The WRCC Newsletter will now be twice monthly. We have a new Co-Editor, Laura Caldwell, and along with Charlotte Richardson and the W.R.C.C. Committee, we will continue to bring you articles that will be educational, inspirational, and will support you in your job as a coach. There will be interviews with women coaches from the youth, high school, college, and professional levels. We hope to bring you articles about building a team, planning workouts, incorporating strength and conditioning into your programs, coaching leadership and much more to help you as a woman running and field coach. We want to build this community and we need YOUR input to do that!
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Charlotte Lettis Richardson
The Women's Running Coaches Collective is excited and honored to bring you an interview with distance runner and cancer surviver, Serena Burla. Her strength, courage, and running talent will inspire and help you understand your role as a coach in an athlete's life. Because of her incredible story, we have decided to publish this interview in two parts - Part 1 in this newsletter along with her biography, and Part 2 on September 13th. Stay tuned!
Biography by Laura Caldwell
If it seems that Serena Burla has been running for most of her life, she has. Having a father who has coached the Waukesha West girls’ high school track and field and cross country teams for the last 43 years while growing up in Waukesha, WI, encouraged her to begin competing in short distances in the third grade. While at West, Serena led her team to one runner up and three state cross country team titles. After high school, she competed for the University of Missouri in distance races. While a Tiger she was two-time Big 12 Conference runner-up and attained all-American status in the 10,000 meters in 2006.
After college, she married her college boyfriend, Adam Burla, a shot putter at Missouri, moved to St. Louis and hung up her competitive racing shoes, running just for fun. However, as with any competitive spirit, her running career was far from over. Coach Isaya Okwyia of the running group, Riadha (Swahili for athletics) discovered how well she had run in high school and college and felt she had potential. Burla wanted to try the marathon and Okwyia recognized her potential for success.
Planning on training for a few years before running a marathon in the spring of 2010, she started on Okwyia’s training regimen. However, in the fall of 2009 what began as an intermittent pain in her right hamstring escalated and became constant. After hobbling through the 2010 USA Half Marathon Championships in Houston in January, where she still managed to finish second (1:10:08) to Shalane Flanagan, her coach insisted she seek treatment for what Burla assumed was inflammation.
Burla traveled to New York City to see specialist Daniel Hammer, who initially thought it was bursitis. After a scan, she was told that it was a malignant tumor, synovial sarcoma, that had replaced one of the muscles in her right hamstring. At the end of February 2010, she returned to New York for surgery to remove part of her hamstring. Her surgeon could not find any athlete who had had this surgery. He also could not guarantee Burla could run again, let alone compete, but did believe the prognosis was very good.
Being just happy to be alive and have her leg, and wanting to be with her husband and young son, Boyd, running was no longer what was important to her. However, by April 2010, Burla was able to walk-run for the first time since her operation. And she has been moving forward ever since. In January, 2013, she won the USA Half Marathon Championships in Houston. Then at the 2015 World Championships in Beijing, she placed 10th in the marathon with a time of 2:31:06. She followed that with a PB of 2:26:53 for 4thplace at the 2017 Osaka Women’s Marathon.
Through all of the adversity and ordeal in her life Burla has become an inspiration and motivating presence for others, and often speaks about her life and running experiences. She is, in her own words, “a two-time cancer survivor, wife, mother, loud laugher, positive thinker and lover of life.”
The Serena Burla Interview
by Charlotte L Richardson
Serena, because we are a women's coaching collective, we would love to get your thoughts on what makes a good coach, and why?
First and foremost, a good coach loves and cares about the people and endeavor they are coaching. Due to this factor, a good coach makes the people they coach better athletes and even more importantly, better people. A good coach will be tough on you and challenge you in many ways, and then be able to have a conversation with you about the “why” after the fact. I am pretty sure coaching is one of the most selfless roles a person can fill. A good coach is passionate.
In your Ted Talk ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dm4ycfLsQzY) you said your coach, Isaya Okwiya, continued to coach you during your cancer treatment and recovery. Could you talk a little more about this? You said, "he continued to coach using running and life lessons." In many ways this gets to the essence of what a good coach is. It is not just about the running, but how the running fits into life. Please talk a little more about that.
Isaya Okwiya has been my rock through the past 12 years. I would not be who I am without him in my life. He has helped me to grow in more ways then I can count, and when I falter he is there to set me straight again, over and over. When I was diagnosed with cancer he essentially coached me through mentally. He helped me keep things in perspective, helped me set the goals to save my life, save my leg and anything else was a bonus. He encouraged me to stay strong and positive, and see the good around me. It was Isaya who told me to focus on what I could control in the situation - my attitude.
He surrounded me with support and helped create a network to keep my spirits high. I grew so much during this period due to his coaching and his ability to keep using phrases and examples he used in training and racing. Isaya continued to coach me even though neither of us knew if I would ever take another running step again; I am forever grateful.
Running is such a mental sport and we rely on quotes, lessons, toughness, memories to get us through to the finish; everyday life isn’t so different. Through cancer I was encouraged to hope for the best and prepare for the worst, to expect the unexpected and to look for ways to improve the lives of those around me, so I did.
I will never forget the night a few months after surgery when Isaya told me I was a little crazy, and he was a little crazy, but that God had given me another chance to run, maybe for a reason. He told me he understood if I wanted to hang it up, but if I didn’t, he would be willing to lead me on the journey to see how far and where my post surgery leg would take me. We are still on that journey eight years and another surgery after a recurrence later. A good coach is patient, keeps the big picture in mind, and believes when others are skeptical.
As a coach of teenagers, I often tell my athletes that training and racing are hard, and that they teach you how to do hard things in your life. I was inspired by your idea (in the Ted Talk) that everyone in their lives will "face something...that will stop us in our tracks and threaten to take control". You then asked the question - "How will you respond?"
How did your running and racing prepare you for your cancer diagnosis and subsequent battle? What skills do we learn as athletes that help us face hard things in our lives?
A lot of it is what we choose to set our focus on. What choice or choices will you make when times get tough? My coach has a saying that his college coach taught him, “There are two types of people in life, candy asses and distance runners.” I don’t even know what a candy ass is, but every time I think of this quote I smile and I think “I am a distance runner” and I tough it out. In running and racing we reach our goals or grow by putting one foot in front of the other; in life it’s the same-keep forging on. Even if we stop for a moment to cry or feel sorry for ourselves we eventually realize that in running, like daily life, no one else is going to sit there and feel sorry for you or slow down, so pick yourself up and keep going. Regardless of whether you reach your goals or not, we learn on the journey. So go learn.
To be continued...Part 2 will come out on September 13th!
"My coach knows me better than I know myself. He knows I operate best by focusing one day at a time on the task at hand. I put my faith in him and the training. When it comes to the big race days, things have gone well when I followed the race plan and listened, and not well when I improvised."
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