“Yeah, I finished my master’s degree in studying engineering and I knew that I wanted to come back and do a Ph.D. I kind of felt my heart was in the academic world, but I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do it in. And my thought, my inclination was like, well, I’d much rather take a few years to both figure that out and then find the right program. Because you’re going to become an expert in something, you might as well do it in something you really care about. Or at least make it the right thing.
Because I think it is– My goal wasn’t just– I didn’t get a Ph.D. to have it as like a necessary requirement for any job. I mean, it was purely because the exercise of doing that felt like the right use of my abilities and interests and passions. And so anyways, so I finished my master’s degree. I was like, okay, I’m gonna work for a few years, figure this out, and kind of work my way back into the academic world.”
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JESSE: Welcome to the Smart Athlete Podcast. I’m your host, Jesse Funk. My guest today is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Michigan. He has his Ph.D. in kinesiology. But before that, he did both his bachelor’s and his master’s in biomedical engineering. So, he has kind of a mixed background which is pretty interesting. He also is a pro ultra runner. Welcome to the show, Geoff Burns.
GEOFF: Thank you. Pleasure to be here.
JESSE: Thanks for hanging out with me, Geoff. So, if you are only on iTunes, Spotify, audio-only platforms, you’re missing out on Geoff’s sweet brick background. He was telling me he lives in a historic building. Can you give that just a short rundown before we got going? Tell me about where you are right now.
GEOFF: So, I’m in a brewery. It’s called the central brewery in Ann Arbor, Michigan, downtown Ann Arbor. It was one of the first buildings in town is built in 1860. So, this lovely, irregular brick behind me is now about 160 years old. Yeah. And it is cool too because it functioned as like– This area of town was German, Irish immigrants lived here. And so it was– Bowles was the name of the guy, the brewer. And so he’s a German guy making beer. And we’re in our basement.
So, their function is my basement and my laundry room now, these like big, cavernous catacombs down beneath the building is where they did the [??? 03:34] for the beer to keep the temperature stable because that obviously predated refrigeration. So, catacombs down there also served as a hideout for escaped slaves on the Underground Railroads. This was an underground railroad stop during that time, as well. So, it’s kind of– a lot of stories in these– If these bricks could talk…
JESSE: Yeah, yeah.
GEOFF: I’m sure they’d have good tales.
JESSE: That’s one of those things where like, sometimes I wish, in your case, you got information. But then I mentioned before on the show, and I was telling you before we got going I live in a historic home, though, as we were talking about, they’re all relatively young compared to anything that actually stands in Europe from quite a time ago. I kind of wish sometimes there was like a ledger, almost like a journal that belonged to the house, that stayed in the house where people like, told their stories while they lived or worked, wherever that building is.
So, you have an easy way to access like who were the people that were here and what happened to this place? Because otherwise if we just got going and I just said, Geoff, how you doing, hey, blah, blah, blah. I didn’t mention it at all, it’s just bricks behind you, right, but there’s more to it than that.
GEOFF: Yeah. You’re gonna have to go digging through, rip up your walls and go into the attics and stuff, and you find interesting things. I have a friend who grew up in a 100-year-old home. I’m from Northern Michigan from Traverse City. And when they first moved in there, I can’t remember if they were in their basement or redoing something but they opened up the walls and they found a bunch of letters from the people who originally lived there.
Then my landlord here who did all the renovations on this 50 years ago, he still manages it. He told me whenever he’s gone through like the crawl spaces or the basements he always finds like… He said it’s almost finding new things from the past. Like he’s found letters as well as antique whiskey bottles. So, drink of choice of former owners.
JESSE: Yeah. Yeah, the best things [??? 05:58] the best or like the most noticeable things I’ll find are like, it would have been 20-30 years ago. Unfortunately, I kind of have a living time capsule next to me. The lady that lives next to me has been in her house for almost 50 years now. So, she’s like, oh, yeah, this [??? 06:15] living history of the house.
But they’re like kids that lived here. And they’ve just…like the benches downstairs in the garage on the bricks in the sunroom they like wrote their names in various places. So, it’s like oh, there’s Andy again. He’s just prolific writing his name on everything. Like, that’s the best I get. So, I’ll have to keep that in mind. We’re getting ready to renovate the kitchen, so I’ll just stick something in the walls.
JESSE: So, you were telling me, before you got doing what you’re doing now, you didn’t go straight from your masters to your Ph.D. Which, I don’t know if that’s unusual or usual nowadays, but you’re working as an engineer. So, what were you doing before you kind of came back to school?
