Serena Burla overcomes cancer to run again

Serena Burla’s rebirth as a professional runner started on a treadmill in the workout room of a Buckhead hotel.

Earlier in the year, Burla underwent surgery to remove a cancerous tumor in her right leg. As part of the operation, surgeons removed a tendon and major muscle along the back of the leg. If you look closely Friday as she races by as one of the elite runners in the The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Peachtree Road Race, you can see an indentation indicating something is missing.

Burla was rehabbing and running in very small intervals after the surgery in 2010. She said she hadn’t considered her future as a racer. Instead she was focusing only on her present and trying to remain positive. She surrounded herself with positive people who supported her. She also focused even more on trying to make other people happy by doing things such as taking hot chocolate to grocery-store workers who would push in carts on cold nights.

“I focused on moments I did have and tried to live with no regrets,” she said. “When your time does come, you can be happy and go in peace.”

In Atlanta for a meeting with Mizuno, one of her sponsors, her coach, Dr. Isaya Okwiya, asked if she wanted to do a treadmill test. He knew her well enough that he could tell she wanted to see if she could run professionally again, even if she says she hadn’t reached that point.

She started slowly, doing 20 minutes. He cranked up the incline and the speed. She kept going. They cranked it up again. She kept going.

After 35 minutes, he asked her to stop.

“I know my coach well enough I could see the wheels in his head turning,” she said.

She didn’t know how she did on the treadmill. She still doesn’t. She never asked for her times, and he no longer remembers them.

But he does remember thinking, “This girl is ready to go.”

Later that evening, back at the hotel, he popped the question: Do you want to give professional running another try? He promised her that if she did, he would be there to help her.

“It was one of those epiphanies in life,” she said. “I still had the fire. It was a light shining on the situation. We can all take running for granted until it is taken from us. I was given a second chance to run for a reason.”

She has taken advantage of it.

After changing her regimen to replace the elements of high-explosive training with more interval work, she began competing again.

Burla finished third in the Seoul Marathon in 2 hours, 28 minutes, 27 seconds in 2012.

She followed in 2013 by finishing second in the Amsterdam Marathon in 2:28:01. It was the fastest marathon finish by a U.S. runner on a record-eligible course that year.

She won the U.S. half-marathon in Houston earlier this year, beating the second-place finisher by 1 minute, 24 seconds.

The results have surprised even her coach.

“I don’t know how she’s running,” Okwiya said. “If you see her, she shouldn’t be running.”

Because she is missing the muscle known as the biceps femoris, Okwiya assumes that the other muscle groups took over to perform what the biceps femoris does. Oddly, the surgery also partially corrected her bio-mechanics. Where she used to stride with the lower part of both legs flailing out, her right leg now has a straighter stride.

Burla said she looks forward to running in the Peachtree. She ran it for the first time last year, but said she wasn’t prepared for the speed of a 10K and finished 26th with a time of 34:29 in the women’s open division.

She has run mostly marathons this year, so a 10K will provide a test. Because it is a national championship, Okwiya predicts Burla won’t hold back.

“Every moment is a gift,” she said. “I still have a long way to go, and a lot of goals yet to be reached.”

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