Dr. Ultra Marathoner
One of the world's best ultramarathoners grew up in Leelanau County
By Patrick Sullivan | Jan. 6, 2018
At times, even Geoff Burns has to force himself to run in the snow and cold. That’s strange for a kid who grew up in Leelanau County and went on to become an ultramarathon champion.
But since Burns lived for a year in Southern California, winter running in Michigan has become significantly tougher.
“I will say I love it, and I hate it,” Burns said. “One of the reasons I hated Los Angeles was because there were no seasons. And I come back here, and I’m the guy, when I’m out training with my friends, I’m the one cursing the footing and the snow. Why are we running through this? This is awful! The weather is so bad! But at my core, I really, really love it, and it kind of connects me to my childhood.”
Burns, a Traverse City West grad, found his stride after undergrad at University of Michigan, when he discovered his passion — and his strength — was running extremely long distances.
Today, Burns is pursuing a PhD in running biomechanics at Michigan, and he’s on a winning streak: He’s won the 50k and 100k national championship races in recent years, and he won the Chicago 50-mile ultramarathon race last September.
The Northern Express sat down to chat with Burns while he was home in Traverse City over the holidays.
Northern Express: I know you grew up in a running family. Your dad, Bryan Burns, who is an assistant principal at Traverse City Central, organized the Bayshore Marathon for years. Tell me how you got so into running.
Burns: Totally by diffusion. My dad is a running — I don’t want to say “running nerd,” because that doesn’t do justice to his level of enthusiasm for it — but he grew up with it. He started running from a young age and fell in love with it. When I was growing up, my sisters and I … we saw him doing it and loving it. And he included me in it. His passion was just contagious, and I latched onto it. I don’t think my sisters did. He never pushed me at all. It was never, “You should do this, you should run this.” It was always like, I wanted to go for a run as well. He was going out for a run; I wanted to go out for a run. He was doing these races; I thought, These races are cool. He’s following these races on TV, and I’m getting excited following it too. So, like I said, it was diffusion.
Express: In high school and college you weren’t doing really long distances. How did you go from being a regular runner to being an ultrarunner?
Burns: I think it’s something that maybe I had always been predisposed to, or what suited me best. I just never was exposed to that opportunity until after college, or even that idea. In high school, the longest you could race is five kilometers in cross-country. That’s what a standard high school competition is. But I ran far more miles in training that most high schoolers do. My training in high school was pretty big. I mean, I was going out for hour-and-a-half, two-hour runs, three times a week in high school. Which is more than a lot of college kids do. So at that point, without realizing I was doing it, I was doing training that suited me. I ran at the University of Michigan — I walked on there. And I could just hang in there on workouts, and I’d get my butt kicked on the really fast stuff by the guys who were All-American milers and whatnot, but I could recover fast enough that I could keep coming back for more.
Express: And that eventually led you to ultramarathons.
Burns: After college, once I had control over my own training, I actually went back to the stuff that I was doing in high school, in the off-season, when I was writing my own training plans. Longer mileage. I started doing it with my friends. And I had a friend who had just run the [USA Track and Field] 50 kilometer national championships. And I at the time had thought that sounded kind of crazy. I hadn’t run a marathon even at that point. I had been doing runs that were 20, 22, 24 miles at pretty quick clips. He was just like, “Man, this is your thing. You’ve got to give this a shot.” So he kind of planted the seed, and I started thinking about it.
Express: And soon you weren’t just thinking about it …
Burns: He won that race and qualified to represent the national team at the 50 kilometer world championships that were being held in Qatar that year. And the last qualifying race to also earn a place on the national team was a race in Madison, Wisconsin. And it was the last day you could sign up for the race. It might have been a week out. And I was just sitting there, like, 10 or 11 o’clock at night, the registration is about to close, the race is like a week away, or two weeks away, and I was thinking, Should I do it? Should I pull the trigger? All right. I’ll give it a shot. So I did it. Took a vacation day off work. I ran it and was just thinking, Well, I’ve never even run close to this far, I’ve never run a marathon. Let’s see what happens. If I get to 20 miles and I have to drop out, it was a good long run for the day.
Express: But not only did you finish that race …
Burns: I won and set the course record, and that got me a spot on the national team.
Express: And so then you were suddenly an established ultrarunner.
