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Running on Hope: how Gabriele Grunewald inspires The National and others

Bryce Dessner of The National performs at Rock the Garden 2019, wearing a 'Running on Hope' t-shirt from the Brave Like Gabe Foundation.
Bryce Dessner of The National performs at Rock the Garden 2019, wearing a 'Running on Hope' t-shirt from the Brave Like Gabe Foundation.Nate Ryan | MPR

by Luke Taylor

July 04, 2019

I Am Easy to Find is the name of the National's new album, but for Gabriele and Justin Grunewald, it could also refer to the serendipitous way they first met and befriended the National's frontman, Matt Berninger.

Longtime fans of the National, Gabriele and Justin were in Los Angeles two years ago to attend a friend's wedding. They also planned to attend a concert by the National at the Hollywood Bowl, and the morning of the show, the couple went to brunch at a restaurant in Venice, Calif. "Ten minutes into our brunch, [the National frontman] Matt Berninger and his daughter were literally sitting on a bench right next to us," Justin recalls. "We decided we'd not really interrupt, but just ask for a quick picture, and he was just a super nice guy."

Gabriele Grunewald, a professional distance runner and University of Minnesota alumna, achieved athletic success while concurrently battling a rare cancer first diagnosed when she was 22. Gabriele's perseverance, as well as her foundation, Brave Like Gabe, resulted in far-reaching admiration and a huge social-media following. Earlier this year, Matt Berninger joined those ranks of Instagram followers. "I think [Berninger] follows, like, 70 people," Justin says, "so Gabe thought that was a big deal. And then later he reached out and invited us to one of their pre-tour-date shows in L.A., and gave us backstage passes."

Justin describes the April 26 show as "amazing." Held on April 26 at the Orpheum Theatre in downtown Los Angeles, the event began with a screening of the short film I Am Easy to Find, followed by a Q&A session — moderated by Sleater-Kinney's Carrie Brownstein, no less — with filmmaker Mike Mills, actor Alicia Vikander, and the National's Berninger and guitarist Bryce Dessner. After an intermission, the National came out and played a two-hour show that featured guests Feist, Phoebe Bridgers, Kate Stables of This is the Kit, and Arcade Fire's Richard Reed Parry.

Sadly, Gabriele died on Tuesday, June 11, from complications of liver cancer diagnosed in 2017. On June 12, while performing a show at Brooklyn's Prospect Park, Berninger dedicated the National's performance of "Light Years" to Gabriele Grunewald. "She was one of the fastest women on the planet," Berninger told the audience. "She was one of the bravest women on the planet; one of the nicest, beautiful spirits I'd ever met … She's never leaving me. She's here tonight, so this is for Gabe — Gabriele."

According to Justin, all the members of the National shared a special connection to Gabriele. "A lot of them are just very moved by her story, and I guess, our story," Justin says.

When the morning of Rock the Garden arrived, Justin — who, like his wife, has a passion for running — went for a run with The National's Aaron Dessner. "A lot of them actually are avid runners," Justin explains. "They run to blow some steam off because they tour like madmen, and you need to find some normalcy, I think, between a bus, a flight, and a stadium, and doing that for months on end."

Justin gave Aaron some t-shirts to share with his bandmates, and on the night of Rock the Garden, Bryce Dessner was onstage wearing a "Running on Hope" t-shirt from the Brave Like Gabe Foundation. Justin says the purpose of the Brave Like Gabe Foundation is twofold. "The initial vision, the number-one bullet point, is to fund rare-cancer research," he explains. "The number-two bullet point is to keep people active who are dealing with stuff in life."

Justin, a medical doctor, says that being active can help not only with cancer and cancer treatment, but with related and other diseases. "Going for a run, going for a jog, going for a bike ride, a swim, whatever you can do to break a sweat and increase your dopamine levels, all those things fight off anxiety, depression," he says. "A lot of people that get diagnosed with something like cancer suffer from anxiety and depression because it is depressing; it sucks. But keeping people in those scenarios active, obviously, lends to more hopefulness, and the more active you are, the more likely you are to be able to tolerate different treatments, and it just increases your survival."

The National aren't the only ones who have helped raise awareness of the Brave Like Gabe Foundation. For example, Justin says that a week to the day that he and Gabriele met Matt Berninger, they met Chip and Joanna Gaines of the HGTV program, Fixer Upper. Justin Grunewald credits the Gaines family's philanthropy and their Silo District Marathon in Waco, Texas, with raising "around a million dollars now for the foundation."

More running-based events are planned to raise funds and awareness for the Brave Like Gabe Foundation, and Justin says the Brave Like Gabe 5k will continue to be held in Minneapolis each year in April or May.

"I think she'll remain a huge inspiration in the cancer world, but I think it's so much bigger than that," Justin says. "It's a tough world; it only gets harder with politics, climate change, whatever you want to discuss. Every time you flip on the news, I think it's 99 percent doom and gloom and about one percent hope. So just trying to increase the hope and lessen the doom and gloom is a major goal of the foundation.

"Since she passed, it's been beyond crazy," Justin says of the attention Brave Like Gabe has received. "The amount of public outpouring and people she touched and people whose lives she's affected has only gone up and up and up."

Brave Like Gabe Foundation - official site

The National - official site