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He defines 'selfless,' excels as ultra runner

Justin Grunewald works 80 hours a week as a hospitalist, prioritizes his wife’s running career and cancer battle, and somehow finds time to train. Given his hectic schedule, it’s no wonder he does hill workouts on a treadmill.

Earlier this summer, his unique hill training, time management and dedication paid off. In his first ultra finish, he won and broke the course record at the hilly and hot Afton 50K in Minnesota.

“Training on the treadmill for hills is interesting,” Grunewald says. “My coach, Mario Fraioli, basically came up with it. In Minnesota, we really lack hills so we decided to make it up indoors running decent stretches at 6-9 percent grade. Sometimes you feel like you are going to fall off and you obviously can't get the rocks, roots and other trail obstacles, but overall it has been going well for me.”

Grunewald ran cross country and track in high school and at the University of Minnesota. In recent years, he has fallen in love with the beauty of trail running.

“My good friend, Ladia Albertson-Junkans, encouraged me to check it out and showed me around the mountains with her husband, Adam, for a few runs,” he says. “I love the track and roads as well but there is something special about pushing your body up and down a mountain for an extended period of time not having any idea how it will end up or even what the course has in store for you.”

Inexperience dogged Grunewald during his first ultra attempt, the North Face 50K in San Francisco last November.

“Somewhere around Mile 13 to 15, I took a wrong turn and went a decent distance off the course,” he recalls. “After the wrong turn I basically felt sorry for myself and dropped out of the race between Miles 20 and 22, a decision I regret. I was very new to the scene did not really know what to expect out there. I begrudgingly ran with a hand bottle for the first time at the encouragement of my coach. In hindsight, I probably would not have made it 10 miles without the bottle and over the past months have essentially become dependent on hand bottles. I think I am learning a lot but still need to learn through future experiences.”

Long days, long runs

About a year ago, Grunewald finished his residency in internal medicine. He now practices at a large hospital, Abbott Northwestern, in downtown Minneapolis.

“It’s a fairly odd schedule and fairly odd lifestyle but so far, so good,” he admits. “I have continued to work similar to resident hours my first year but am looking forward to cutting back on work soon.”

Time management can be a challenge for most runners. For Grunewald, it’s at an extreme level.

“Honestly, when the training fits in, it fits in,” he explains. “You can't force it. Gabriele and I are both incredibly busy. I've been putting in some 80-hour work weeks and 30-plus hour shifts but I consider this training for ultras in some ways. Staying mentally sharp and focused while being awake that long can only help strengthen me mentally for long races ahead.

Like other runners who push themselves off the couch and out the door — or onto the treadmill — Grunewald knows the reward follows the work. “I've often dreaded going on a run or heading out for a workout, but after it's over I've never regretted doing it.”

His secret sauce is a power nap.

“The most important time-saving thing in my life is a 30-minute nap,” Grunewald explains. “I can sleep minimal, get home after a long day but a good 30-minute nap, followed by a strong cup of coffee usually gets me ready for the evening track session with the wife. I probably don't sleep enough, which I know is not ideal for training but a lot of trail running is learning to run on fatigued legs. I am doing trail stuff for the enjoyment of it and trying not to get too competitive with myself although Strava makes that hard at times.”

Fraoili says he could not be more proud of Grunewald’s progress.

“Justin busts his ass around an insane work schedule, does his hill work on a treadmill and doesn’t make excuses or complain about anything,” Fraoili wrote in a recent Morning Shakeout e-newsletter. “He also accompanies his wife on her own workouts and is just one of the most selfless people you’ll ever meet. One of his post-race texts to me sums up his character in a nutshell: ‘The best news is Gabe did 2xmile at threshold last night supposed to be 510 and ran 504 501 and looked great :-). Comeback is coming.’”

It’s clear that Justin is Gabriele’s biggest cheerleader.

“In regard to training, Gabriele is the pro and is incredibly inspirational to my own running so I like to put her training first,” he says. “We typically do two hard track or tempo workout a week along with a long run. Sometimes I add on to a workout or cool down home from the workout. Mario and I are going to work on making some hybrid workouts this summer and fall where I'll do track then hit the roads or hills for some extended work.”

Fighting a rare cancer, again

Gabrielle, the 2014 national champion in the 3,000 meters, is facing her fourth battle with adenoid cystic carcinoma. It’s a rare cancer of the salivary glands.

“Gabe's battle is continuous,” her husband explains, noting she is also dealing with a minor Achilles injury at this time so racing is on hold. “She recently had a liver directed therapy so had to take a few days off running but she bikes with me on those days. She is looking forward to lacing up the spikes and flats for some miles and possible 5Ks this fall. I think running gives us a lot of perspective and a little reprieve from dealing with treatments and stuff.”

While Grunewald has his own goals — qualifying for Western States 100 and/or UTMB, have fun and taking some Strava crowns — his highest priority is clear.

“My top priority is to get Gabriele fit to race and to a few starting lines soon,” he says.

Speed drill

Name: Justin Grunewald

Hometown: Brainerd, Minn.

Number of years running: 16ish

How many miles a week do you typically run: Very variable 50-110

Point of pride: Wife starting a foundation to raise money for rare cancer research, bravelikegabe.

Favorite race distance: I don't think I have run it yet.

Favorite pre-race or training food/drink: Variable between a pre-run Generation Ucan and Gatorade

Favorite piece of gear: Nathan hand bladder bottle

Favorite or inspirational song to run to: Terrible Love, The National, describes a lot of trail races

Favorite or inspirational mantra/phrase: bravelikegabe

Where can other runners connect or follow you: I am on Instagram and Twitter, not super active, typically being photographer for my wife's instagram

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