No matter what was happening in Gabriele Grunewald’s life, running was her North Star. Taking to the trails never failed to soothe her fears, ease her pain, amplify her strength or nourish her soul.
As the former Gophers runner was laid to rest Monday, running served the same function for those she left behind. Following Grunewald’s funeral mass at the Basilica of St. Mary, about 150 mourners assuaged their sorrow in the place where they knew they would feel Gabe’s spirit: on an asphalt path, just down the hill from her grave site.
“Gabe could get through all of her hard times, because she always had running,” said Grunewald’s sister, Abigail Anderson. “And it’s something I’ve turned to when I don’t know what else to do. It’s been a comfort for all of us, and a way to channel all these emotions.”
Grunewald, 32, died Tuesday after a decade of fighting a rare cancer. Her friends, family and admirers paid tribute by running or walking 1.405 miles — her favorite number — on the Minneapolis Diagonal Trail along the edge of Hillside Cemetery, where she was buried.
The wide impact of Grunewald’s life was reflected in the people who came to honor her.
HGTV stars Chip and Joanna Gaines were among those who ran, as were 2018 Boston Marathon champion Des Linden and 2012 Olympian Alysia Montaño. They were joined by many of Grunewald’s former Gophers teammates, members of the local running community and relatives and friends from her hometown of Perham, Minn.
In the final 10 years of her life, Grunewald became known around the world for her courage and hopefulness in the shadow of a terminal illness. Her death has been grieved globally, too.
Her husband, Justin Grunewald, has received messages of sympathy from six continents, and memorial runs have been held around the country.
Grunewald often said she loved running because it made her feel alive. Monday, it gave comfort to the mourners who snaked along the tree-lined path.
“Gabe would have loved this,” said Ladia Albertson-Junkans, a longtime friend and Gophers teammate who delivered the funeral eulogy. “The rainbows are out. The sky has cleared. This is the kind of big, Technicolor run she dreamed of.”
Grunewald’s funeral mass drew hundreds of people, nearly filling the cavernous Basilica. Many wore buttons with the slogan “Brave Like Gabe,” the name of the foundation she established to fund research into rare cancers.
The illness that claimed her life, adenoid cystic carcinoma, is diagnosed in about 1,200 people each year, according to the National Organization for Rare Disorders.
During the decade she lived with cancer, Grunewald continued competing at a high level.
She won a U.S. championship in the 3,000 meters, finished 10th at the world championships, was an NCAA runner-up in the 1,500 meters and missed a spot on the 2012 Olympic team by one place. At her funeral, the emphasis was on the immeasurable impact she left.
Albertson-Junkans — who wore a sequined jacket during the eulogy, because “Gabe would be real annoyed if I didn’t put some levity and humor into this” — recalled meeting her at a state high school track meet.
She had forgotten her spikes, and Grunewald was the only person who offered to lend her a pair.
“She didn’t care about her legacy,” Albertson-Junkans said. “She cared about the here and now. … For someone with no interest in her legacy, she sure is leaving the greatest one of all: her faith, hope and love.”
While the white hearse led a procession of more than 30 cars to the cemetery, many of Grunewald’s friends already were preparing for the run.
One of Minnesota’s greatest-ever middle-distance runners, Carrie Tollefson, helped inflate balloons and set up a table at the start line with water and snacks.
Some people changed into T-shirts emblazoned with “Brave Like Gabe” or Grunewald’s other favorite slogan, “Running On Hope.” Those words, along with hearts, rainbows and Gabe’s name, had been drawn along the path with colored chalk. Chip Gaines, whom Justin Grunewald credited with hatching the idea for the memorial run, spoke to the runners as they stretched.
“Enjoy every step, the way she did,” said Gaines, who befriended Gabe when she trained him for his first marathon. “I’ll remember her for the rest of my life, and carry the ‘Brave Like Gabe’ torch everywhere I go.”
Just like that, a persistent sprinkle gave way to the sun. With the Kacey Musgraves song “Rainbow” playing on a boombox, Justin Grunewald and Gaines led the pack down the path.
Some ran with their babies. Some ran with their dogs. Women ran in their dresses, after swapping their heels for running shoes; men took off their suit coats and ran in their dress shoes and ties. Some struggled to the finish line, willing themselves to be brave like Gabe.
Grunewald’s family and friends are determined to keep carrying her message. The Brave Like Gabe foundation will continue, and Gaines urged “the whole world” to come to his hometown of Waco, Texas, next spring, where his annual race will pay tribute to Grunewald. Justin Grunewald also announced Monday that Gov. Tim Walz has proclaimed June 25 — Gabe’s birthday — to be Gabe Grunewald day.
She will be remembered in quieter ways, too, on running trails all over the world.
“We’ve all gone out and run every day this week, and every mile is in honor of Gabe,” Abigail Anderson said. “Every mile will always be in honor of Gabe.”
Rachel Blount • 612-673-4389