It was on the morning of Good Friday in 2009 when the runner first met her cancer. She was a fifth-year senior at Minnesota, sitting in the lobby of a hotel in Tempe, Ariz., one day before a college track meet. The runner was born Gabriel Anderson, because her mom liked Biblical names and thought Gabriel evoked both strength and beauty. Plus, it would work fine for a boy or a girl, though the kids in elementary school ruthlessly truncated it to Gabe, which has stuck. One day she would marry a Gophers distance runner named Justin Grunewald and legally add an “e” to her first name, thus transforming into Gabriele Grunewald—but still Gabe to most outside her family. On this morning in Tempe, however, she was just an anxious 22-year-old waiting for a doctor’s phone call that would alter the course of her life.
Several days earlier she’d noticed a tiny bump below her left ear, and a doctor had performed a fine-needle aspiration to remove fluid. Grunewald remembers that procedure to this day because even with everything she has endured since, nothing has been more painful. The fluid was sent out for a biopsy, and Gabe kept training with her teammates, eventually flying off to Arizona. She was in good shape, ready at 22 to start a crowning college season in which she would finally win a Big Ten title, finally earn All-America, finally put up the numbers to launch a professional running career. Plus, it couldn’t be cancer. Just a few weeks earlier her mother, Laura, endured exploratory surgery for what doctors believed was advanced uterine cancer…only to learn post-surgery that she didn’t have cancer after all. The family had escaped. “I went from thinking my wife was going to die to everything is fine and dandy, all right there in a hospital waiting room,” says Gabe’s father, Kim. Life couldn’t be so cruel as to test them again—not this soon.
It was cancer. Gabe’s doctors told her she had adenoid cystic carcinoma (ACC), a rare form found primarily in the salivary glands that occurs in 3.5 out of every million cancer patients. (While there will be an estimated 255,180 new cases of breast cancer in 2017, only 1,200 to 1,300 people will be diagnosed with ACC.) “It’s a cancer most oncologists will never see,” says Naomi Fujioka, now Gabe’s primary oncologist at University of Minnesota Health.
She would need surgery to remove the tumor. In tears, Gabe told her coach, Gary Wilson, that she would seek another year of eligibility to achieve her goals, bureaucratic wrangling be damned. She then gathered her teammates by the hotel pool and shared the news. Ladia Albertson-Junkans, who 16 months earlier had lost her 49-year-old stepfather to Hodgkin’s lymphoma, was so shaken that she ran from the hotel in tears, a reaction she regrets to this day. Most of the others experienced it as a sudden first brush with mortality. “For those women,” says Wilson, “it was like hearing that one of [their] sisters had cancer.”
Gabe went back to her room and Googled ACC, and from dense paragraphs of scientific jargon one truth jumped off the screen: There is no standard of care. There are treatments and there is research, but there is nothing resembling a silver bullet. It is a whack-a-mole cancer that can be repeatedly swatted back into its hole, only to return in the same hole—or somewhere else—sometimes quickly or other times many years later. “It’s characterized by coming back,” says Fujioka. Gabe read all of this as “incurable.” She remembers that word; maybe it was on one of the web pages. “I thought, Well, that’s not good. What happens? People get this disease and just succumb to it?” She would later learn that curability is not binary, but something more nebulous, more intimate. She still applies the term incurable, but mostly as a means of dumbing down the complexity of her illness for laypeople, often media.
That weekend in Tempe, Gabe stayed with her team and 24 hours later ran a personal best of 4:22.87 in the 1,500 meters because it would have been a shame to let all that training go to waste. Later, back in Minnesota, she underwent a grueling six-hour surgery to remove the tumor and one of her six salivary glands, followed by two months of daily radiation treatments. It all marked the beginning of Gabe’s life with cancer, not the end. She couldn’t have known then just how challenging, how painful, how rewarding, how terrifying…how important that life would be.
