As I look back on my life, there’s a roster of people who have been pivotal in shaping who I am today, who have influenced me so deeply that I can honestly say that I wouldn’t be me if it weren’t for them.
It’s not a long list and the majority of it is made up of the folks you’d expect: my dad, a close family friend who is more like an uncle, my high school baseball coach, my wife, Jo. Most of the names on the list are from early in my life, when I was young and impressionable and still figuring out who I was. So, it’s a big deal when — in my 40s — someone so special comes along who completely changes the game and shifts my entire outlook on life.
My life hasn’t been the same since the day I met Gabe.
It was October of 2017 and I was in New York to promote a book I’d just written called Capital Gaines.
(This is just a fun side-note that will make sense in just a minute; but, in the book, I wrote two versions of my obituary: one in which I had held back and lived a sorta sad and empty life, and one in which I had gone for it and lived a meaningful and full life. Well, for some reason, in the meaningful version, I decided to include that I had run a marathon—a pretty lofty goal at that point in my life.)
Anyway, I was sitting on a bench in Central Park and waiting to head to the airport. I haven’t really found the words to adequately describe how I was feeling, but I was just kind of stuck in my head. From the outside, my life looked exciting and fun; but, it had all come at me really fast and I was trying to figure out how to handle it all. I wasn’t feeling much of anything — just numb and tired.
My life hasn’t been the same since the day I met Gabe.
So I was sitting there, zoned out and watching the runners go by, when this guy caught my eye.
He wasn’t like the rest of the runners. He was the real deal, legit, seasoned.
Without thinking, I hollered after him asking, “How long would it take a fat guy like me to train for a marathon?” And, without turning to look at me or even breaking stride, he just held up four fingers and kept on running. I remember thinking, Four what? Weeks? Months? Surely, it’s gotta be years. But he just trotted off and that was that.
Until, a few minutes later, the same guy comes back around again except this time there’s a young woman running beside him. And clearly he’s given her a heads-up that some crazy guy was yelling at him from a bench, because I notice her glancing at me out of the corner of her eye. And then she does a double take. And then she stops and says, “Wait, Chip Gaines? Fixer Upper?” I smile and tell her that that’s me and ask her who she is. She tells me that she’s Gabe Grunewald and then she introduces me to her husband, Justin, and we all get to talking.
Our conversation that day was brief. We took a photo together. I got their address to send them a book. And we spent a few minutes getting to know each other. But there was something about the way they answered my questions — the way that they spoke about themselves and their circumstances with such strength really struck me.
It must have lasted only a few minutes, but, even in that short time, there was a spirit about Gabe that I was completely drawn to.
She was like a breath of fresh air.
I learned that she was a professional runner — an All-America at Minnesota and the 2014 national indoor champ in the 3,000 meters — and that she was currently in New York for some medical reasons, and at the park to run off some steam. Gabe was wearing a cropped running top and I could see that she had this big scar going down her torso. I asked her about it and she told me about how she had been diagnosed with adenoid cystic carcinoma, a very rare type of cancer, in 2009. She’d had numerous surgeries over the years during multiple battles with the disease, including a right hepatectomy to remove some of her liver in 2016 that had left the scar on her abdomen.
I was blown away by her spirit, and by the fact that she had kept competing at such a high level while she battled cancer for so many years. Even just in the way she spoke about it, she sounded like a fighter, like a champion. I felt very lucky to be hearing her story and very silly for how sorry I’d been feeling about myself just minutes before. There was something about her that made me want to be a part of whatever she was doing. I couldn’t believe the amount of resilience she had in the face of so much uncertainty and fear.
And I didn’t really know how to respond. What can you say that does it justice? So, without thinking, I told her that I was going to run a marathon and I wanted her to train me. I’m laughing now because, even as I said it, I was surprised by the words coming out of my own mouth.
But it just felt right and she agreed to do it, and that was that — the start to a friendship unlike any other I’d ever had.
Now the goal of running a marathon had been a fleeting thought in my head for years, but I’d never really said it out loud … much less published it in a book … much less talked to a professional runner who was committed to training me and holding me accountable.
I could come up with a list of excuses as to why I shouldn’t, but none of them even came close to holding up when compared to Gabe and what she had been through. There was no backing out. So the team at Magnolia and I started making plans to host a running event here in Waco, Texas. It would be called the Silo District Marathon, and it would feature a marathon, a half-marathon and a 5K. It would raise money for Gabe’s foundation, Brave Like Gabe Foundation, as well as other organizations that are close to our heart.
Plans came together quickly, and suddenly the date of the race was in sight. At this point, I could barely get a couple of blocks down the road without needing to stop for a break. Gabe and Justin had told me that day in New York that the four fingers he’d held up meant four months, and they were serious. So we took the four months and made the most of them. Gabe would track my distances and times and then set new goals for me — a sort of never-ending moving target. She was equal parts tough and encouraging — she had a way of not taking any of my whining while also making me feel like the greatest runner in the world.
There were ups and downs and lots of days that I wanted to quit. But, with Gabe in my corner, I put in the work and readied myself. And then, finally, May rolled around and it was time to run the race.
It was a beautiful day in Waco. We had an incredible turnout and the energy around the Silos was amazing — so many people who had spent months training to get to that day and were ready to show what they were made of. It was the most physically challenging thing I’d ever done, but I had this strategy for it that helped me a lot. I had different friends and family run little 2.6-mile sections with me, to break it up into 10 sections and make it feel like it wasn’t too much to handle. But my cramps were grueling. Jo had to run to a nearby gas station for pickle juice. I had to stop and walk in different sections just to keep moving. I knew that I was going to finish it, but I had no idea how. Around mile 19, Gabe popped between the ropes to run with me a bit. I don’t have the words to describe how it felt to have her by my side, cheering me on, pushing me towards the finish line.
And we eventually made it. My time wasn’t great, but I finished the dang thing.
And I felt proud.
I still do.
But, as much as that day and that marathon meant to me, this isn’t about my race — it’s about hers.
The next year, we had our second running of the Silo District Marathon. Gabe had planned to run the half with me, but her health had declined and she had to bow out at the last minute. But she was there. And hearing her cheer me on to finish strong was beyond powerful. Looking back, it was also heartbreaking — because we know now that she was also finishing her own race, and she was finishing strong. She had battled this thing for 10 years and it rarely gave her a break. It was a relentless fight against an opponent that didn’t fight fair. But, man, she was strong. The strongest person I’ve ever known.
Gabe’s health continued to decline over the following weeks. Jo and I were able to make it to Minneapolis one last time to say goodbye. This is an understatement, but, leaving her room, it wasn’t lost on me what a profound gift this had all been in my life — what a gift it was that we both just happened to be in the park that day in New York City … that I just happened to heckle Justin as he ran by … that Gabe just happened to notice me out of the corner of her eye … that I just happened to include the bit about marathon running in my book and that it just happened to spill out of my mouth as I was talking to her.
And that she just happened to agree to train me.
But, more than all of that, the greatest gift of all was that I had a front row seat to a small part of Gabe Grunewald’s life, to her greatest race.
I’ve never known a fighter like her — someone who shows up day in and day out, no matter the cost.
Even in her final stretch — in the small bit of her race that I was lucky enough to watch — she had all the joy and strength and determination in the world.
Gabe’s life and her friendship made me better.
I want to be more like her.
— Chip Gaines