning, #BraveLikeGabe was a social media hashtag to recognize Gabe’s courage. It evolved into the name of the foundation she started with Justin, to raise awareness of rare cancers and to raise money for research. That foundation has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars and Justin told me that the foundation’s work will continue in Gabe’s absence, and in her memory. We are a culture that rallies around big causes, and in the cancer world, those causes are admirable and important. Rare cancers kill, too, and without nearly the support heaped on more common cancers. Gabe learned that, and fought to her last breath to effect change. It is a painful truth that Gabe is gone, but an important reality that in other ways, she will outlive us all.
In more ethereal ways, Gabe touched the giant running, jogging, walking, watching amoeba that is called the running community. And far beyond. The verb most often employed here is “inspired,” a malleable word. We live in a fractured, angry society, where so many people awaken every morning with fists balled, spoiling for a fight. Gabe’s fight, and the manner in which she shared it, was a reminder that there are much bigger battles. In the midst of swimming upstream against a relentless illness, Gabe was a bright light in others’ lives. And tough? You don’t know the half of it. Gabe’s bottomless courage and optimism came in the face of odds that she fully understood.
To wit: My original story on Gabe’s battle was published on July 8, 2017. Three days later Gabe’s father texted me:
Tim: Not sure you heard about Gabe today… Not good news… tumors are growing and more of them. Stopping Chemo… off to New York soon… FYI… Thanks again for the story. But the story continues.
Soon afterward Gabe would begin the immunotherapy that helped her briefly feel better, but soon was ineffective. Gabe made all this clear in an Instagram post darted Feb. 21 of this year: “…That’s the thing about most of my scans over the last three years – they’ve almost all been bad….”
So understand this: Gabe spent the last years of her life fighting, living, running…. inspiring others… fully aware that she was not winning her own fight, but fighting ever harder just the same. That is something beyond bravery. Something beyond courage. Many of us live every day in denial of our own mortality, gently nudging its presence to the perimeter of our existence. Gabe’s mortality was in her grill, and she punched at it until she could no longer lift her arms.
On the last day I spent with Gabe two years ago, I met her in the lobby of her apartment building as she finished a run. It had been a good run. She was flushed and sweaty, an athlete in this moment, not the cancer patient that she would eventually become. “I was never one of those people who had a transcendental relationship with running,” she said and gosh, neither was I (and neither are a lot of people), and I so loved hearing her say this. She loved to race, to fight, to win. She loved defeating the pain, wrestling it to the track. There was no runner’s high, there was only a runner. But in these moments, that had shifted. “I love running now more than I ever did,” she said. “It makes me feel like myself.”
Minutes later, this: “For a few years I was low-level anxious that the cancer would come back. Well, now it’s here. And there is some peace in that. The fight is on my doorstep.’’
Gabe did not lose that fight. She just ran out of days.