The promising story of Serena Burla’s seven minute personal best at the Seoul Marathon in March, after a very disappointing Olympic Trials. Serena had taken second, two years in a row, at the Aramco/USA Half Marathon Championships. This, after an amazing recovery from cancer.
Serena is a thoughtful person, who speaks from experience, as her live was rocked to its core less than three years ago. One of our most talented runners, Serena is showing her promise, and that the mantra, one learns more from failues than successes, holds much truth. We encourage your to read this story by Duncan Larkin.
A Healthy Transformation: Serena Burla And Her Huge Marathon PR
The news of Serena Burla’s third-place finish at the Seoul Marathon came across the wires late on a Sunday night three weeks ago. There wasn’t much fanfare in the report. The IAAF simply noted that the 29-year-old Burla, who was an American, clocked a 2:28:27 and had run nearly seven minutes faster than her previous mark.
In the elite world of distance running, taking your personal best down seven minutes is a really big deal. For Burla, who, before Seoul, had run a previous best of 2:35:08, this means she lowered her average-per-mile pace from 5:55 to 5:39.
How was Burla able to achieve this significant accomplishment? And more importantly for you, the reader, what can you learn from Burla’s experience to help you achieve you own marathon PR?
To best understand Burla’s progress with the marathon, it’s important to first look at what went wrong with her racing. In the Olympic Trials Marathon earlier this year, Burla, a 2005 graduate and All-American at the University of Missouri, had managed to stick with the lead pack until the halfway point, but then things went awry. Burla first began to fade losing contact with the leaders and then dropping back further. By mile 18, she was done. Near that mile marker, she passed out and never finished the race.
Tests later revealed that Burla’s blood sugars were the culprit. “I feel like I was ready for the Trials. I felt so comfortable through half way. I felt ready,” Burla recalls. Her coach, Dr. Isaya Okwiya, examined his athlete’s diagnostics and came to one conclusion: “While the number of both intrinsic and extrinsic variables in a marathon are infinite, we attributed the collapse, at least in part, to hypoglycemia,” he says.
Hypoglycemia, the substantial lack of glucose in the blood, is a marathoner’s worst enemy. Without the right amount of glucose in the bloodstream during the later stages of a marathon, a runner can hit the proverbial “wall”.
Now looking back on the disastrous Trials experience, Burla is confident her training leading up the race couldn’t have been better. “I was in the best shape of my life,” Burla admits.
Confident that he knew his athlete’s problem, Okwiya had Burla significantly increase her consumption of carbohydrates two weeks before the Seoul Marathon. “It’s really amazing how much you really need to carbo load,” Burla says. “It can be hard heading into a marathon. Your nerves are there; you are not in your own house where you can eat your own types of food. You have to try and find it all.” But in South Korea, Burla was able to carbo load with success. “We had buffet-style dinning at breakfast, lunch, and dinner with ten different kinds of bread and huge plates of race and pasta,” Burla recalls. “It was a learning curve of actually how much you have to eat.”
While in South Korea, Okwiya, a Kenyan native, pulled Burla aside and pointed out how much athletes from that country tended to eat at meals. “He said, ‘Look at how much is piled on their plate. It’s there for a reason.'” The carbo-loading tactic paid off. In Seoul, Burla cruised to her PR, clocking relatively even splits and feeling “great” pretty much the entire way.
But one other factor was in play for Burla that helped contribute to the Seoul PR: her positive attitude. Not only did Burla drop out of the Trials, but she also ran a less-than-stellar half marathon, 1:13:35, at the RAK Half in February. Two back-to-back setbacks would cause many runners to begin doubting themselves, but not Burla.
In 2010, Serena was diagnosed with a malignant soft-tissue tumor in her hamstring. She successfully beat her cancer and carries this positive life outlook with her in everything she does.
“I could have chosen to mope about all this and live in the past or I could have seen what I could do off the fitness I had,” Burla says. “I made the conscious choice to pick myself back up, not dwell on things, and keep looking ahead.”
Admittedly, we all aren’t destined to become sub-2:30 marathoners like Burla, but if there’s a stubborn PR staring us in the face, we can apply some similar lessons to help us achieve it.
If you run a bad race, be like Burla and her coach: Do some post-race investigation and introspection. Why did your race not go as planned? Is there something obvious like hypoglycemia that led to your less-than-optimal performance? If you are hitting “the wall”, think about your own fueling plan before the marathon and change it up next time.
Finally, look at bad races as opportunities not as end-all-be-all events. A series of setbacks doesn’t mean you’re done; it could mean you’re but one race away from that big breakthrough.
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