GEOFF: Yeah, I finished my master’s degree in studying engineering and I knew that I wanted to come back and do a Ph.D. I kind of felt my heart was in the academic world, but I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do it in. And my thought, my inclination was like, well, I’d much rather take a few years to both figure that out and then find the right program.
Because you’re going to become an expert in something, you might as well do it in something you really care about. Or at least make it the right thing. Because I think it is– My goal wasn’t just– I didn’t get a Ph.D. to have it as like a necessary requirement for any job. I mean, it was purely because the exercise of doing that felt like the right use of my abilities and interests and passions.
And so anyways, so I finished my master’s degree. I was like, okay, I’m gonna work for a few years, figure this out, and kind of work my way back into the academic world as I kind of sniff out what the calling is. So, to answer your question, the first thing I did, actually, between my bachelor’s and master’s degrees is, in addition to studying engineering, I also studied in our business school here at University of Michigan. I was a fellow in Operations Institute.
And so I did on essentially a consulting stint for General Motors. I worked in Poland doing process optimization in one of their plants, vehicle assembly plants. So, first did that. And then after graduation, I worked for a year for St. Jude Medical, which I think they’ve actually since been bought by Medtronic, but they’re a medical device company, they make pacemakers. I was doing mechanical tests, validation, and development.
So, any medical device or you know, and we are working with the leads of the pacemakers. So, the long wires that can sneak through your body, and actually shock the– deliver the electricity to the cardiac tissue. I was designing, developing the tests on the assembly line to check the mechanical integrity and quality of the products before they went out. And that’s kind of an FDA thing.
So, yeah, so doing that kind of test method, development validation for FDA stuff was– Half of me liked it from the kind of statistical analysis side because it’s very much like– I mean, it’s test method development of like reliability, repeatability, all that stuff. It kind of segwayed from some of the process optimization stuff I was doing. But the subject– but working for a company just was not my jam.
I love the academic research world. I don’t think there’s– There’s not a right or wrong. It’s not like oh, working for companies is terrible. No. For some people in their goals and their interests, like it’s awesome. Like the guy– And I think one of the reasons why I came back or like came back to the academic world even quicker than I anticipated was, because I saw the passion that the guys that I worked with had for those devices and the products, and I just didn’t have it.
But my passions lay in other areas. So, luckily, I was able to then get a job back here at the University of Michigan in the department of orthopedic surgery as a research engineer. So, I was essentially an engineer helping the surgeons and the surgical residents with their research outputs there. And I was essentially a biomechanics research consultant engineer, staff member for the department there. And I did that for two years.
And that was an absolute privilege and joy, and it really informed, you know, wasn’t directly related to the subject matter that I would do my Ph.D. in. But it allowed me to work with the human body, which was, like I think those two years that I did that was experienced that very few people on the planet would get because I was working with– I was primarily working with categoric tissue.
So, I would actually go down to the hospital board to harvest recently, I mean, when people had passed away if they would donate their body to, as we say, [??? 12:06] to science. I would go down and do kind of the harvest on those limbs, if we needed them for research projects, bring them back. So, through those two years, I was constantly working with the human body in actuality. And so to learn not just the 3D geometry of our bodies, literally doing dissections and whatnot.
But also like, understanding that tissue and how it all plays together, the actual mechanical properties of that tissue. I just felt like I developed such a unique, intuitive understanding for our bodies and our systems as they function from materials and mechanics standpoint, and kind of the geography of us. So, that was really an absolute privilege.
And doing that, I also got to work doing a lot of like canonical mechanical testing with machines, whether it’s like doing loads of information tests, different kind of classic mechanical testing regimes. Yeah, so got to hone my orthopedic chops for a few years before then, yeah, landing in the Ph.D. program and getting started on that. So, a lot of different engineering disciplines all focusing on kind of different things that I’m passionate about landed back.
JESSE: It’s kind of interesting how people find their way. It almost seems like– I mean, as you tell the story, and maybe it’s a matter of looking back and making it into a story, but it almost seems like you only had to make a couple decisions to kind of find your way into the right groove. And obviously the first one being recognizing that you didn’t have that same passion that the other guys did for the pacemakers. And it made me think about too how sometimes, in your case, you’re like, it was kind of interesting, but you weren’t passionate about it.
And other people would hear and be like oh, God well, how can they possibly do that? That would be so boring. You know, some people would like say like accounting, you say accounting and most people are like, oh, man, get away from me. And other people, like my CPA, love it, love the numbers. It’s just finding that thing, I think is tough for most people. So, like I said, your story almost seems like you were destined to kind of get there. And then, I assume, from kind of where you left off in your story, it becomes a relatively easy marriage with running. And then bringing that all together.
