Wisconsin priest, 80, strives to add to his list of 83 marathons

Father Dale Grubba inspires everyone he meets in more ways than one. At age 80, he’s been a Catholic priest for more than fifty years and has completed 63 marathons as a runner and 20 as a hand cyclist. What’s more, he shows no signs of slowing down even after three health setbacks within a year.

“I’m very competitive in everything I do,” Fr. Grubba explains. “In the 2019 New York marathon while racing as a hand cyclist following one of my surgeries, I beat my biggest challenger. That was the ultimate satisfaction.” 

Fr. Grubba, who lives in Princeton, WI, which is about 60 miles north of Madison, started running on his 40th birthday. He saw a copy of Runners World on a newsstand with a cover article entitled, ‘Run your first marathon.’  He picked it up, took the author’s advice, and ran his first marathon in nearby Milwaukee that same year. Now, he counts Auckland, London, New York City, Havana, Medoc-France and the elite Boston (eleven times) among the long list of marathons he has completed as a runner.

“My best running moment was probably the first time I did the Boston,” he says. “Because in that race, everyone is really good.”

Fr. Grubba’s running and racing was on the fast track for 34 years. He estimates that he logged 60,000-70,000 miles until around age 74 when he experienced pain in his right knee. Determined not to let it slow him down, he struggled for four years before finally seeking advice from Dr. Wayne Paprosky, a joint replacement surgeon at Midwest Orthopaedics at Rush.  He had heard about Dr. Paprosky’s surgical skills from a friend, so Fr. Grubba wrote him a letter explaining his passion for running and desire to get back to full speed. Dr. Paprosky’s office contacted him immediately and assured him that knee surgery would not put an end to his lifestyle.

“When I met Dr. Paprosky, he looked at my imaging and said, ‘that is the ugliest knee I have ever seen,’” Fr. Grubba jokes. “I liked his confidence and explanation of the outpatient, minimally invasive surgery techniques he uses. He told me that the knee prosthesis would last about 17-20 years and I said that’s longer than I needed because at age 78 I would be with my maker by then!”

“Father Grubba and I just clicked,” Dr. Paprosky says. “We bonded over our mutual love of auto racing and his determination to get back to his high level of activity was really inspiring.”

Following the successful total knee replacement performed by Dr. Paprosky, Fr. Grubba finished physical therapy earlier than expected and was ready to get back on track. Unfortunately, back pain surprised him one morning and interrupted his recovery plan. “It came on all of a sudden,” he explains. “I could hardly get out of bed because the pain was so great. I just wanted to lie on the floor and scream.”

After stabilizing the pain, he prepared to undergo a minimally invasive laminectomy procedure by another member of the Midwest Orthopaedics at Rush team, Dr. Gregory Lopez. However, before the scheduled spine surgery and just one year after his knee replacement, he suffered another major health setback: a heart attack.

“I had no idea what was happening,” Fr. Grubba says. “But since many in my family had died of heart attacks at much younger ages than me, I knew it was a possibility.”

His treatment included a pacemaker and following that procedure, he recovered more quickly than doctors expected. “I think my good physical shape helped me bounce back quickly once again,” he explains.

He was relieved when he was cleared for spine surgery.

“The minimally invasive surgical techniques that I use allowed for less stress overall on his body,” explains Dr. Lopez. “He sailed through the surgery.”

When Fr. Grubba awoke in the recovery room, he was free from back pain. And, true to form, just six weeks post-op, he ran in a four-mile race. 

Today, to give his knee and spine a break, he has shifted his athletic focus to using the elliptical in workouts and hand cycling on the road. Hand cycling is powered by the arms rather than the legs, typically using a recumbent three-wheeled cycle, and is allowed in marathons.

“At my age, I don’t want to fall into the trap of complacency,” he says. “I want to do whatever I can to maintain the same physical shape because I know it’s going to be too hard to get it back again.”

He credits the good care he has received at Midwest Orthopaedics at Rush. “I knew what I wanted to accomplish, and it was well worth the extra drive time to get to the best care,” he explains.  “Drs. Paprosky and Lopez gave me the ability to continue to confidently live my life doing what I like to do.”

If you would like to visit Dr. Wayne Paprosky to discuss your joint pain, or Dr. Gregory Lopez to discuss your spine pain, call 877-MD-BONES or visit www.rushortho.com.