My candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends—
It gives a lovely light!
– Edna St. Vincent Millay
Justin Grunewald is back home in Colorado, fresh off a third-place showing at the Grindstone by UTMB 100k in Virginia. He has returned just in time to work back-to-back double shifts at one of the two hospitals - one in Minneapolis and one in Boulder – where he sees patients.
Despite exhaustion and the desire to spend some time with his partner, ultrarunner and coach Amanda Basham and their two young children, Grunewald makes time to respond to some last-minute questions, follow-up to an earlier interview. I want to know how Grindstone went.
“Honestly,” says Grunewald, “I’d say the race went well. I went into it having no idea where I’d be after a disappointing CCC (100k, a part of the UTMB Trail Running Festival in Chamonix, France) and taking a week of running off. The body felt surprisingly well and it was awesome to see 66 brand new miles on race day.”
“I thought going in,” he continues, “that if I ran what I did (9:12:46) I would get a golden ticket, (into next summer’s Western States 100-miler) but the Calebs (Olson, 8:54:43, and Bowen, 8:59:29) both ran super strong races out front. I moved my way up the field from 15–20th to 3rd by around 45 miles, but they both kept a good lead running together and I was unable to catch them. Bummer to miss a golden ticket by 1 spot for the second time this year, but I am stoked to say I ran a whole 66 miles without really hiking or any interruptions, and I have never done that before, so looking forward to more racing ahead!”
“I had my stick-on “Running on Hope” tattoo on my right quad,” Grunewald adds, “and when it got hard, I glanced down at that.”
When things get hard, Justin Grunewald can always return to that.
“Running on Hope” is the rallying cry of the Brave like Gabe Foundation, which was founded in 2017 by Grunewald and his first wife Gabriele, an elite track athlete and World Championships finalist, who was battling Adenoid Cystic Carcinoma, a rare form of cancer. Gabe continued to run world-class times in middle distance events even as she endured chemotherapy and other treatments. She died in 2019 at 32.
Imagine for a moment what it must take for a woman, to not only battle a rare, recurring cancer for nearly a decade, but continue to train and race at a world-class level, and not only that, but also start a foundation to raise awareness and advocate for those with rare cancers, all while taking the fight against her own illness public via social media and YouTube, making a private saga most public, indeed.
“Gabriele, for better or worse,” Justin says, “was good at all of it. She was relentlessly positive.”
Gabe took naturally to living in a bubble that she both created and orchestrated.
Justin? Not so much. He was more of what those in the ultra community might admiringly call a “grinder.” He was working hundred-hour weeks as a medical resident, while fitting in middle distance workouts with Gabe, and trying to find a comfort zone as the more reluctant half of an ever more public couple. He may not have enjoyed it then, but one thing Justin Grunewald has long been world-class at is showing up, putting one foot in front of the other, stacking one hour on top of another…grinding it out.
“I was uncomfortable. You have to make yourself vulnerable to a lot of things. Like all the people with fake cures…it was hard. I found the YouTube series moderately invasive, but I’m grateful. It made me feel the need to tell the rest of the story.”
It was a story that resonated with the running community, both in the Grunewalds’ native Minnesota and nationally. People poured out their hearts to Gabe and to Justin, and poured money into the foundation, which to date has raised over 1.3 million dollars.
The story did not stop with Gabe’s death, nor did the outpouring of love from strangers. It seemed the more Justin told the story, Gabe’s and his own, the greater the love from the community. But strangely, it was love that brought out an ugly side in some who were perhaps overly-invested in Gabe and Justin’s life.
Some who had followed Gabe and Justin’s story wanted to encase them eternally in amber, trapping Justin forever in the role of nobly suffering young doctor who had lost his beautiful and courageous beloved. Keeping Grunewald in a state of suspended animation somehow helped them ease their own pain, so when he found love again with Amanda, these people, fueled by a sense of betrayal, lashed-out on social media with cruel messages, “stuff that makes you want to throw up,” says Grunewald.
“Ninety percent of people were wonderful when they found out about Amanda and me, genuinely happy. The other ten percent who responded were so, so angry.”
Ever the healer, Grunewald sometimes responded, asking these folks about their own pain, why his happiness hurt them. Some of them turned introspective, maybe looked for an answer. The others? They would have to find their own way forward, just as Grunewald continues to do, honoring the love he and Gabe had, while embracing the new and miraculous love he has found with Amanda and the kids.
“You don’t move on, exactly,” he says, “That scar is there forever. But you do move forward.” Justin Grunewald, the grinder, knows a thing or two about moving forward.
Our first conversation takes place shortly after UTMB week. Amanda had run well, finishing 19th, 4th American in the 106-mile main event, a sign of ever-increasing post-partum fitness, while in the 100-kilometer CCC event, everything that could go wrong seemed to for Justin, including – hilariously in retrospect – his two year-old daughter removing the drawstring from his tights, leaving him to shuffle along, constantly hitching them up as he made his way through the Alps. With inexplicably hammered legs, he pulled the plug before the finish, to protect his hard-earned fitness, and race another day. He retired to his parents’ house in northern Minnesota for a few days to “hibernate” before returning to the happy chaos of family, training, keeping tabs on the Brave like Gabe Foundation, and, oh yes, commuting between two hospitals 1,000 miles apart.
I note that he seems to enjoy having a lot on his plate.
“I do tend to burn the candle at both ends,” he laughs, which is the understatement of the century. More like a vast candelabra, a waxy conflagration of two-way tapers.
It is running that seems to create a sort of equilibrium, a space where he can keep each of those full plates spinning. It has always been running. Even in the darkest days of Gabe’s illness, as he tried to be present for her, to manage his own grief, and get through hundred-hour weeks at the hospital, there was time to slip away for a few miles, blissful even through blinding fatigue.
“When I had no energy, running became my energy,” Grunewald says now. “It was the one thing I could control when everything else was spinning out of control,” something every long-time runner understands on a cellular level.
There is fatigue in his voice, even now, but also a sense of peace, like he lives in the eye of a storm that suits him. This is supposed to be a Dream Chasers piece, so I ask him if he can put a finger on just what dream he is chasing.
He laughs. “With two little ones, it’s all trial and error.” There’s a shrug in his voice. There’s the foundation and some exciting events to further its mission. There’s the chase after golden tickets and redemption in Chamonix. There are the constant milestones in the lives of the kids. When a life has so many moving parts, the dream can be a little hard to pin down, put into a pithy quote. But one gets the feeling that Justin, Amanda and their merry crew are going to enjoy the chase, keep moving forward, keep on grinding.