The running community was shaken on Tuesday night when Gabriele Grunewald, a professional middle-distance runner, died after a decade-long battle with cancer. She was 32 years old.
Her cancer battles captivated the attention of the running community and beyond because of both her strength and courage and her commitment to returning to competition despite chemotherapy and other setbacks in her treatment. After Grunewald's condition took a turn for the worse throughout the weekend, her husband, Justin, shared on Sunday that the decision was made to forego any further treatment and bring Grunewald home to spend her final days with friends and family.
The Perham, Minn. native was first diagnosed with adenoid cystic carcinoma (a rare form of cancer in her salivary gland) as a 22-year-old while competing for the University of Minnesota in 2009. She underwent surgery to remove it but cancer returned in her thyroid in 2010. She underwent a thyroidectomy and radioactive iodine treatment before making a full recovery and return to racing in 2011.
In Aug. 2016, doctors discovered a metastatic recurrence of Grunewald's adenoid cystic carcinoma in her liver and she underwent surgery to remove the growth. Despite being left with a 13-inch scar on her stomach, Grunewald's cancer returned as small tumors in her liver and was untreatable through surgery. While consulting with doctors in Minneapolis and New York, Grunewald scheduled races and began chemotherapy once again. Grunwald's most recent cancer battle was also profiled by Sports Illustrated's Tim Layden in July 2017.
Grunewald nearly made a return to competition in the fall of 2018 but medical setbacks scratched those plans. She remained active in the running community with appearances at meets, speaking engagements and the launch of the Brave Like Gabe Foundation, where donations go toward rare cancer research centers including Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center and Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.
She was rushed to the ICU on June 1, 2019, after her labs showed "values incompatible with life" but made a miraculous recovery once treatment was stopped. Grunewald was able to spend 10 more days with her family and friends before her passing. In an Instagram post on Sunday afternoon, Justin shared the following letter to his wife while asking her friends, family and supporters to share any last messages with her:
"Brave flails in comparison to what you are to me and to so many people out there facing the simplest and silliest of struggles in day to day life At the end of the day people won't remember the PRs run or the teams qualified for but they will remember that hard period in their life where they were losing hope but they found inspiration in a young lady who refuses to give up. I love you"
In the hours before Grunewald's death on Tuesday evening, friend and HGTV star Chip Gaines, who has run for the Brave Like Gabe foundation before, pledged to not only match donations for his" Chip In for St. Jude Children’s" challenge fundraiser, but also to send matching donations Grunewald's Brave Like Gabe foundation.
Gaines was just one of the hundreds of people to pay tribute to Grunewald.