By David Monti, @d9Monti
(c) 2018 Race Results Weekly, all rights reserved
BOSTON (13-Apr) — Last summer, Serena Burla was training for the IAAF World Championships marathon. She had run an excellent personal best 2:26:53 at the Osaka Women’s Marathon in January, 2017, to qualify for the team and was excited to represent the United States at her second consecutive world championships. The cancer she had suffered in her right leg, a potentially deadly synovial carcoma, had been removed more than seven years ago and was far from her mind.
Until it wasn’t.
But on a warm day last July, the 35 year-old mother from Stafford, Virginia, got an unwanted visitor.
“I was training for worlds and I was out in Colorado, actually, doing some altitude training,” Burla told Race Results Weekly in an interview here today. “It was Fourth of July and I went to shave my legs and, and it was like it arrived overnight.”
Where she had had the surgery in 2010 to remove the sarcoma, she spotted another lump. She feared the worst.
“I was like, I don’t remember seeing that bump there, or where did that come from,” Burla recounted. “It was pretty much the same spot it was before.” She tried not to panic. “Everyone else was, like, ‘maybe it’s nothing.’ I had a feeling, and I’m a positive person. I think it’s back.”
She knew she had to be tested as soon as possible. However, she had put in so much preparation for the World Championships and still wanted to compete and wear the USA colors. After consulting with her doctor, family and coach, she decided to run and postpone her tests, and any potential treatment, until she got home from London.
“So I did go into Worlds not exactly knowing what was going on,” Burla explained. “So I decided, let’s just do Worlds. I did all this training, but I had an appointment scheduled pretty much immediately after that. It confirmed that it was a re-occurrence.”
In an emotional race where she stayed up with the leaders for nearly the entire distance, Burla finished 11th in 2:29:32, one place down from where she finished in the Beijing World championships two years before. She was proud of her performance, but had little time to savor it.
Back in The States, she visited her surgeon, Dr. Patrick Boland, in New York at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. Boland, who had removed the sarcoma in 2010, gave her the bad news. He took it personally.
“He was really apologetic,” Burla said. “He was really upset for me. We had the discussion and he kept saying, ‘I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry it’s back.’ I had a little time to process it because I assumed it was back, but even if that was true he had given me seven years.”
Another surgery was the best option, Dr. Boland said, and Burla decided to move ahead with it. She had beaten it once and she could beat it again.
“I told him, let’s do what we have to do to get this taken care of. But, you gave me seven years not only for my life but seven years of running I didn’t think I had.”
The recovery last summer and fall were tough, Burla said. She had been through it before, but that didn’t make it any easier. Starting over again was daunting.
“I had forgotten how hard it was to start over,” Burla admitted. “Obviously, I had done it in 2010. I’ve had seven steady years of training, so starting over was difficult.”
By last Christmas, Burla knew that her leg was working well again, and that building up for Boston was possible. Under the supervision of her longtime coach, Isaya Okwyia (who is also physician), Burla began to round into shape again. Last month, she finished a solid fifth at the cold and windy United Airlines NYC Half, and knew she was on track for Boston.
“I just had the re-occurrence in August, so again it’s just perspective because in August I didn’t know I would be here,” Burla said. She continued: “Just the chance, the chance to do it and push my body and find that normalcy again in life and through running has been really important.”
To keep her spirits up as she trained, she pictured herself on the Boston course, absorbing all of the energy from the fans and thinking about the history of the race. She had run the race before, finishing 16th in 2014 in 2:32:27.
“Honestly, that got me through starting over, picturing the points on the course, the finish,” Burla said. “There’s so much emotion around the finish of the Boston Marathon, so that’s what helped me come back.”
Burla said that along with the support of her husband, Adam, and nine year-old son, Boyd, the steady hand of Coach Okwyia had been critical to getting her here with a fighting chance. He has coached her for more than a decade.
“Oh my God,” she gushed. “Again, my coach Isaya has been my rock the past, almost, 12 years. He’s vital and has been there almost every step of the way. He just knows me. He knows me mentally and physically, and he’s brought me back before. I felt in good hands and completely confident with him.”
For Monday’s race, Burla would not offer any predictions, except one: she will be grateful just to be on the starting line. The fact that she hasn’t been mentioned as a potential top American finisher isn’t important to her.
“That doesn’t matter at all to me,” she said. “I’m just honored to be in the field, lining up with everyone.” She added: “It’s exciting, it’s an honor.”