Molly Bookmyer’s journey to the Olympic Marathon Trials is fueled by gratitude and a vivid awareness that a healthy life, and healthy running, are a distinct, and joyful, privilege. She shares how her experiences with medical challenges and survival have shaped her relationship with running and her pursuit of big goals.

Running has challenged me, helped me grow as a person, been my source of freedom, and allowed me to chase my potential without limitations. Running gives me the freedom to feel alive and enough hope to dream.  

Molly Bookmyer representing Ohio State in college cross country competition

I started running when I was young, as a way to get involved in other sports. I quickly took a liking to it and eventually had the opportunity to walk on to my college team. I improved a lot during cross country my freshman year and eventually made the varsity team. This gave me the opportunity to travel to races and compete, but I started to struggle with frequent injuries. After 3 years, a tibial stress fracture helped me decide to leave the team. As part of my exploration to understand why I continued to get stress fractures, I ended up at my OBGYN. She suggested I get some blood work done. Most of the blood work came back normal; however, one hormone was elevated suggesting a possible cyst by my pituitary gland. The only way to know for sure was to get a brain MRI. I got a scan and to my surprise, I received a call explaining that not only did they find a small cyst by my pituitary gland, but they also found a second tumor in the right ventricle of my brain. The next 2 years included a Spinal Tap to look for cancerous cells, MRIs every 6 months to monitor the tumor’s growth, and multiple visits with different neurosurgeons. My physical activity was not restricted at this time, and I used running as a way to keep myself both mentally and physically healthy. I didn’t run more than a few miles a day—running was a way to clear my head after a stressful day of work. After 2 years of monitoring the tumor’s growth, my surgeon at the Cleveland Clinic decided the best course of action was to remove it.

Left image: Molly Bookmyer recovers from brain surgery in her hospital bed. Right image: Molly Bookmyer shows her cranial scar from brain surgery

I had surgery in January of 2015. The surgery lasted about 7 hours and I had to stay in the hospital for about a week post-op as they monitored my progress. The next few months of rehab were difficult. I suffered swelling on my brain, which caused temporary paralysis on the left side of my body. I lived at home for 8 weeks with my parents because I couldn’t take care of myself. I developed hydrocephalus and needed a second emergency surgery 3 months after my first. I wasn’t cleared to do any strenuous physical activity, but I was allowed to walk. I started to walk on the treadmill at home for 30-45 minutes to build some strength back. Eventually, 8 months after my surgery, I was cleared to run again. Being competitive, I quickly pushed myself to get back to running and ended up having a seizure while running on a treadmill after work.

It sounds a little crazy after writing this all down, but through it all, I never lost the joy I felt when I was able to move my body. Whether it was a walk, jog, or run; I always loved the way I felt alive after I moved my legs.  

In the two years after my brain surgeries, I got engaged and was thrilled to marry my best friend. We met in college and he was with me through everything. Eric and I got married in August of 2017, and I was so excited to start our lives together. We had the best wedding day and a beautiful honeymoon in Sonoma and the California Coast. Shortly after we got home from our honeymoon, Eric started complaining about back pain. He isn’t one to complain so I urged him to see a doctor.

Molly Bookmyer and her husband Eric on their wedding day

I still remember the day so clearly. I was on my way to run with friends after work when I received a call from Eric. He’d talked to the doctor and they wanted him to come back because they thought he could have cancer. I remember thinking, “Cancer?! What, there is no way. We just got married. This is supposed to be a happy time, he is not supposed to be sick.” All these thoughts were running through my head. I didn’t know what to do, so I went out on my run. Alone. And just cried. We’d been through so much the few years prior that this just seemed unfair.

Everything moved really fast. Doctor visits, tests, surgeries, chemo. It felt like we couldn’t catch our breath. During this difficult time, I turned to running more than ever. I didn’t know how to take care of myself while also being there for my husband, but running gave me space. It gave me space to think, to clear my mind, and to feel alive. Running took on a whole new meaning to me at this time. It was the thing I could count on when it felt like everything else around me was uncertain.  

Eric eventually beat cancer and finished his last round of chemo in the spring of 2018. Watching him fight cancer was the hardest thing I have ever done, and it’s what inspired me to run a marathon. I gave up running competitively in college but watching him fight for his life showed me what it means to be tough. I wanted to show myself that I am strong like he is and that when things get hard, I can stick them out. I ran Grandma's Marathon in 2018, finishing in a time of 2:46. One minute shy of the 2020 Olympic Standard.

This sparked my desire to run at a high level. The next year, I ran another marathon to qualify for the 2020 Olympic Trials and finished third in my first USATF Road Racing Championship. As life and running happen, my highs were quickly brought down. I suffered a sacral stress fracture in August of 2019. I did my best to get to the line healthy for the 2020 Olympic Marathon Trials; however, I was diagnosed with a femoral neck stress fracture the week before the race. This was an injury I could not run through, and with a lot of tears, I had to pull myself off of the start list.

Three years later, I feel like I am a completely different runner. I have learned to advocate for myself in training, how to fuel my body for higher mileage, and how to cope when races do not go as planned. I continue to set even higher goals for myself.

Molly Bookmyer racing the Toronto Marathon in her Oiselle race kit, and smiling for the camera before her race

The thing that inspires me about the running community is that running is there for everyone and can mean different things for us at different points in our lives. I never expected to have had two brain surgeries or for my husband to have cancer. But, being able to be healthy standing on the opposite side of our battles, I feel privileged to be able to live a healthy life. Running at a pro level challenges me in different ways, and I'm still faced with setbacks and injuries. But, when I am faced with a challenge I choose to remember how far I have come and to appreciate that these challenges continue to make me a stronger person.

I had to leave running completely to learn how running makes me feel alive, to learn that setting challenging goals is a privilege, and to learn that the pursuit of chasing big goals will come with failures. I feel grateful for my inner circle and those who believe in me and I’m excited to continue to chase my potential.

Head Up, Wings Out. See you in Orlando.

Molly will be lining up February 3 in Orlando, Florida to compete for a spot on the 2024 US Olympic Team. Follow her preparation on her Instagram. You can learn more about Molly’s incredible journey to elite running by listening to her story on the following podcasts:

Check out our other Underbirds' blogs (Carrie Verdon, Ari Hendrix, and Bri Boehmer), and learn more about the program here.