More than eight years later, on the evening of June 10, Gabe was one of 15 women fanned out across the pale-orange surface of the track at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, host of the Music City Distance Carnival meet. They stood at the top of the backstretch, where the 3¾ laps of the 1,500 meters begin, but a grove of live oak trees blotted out light from the towers that rose above the track, leaving the racers in a fuzzy half-darkness just before the gun. They would come off the line like ghosts emerging from the cornstalks in Field of Dreams. The day’s 87-degree heat had given way to a pleasant stillness, so sweet for racing. Grunewald lined up fourth from the inside, wearing a yellow racing top and a blue bottom.
Since that morning in Tempe, cancer had come back three times. First there was thyroid cancer in 2010, just a year after her initial diagnosis. This was an entirely different kind of cancer, which at first confused everybody (but which now seems like a footnote). In the days between those first two cancers, Gabe, now 31, had lived—and run—voraciously. She learned that ACC five-year survival rates are very high (approximately 89%), and she attacked those five years. “Just fit in everything I can,” Gabe says. She procured that extra year of eligibility and took a whopping 10 seconds off her 1,500-meter PR, down to 4:12.06. She finished second at the Big Ten championship, second at the NCAAs and scored a modest pro contract with Brooks. Justin was away at medical school, in Duluth, so she also stayed out a little later, drank a little more beer and a little more red wine, escaping and experiencing a life she’d avoided in her past. “Sometimes those nights ended in tears and drama,” she says, “because I would get emotional about everything.” She had surgery on the thyroid cancer that fall, followed by one treatment with radioactive iodine, and then she bounced back quickly.
The big cancer, ACC, stayed away for seven years, and in that time Gabe carved out a career as a solid professional middle-distance runner. She finished fourth in the 1,500 meters at the 2012 Olympic trials, ran a personal best in the same event in ‘13 (4:01.48; only 10 American women have ever run faster) and won the indoor 3,000-meter national title in ‘14.
Then the ACC came back last summer in the form of a cantaloupe-sized tumor that absorbed two thirds of her liver. Doctors took it out, leaving a 13-inch, purple fishhook-shaped scar on Gabe’s abdomen. Six months later, the ACC came back again, this time in the form of 12 small tumors on her liver. Multiple treatment options were considered, and rejected, before doctors prescribed a course of chemotherapy. Gabe delayed treatment to try to achieve the qualifying standard, 4:09.52, for last month’s U.S. national championships—that would be her goal for the year. Her season’s training had started late because of the abdomen surgery, but she was in respectable shape. Now she would have to hurry to qualify before chemo. “We were going to have to cram a lot of training into a short time, which is never a good thing,” said Gabe’s longtime professional coach, Dennis Barker.
She ran 4:20.17 in a May 5 race at Stanford, and then two weeks later, in Southern California, 4:12. It was as fast as she would run this year.
But Gabe did something else, too: She began to talk about her cancer with anyone who asked. She developed a short, digestible version of a long, complex story for reporters. She sat for hours for a mini-documentary funded in part by Brooks and in part by the American Cancer Society. She shared endlessly on Instagram and Twitter. (She also devoted multiple days to this story.) All of this was exhausting and did nothing to help Gabe in her pursuit of 4:09. “It was so far out of my comfort zone, and it was overwhelming,” Gabe would say later. “I was conflicted about how much I wanted to share, like if I didn’t talk about my cancer maybe it wouldn’t come back. But a lot of people are suffering from this. It was totally worth it.”
Others agree. Alan Ho, a medical oncologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, has consulted on Gabe’s case, and he says he’s already seeing more attention paid to ACC “since Gabriele has been so generous in talking about it.” Gabe, meanwhile, has seen dozens of people reach out on social media, including a woman who raced against her in college and whose husband has ACC.
On the night of June 2, Gabe ran 4:17.75 and finished fourth in a 1,500- meter race at the Boston Boost Games in Somerville, Mass. Uneven pacing cost her, but she also felt lousy. She was to begin a first round of weekly chemotherapy for the liver tumors three days later. The window was closing. Minutes after the Somerville race, Gabe stood on the grass next to the track, goose bumps rising on her slender arms in 62-degree chill. “O.K., that’s it,” she said. “Time to for me to start treatment. Time to move on to the next thing.”
