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Chemotherapy, Then the U.S. Championships, for Gabriele Grunewald

Candor will not banish fear. But it does give her a sense of agency.

“I’m a young adult with cancer,” Grunewald said. “I don’t always love talking about it. It’s not a made-for-TV movie. It’s real. It’s scary.”

She gives and she receives, and that helps. “I love when people reach out to me, because it helps me get out the door.”

We walked to a tent behind the grandstand. Not so long ago, her life story formed a sweet narrative with a Rocky curlicue.

Grunewald grew up in tiny Perham in Otter Tail County, a three-hour drive northwest of Minneapolis. She rode the bench in basketball. Running, even as temperatures dropped to 10 below and ice formed on her lips, was her freedom.

“Small-town politics could make team sports a headache,” she said. “Running was all about you.”

Photo

Grunewald giving interviews at the Prefontaine Classic. “It’s just kind of rough,” she said of her cancer. “That shadow keeps sneaking in.”

Credit
Chris Low for The New York Times

Grunewald claimed her only state title in her senior year and made the University of Minnesota track team as a walk-on. Her first year, she met a lanky marathon runner. He talked with her, and was so shy she wasn’t sure if he was flirting.

“She was standoffish,” the marathoner recalled. “She will say she pursued me. If so, she did it very indirectly.”

Across endless weeks running 65 miles, Grunewald became a serious contender. As a fifth-year senior in 2009 — she obtained a master’s degree in public policy — she got off to a fast start in the racing circuit. Then she felt a tiny cyst below her left ear. She had it checked out and fielded a call on Good Friday in a hotel lobby in Tempe, Ariz., where she was in a track meet. You have adenoid cystic carcinoma, a rare cancer, the doctor told her.

She felt a flutter of panic. She…

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