(Ladia Albertson-Junkans and Gabriele "Gabe" Grunewald share time on the trails.)
Ladia Albertson-Junkans was 15 minutes away from running a relay race in the Minnesota high school state finals when she realized she didn’t have her spikes. She frantically asked other runners if she could borrow a pair that they weren’t using for the next few minutes.
Only one runner said yes: Gabriele Grunewald, who turned out to be Alberton-Junkans’ best friend, teammate at the University of Minnesota and constant source of inspiration.
“We were in different classes so we had never raced or even really interacted at meets before that,” Albertson-Junkans says. “But she was more than happy to let me use her spikes. Unfortunately, they were a little bit too big. So I still ended up wearing my tennis shoes, but that really stuck with me.”
Lighting the fire
Before she became a competitive high school and collegiate runner, Albertson-Junkans played team sports like soccer and basketball. When she didn’t make the cut for her soccer team, she joined the cross-country program.
“Once I found cross country, I realized the aspect of soccer and basketball that I had always enjoyed was, running,” she recalls. “I didn't actually really enjoy being responsible for a ball or having technical skills. Those pieces actually kind of stressed me out. Once I realized that I just really enjoyed the running part, it was kind of a no-brainer to continue with it.”
Having success during her first season also fueled a fire that burns today. Albertson-Junkans remembers holding off another runner in to win a race.
“Members of the boys team were all cheering for me and one of them threw me a deflated football, kind of a celebratory thing,” she says. “I just remember feeling really uplifted by the support people were showing me. And I think that was probably my first taste of what it felt like to be good at something and be recognized for it.”
From there she went on to win a state cross-country championship as a sophomore and compete in state events in track. Even as a youth, she preferred the trails over the roads.
“Cross-country was definitely my favorite,” she says without hesitation. “I really think that was because of the team aspect of cross country. I just love bringing people together, and I especially love being able to bring people together through running. And I think cross country just really embodies that.”
Bonding with Gabe
After high school, she enrolled at the University of Minnesota where she would instantly bond with Grunewald. Both runners arrived on campus with similar approaches and lofty aspirations.
“We didn't really care about the status quo or how you're supposed to act when you're a freshman coming into a program and there are seniors who maybe are used to doing things a certain way,” Albertson-Junkans remembers. “Both Gabe and I were just kind of like, ‘You know what? We want to be good runners, and we're confident that we can do that and where we’re going to do it the way that we think makes sense."
The training partnership really worked well. “She really pushed me on the speed end, and I think I pulled her along, on the endurance end,” Albertson-Junkans says.
They were the only two freshmen to qualify for regionals, setting the stage for achieving a bigger team goal years later.
The Minnesota women’s cross-country team won its first Big Title when Albertson-Junkans and Grunewald were seniors. “That was a really big deal for us,” she says. “It started before we were even freshmen. It was kind of the long term goal for our coach who had been with the program for many, many years. We had been striving toward this for the past four years. It was just really, really special.”
So, too, are the friendships formed among the teammates.
“Many of the women on my team in college are still my best friends to this day,” Albertson-Junkans says. “You just really form a lifelong bond, going through those training sessions, and then also getting to race together and really push yourselves alongside other people that you just really enjoy spending time with.”
Albertson-Junkans and Grunewald still get to see each other about five times a year, even though they live half a county apart. Their bond has strengthened not only through athletic glory but personal challenges.
During their junior year, Albertson-Junkans’ stepdad died of cancer.
“I went through a pretty rough time with that,” she says. “I was living with Gabe at the time. A lot of the time I was pretty withdrawn and kind of more reserved. Gabe was just always there and she didn't like push me to talk about it, if I didn't want to, or push me to feel any certain way if I, just wasn't feeling up to whatever. She’s just very accepting and patient, and that really meant a lot at the time and even more so in hindsight.”
In a way, the roles would reverse a few years later when Grunewald was first diagnosed with cancer.
“She had such strong resolve when she was first diagnosed,” Albertson-Junkans says. “She was really adamant about not letting the cancer define her and continuing on with her life the way that she envisioned it unfolding, and that was, being the best friend that she could be. And that was graduating and going on to get her master's degree.”
Grunewald has battled cancer on and off during her post-college career as she also strives to remain at an elite running level.
“The way that she really carried herself through, a really scary and life changing time, was really inspiring to me because I hadn't responded to the adversity in my life with the same kind of grace and composure and resolve as she was showing,” Albertson-Junkans explains. “I already had so much respect for her, but then seeing how she was dealing with this adversity, my respect just continued to grow exponentially.”
Grunewald is actually the one who encouraged Albertson-Junkans to try out for Team USA Minnesota, a semi-professional group in Minnesota. “She was a part of the group at the time, and she really thought I still had a lot of potential,” Albertson-Junkans says. “She really kept encouraging me in my running. She's always been my biggest supporter and my biggest fan.”
Albertson-Junkans did join Team USA Minnesota, which led to her finding trails.
