In the past few years, Serena Burla has maintained a low profile. However, her 2:28:01 marathon PR is the fifth fastest U.S. Olympic Trials qualifying time and her most recent 10th place finish at the IAAF World Championships in Beijing was a reminder to not count out the tenacious 33-year-old athlete, mother and cancer survivor on making this year’s U.S. Olympic marathon team.
But flying “under-the-radar” hasn’t bothered Burla much. In fact, it’s only benefitted her running career and made it easier to concentrate on splitting her time between quietly logging miles with her longtime coach Isaya Okwiya and a group of pro runners in the greater Washington, D.C., area, and raising her young son, Boyd.
“Being a professional runner is a 24-hour, seven-days-a-week job,” Burla, a Mizuno-sponsored athlete, says of juggling her running goals with the demands of parenting. “I think many working and runner mothers would agree with me that I always wish I had more time and energy, but the reality is, I do the best I can.”
Her outlook on parenting is similar to her approach on preparing for the Trials on Feb. 13 in Los Angeles.
“Honestly, I’m one of those people that leaves all the logistics up to my coach,” she says. “I just wake up, read my training plan and do what I need to do. You have to focus one day at a time.”
This precise focus on the present moment is what gives Burla a mental edge over the competition. It’s also a wisdom she gained after discovering she had cancer in 2010, which resulted in an intensive procedure removing both the tumor and dominant muscle in her right hamstring.
“Being a cancer survivor has made me very grateful for the opportunity to still be able to run,” she says. “It really encourages you to live for each day and to be a positive role model and put forward your best self on each individual day.”
Although her recovery was arduous and uncertain—her coach Okwiya was worried if the compensation would strain other muscles—she made a quick eight-month post-surgery comeback by running a 2:37:06 and placing fourth among American women at the New York City Marathon. That put her in the mix for the 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials in Houston.
However, her nerves got in the way that year. Unable to eat the night before race day, she collapsed from lack of carbohydrate fuel and hypoglycemia after mile 18, and had to drop out of the race early.
Despite the disappointing performance in Houston, though, other races since then have proven that Burla’s running momentum is on the upswing. She placed third at the 2012 Seoul International Marathon and achieved her first sub-2:30 PR of 2:28:27. The following year in Amsterdam she placed second and beat her previous marathon PR by 26 seconds (the time that would qualify her for this year’s Olympic Trials), and had ran the fastest women’s marathon time on a record-eligible course that year. Then in 2014 she returned to the USA Half Marathon Championships, dominating the field and winning her first national championships in 1:10:48.
“I have the most respect for the marathon,” she says, reflecting on the progress she’s made since her surgery and bouncing back from a bad Olympic Trials Marathon debut. “You race for different reasons, sometimes for place, sometimes for time, and those races where I ran 2:28, I got in a great race where I was racing the competition, but also had my own race plans and splits to zone in on.”
This year Burla plans on executing the entire Olympic Trials Marathon course and giving it everything she has, no matter where that puts her.
“What will be on that day will be,” she says. ” Anything can happen in the last eight miles of a marathon. You kind of just hold your breath until you cross the finish line.”