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As the sun set and shadows of pines stretched over the trails of Buffalo Park on Friday evening, Stephanie Bruce spoke to a crowd about one of the brightest lights of her life she's ever witnessed, one that will remain luminous despite the source no longer remaining in the running world.

A crowd of runners -- from pros to coaches and to the average person who simply cherishes the sport -- attended a memorial event Friday at the town's running mecca set up by Stephanie to honor the death of Gabriele Grunewald, a star middle-distance runner who battled a rare form of cancer during her career.

Grunewald died Tuesday at the age of 32 after a long fight with adenoid cystic carcinoma, a cancer in the saliva glands. Those attending the event wore cancer ribbons of burgundy and ivory, colors that represent head, neck and throat cancer.

When Bruce heard about Grunewald's death, she began thinking about ways to pay her respects to a runner she met from time to time on the professional circuit.

“If it had been me, I would hope that people would go out for a run, so I messaged her husband if that would be OK, and he said he loved it," said Stephanie, who runs for NAZ Elite. "So it made me feel like it was appropriate and the right thing to do.”

Stephanie's husband, Ben Bruce, and some NAZ Elite teammates including Alice Wright joined in running with others for the duration of 14:05, a number that was special to Grunewald -- who was known by many as "Gabe." Flagstaff Eagles head cross country coach Trina Painter provided the race clock, and world-class athletes Sara Hall and Abdi Abdirahman were also in attendance.

For many of the runners at the event, Grunewald was a representation of the strength of the running community as a whole.

“The running community is like no other," Stephanie said. "People who are complete strangers can join and go for a run, and I don’t think you find that anywhere else in the world. It’s a unique community to be a part of, and we are there for each other in life and death, and I am just really thankful to be a part of it. I am grateful to all the people who came out to celebrate Gabe’s life.”

Grunewald was diagnosed with adenoid cystic carcinoma in 2009 while running for the University of Minnesota. In 2010, after surgery and radiation therapy, she was the runner-up in the 1,500-meter at the 2010 NCAA championships. Despite continued battles with the cancer, she continued her career at the pro ranks.

In 2017, Stephanie was in New York City to preview the NYC Marathon course, and during that time Grunewald was in the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, where Stephanie's mother and father each spent time during their battles with the disease.

“I just remember her trying to work around all her doctors appointments to make sure she got in her runs," Stephanie said.

Later that year in June, Stephanie and Ben were at the USATF Outdoor 10,000m Championships in Sacramento, where Grunewald was racing the 1500m, which was essentially her last race. Ben Bruce remembered how runners gathered at the finish line of Grunewald's race to celebrate with her and say a prayer.

Ben also recalled that it was hot that day, and several athletes made sure to leave the shade or air conditioning to show their support of Grunewald, who competed in the race despite being between rounds of treatment for the cancer that was then spreading to her liver.

The next day, Stephanie and Grunewald hung out together.

“Even then, it shows that in running, you want to beat people, but there is so much camaraderie," Ben said. "You know the work people put in, and you are able to race them on the track on the roads or at the mountain, or whatever, but away from that you can be friends."

Nearly three years before the outdoor championships, Grunewald was the 2014 USA indoor 3000m champion.

For the Bruces and others at Buffalo Park on Friday, Grunewald will always be remembered as a champ, an inspiration and as Stephanie said, a "hero."

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Mike Hartman can be reached at 556-2255 or at mhartman@azdailysun.com. Follow him on Twitter @AZDS_Hartman.

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