Minnesotan Gabriele Grunewald knows a thing or two about seizing the moment and pursuing even the most unexpected opportunities. Example: The professional middle-distance runner and former U.S. champion, known by many as Gabe, recently had a chance meeting with Chip Gaines of HGTV’s “Fixer Upper” fame as she ran through Central Park on a visit to New York City. Just weeks later, he’d recruited her to coach him as he trains for his first marathon in May in Waco, Texas.
After being sidelined this winter with an injury to her femur, she put the free time toward her own nonprofit. Launched in March, Brave Like Gabe (bravelikegabe.org) has a mission of supporting rare cancer research and empowering cancer survivors through physical activity.
On top of it all, there is the looming question of her health, which also is the inspiration behind Brave Like Gabe. Currently seeking treatment for her fourth battle with cancer — an incurable rare salivary gland cancer — Grunewald, 31, heads to the Mayo Clinic every two weeks for immunotherapy infusions, has periodic appointments at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York, and endures scans every three months.
While the disease is stable and her most recent scans have drawn positive or neutral results, indicating that some of the tumors are shrinking, she has developed a unique view of an inescapable human truth: We never know how much time we have left, so it’s vital to act in the moment.
Since her original diagnosis in 2009, Grunewald has done just that through competitive running. Not only has her unwavering commitment to the sport provided countless health benefits, it’s also offered a tangible path for relentless forward progress — a way to continue putting one foot in front of the other even in the most challenging moments. Now with her foundation, she hopes to share what she’s learned, all while raising money for rare cancer research.
“I’ve been a cancer survivor who is out there sharing my story for a long time, and in the back of my mind I’ve been wondering if there would be a way to use my story to connect with other patients and make a contribution,” she said. “Being an athlete and being active has really helped me, and I wanted to use my limited platform as a professional runner to raise funds and make a difference.”
First on the foundation’s agenda will be the Brave Like Gabe 5K on May 20 at Como Park in St. Paul. She is hoping the race will become an annual tradition for not only cancer survivors and those close to them, but also others who are inspired by her story of perseverance.
While she might not have the bandwidth to offer the same one-on-one coaching she gives to Gaines, she did share her top tips for getting into this year’s running season. Whether you’re a veteran or a newbie runner, her advice is relevant — and she’ll be right there with you as she stages her own comeback this spring on Twin Cities trails with her sights set on qualifying for the U.S. Track and Field Championships at the end of June.
1. Set goals early
“Signing up for a race is a great way to set a goal and put something on your calendar and then you can work back from there. Pick an event you’re excited about and maybe find a friend to do it with you. Having that big time or outcome-based goal is important, but process goals along the way can help keep you going. Things like transforming your habits, trying to run 4-5 days a week, or making a commitment to run with a friend once a week are all great process goals.”
2. Take the first step
“Know it’s OK to start off slowly with training. The first mile is always the hardest. I tell myself that you can’t judge a run by the first mile. Even when I’m not feeling like working out, I just commit to at least getting out the door and running a mile and once I get through that first mile, I always end up going further.”
3. Be patient
“Coming back from an injury right now, I can definitely relate to new runners and those who have taken time off. I’m a big fan of doing a run/walk program as you’re getting started with training. It depends on the person, but you could start with five minutes of walking and one minute of running, and then gradually stretch that out until you’re doing more running than walking.”
4. Recruit a running buddy
“It’s great to have a training partner to keep you motivated. Joining a running club that has all different levels of runners can be a huge way to stay on track with your goals. There are so many training groups in the Twin Cities that provide great community.”
5. Get the right gear
“Having well-fitting shoes with good support is super important. If you’re shoes are old and dirty, having a fresh pair can be a nice way to motivate you to get out the door. Also, in unpredictable spring weather, layers are key, especially lighter layers on top. I usually run with a packable light jacket this time of year so that I can take off and tie around my waist.”
6. Take R & R seriously
“Rest and recovery needs to be a part of every runner’s training — it should be written into your schedule. It’s just as important as the right workouts. Proper nutrition and getting enough rest at night go hand-in-hand with that. It’s the best thing you can do for yourself as an athlete.”
Mackenzie Lobby Havey is a freelance writer from Minneapolis.