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Breakin’ On Through: Exclusive Interview With Serena Burla

The American marathoner ran 2:28:27 to shatter her personal best by over 6 minutes last weekend in Seoul.

The American marathoner ran 2:28:27 to shatter her personal best by over 6 minutes last weekend in Seoul. 

For any marathoner, running a personal best by over six minutes is quite the accomplishment. But for an elite runner who is used to pushing the pace each time she toes the line, this amount of improvement is nothing short of astounding. At last weekend’s Seoul Marathon, American Serena Burla took third place in the women’s race, running 2:28:27–a significant improvement from her previous best of 2:35:08.

Burla, who lined up for the start of the U.S Olympic Marathon Trials in January, dropped out after hanging with the leaders through the halfway mark. Perhaps even more impressive than Burla’s brand new personal best is that she’s a cancer survivor who beat synovial sarcoma in 2010. Burla had a malignant soft-tissue tumor in her right hamstring successfully removed just months after finishing second at the 2010 U.S. Half Marathon Championships.

Burla, who also finished second at the U.S. Half Marathon Championships in 2011, is sponsored by Mizuno and coached by Isaya Okwiya. It’s been a few days since your third-place showing in Seoul. How are you feeling?

Serena Burla: I’m feeling really good. I’m so grateful. It’s an unexplainable feeling. I felt good about getting that race in. I’ve gone through so much this year and I hope that people see that. That’s kind of the nature of this sport. There are good days and bad days. You just keep going and you just keep working hard and working towards your goals. I feel really, really grateful for all the experiences, because I think they’ve shaped who I am as a person and as a racer. You just keep learning and growing.

On the learning part of what you just said, tell us about the nearly seven minutes you shaved off your PR in the marathon. That is huge.

Yeah, but it’s the marathon. You get more time to take off. [She laughs.]

So what exactly did you do in training or racing that contributed to this type of breakthrough?

I think I had been working towards it for years. The marathon just takes a long time by getting the training and all the miles under your belt—all that hard work and getting all those components lined up. It’s a little bit of a learning curve for me to be able to get to where I was. Just working with Isaya and all the training I did for the Trials. Obviously, the Trials didn’t go exactly as I wanted, but the work that I had done didn’t go away. I was just working on a few things and capitalizing on the fitness that I had built through the fall. But we really believe that it was all running and all the miles that you’ve built during your entire life. I was able to put it all together and just make sure that I took advantage of the opportunity that I was given. Anything is possible. It just kind of all came together.  One thing I did to better prepare for this marathon was carbo-load like a marathoner. In one week I ate the amount of rice, pasta, and bread most people eat in a 2 months time. [She laughs.] I was severely hypoglycemic when I passed out at the Trials–a lesson learned the hard way.

Was there anything else specific to your training that you did that you believe contributed to your breakthrough?

I think I was a little more levelheaded. The physical you can control to some extent, but the mental you can control even more. It was just growing and being patient, mentally, within the race. I think that helped me a lot. I just really wanted it to happen and I was given this opportunity. Marathons don’t come around every day. I just needed to capitalize on this opportunity and the weather was nice. The course was great. I just needed to go out, do my thing, and run smart.

You ran a gutsy race at the Trials, sticking with the leaders through the half. Was there anything you learned in that race that you carried with you into Seoul?

I think you carry a little bit of everything. I can’t really pinpoint one thing. I think it just helped me roll with the punches and know that anything can happen with the marathon. I think it just helped me prepare for the little unexpected things that could happen. I was just prepared to deal with it. You just have to acclimate and make changes. You have to be more flexible during the race.

Did you lose any confidence from your Trials experience and do you feel like you’ve got it back now?

The Trials were obviously very, very disappointing. I know that is life. I’ve gone through a lot of challenges in my life in multiple areas. You just have to roll with the punches and take what happens and try and learn and grow from it. I think it gave me more fuel and wanting to show where I was and show that I am a marathon runner. That’s the biggest thing. I hadn’t posted a time that showed I was a competitive marathoner. But after the race, a calmness set in and I finally was able to say, “I AM a marathoner now.”

When you were running in Seoul, did you realize you were on 2:28 pace?

I knew through the half, but I also know that there are a lot of things that can happen from the half to the full. I knew I was on pace, but really focused on just putting one foot in front of the other the whole rest of the way.

Describe your relationship with your coach.

Isaya is one of the most inspirational people I have ever met. He has been such a blessing in my life that it is hard to put into words what he means to me and to describe our relationship. He is one amazing coach and friend. That was probably the highlight of finishing and having him tell me, “I’m just so excited I just might cry.” Having that and knowing what we’ve gone through for the past six years was just and incredible feeling. He’s never given up on me. He’s always working with me and trying to make me into a better runner and better person. I’m forever grateful for the impact that he’s had on my life and my running career.

You’re a cancer survivor. Did that experience make you a tougher, more resilient competitor?

I think so. I think it gave me such perspective on life. I feel like it helped me. I know that I have this opportunity, as a cancer survivor, to share my spirit of being able to bounce back–to be fearless, to control what you can, and to be a positive person. Every day, whether it’s with running or something else, you have to try and impact the world and other people’s lives for the better. I feel that by getting my story out every once in a while I’m giving people hope.

You aren’t on the U.S. Olympic Marathon team, but yet you are now at another level of competitiveness. What are your goals right now?

I just want to keep focused on every day, every week, and every race. I want to improve and learn. I want to better myself as a person and as a runner. I think the possibilities are endless. I feel like I am pretty young in the sport and have a long way to go and a lot of room for growth. It’s really exciting; actually, to get past this barrier and have a breakthrough marathon, knowing that I have the confidence to be a marathoner and this is the event I’m meant to be in. You just never know. I want to always stay working, keep my goals in sight, and stay humble.

So are you going to try and now race on the track?

Isaya and I like to say that we take things one day at a time. Sure, I’ll go back to the track some, because I’ve got quite a few teammates working on the track so even if it’s to help them through something. I’ll probably hit the track, but I won’t know for sure. Isaya and I agree that I’m going to take a breather after this race before deciding what’s next.

People who are reading this interview are probably interested in learning how you achieved the big breakthrough and would like to incorporate the lessons you’ve learned into their own training and racing. What advice can you share on this subject?

I really feel like you can’t judge yourself based on your last performance. Before Seoul, I ran a pretty bad half marathon. So don’t get stuck on the past. You always want to move in the direction you are going. Think positive. Stay positive. Believe in your dreams. Be strong and optimistic. You can always have bad days. Not every day is going to be your best race. There are going to be highs and lows in everyone’s running career. Things can happen, but anything’s possible. Surround yourself with people who believe in your dreams.


About The Author:

Duncan Larkin is a freelance journalist who’s been covering the sport of running for over five years. He’s run 2:32 in the marathon and won the Himalayan 100-Mile Stage Race in 2007. His first running book, RUN SIMPLE, will be coming out in June.