She was supposed to make her marathon debut here three years ago, but life threw in a detour. What Serena Burla thought was a cranky hamstring turned out to be synovial sarcoma, a malignant soft-tissue growth as big as an egg. Had the cancer been lurking elsewhere it might have gone undetected longer. “But because it was in my leg, running saved my life,” she said.
That was all Burla wanted after a radical procedure removed both the tumor and the dominant muscle in her right hamstring. “I went into the surgery just hoping my life would be saved,” she recalled. “Whatever happened after that was a gift.”
At first, keeping up with toddler son Boyd was enough. “Little kids run,” said Burla, who has taught them in special education classes. “That’s what they do.”
Then, against lofty odds, her jogging led to running which led to racing again — at the New York City Marathon, at last year’s US Olympic trials, and Monday in the 117th Boston Marathon on the same hilly course that her father covered on a collegiate lark in 1974.
“That’s why I’m a believer, because some things can’t really be explained,” said Burla, 30, who lives in Falls Church, Va., and who’ll join Olympians Shalane Flanagan and Kara Goucher as the top Americans in the elite women’s field. “I just kept saying, ‘OK, I can do this.’ ”
Yet nobody close to her — not her father Chris Ramsey, not her husband Adam, not her Team Riadha coach Isaya Okwiya, not Dr. Patrick Boland, the New York orthopedic oncologist who performed the operation — anticipated that Burla would be able to challenge the world’s best distance runners. “I wasn’t expecting her to be competitive at all,” said Okwiya. “What they took out was pretty significant. Just anatomically I didn’t think she would be able to come back to that level.”
Even with the tumor and the pain that it caused her, Burla had finished second to Flanagan in the US half-marathon championships in January 2010. But there was no evidence that an elite athlete could race at that level without the biceps femoris muscle at the back of the thigh. “When I was in [Boland’s] office he said, I will do everything I can to save your life,” Burla recalled. “He never said, no, you will never run again.”
So Burla took that as a positive sign and literally made her comeback one step at a time. “A milestone was being able to get off the toilet by myself,” she said. “I was gung-ho. I said, when can I start therapy? I always was looking to the next step. While being grateful for where I was, I was always thinking, well, maybe . . . ”
Although Burla could run without the removed muscle, her coach was concerned about the biomechanical effect elsewhere. “We were worried about compensation,” Okwiya said. “Other muscle groups will have to take over. Is she going to overuse or destroy the other hamstring muscles? It was unknown and there still is concern up until today.”
What Burla discovered as she resumed training was that she was able to recapture her old rhythm without restructuring her gait. “Things were happening with my body that nobody expected or could explain,” she said.
Her father, who’d watched Burla run since she was a 4-year-old warming down with the high school distance runners he coached in Waukesha, Wis., wasn’t surprised that she was determined to make a comeback. “Serena always has been a competitor and has driven herself to excel in whatever she does,” Ramsey observed.
Still, her accelerated recovery was startling. After having surgery at the end of February, Burla was running by mid-April and in July won a 10-kilometer race in Minneapolis. “It’s a miracle that she can run,” said Ramsey, “but it shows that your mind can be stronger than your body.”
Even so, taking on the New York City Marathon as her 26-mile debut barely eight months after surgery seemed aggressively optimistic. While a flatter layout like Chicago might have been easier to negotiate, New York had symbolic significance to her.
“I’d spent a lot of time in New York not running, so I did want to go back,” said Burla, who’d had surgery at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan. “When I went past I teared up and I said, ‘Thank you.’ It was so emotional and so powerful. I knew that everyone in that building was either fighting cancer or was helping and supporting someone who was.”
Her exuberance at simply going the distance (“I was so happy that I could finish a marathon and still walk.”) overshadowed what had been an impressive performance — 19th place overall in 2 hours 37 minutes 6 seconds, fourth among Americans. That put Burla in the mix for last winter’s Olympic trials in Houston, where the top three finishers would earn spots for London. She was so nervous on the eve of the race that she barely touched her dinner, worried that eating might cause her stomach problems.
Instead, the lack of carbohydrate fuel caused Burla to collapse with hypoglycemia after 18 miles. “It was pretty devastating, but I decided that it was something that was thrown at me for a reason,” she said. “Obviously I felt like a moron letting nerves affect the stomach, but you can’t redo. There’s no rewind button.”
Her untimely DNF was a reminder of something that Burla already knew: “I am not the one in control.” That lesson was reinforced two months later when Boyd, who was taken to the hospital with an ear infection, turned out to have Kawasaki disease, an autoimmune illness involving blood vessels that can be fatal if untreated. While her son quickly recovered Burla recalled what her Aunt Chris, whose racing career was truncated by an uncooperative knee, had told her. Never take a day of running for granted. “Being in the moment with everything you do,” Burla said.
When last autumn’s New York City Marathon was canceled in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, Burla hopped a plane to Yokohama and raced there. “That was a decision I left up to her,” said Okwiya. “If we do some crazy stuff we may not have time to build up again for Boston.”
Boston is this year’s big event for Burla and when she came to town in February for a look at the course, she got the chills at the sight of the painted line at the Hopkinton start and the mysteries that lay beyond. It was, she wrote in her blog, “like a magical calling, a runner’s siren if you may.”
There’ll be other races on her 2013 calendar, possibly including the August world championships in Moscow, but for Burla, the only one that exists is the next one.
“Every race, you take it one day at a time, good or bad,” she said. “Because you don’t know when your time is up.”