Chicago Marathon champion outruns cancer

Serena Burla crossing the finish line at the Chicago Marathon on Oct. 9, 2016.
Serena Burla crossing the finish line at the Chicago Marathon on Oct. 9, 2016. (Siyan (Jen) Huang/ MEDILL)

By Siyan (Jen) Huang

Cancer, a relentless killer,  gave hope to Serena Burla. Her cancer in her right hamstring brought her the courage and strength to run marathons.

Burla, 34,  was the first American woman to cross the finish line in the Bank of America Chicago Marathon on Oct. 9. With an overall rank of the seventh in the female group and a time of 2:30:40, Burla finished the race just behind the four Kenyan runners and two Ethiopian runners who ranked one through six.

Burla played various sports with her active family when she was a kid growing up in Wisconsin. Burla’s father, a high school running coach in Waukesha, Wis., had never pushed her to become a runner but encouraged her. Burla got hooked on running as a little girl and became a professional runner when she grew up.

“We tried all different sports as kids, but running was my love, and the thing that I excelled best at,” said Burla, “Even when I was five years old, my dad would invite me to run the laps with his team. And I thought I was at the Olympics or something.”

Burla was a three-time National Collegiate Athletic Association Cross Country Championships qualifier and an All-American while at the University of Missouri. By age 27, she had participated in a 10,000 meter, 5K and longer races but never got up the courage to conquer a marathon.

Then in 2010, at age 27, Burla was diagnosed with synovial sarcoma, a malignant tumor, on her right hamstring, which left her in a huge shock.

“I was having really intense pain. The tumor was actually pushing on a nerve. But being a runner, I just thought it was something running related,” said Burla.

Burla was optimistic about her condition when she went to see doctors. However, after a magnetic resonance imaging scan, everything changed. The pain in her leg meant her illness might jeopardize her running career. Doctors were even thinking about  amputation to keep her alive. Fortunately, the final decision was to remove the tumor and a major muscle of her hamstring. Her right leg is still functional after that surgery in February, 2010.

Isaya Okwiya, Burla’s coach, gave her unrelenting support for fighting against cancer. “He was really there every step of the way, going to appointments, being the listening ear I needed. To gather the information and be able to communicate to me,” said Burla,” He is my rock.”

With her leg gradually recovering, Burla went back to the running field. Beating cancer became a source of strength for her. “I can still run. I’ve been given another chance for a reason,” she said. This idea encouraged her to run her first marathon.

She made her marathon debut on Nov. 7, 2010 in the New York City Marathon, only eight months after the surgery. “Initially, let alone running, walking was an issue,” said Okwiya. He knew it would be a big challenge for her. But he also knew her eagerness for running marathon and her remarkable resilience. So he thought, “OK, we will take it one day at a time.”

After several months of training, Burla finished the New York City marathon and placed 18th in the race in the women’s group. Two years later, she set her personal record, 2:28:01, in the 2013 Amsterdam Marathon, finishing second among  the women.

Burla notes many parallels between cancer and running races. “Focusing on what you can control, and staying positive and taking one thing at a time” are the keys that help her get through them.

Burla’s winning performance in this year’s Chicago Marathon only made her and Okwiya more determined. “We haven’t been really pushing the envelope,” he said. ”I know there is more to come.”

For Burla, every single marathon teaches her something new. What she tries to do now is use all the strength she has to “get through things in life, in normal training. And focus it towards the race.”

Photo at top: Serena Burla crossing the finish line at the Chicago Marathon on Oct. 9, 2016. (Siyan (Jen) Huang/ MEDILL)