Burns: That kind of opened up the realm of possibility. It’s funny. I used to work at Running Fit in high school. Jeff Gaff, the manager there, was a big ultrarunner. And we’d get Ultra Running magazine there, and nobody would ever buy them. Like, they’d always sit there, and we’d get issues — if I was working in 2008, we’d have issues that were from 2001 that were still on the shelf. I just remember thinking, Who does this? Why would you run this far?
Express: It sort of does sound crazy.
Burns: It never dawned on me that it’s a similar but different physiologic challenge.
Express: And you returned to Wisconsin a year later, ran twice as far, and became national champion in the 100k race.
Burns: I set the course record, and I think it’s the No. 3 American time, in my debut, and I think I was fortunate in going into it blind. I’d been training for it and gearing for it, and that went really well. It qualified me then to represent the U.S. in the 100 kilometer world championships and that’s — the hundred kilometer race is kind of the bread and butter of the ultramarathons. Other distances operate in the periphery. This is kind of the classic ultra. So it was good to jump up to that, but the competition is much deeper in that event.
Express: What is your goal right now?
Burns: I definitely want to set the American record. I’d love to get on the podium at the world championships this year. The world championships happen every other year, and they didn’t have them last year, which is good, because I spent most of last year injured. They’re [happening] this year in September. I’d love to set the American record and get on the podium there.
Express: I read somewhere that another ultimate goal you have is to run the most famous ultrarace, the Comrades in South Africa.
Burns: Have you read about the Comrades? It’s insane. It was something that actually had been on my radar long before I had even started ultrarunning because one of my seminal running books that I read growing up was the Lore of Running by Tim Noakes, and it’s this encyclopedia of everything related to the science of running. It’s a scientific bible for running. He talks a lot about Comrades. He’s South African.
And it really is a running event that transcends the sport of running. It’s unbelievable. It’s bigger in terms what it occupies for the country — it’s beyond the Boston Marathon or the New York Marathon. It’s a 56-mile race that not only do 20,000 people [run] — which is insane in its own right — but there are between 500,000 and a million people on the course. The entire course is point-to-point, feels like a Tour de France stage. People come out, people bring lawn chairs, people come from all over the country. It’s this massive party for 56 miles. For ultramarathoning, especially on the roads, that is the most competitive one in the world.
Express: And you plan to run that this June?
Burns: So, last year I was a set. I’d had a good debut the year before at the 100k national champions, ran well at the world championships against some of the South African guys who won Comrades and whatnot, so I thought last year, Okay this is it. I’m going to give it my first shot. And I was injured leading up to it. I tried to get in shape and ended up having to scratch it. But I went over and ran the first part of it just to learn the experience. And so this year I’m going to go back with much more fight in my heart.
Express: Something I find interesting about you is that you don’t just run, you’ve dedicated your life to running. You are getting a PhD in running mechanics. How do you explain what you are studying in simple terms? How do you go about improving the way people run?
Burns: That’s exactly what I’m trying to figure out, and the goal with the PhD is I’m trying to develop a way to help people monitor their biomechanics from a system level and give them a template to improve. Right now, with running biomechanics, a lot of work goes into the component level. What I mean is, it’s like, ‘Lift your arms up.’ Or ‘Increase your stride rate.’ ‘Run at 180 steps per minute.’ ‘Change this one thing.’ I want to find a way to be able to measure how your whole body is working together, because people, the more they run, have an amazing ability to self-optimize — find the lowest energetic cost to complete this task. So, studying running mechanics, it becomes really tough to tell people to change one thing, because if they change one thing, 10 other things change to compensate for that. So I am trying to figure out a way to look at a very simple framework for everybody to use to start to improve the system level.
Express: Since your dad has experience directing the Bayshore Marathon, now that you are a world-class ultramarathoner, do you think you two will ever team up to organize an ultrarace around Traverse City.
Burns: I would love to at some point. I have all these dreams of what you could do. Especially, I have a passion in my heart for ultramarathons on the road. There’s actually a big dichotomy: people who do them on trails versus the roads. I think if you involve towns and cities, they can be incredibly cool. Much like a big cycling race. That’s what it’s like in South Africa, where ultramarathoning is like a king’s sport. Whether it’s out in Leelanau County or out on the Peninsula, start and finish in town, it could be this incredible journey that would just be beautiful. I would love to do that someday. But there are all these ideas, and I have to focus on running well right now and finishing up that whole grad school thing.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.