Serena Burla pointed to her right leg and repeated the words “thank you” over and over as she ran past the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center between miles 16 and 17 of the 2010 New York City Marathon. She had fallen off the lead pack by then, but the result didn’t matter. Burla was grateful for simply being alive.
Earlier that year, Burla, a professional runner for the Maryland-based Riadha team, was undergoing surgery at the same center after being diagnosed with a malignant tumor in her right hamstring. A lifelong runner, Burla was not sure she would be able to walk again, let alone compete in her first marathon.
“To this day, I can just see it and remember it and feel it,” Burla said of running past the cancer center. “It was an emotionally powerful moment.”
More than five years later, Burla is still running and competing at a high level. The 33-year-old Stafford, Va. resident will line up Saturday in Los Angeles for the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials. With the fifth-fastest qualifying time of 2 hours 28 minutes 1 second, Burla is one of the contenders to finish in the top three and qualify for the Olympic team.
As a child, Burla would chase her father, Chris Ramsey, during cross-country meets in the suburbs of Wisconsin, trying to keep up and cheer on the Waukesha West High School runners.
Ramsey, the coach of the school’s cross-country and track and field teams for the past 41 years, could always count on Burla’s presence at meets. There was nowhere else she would rather be.
Born into a running family as the third of four children, Burla was immersed with the sport from the start. She was running impressive times and displayed raw talent by middle school, Ramsey recalled.
“All of the other kids did really well, and had a lot of success, but she had the most success,” Ramsey said. “And she’s probably the most driven one out of the four.”
Isaya Okwiya observed that same drive from afar.
The Kenya native was starting a post-collegiate professional team based out of Westchester County, N.Y. and was impressed by the progression Burla made while running at the University of Missouri.
She was a three-time NCAA Cross Country Championship qualifier and placed sixth in the 10,000 meters at the NCAA Championships her senior year with a then-school record of 33:52.59 despite entering as the 25th seed.
“My first impressions were that she was somebody who was incredibly driven, very focused,” Okwiya said. “She wanted it. Period.”
Okwiya, who is also a family practice doctor in Maryland, recruited Burla to join his team.
Burla, however, had not been training much after graduating from Missouri. She was teaching full-time and was hesitant to join Okwiya and his team at the U.S. Track and Field National Club Cross Country Championships in late 2006.
Okwiya offered to fly her out to San Francisco, where the race was, but added that there was no pressure. Burla decided to get on the flight.
“It was the best decision I’ve made,” she said. “It’s just kind of neat to look back and be like, ‘Oh my gosh.’ One decision has altered my life and saved my life in so many ways.”
The pain didn’t make sense. Burla would crumble to the ground in agony even with the slightest touch on her leg. But for some reason, the pain would subside when she ran.
After a runner-up finish at the 2010 USA Half Marathon Championships, Burla could hardly walk. Okwiya took her to a doctor in New York City to have it checked out.
The news Burla received left her in a state of shock. Doctors had found a malignant tumor in her right biceps femoris muscle. Luckily, the cancer, synovial sarcoma, had not spread. She had surgery at the end of February to have the growth and part of her hamstring muscle removed by Dr. Patrick Boland at Memorial Sloan Kettering.
Burla believes that being a runner saved her life.
“When I was first diagnosed, I had a very fleeting moment that was like, ‘Why of all places, my leg? Because I love running,’ ” Burla said. “And the moment I thought the thought, the answer came back to me, ‘because you would pay attention. You paid attention to it because it was in your leg.’ ”
Burla started running again that April and ran her first race in July.
“Everyone was kind of just holding their breath,” she said of her team before the 2010 Boston Scientific Heart of the Summer 10K in Minneapolis.
She won the women’s title in 33:57.
Burla’s professional career charged forward, and she qualified for the 2012 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials. She ran with the leaders for the first half before dropping out at mile 18 because of hypoglycemia.
At Amsterdam in 2013, she ran a personal best to qualify for this year’s marathon trials. And four years after her health scare, Burla led wire-to-wire to win the 2014 USA Half Marathon Championships – her first national title.
Burla is not close to being done. On Saturday, she gets another shot at making the U.S. Olympic team (she also ran the 10,000-meter Olympic Trials in 2008) and plans on competing for many more years.
She has not made any racing plans beyond this weekend and is eager to spend time in Northern Virginia with her husband, former Missouri shot-putter Adam Burla, and their 7-year-old son Boyd, after the Trials.
On her right leg, above the six-inch scar from the surgery, is a tattoo of a runner with a swinging ponytail that she got at age 18. It is a reflection of Burla and of the sport that shaped and ultimately, saved her life.
Her coach is confident there is plenty of running left in Burla’s legs.
“Serena is a runner,” Okwiya said, before repeating himself for emphasis. “Serena is a runner. . . . I don’t see her quitting.”