CANCER

Elite runner tackles cancer while crossing the finish line

Even while she is fighting cancer for the fourth time in eight years, elite runner Gabe Grunewald is keeping up a busy racing season—and inspiring thousands of people in the process.

This week she has a liver biopsy on Monday, begins chemotherapy on Tuesday, and plans to race a 1500 meters at the Music City Distance Carnival on Saturday night in Nashville, Tennessee. She’s hoping to run a 4:09.50 to qualify for the U.S. championships later this month in Sacramento. 

In a phone interview with Runner’s World on Sunday, Grunewald, 30, said she had planned her workouts around her treatment. Those include a hard track session on Sunday night, an easy run early Monday before the biopsy, and a day off on Tuesday. She hopes to resume training again on Wednesday. 

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Grunewald was first diagnosed with adenoid cystic carcinoma in 2009 during her college years at the University of Minnesota. She had surgery, but the cancer returned in her thyroid two years later. 

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Last summer, after five healthy years, she learned she had a large tumor in her liver, which was removed in August 2016. In March, scans showed the cancer had returned to her liver in the form of several more small tumors. 

But that hasn’t stopped her from racing. 

Grunewald has been on a cross-country tour of sorts, running five races in the past five weeks. Her season started at the Payton Jordan Invitational on May 5, in Palo Alto, California. Since then she has raced a road mile in her hometown of Minneapolis, gone to Los Angeles for another 1500 meters on the track (in 4:12.29, her season’s best), then run 1500s in Eugene, Oregon, and Boston. 

At each stop, as more people learn her story, she’s heard from growing numbers of fans who have contacted her through her website and social media. Many are going through their own cancer battles, and she’s been encouraged to learn how they keep living, working, and exercising through treatment. 

And of course, she is a source of pride for them. 

“I do feel like my story has reached a different demographic than elite runners,” she said. “It’s cool, overwhelming at times. It puts a little bit of pressure on me; I need to show people this is possible. But to be able to be an inspiration for people is awesome.”

She races with a long scar visible on her torso, a result of the 2016 surgery.

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And she feels she’s fit and fast—even with the tumors in her liver. Her performances so far this spring haven’t reflected the workouts she has done, she says. With an evenly paced race, she believes could run faster than 4:10 in 1500 meters. 

Doctors told her to expect a six-hour day on Tuesday for her first day of chemo, which will be delivered intravenously at the Masonic Cancer Center at the University of Minnesota-Fairview. Her protocol calls for two weeks on, one week off—so her off week would be during the week of the U.S. outdoor championships, should she qualify. 

She expects nausea to be the worst side effect during the early days of the first of four to six rounds of chemotherapy she’s expected to receive, and she’s not sure whether she’ll lose her hair. (She’ll wait and see before getting the buzz cut she had planned.) 

As for her race on Saturday, she plans to travel to Nashville no matter how she feels and make the final decision on race day. Her husband, Justin Grunewald, is a physician, and he’ll come with her. “Part of the reason he’s coming is to figure out if I’m fine to race,” she said. “I won’t do anything stupid.” 

Because the side effects of chemotherapy are cumulative, she thinks she might just be okay for another few fast laps around the track. About the race on Saturday, Grunewald is keeping an open mind: “I don’t think racing well is out of the question,” she said. 

This article first appeared on Runner's World.