Brave Like Gabe

At Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run, one of the world’s oldest ultra races and one of the toughest to get into, I crewed and paced for Ladia Albertson-Junkans, a Brooks-sponsored runner who lives in Snoqualmie, Washington. Ladia ran the storied race to honor her best friend Gabe Grunewald, a professional runner and founder of the Brave Like Gabe foundation, who died in June. (Check out Erin Strout’s stories on Women’s Running for more information.)

Honestly, Ladia’s training wasn’t optimal. She dedicated much of the race lead-up to being by Gabe’s side and to supporting Gabe’s husband Justin Grunewald and her family and friends. But Ladia was ready in that she was brave. Determined to accomplish a feat that most people (I’m guessing) cannot even fathom, she dove in.

It’s a physical, logistical, and tactical challenge to run from Squaw Valley to Auburn, California—not just for racers, but for their crew, too. It captivated me and the rest of Team Brave Like Gabe. Ladia assembled a strong, smart, and funny team, and we over-filled our roles whenever we could. We worked exceedingly well together; that’s what believing and listening and trying can get you. It was an honor for us to witness incredible racing, from the front to the back of the pack, be it between competitors or against the clock. (For in-depth and interesting coverage of the race, check out iRunFar.)

I paced Ladia from Foresthill to the Green Gate aid station. For just over 18 miles, we moved the slowest I’ve ever gone on a trail with Ladia, but her effort was likely the highest. Despite our lack of speed, it was gut-wrenching.


Afterward, I couldn’t sleep. Maybe because of the Coke I drank at aid stations when trail angels aka volunteers doted on her with kindness and attention to detail and I danced a little to Robyn to lighten the mood. Maybe because of tears that rolled hot down my face. Maybe because headlights beamed into my eyes each time a car zoomed past our rental, Dusty Daisy, parked in the shoulder near No Hands Bridge. As the rest of the crew slept, or at least closed their eyes and breathed heavy, I tapped a long text message chain to myself with blue, glittered thumbs. I wrote:

She is with you

when you take the race out strong and fast, the way you know how

She is with you

when you climb the escarpment and turn to look at the sunrise and hug it out with your fierce competitors

She is with you

as you float past wildflowers and green leaves that reach out and up over the trail

She is with you

when your stomach flops and turns

when your heels shrivel and blister

when your quads seize, slowing you to a ginger wog down a rocky path

She is with you

as the sun sinks low and shines golden light on the ridges across the valley from us

as you sit, head down and crestfallen that this path it goes up and up and up

as you puke (profusely) and rally

as you say “Good job” to passing runners who express their concern, excitement, focus

She is with you

as you nibble on a corner of a saltine cracker, drier than a communion wafer

as wisps of clouds turn pink, reflecting another miraculous sunset

as a planet emerges and twinkles red-hot

as stars shine in infinite constellations I misidentify

as ribbits and croaks echo around us

as crickets start their evening songs

as the river rushes clear then beyond our vision in the dark, way past our “expected arrival” window, but the best-laid plans, well, they look good on the spreadsheet and on paper

It never happens like they say it will. There’s pain in leaving and being left, in running into and through and away, and struggle in these journeys. And peace and love and light and the darkest of darks and all the things you are and feel.

She is with you

when you’re on the couch

when you want to text her

when you’re startled by the absence

if or when you sob

if or when you get confused

if or when you don’t know what to do

She is with you

just different than before.

The waves, they say, roll through like the ocean or this undulating trail that winds itself away from you and, simultaneously, to you. It’s impossible until it’s not. It’s giving it everything you’ve got and, let me tell you, you squeezed every last drop with a steely grip again and again until there was nothing left. Not even bile in the middle of the trail, not even blood down your shorts.

that is brave AF

the toughest, grittiest effort I’ve witnessed

the most painful heart-wrenching game I’ve played

the most earnest and helpess/ful shadow I’ve been

I can’t take away your hurt

I can’t fill in

I can’t make you eat

But I feel the jagged edges of a gaping, aching wound

and I want to tend to it

But all I can do is stand back

and hope



shine my glitter nails in the headlamp




tell you we are proud, no matter what happens, and oh we are




say right, left, cracker

sip, sip, nibble, nibble

like three legends advised, encouraged, reinforced

even when you say NO

even when you say THIS IS WRONG

even when you say I DON’T WANT TO PUKE IT BACK UP

I know, shhh, I know

you don’t have to say anything

you don’t have to do this

you don’t have to make anyone proud

we already are and we




you take care of yourself

she understands

she knows

she loves you

pain is not weakness leaving the body

pain is not the answer

pain won’t make it all go away





fills itself

like the white beam you bounce along the trail




your shine when you see friends

your hug when you pass a spectating acquaintance

your stride when you run

anything but this, I think once, your longest race by far, on the heels of an incredibly taxing month and, no, it’s not an excuse but it’s a large factor

I’m sorry I’m not her

I’m sorry I can’t even come close

But I ask her, I pray to her. Can you give me her nausea? her pain? or could I even bear it? I would try. Please, Gabe, just give me some. So she can run free or run at all and fuel and tend to her own light, which is yellow like yours and shimmering but now fading, wavering, then flickering and alighting again. By some act of God, or maybe you, maybe it’s you, keeping her upright, maybe it’s you lifting one leg then the other. Please, I hope it’s you.

Help her believe in herself

Help her take care of herself

Help her refuel and repower up, like that eccentric man sitting on a rock next to the trail said

Help her believe me when we find ourselves on another impossible hill or descent in this dusty ravine into which we’ve worked ourselves for you

for you

she will listen

she will smile

she will breathe deep

and drink from whatever flows

like the most beautiful waterfall that bubbles and pools over the trail, that carves its way through stone and root, finding the way to the river, with gravity on its side, unlike us.




that’s the power of this B.S.

of sparkling

of emptying the tank

and filling it with technicolor fuel

When we see her next, at No Hand’s Bridge, she is moving and intent. She sips a blue icy and brushes off the bubbles that float on a warming breeze, and then ultra-shuffles across the span. When we see her next she’s striding up from Robie Point, gazelleness intact, eyes more shiny than glazed, and spirit high with the rising sun. I think Gabe is extra, extra, extra proud of her right now, and tears overflow my dam, even before she runs through the iron gate and turns onto the red track at Placer High and throws her arms wide and crosses the line.

View this post on Instagram


Hey @gigrunewald, we made it to Auburn!!! . . That “we” includes Gabe and Justin and our besties and Abby and her brothers and my trail angels/pacers @elizabethwcarey and @adamcfrye and my crew angels @jcgharvey @sarahpizzo @kaitschiltz and my mom and every volunteer along the way who lifted my spirits and offered me Coke and tater tots and @malvanessel and @megherrick7 who filled me with sparkles every time I saw their smiling faces and every one of you who followed along and sent me even more sparkles and shared your miles and love and strength and @ellin203 and @ski765 who kept Farmer happy and loved while we were away. Gabe never gave up so I couldn’t either! For me, this is another reminder from Gabe that we can do hard things — especially when we do them for reasons bigger than ourselves. Thanks, team. We did it . . #bravelikegabe #runningonhope #ws100 . . @ultrarunnerpodcast

A post shared by Ladia Albertson-Junkans (@ladiahallie) on


3 Replies to “Brave Like Gabe”

  1. This is beautiful! Brave like Gabe! I never heard of her before reading online she only had days left to live. After that, I searched her name and inspiration continues to flow from that moment on. Thank you all!

    Liked by 1 person

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