When Gabriele Grunewald lines up for Thursday’s TC 1 Mile, she will be among the favorites in an elite women’s field racing near the Minneapolis riverfront for $12,500 in prize money.
“She kicked my butt in a workout [Monday night],” said her husband, Justin Grunewald. “She seems really healthy.”
With a $10,000 bonus for breaking the course record, there is plenty of incentive to run fast. But Grunewald, a former Gophers runner and U.S. champion, will be racing with a broader sense of urgency. In March, she was diagnosed with cancer for the fourth time in eight years. That came only seven months after surgery to remove half of her liver, which had been invaded by a softball-sized tumor.
Grunewald spent Wednesday in New York City, meeting with specialists to plot a course of treatment that likely will include chemotherapy. Her plan is to squeeze in as many races as she can before she starts treatment for several small tumors on her liver, and to continue running as long as her body allows.
Her coach, Dennis Barker, said the TC 1 Mile wasn’t part of Grunewald’s initial schedule. Now, she can’t imagine not running it, despite returning from New York’s Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center less than 24 hours before the race.
“It’s important for me to toe the line and see what I can do,” said Grunewald, 30, a Perham native who lives in Minneapolis. “I might have a different perspective if I were racing all summer, but it’s looking like the month of May is going to be my season. And that’s not what I wanted for this year.
“It’s been tough to train mentally, having this on my plate. But there’s so much my body can do, even with cancer. Right now is not the time for me to lose hope.”
And running, Justin Grunewald said, has been the lifeblood of her strength and optimism since her original diagnosis. Since her first surgery for adenoid cystic carcinoma in 2009, Grunewald finished second in the NCAA championships at 1,500 meters, won a U.S. title in the 3,000 meters, was 10th in the 3,000 at the world championships and finished one spot out of making the Olympic team in 2012.
Last weekend, she raced for the first time in nine months, finishing eighth in the 1,500 at the Payton Jordan Invitational in Palo Alto, Calif. Grunewald hasn’t wavered on her aim for the season — to compete in the 1,500 at the U.S. championships in June — and showed in last Monday’s workout that her fitness is peaking.
Even if her racing season is cut short, Grunewald plans to keep moving, knowing her sport provides a unique weapon in a battle that is mentally and physically exhausting.
“More often than not, when we go on a run, everything else kind of melts away,” said Justin Grunewald, a former Gophers runner completing his residency in internal medicine. “It’s just us and the river and whatever else is out there. Then, she’s not sick. She might have something going on, but she’s so far from sick.”
Grunewald said she was “rusty” at the Payton Jordan meet, where she finished in 4 minutes, 20.17 seconds. She planned to race a variety of distances this spring but chose to concentrate on the 1,500 after learning in March that her cancer had returned.
She has become a reluctant expert on her rare illness, which originated in her salivary glands. Adenoid cystic carcinoma frequently recurs and often spreads to major organs, such as the lungs and liver. After her initial diagnosis, during her senior season at the U, she had surgery and radiation therapy; 18 months later, the cancer spread to her thyroid, requiring more surgery and treatment.
It took her only five months to return to elite competition. Over seven years as a pro runner, Grunewald has raced at distances from 800 to 5,000 meters, on the road and the track. In 2014, she won the U.S. indoor title in the 3,000 and competed at the world championships, and she continued to lower her times as she trained toward last summer’s Olympic trials.
At the trials, she finished 12th in the 1,500. A few weeks later, Justin was hugging her when he felt something unusual in her abdomen. Tests showed a large tumor on her liver, ending 6½ cancer-free years.
Surgeons removed half her liver Aug. 26. Following a long recovery and gradual resumption of training, she learned in March that the cancer had returned, in tumors too small to be surgically removed.
“It just becomes emotionally numbing at some point,” said Grunewald, who bears a 13-inch scar on her abdomen from the August surgery. “I have heard the words ‘you have cancer’ so many times. But I still feel hopeful about what treatment can do.
“Now, I know I may not get to the point where I have zero cancer in my body. But people can live a long time with metastatic disease, and have a good life. And running has helped me. I know my body can do more than fight cancer.”
Racing and raising awareness
As she prepared for the TC 1 Mile, Grunewald said she “couldn’t feel better” physically. She has been running about 60 miles a week in lower-volume, high-intensity workouts, seeking the time standard of 4:09.50 required to compete at the national championships in June.
Grunewald is hoping to participate in upcoming clinical trials at Sloan Kettering, and she is grateful to live in an era of significant advances in cancer treatment. Her sponsor, Brooks, recently signed her to a two-year contract extension, demonstrating faith that she will resume her career.
If Grunewald does require chemotherapy, she anticipates it will start around June 1. Her hope is to race as much as she can before then, knowing the treatment’s effects will be unpredictable. Barker expects her to wring the most out of every meet she enters.
“It’s amazing how someone can be so fast and run so well and be sick on the inside,” he said. “I know she’ll do as much as she possibly can. She’s fully committed.”
That extends beyond the track. Grunewald plans to step up her already considerable efforts to raise awareness and find a cure, using social media, public appearances and her platform as an athlete.
Thursday, she wants to make a statement simply by running, in a race she wasn’t about to miss.
“I get so few opportunities to race in Minnesota, it would have felt wrong not to run,” she said. “And rest doesn’t cure cancer.
“I’m in new territory now, and it’s pretty overwhelming to think about how serious this is. But I know how to live life as a cancer survivor. I’ll continue to carry on.