Ultramarathoner races for a cause

By Amanda Lauer | For The Compass | September 19, 2013

Founder of Snowdrop Foundation of Wisconsin raises awareness for childhood cancer

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APPLETON — Brian Gruender is a computer programmer for Secura during the workday but he could be considered a superhero in his off time. This father of four is an ultramarathoner and uses his talent to help kids who are fighting cancer.

Brian Gruender (Amanda Lauer | For The Compass)
Brian Gruender (Amanda Lauer | For The Compass)

Running is a relatively new pastime for Gruender. Basketball was his main sport when he was growing up in Kenosha. He was inspired to run by his dad. “He had been running for about 30 years or so and was in much better shape than I was. I remember watching the Ironman on TV when I was a kid with my dad and I said, ‘I’m going to get back in shape’ and thought it would be cool to try that,” recalled Gruender.

“So we started doing some smaller distance triathlons together. I found between the swimming, biking and running that I really loved the running. I did my first Ironman (and) it kind of opened up my mind to what our bodies are capable of doing, both mentally and physically. I started reading a book by Dean Karnazes, the ultramarathon man. He talked about running 100 milers and 50 milers and all this cool stuff and I didn’t even know people did that. I signed up for my first 50 miler in 2009 and I just loved it. I loved training, I loved the race, I loved everything about it.”

Training for long-distance races is time consuming. “When I trained for the Ironman and the 50-miler that year I felt really selfish because I spent a ton of time by myself. I was probably putting in 20 hours a week just training,” said Gruender. His perspective on running changed when he and his wife, Laura, were confronted with a medical issue with their daughter Makelie, who was born in September 2008 with a giant birthmark, called a nevus, on top of her head.

“At first we thought it could be cancerous so we went to Children’s Hospital in Milwaukee and they did some scans on her head and there were no cancer cells underneath it. We were still committed to having it removed because it could turn into melanoma,” he said.

Makelie underwent eight surgeries between the ages of 6 months and 3. During the surgeries, the Gruenders stayed at the Ronald McDonald House.

“That was really the first time in my life, to be honest, that I saw volunteering and true selflessness from people,” said Gruender. “Each room had a diary in it and so if you stayed there you’d write about what you were going through. The first night we got there I was crying reading what people were going through.”

That experience was life-changing for the couple.

“It gave us a new perspective on life. We knew when we went home we needed to get more involved in the community. I came up with this idea last year to run from Kenosha to Appleton. I was contacted by ‘Worth the Hurt,’ which was basically a cause-based running group run by the San Francisco Marathon and they selected six ultra-athletes from across the country that they wanted to represent the brand and I was one of them,” he said.

It gave him the opportunity to travel around the country doing different races, that included doing the San Francisco Marathon, back-to-back. “So I went out there and we spoke to some of the participants of the expo. I met Kevin Kline who started Snowdrop Foundation.”

That meeting was so impactful that in October of 2012, Gruender started Snowdrop Foundation of Wisconsin. The mission of the organization is to provide college scholarships to pediatric cancer patients and survivors and to raise awareness and funds for pediatric cancer research. The beneficiary of the fundraising is Children’s Hospital of Milwaukee.

This summer, Gruender created an event called 24-4-24. He challenged himself to run 24 marathons over the course of 24 days. The number 24 is significant because that’s how many beds are in the pediatric cancer unit at Children’s Hospital in Milwaukee. From July 4 through July 27, he and three other ultra-endurance runners, one from each region of the United States, including Kline, committed to run 26.2 miles each day.

Those were the most grueling miles Gruender had ever endured. The event not only raised money for the foundation but also awareness as they had national media coverage from CNN and CNBC.

Every day Gruender ran for a specific child battling cancer. At the end of the last marathon, he was met at Riverside Park in Neenah by several of the children and their families. “It is the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done,” he said.

This experience has been quite the life lesson for Gruender.

“Selflessness goes a long way and sometimes it’s easy to get caught up in your own little world and I just found that my life has had so much greater meaning since I started doing this,” Gruender explained. “It makes me a better father at home, a better husband. Things are happening that aren’t really fair but it makes me appreciate my own family and my kids even more.”

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Your Catholic Neighbor

Name: Brian Gruender

Parish: St. Thomas More, Appleton

Age: 38

Words to live by: “Dream, believe, inspire.”

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