Distance runner Gabriele Grunewald dies at 32 after long battle with cancer

Gabriele Grunewald competes in the 1,500 meters at the 2017 U.S. Track and Field Championships.
Gabriele Grunewald competes in the 1,500 meters at the 2017 U.S. Track and Field Championships. –Rich Pedroncelli / AP

Saying, “I know I will never be able to fill this gaping hole in my heart or fill the shoes you have left behind,” the husband of distance runner Gabriele “Gabe” Grunewald announced her death Tuesday evening after a long battle with cancer.

Grunewald, 32, was first diagnosed in 2009 with a rare condition, adenoid cystic carcinoma (ACC), which resulted in the removal of a salivary gland as well as a tumor. Two years later she underwent treatments for thyroid cancer, but she didn’t let any of that stop her from becoming an all-American for the University of Minnesota before going on to a successful professional career.

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Among Grunewald’s accomplishments were finishing fourth in the 1,500 meters at the 2012 Olympic trials and, in 2014, becoming the U.S. indoor champion in the 3,000.

Along the way, Grunewald became an inspiration to both cancer patients and fellow athletes, particularly as she opened up in recent years about her experiences. News that she had been moved to comfort care as her condition took a grave turn over the weekend prompted an outpouring of supportive messages from the running community.

On Tuesday, her husband, Justin Grunewald, said in an Instagram post that “Gabriele heard your messages and was so deeply moved.” He added, “She wants you to stay brave and keep all the hope in the world. Thanks for helping keep her brave in her time of need.”

In his post, Justin Grunewald also thanked “Fixer Upper” star Chip Gaines for leading a fundraising campaign to benefit St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital and his wife’s foundation, Brave Like Gabe.

“This has gotten extremely personal,” Gaines, who enlisted Gabriele Grunewald to help him train for a marathon, wrote recently in his own Instagram post. “To my beautiful friend Gabe, we love you and we are here for you every step of the way.”

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Grunewald’s last post to her Instagram account came on May 4, when she shared a photo of herself in a hospital bed and said she would need a procedure for an infection. She expressed disappointment at not being able to participate in her foundation’s 5K race, held in St. Paul, Minn., to raise funds to combat ACC.

“It’s not lost on me that maybe this is one of the most poignant ways to show just how critical research is,” she wrote at the time. ” . . . But I’m gonna be brave and fight these fevers and hopefully the procedure will help me out big time. Prayers very much welcome.”

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According to her foundation’s website, Grunewald had approximately 50 percent of her liver removed in 2016 after a recurrence of ACC, and a scan in 2017 showed small tumors on her liver. She told Health last year that her “dream” was “to go back to one more Olympic Trials in 2020″ and that she wanted “to leave the sport on my terms, not on cancer’s terms.”

Justin Grunewald announced last week that his wife was being returned to an intensive care unit because of septic shock. He followed that with news that her condition had “worsened with worsening liver function causing confusion,” and that she was being moved to comfort care.

“Gabe, your light will forever guide us,” her longtime sponsor, Brooks Running, said in a post after her death.