But she didn’t. On June 5 she spent four hours in a lounge chair at the Masonic Cancer Clinic at UM Hospital in Minneapolis while bags of Cisplatin and Vinorelbine were dripped into her bloodstream through an intravenous line in her left forearm. (Gabe’s chemotherapy regimen calls for weekly infusions on a three-week, on-on-off cycle; she will get at least four cycles, possibly six.) Then, four days later, she flew to Nashville to take one more crack at 4:09.
It did not go well. Unlike the Boston race, this one was evenly paced and relatively quick: 65 seconds at 400 meters and 2:12 at 800. Gabe stuck her nose in it for half a mile, then she imploded, falling off the back. She staggered across the line in 4:28.88, 12th among the 13 runners who finished; she’d last run that slow when she was a sophomore in college. Afterward, she dropped to all fours on the track and rolled onto her side, crying.
For nearly eight years—but more intensely over the last 10 months—she had woken every morning with voices in her head, defining her mortality. She was sad about exotic vacations she thought might never be taken and weddings that might be missed; she feared she might never be a mother but was grateful for a rich, short life. “I’ve lived my dreams, married my dream guy,” she says. She was by turns resigned (“Modern medicine and my faith will lead me to whatever ends up happening”) and willful (“No one knows how long I can survive this; I take that as a challenge”).
She was enduring it all while living and running, but the chemotherapy was one punch too many, and now she lay on the pebbled surface of Vanderbilt’s track, wasted beneath the lights. Sara Vaughn, one of Gabe’s best friends on the running circuit (where friendships are rare), helped her to her feet. “This is too hard,” Gabe said between sobs. “I can’t do this anymore.”
One day after the race at Vanderbilt, Gabe and Justin run an easy seven miles from their apartment in downtown Minneapolis, just west of the Mississippi River and in the shadow of the Vikings’ hulking new U.S. Bank Stadium. Gabe is still bothered by her performance. “I made an impulsive decision to spend $1,000 to fly to Nashville and [I ran] four twenty- eight,” she says, spitting out the time like it’s bad sushi. “I don’t want to make a joke of my sport. I mean, what am I doing?”
The athlete-with-cancer story is a familiar one. Athlete gets cancer. Athlete fights cancer. Athlete beats cancer. Or: Athlete loses fight and is mourned for battling bravely. But it is always more complicated than that. Gabe remembers the first time she got sick, in 2009, and then ran so fast afterward, with the word cancer in the first paragraph of every story. “I was being such a good cancer-survivor-runner,” she says, a little cynically, because back then she had no idea what lay ahead. All these years later, she is still battling her cancer with chemotherapy while trying to run footraces against fast, healthy opponents because it helps her feel alive and because maybe it will help others feel alive too.
Gabe is 5’ 6”, 110 pounds when she’s racing fit, rail thin and taut. Her face is elastic, twisting and scrunching to fit any mood. She is also feisty. In Nashville, Wilson, her old college coach, tried to console her, saying, “You’re inspiring so many people.” Gabe laughed: “I’m trying to inspire myself to be less of a dips—.” Now she adds, “I have no idea if I’m doing a good job of running on chemo. It’s such a strange, abstract concept.”
It’s another banality that some cancer patients fight harder than others and are rewarded with prolonged life, when in reality some are just less fortunate. That disclaimer aside, Gabe has always been the fighting type. She was raised in Perham, Minn., a town of 3,185 in the middle of the Lakes Region, 180 miles northwest of the Twin Cities. She’s the second of five children—three boys and two girls, the last two, twins—born to Kim and Laura, both 60, who met as teenagers in Grand Forks, N.D., and both graduated from the University of North Dakota.
