Gabe Grunewald, 31, of Minneapolis, Minn., knows how to suffer. She’s not only been a professional runner for nearly a decade, but she’s also been battling a rare form of cancer (cystic carcinoma) since 2009. Despite countless rounds of chemo and other cancer treatments that have left Grunewald feeling hopelessly ill, she’s managed to return to the track over and over again to train and race. She’s run a personal best of 4:21.3 in the mile and 2:01.38 in the 800.
Today she’s recovering from what she hopes will be her final round of treatment in early 2018 and a running injury (a stress reaction in her femur) that’s kept her in the pool for the duration of the indoor track season. Still, she hopes to come back strong in 2019. To do this requires unwavering optimism and the kind of grit, we don’t come by often. And so, we sat down with Grunewald to learn more.
You have said that you often think people are too quick to give up on the things that they love when the rest of life isn’t going smoothly. You say that we all should be doing the opposite, and holding on to them more strongly. Why?
I think I mainly learned this through my years as a cancer survivor because my perspective has changed many different times along the journey. I remember when I was first diagnosed. I saw my life flash before my eyes and I thought, ‘Oh no, I'm not gonna be able to do any of the things I still want to do!’ … But that knee-jerk reaction wasn't really rational; it was just my way of preparing myself for the possibility of disappointment. I was detaching myself from my hopes and dreams before I even knew what would be possible for me—both in running and in life generally—as a young cancer survivor.
As time passed and I realized more and more that I don’t have to give up on everything just because there's a possibility that it can get taken away at some point. I decided I would just go for everything and hope that it works out, rather than immediately preparing for disappointment. Sure, my optimistic mindset leaves room for heartbreak, but it's also a more hopeful and grateful way of living the most I can every day.
With everything that’s happened in the past few years, you’ve really had to come to terms with the fact that you don’t know what comes next. How do you deal with such uncertainty every day?
I think the best way to deal with short-term and long-term uncertainty is to live as best as you can one day at a time. It’s hard because we're programmed from a young age to keep looking years ahead under the assumption that we'll be alive to see them. I don't rule out long-term survivorship, it's just much less of a certainty than it used to be. I've gotten over this by learning to do what I can with each day. … And, honestly, just trying to stay busy on a weekly basis.
I'm still very much committed to my running even though I'm a little injured right now. I still have workouts to do and boxes to check to get to where I want to be as an athlete in the future. I also have a welcome distraction right now in the form of my nonprofit, the Brave Like Gabe Foundation. Our mission is to support rare cancer research and empower cancer survivors through physical activity—two things I'm very passionate about! It's been a great way to use some of my idle time away from racing right now. And it's helping to fulfill a big dream of mine to have a tangible, positive impact in those cancer communities. I love connecting with other patients, sharing my story, and hearing others’ stories. Cancer survivors are so resilient and other patients and survivors give me a lot of hope. I'm motivated to make a difference while I'm here, and taking action to do that eases my anxiety considerably.
Part of racing is learning to suffer. It’s the kind of suffering that requires a choice. Why do you choose to suffer in this way and why do you think it’s important to motivate and inspire others to do the same?
The first part of my answer is just that I love racing. It really is that simple; it makes me feel alive. Plus, the idea of training and preparing for races gets me excited even when I'm in the throes of cancer treatments. Of course it's less fun when I can't run at my best, but it's better than not racing at all. And in terms of the suffering, so much of the cancer suffering is not a choice, really. With training and racing, I get to be in control of the suffering and that is a refreshing, empowering feeling. Running and racing gives me the important realization that my body can do so much more than just grow and fight cancer. It can run! It can sprint! It can still do amazing things. It’s important to realize how resilient our bodies really are.
Despite multiple treatments and adversity, you always come back strong. How are you able to stay so tough?
Haha, I really don't know. This journey requires toughness, that's for sure. I don't feel like I've had much of a choice in that one. I do try to embrace my tough side because I prefer that angle over the alternative. Plus, I think for my personality, that it’s the right way to get through this. But that doesn't mean that there aren't some really hard days and difficult moments when I don't feel strong at all. I definitely credit God for giving me the strength I've needed on this difficult journey. He makes me want to do my best with my situation no matter how hard it gets.
Despite being an intense competitor during a race, you’re a team player before and after. Why?
I love many of my competitors and I enjoy the time we get to spend together before, during, and after races. Racing is a special bond we all share and I savor that now more than ever.
You’re just getting over treatments and injury. What has the last year been like and where do you see yourself headed in the future?
The last year has been a huge challenge both health-wise and running-wise. But I’m very grateful to have received good news ( tumor shrinkage!) in January. Still, I’m bummed to have been injured over the winter, but I'm also really looking forward to my next opportunity to get out there and race again. My biggest goal in 2018 is to return to competitive, elite racing and set myself up for full seasons in 2019 and 2020. My fingers are crossed that my cancer will cooperate and let me have a clear shot at 2020.
And, lastly, Why do you love to run? How would you say that running has changed everything for you?
I just love how running makes me feel. It’s exhilarating. I love doing whatever it takes to get even that brief, fleeting runner's high. … There's nothing like it. And I need those endorphins more than ever, so I feel incredibly grateful whenever I get to experience the feeling of a really great run. On the run, I feel like the truest version of myself. And after my run, I think I'm a better person, more forgiving of and patient with myself and others.