It's not an exaggeration to say that running saved Serena Burla's life. Forget the mental and physical benefits associated with exercise and the fact that she makes a living running professionally. Burla's story of being saved runs much deeper. Going into the Boston Marathon as one of the top American women, she hopes her unique perspective on running and life will help put her at the front of the pack Monday when she hits the finish line on Boylston Street.
A Big 12 runner-up in both the 5,000 and 10,000 meters for the University of Missouri in 2006, the 5-foot-1 Burla never expected to continue competing after college. She was a talented athlete, sure, but not so good that a postcollegiate career seemed likely.
But then, the fall after she graduated, along came a Maryland-based physician and coach named Isaya Okwiya. Noticing her "apparent discipline, tenacity and potential," he wanted her to become a part of a new postcollegiate team he was starting called Riadha, which is Swahili for "athletics," known in the U.S. as track and field.
The newly minted special education teacher living in St. Louis who hadn't run a single workout since she left Mizzou initially scoffed at the idea. But Okwiya eventually persuaded Burla to compete at the National Club Cross Country Championships, and that ended up being the beginning.
By 2008, she was a legitimate threat on the elite racing scene, placing third at the 2008 USA Half Marathon Championships and second at both the NYRR New York Mini 10K and USA 20K Championships in 2009. During that time, she also married her college boyfriend, Adam Burla, a former Mizzou shot-putter, and had a son, Boyd, scoring that runner-up finish at the Mini 10K just five months after giving birth.
Placing second behind Shalane Flanagan at the 2010 USA Half Marathon Championships in Houston in 1:10:08, her professional running career and family life were just getting going.
That's when things took a devastating turn.
After feeling pain in her right hamstring leading up to and during the half marathon championships, she made an appointment with her doctor. As a runner, she is particularly attuned to twinges in her legs, and she assumed it was just another running injury.
It turned out that it was much more serious. In early 2010, doctors discovered an egg-sized malignant tumor in her right leg and diagnosed her with synovial sarcoma, a rare form of cancer that materializes in the soft tissue. Just six weeks after her second-place finish in Houston, Burla was undergoing surgery at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City to remove the tumor.
And that, she says, is how running saved her life.
"At one point after my diagnosis, I briefly questioned, 'Why my leg?' " she said. "Immediately the answer hit me. Had it been anywhere else, I would not have paid attention to it, but because it was affecting my running, I had it checked out."
Thanks to her quick action, the cancer was caught before it had time to spread, and no treatment was needed aside from surgery. Along with the tumor, however, doctors had to remove a major hamstring muscle, the biceps femoris.
"It's interesting how priorities quickly change," Burla said. "My first priority was to save my life, the second was to save my leg. After that I hoped to move fast enough to keep up with my then-1-year-old son."
While running helped save her, it also was the thing that she would likely lose. Even with the expertise of Dr. Patrick Boland, an orthopedic oncologist at Sloan-Kettering who specializes in sarcomas and limb-saving surgeries, she wasn't expected to run again, much less compete. Even so, it seemed those around Burla never abandoned hope.
"The science and all the odds were against her," Okwiya said. "But knowing Serena, it was only a matter of time."
Soon Burla began to walk again, then jog, and then run with the help of her doctors and physical therapists. In May she attended the USA sales meeting for Mizuno, the brand that continued to sponsor her. While in Atlanta for the meeting, she met Okwiya at the hotel gym to do a treadmill test.
"He controlled the pace and blocked the numbers from my view," she said. "When I got off, I could see the wheels in his head turning. He told me, 'If you want to do this -- continue running competitively -- I will help get you as far as your leg will take you.' "
Her first race back was on the roads of Minneapolis at the Boston Scientific Heart of the Summer 10K in July 2010. She not only finished, she managed to win the competitive event in 33 minutes, 57 seconds.
"The race was at Lake Nokomis two times around," remembered her dad, Chris Ramsey, who was on the course supporting his daughter. "Both her mother and I were elated when we saw her racing so well the first loop around, and then relieved to see her complete the second loop. She was back to doing what she loved so dearly without a part of her hamstring. The mind is stronger than the body."
The real turning point came at the New York City Marathon that November, just eight months after surgery. In her debut at that distance, she finished 19th and was the fourth American woman, with a time of 2:37:06.
"Being able to run past Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center was the most emotionally powerful few moments I have ever experienced in a race," she said, noting that she tearfully pointed to her leg in thanks as she passed. "Knowing that everyone inside was either fighting or helping to fight cancer gave me strength, and I hoped that everyone facing cancer was attacking it head-on with hope and strong determination."
Since then, Burla's race performances have been an exercise in momentum. In 2011, she returned to the USA Half Marathon Championships, the race that she thought would be her last just a year prior, and placed second again. Then came a third-place finish at the 2012 Seoul International Marathon, where she ran a personal best of 2:28:27. She also placed second at the 2013 TCS Amsterdam Marathon, finishing in 2:28:01, the fastest time any American woman ran the 26.2-mile distance on a record-eligible course in 2013.
Then in January of this year, she returned to the USA Half Marathon Championships, where she dominated the field, leading wire-to-wire and scoring her first national championship. Perhaps a harbinger of what is to come on the streets of Boston, Burla is in contention to snag the top spot again.
"After going into an operation not knowing if you would have a leg amputated, be able to walk again, be able to jog again, let alone be able to race again, it has definitely given her, as it would anyone, a unique perspective on life and running," Ramsey said. "She has learned there are peaks and valleys in everyone's lives and in racing. You just have to get up, shake it off and continue to live life to the fullest."
This, too, seems to be the mentality of the city that was left broken after last year's bombings. The idea of standing strong in the face of even the most tragic circumstances and beating the odds is a familiar concept to Burla.
"It has been quite a journey. There really are no words to describe it," she said. "I guess God's not finished with me yet."