The Andersons encouraged their children to play sports. Kim had been a state champion high school wrestler—Laura was a cheerleader; “that’s all we had,” she says—and in the winter he would take his kids ice fishing, six holes in the ice house and a bunch of tip-ups outside. Gabe was serious from the start. “I was not a popular kid,” she says. “I never even made homecoming court. It was a cutthroat competition.” Team sports were cutthroat too, and Gabe often saw her brothers succeed or fail based on the venomous whims of small-town sports politics. Running was the key that unlocked her spirit; she made the varsity track and cross country teams as a seventh grader and was competitive with the best small-school runners in the state. “With running, nobody could [choose not to] start me in a big game,” she says. “You got out of it what you put in.”
She didn’t have any boyfriends. “The boys in my town, they weren’t going anywhere,” she says. “They were going to [North Dakota State in] Fargo. Maybe. I didn’t want to go to Fargo.” Laura recalls, “Gabriele was much too strong for high school boys.” The guys on the cross-country team called her Grandma Gabe “because they were afraid to ask her out,” adds Caleb, one of her two older brothers.
Gabe didn’t win an individual state championship until the 800 meters in 2004, her senior year. In that race she upset the favorite by getting to the front and staying there, setting a three-second PR of 2:14.14. “She dominated that race,” says Jeff Morris, who coached Gabe her last two years at Perham High and saw what others would see later. “The word that describes her is grit. Every day she would push for faster workout paces. In her senior year I had her running with the boys.”
Gabe waffled on where to attend college. Her 2:14 brought late offers from some D-III and small D-I colleges, but she wanted to take a shot at Minnesota. Wilson, who had been coaching the Gophers since 1985, regularly sought to recruit home-state walk-ons with modest high school times, knowing some of them would prosper. He wrote Gabe several letters, inviting her to visit campus, but she kept stubbornly declining. “They were recruiting over me,” says Gabe. “They didn’t make me feel very wanted.” Wilson saw things differently. “I called her four or five times,” he says, “and she didn’t call me back. [Morris] told me to keep trying and I said, ‘No; this kid is a pain in the butt.’” Gabe finally traveled to Minneapolis that summer, spoiling for a fight. “God’s honest truth, before her foot even hit the floor inside my office I was thinking, This kid is tough. She walked in with an attitude, like, I’m gonna knock your head off.”
Gabe walked on at Minnesota with something to prove and she flourished. She ran on two Big Ten-champion cross-country teams and challenged for conference track titles in the 800 and 1,500 meters, before and after her first cancer. Albertson-Junkans remembers doing a workout with Gabe during their freshman year: a five- mile run, with the miles becoming progressively faster, before finishing with an all-out 800 meters on the track. “She would leave it out there in the 800,” says Albertson-Junkans, now an accomplished trail runner. “She had a willingness to dig deep and go to the most painful places. Most people back off. They get frightened. Gabe would embrace that discomfort and uncertainty.”
Wilson says, “I don’t want this to sound wrong, but she was resilient like a guy. Some women—and I love coaching women—will cry and say, ‘I hate you, coach.’ You could get in Gabe’s face, and she would stand there and take it. She was just, ‘O.K., I got it. Let’s go.’” Teammates remember the breadth of Gabe’s spirit. “Such a strong personality,” says Mallory Van Ness, who ran for three years with Gabe at Minnesota. “And a big karaoke fan. She’ll request Whitney Houston’s ‘I Wanna Dance With Somebody’ and get right up there.”
Her tactical strength was her kick. “She’s so fierce, so tough,” says Vaughn. “Not afraid to throw elbows or get gritty. So many times I would see her make a move at the end of a race and think, That’s the move I should have made.” But that strength was also her weakness. She would use her kick as an excuse for sitting just a stride too far out of the real race, or moving a second too late. Barker, her pro coach, says, “Physically, Gabe has everything it takes. The mental part was always a little harder. I’ve tried to get her to be more aggressive [earlier] in her races.”
Gabe made every U.S. championship 1,500-meter final from 2009 through, finishing as high as fourth in ’12 and fifth in ’14. She has had the misfortune of coming along in the same era as two of the best American milers in history: ’16 Olympic 1,500- meter bronze medalist Jenny Simpson and U.S. 1,500-meter record holder Shannon Rowbury. Those two have dominated the championship finals. It’s a tough room.