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From chemotherapy to starting line, she faces nation’s best in race unlike any other

Gabriele Grunewald trains May 8 at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn. Grunewald plans to take the starting line for the 1,500 meters Thursday at the USA Track & Field championships.
Gabriele Grunewald trains May 8 at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn. Grunewald plans to take the starting line for the 1,500 meters Thursday at the USA Track & Field championships. (Minneapolis) Star Tribune

Gabriele Grunewald intends to be on the starting line for the women’s 1,500-meter race Thursday night at the USA Track & Field Championships at Sacramento State.

On Sunday, her 31st birthday, Grunewald plans to return home to Minnesota, where she will have a party. On Tuesday, she’ll receive her next scheduled chemotherapy infusion.

Grunewald, an elite middle-distance runner, has a form of cancer called adenoid cystic carcinoma. It first appeared eight years ago in her salivary gland and later spread to her liver, requiring surgery last year to remove a large tumor. In March, a post-op scan revealed new tumors in her liver. This is Grunewald’s fourth bout with cancer.

She started chemotherapy June 6 and had another infusion a week later. This week is a break from treatment. She’s spending it in the triple-digit heat of Sacramento, ready to race against some of the fastest runners in the world.

“This is just what I do,” Grunewald said with a smile Wednesday. “I don’t know how else to go through cancer. I don’t want to sit on my couch.”

Even as she began treatments this month, Grunewald was still trying to achieve the time of 4 minutes, 9.5 seconds needed to qualify for the 1,500 meters at the national championships. She fell short by less than three seconds, but was one of 19 runners with the next-fastest times chosen by USATF to round out the field.

“This is the first time I’ve really tried to race in the midst of (a cancer bout),” Grunewald said. “I needed to have goals throughout this treatment. It’s just been tough. And running is something that’s always made me feel excited and positive, and I can see some forward momentum.”

Grunewald’s first diagnosis of adenoid cystic carcinoma, a rare metastatic cancer, came in 2009 and led to surgery. Two years later she was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. It was a different kind of cancer and unrelated, she said, but still required surgery and radiation.

Then came years of no symptoms. Grunewald finished fourth at the 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials in the 1,500, just missing an Olympic berth. She won the 3,000 at the 2014 USA Indoor Championships to earn a trip to the IAAF World Championships.

Last August the cancer returned, this time in her liver. Grunewald said her husband, in giving her a hug, noticed that her abdomen felt strange. She underwent another surgery, one that left her with a curving scar on her stomach. After recovering, Grunewald hoped to run a full track season this year. Her post-op scan in March ruled that out.

Continuing to train amid chemotherapy, Grunewald said her most obvious symptom is simply fatigue. Races present their own challenge.

“I can run short intervals fast; I can still do that,” she said. “And I can also run longer intervals slower than race pace. But everything in between is hard.”

As such, Grunewald said she cannot predict how she will feel during Thursday’s first-round race, in which the field will run at high intensity for upward of four minutes.

“Everybody’s goal (Thursday) night is to advance to the final. So that’s my goal, too,” she said. “I’d love to advance to the final. But I know there’s probably a slim chance that’ll happen. But if the race goes out slow, who knows? Maybe I can hang in there.”

After the championships, Grunewald said she will not race the rest of this summer and instead focus on her health. The past six weeks have been a mix of training, treatments and public discussions about her cancer battle. She is looking forward Thursday to the routine of race day, of preparations and walking to the starting line.

“My diagnosis, there’s a lot of uncertainty about how this is going to go,” Grunewald said. “There’s no standard of care for me anymore. I hope to get back to being cancer-free and I hope I can race again in the coming years without being on chemo. But the truth is I don’t know if that’s going to happen.

“So if this is the end of my pro running, I just want to kind of enjoy these last few races. My life as a cancer patient, I don’t know where that’s going to take me. There’s just a lot of uncertainty. So I’m trying to just get the most out of this.”

Wednesday afternoon, Grunewald was on hand at the downtown Sheraton Grand Hotel as USATF and the American Cancer Society announced a joint campaign to raise awareness and funds for cancer research. The campaign, called “Together: Nothing Is Impossible,” will encourage Americans to pledge money for each medal Team USA wins at the IAAF World Championships in London in August.

“There’s thousands of people out there struggling with this disease and I think the hardest thing to do is to keep living your life in between treatments,” Grunewald said.

“For me, the physical and mental and emotional challenges all affect my running and my life. But I don’t want to give up on running just because I’m a cancer patient. It’s important to me. And I love it.”

Off and running

What: USA Track & Field Outdoor Championships

When: Thursday-Sunday

Where: Sacramento State

Tickets: $18-$25 daily; $65-$145 four-day pass; sacsports.com or at the box office

TV: Friday, 7:30 p.m., NBCSN; Saturday and Sunday, 1 p.m., Ch. 3

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