“How quickly things can change and I think about how lucky I am that I'm in a position right now, where I can do something that brings me so much joy,” she says. “When I get to hard points in workouts, I think about how Gabe would love to be at this point. Gabe has shown me the gift of being able to push ourselves through running, a pain that we choose and can control. That inspires me to dig deeper during those hard moments in a race or workout, because I know that's what she would do.”
Heading to Western States
While Albertson-Junkans has found success on roads and trails, she has been doing ultras for less than two years. In that time, her love of the trails has grown.
“I love the opportunity to explore a new place,” she says. “What drew me to the trails in the first place was a sense of adventure, an opportunity to have a destination. It was in the run that was about more than just getting exercise. Maybe it's getting to the top of a peak and having a really awesome view that just kind of puts life and your day into perspective. Maybe it's about just moving through a peaceful forest and appreciating nature. The trails made running about more than just running.”
Albertson-Junkans has paced at Western before, though the race will only be her second beyond 50K. She earned a Golden Ticket with her second-place finish at the Bandera 100K.
“It’s laughably ridiculous to hear that out loud,” she says, admitting her focus has been on the Boston Marathon, which was less than a month from the time we talked. “I haven't actually been thinking too much about Western States at all, which I think is kind of a good thing. I don't want to get too excited or too amped up too early. I do think that this marathon training will build a really nice base, and then doing some more vert and climbing before Western States.”
Her previous pacing duties at Western gave her an inside look at the race but also deepened her appreciation for the trails and ultra community.
“When I had the opportunity to be a pacer and see this event for the first time in person, I was just blown away by it,” she says. “It really kind of changed my perspective on ultra running in the best way possible. It just showed me what a team sport ultra running really is. And I was so moved by that and I was also so moved by the opportunity to watch one of my really good friends, Katelyn Gerben, blow our expectations out of the water in her own racing.”
A shared lesson
Albertson-Junkans also learned a valuable lesson while pacing Gerben that she used during a rough patch at the Bandera 100K.
Halfway through, she recalls, her legs were feeling good and she was where she needed to be. “I was really surprised. I just felt like everything was clicking and going smoothly. I was completely appreciative of the fact that that was happening, because I knew that any number of things could happen.”
And boy did they.
Around Mile 45, Albertson-Junkans tried to take a gel and she instantly started projectile vomiting. “It was a lot of vomit and I was like, ‘All right, well that was interesting.’ I don't know where that came from or why that happened, but OK, we're moving on."
She moved on down the trail. But up came the vomit. After another gel. After water. Albertson-Junkans was worried about how long she could keep running without calories and hydration.
“There were some moments where I sat down and just tried to collect myself,” she says. “I really was starting to doubt whether I could physically get myself to the finish line at that point. And my husband was running with me at the time, because you can have a pacer with you for the entire last half at Bandera.”
Her husband, Adam Frye, gave Albertson-Junkans the advice that she gave Gerben at Western States. For the last 20 miles, dedicated every mile to someone or something special in her life.
“I had talked about that with my husband about how inspiring that had been to watch, how visibly important it had been both for her and for me,” she recalls. “And so he started doing that with me, about those last five or so miles where I was really, really struggling to continue on.”
As Albertson-Junkans headed toward the finish line, she dedicated five minutes to figures in her life. Of course, Grunewald was among those who Albertson-Junkans thought about.
“It was Gabe, it was the strength and resilience that she shows, and her passion for bringing joy and hope to other people in their life. And I dedicated miles to my mom, and to my sister and just the things that really mean everything to me, and just kind of grounding myself in those important parts of my life. It had nothing to do with running, but also have everything to do with running.”
Albertson-Junkans is eagerly anticipating having Gabe and Justin Grunewald at Western States for support. They will be spectating and ready to jump in and run with their friend around the Placer High track.
“I'm excited that they get to see Western States in person,” she says. “It means everything to have them there, being my biggest fan and being my biggest encourager, to continue with running. She’s also my biggest inspiration in my running. Even when she's not able to be at races in person, she's always cheering for me and always sending me texts, then checking in afterward. I always know she's with me in those races, but to have her there in person will be very special.”
Name: Ladia Albertson-Junkans
Hometown: Stillwater, Minn.
Number of years running: 20
How many miles a week do you typically run: 55-75
Point of pride: I was raised to be Midwest modest so that's a hard one. But a moment I will always remember was winning the Big Ten Team Cross-Country title in 2008. Gabe and I led the team that day, finishing mere seconds apart, so that made it extra special.
Favorite race distance: whatever distance I'm training for :)
Favorite pre-race or training food/drink: I don't have any pre-race routines and I'm not the best at planning ahead so ... whatever I can find? Ha ha :)
Favorite piece of gear: My Brave Like Gabe racing top
Favorite or inspirational song to run to: I don't listen to music when I run but I love listening to anything upbeat and poppy on the drive to a race!
Favorite or inspirational mantra/phrase: Brave Like Gabe (aspirational, inspirational, motivational)
Where can other runners connect or follow you: I'm on Strava under my name, and @ladiahallie on Instagram and Twitter.