GEOFF: Yeah, I mean, I would say, that’s– I gave you the high-level story that like, the cliff notes sound [??? 15:19] really goes very nicely. But to anybody listening that’s like whether they’re trying to figure out what they’re doing or continuing to navigate their own journey. I mean, I guess we all always are doing that. It was torturous the whole way.
From a standpoint of like, you know, I thought when I graduated, the thing that I was actually originally thinking I was going to do is go into management consulting with my engineering degree. I thought I wanted to come back to school to do academic work. But at the time, I didn’t have– Because I did so many different things in college, whether it was like, working in the automotive industry, and you know these like, operations in the business school and stuff like that, that kind of segwayed me into thinking consulting was setting me up.
But at the same time, I also worked in basic science, biomedical research labs. And all these things made it very challenging to get a traditional biomedical engineering job when I graduated. So, I mean, it was challenging just to even get a job coming out of school, despite the fact that I had very competitive degrees, from one of the best engineering institutions in the country. I had just spread myself so far and wide that like a lot of recruiters want somebody who’s done very specific things.
So, anyways, so I think I made it very hard for myself to get a job. But I also at the same time, I don’t regret that because I always did things I was interested in that have now set me up to give me a very broad scope of knowledge and experience to look at these problems.
But anyways, along the way, when I was working for St. Jude trying to get out of that job and pivot somewhere else, even that was brutally hard. Because again, I was getting experience in something I didn’t even want to have experience in. And so it was only actually after I was applying for a job that I didn’t even really want that I asked one of my mentors from graduate school to write me a letter of recommendation. And he was like, we need to get you back in the academic world.
Like I’ll recommend you for this, but you shouldn’t do that. And then shortly thereafter, he was in orthopedic surgery and that job, this biomechanics engineer job opened up, and he was like, I think you should apply for this. Like it will not pay you nearly as well as working for a company, but it might be more in line with your goals. And I was like yes, that’s it. But even then, once I was doing that, at the same time, I was also interviewing for a different job with that pacemaker company that would have been something that would be a little bit more interesting. And it would have been almost twice the salary.
And so even then, like going into that like hindsight is 2020 that like it was– And I think in my heart, there was never any decision. But at the same time, I was still like, deciding between those two jobs at the time. And like I said, I think maybe in my heart, there was never a decision, but on the surface, there was. And then once I get into this job in orthopedic surgery, and it’s really what I love doing, finding a Ph.D. program in running it’s like, trying to find a needle in a haystack.
Because the number of funded Ph.D. programs in kinesiology each year in the US, you could probably count on your hands. And then the number that would fund you to study running, and even to study anything, like related to running performance is like– There might not even be one a year that comes through that like, let alone– So, even getting that opportunity was very challenging.
So, along the way, I would say it’s one of those things where I think I have good intuition and good instincts in terms of like, I guess where I lay my priorities and kind of steer myself. But when you’re doing the steering, it’s foggy as hell, man. It’s suddenly not like, oh, that’s exactly where I’m going to be. It’s a long ways off, but I know exactly like, I’m gonna work towards it.
No, it’s very much like, Okay, I know the things I need to do to get to where I want to be. But I don’t know if I’m ever even going to be able to get there. But the only thing I can do is to keep doing the things that I know I should.
So, yeah, it’s certainly not– Once we get down in the weeds in that story, it’s not as rosy but I think that also makes it, you know, that’s what all of our journeys are is like, if we only ever look at the high-level Cliff Notes these stories become very intractable, because that’s not how life is. It’s like, more often, if we want to be inspired or not even inspired but learn from someone else’s journey.
Like, we can probably get a lot more out of understanding those minute roadblocks that they hit on a day to day basis. Because if we just look at the 10,000-foot view, it’s not very helpful when like I said, you’re on the ground and the fog is pretty thick.
JESSE: Yeah. So, this may seem like a non-sequitur, but I promise it’s not. When did you start running?
GEOFF: Oh, probably not long after I started walking.
JESSE: Okay. Right, right. This is where I’m going with this.
JESSE: Because the whole thing is, like, you’re in the weeds, right, but you can’t like slogging away. And that’s the whole thing about running, especially ultra running, right? Like you’re gonna feel like crap sometimes, and you just keep going. It’s easier in hindsight, you get done with that racing and you’re like, oh, yeah, like mile 26 I puke my guts out.
And then I put myself back together, we got back out, you know, just– Well, depending on how long the race is. Hopefully, you’re not puking your guts out at mile 26. But it’s the same mentality, right, where they make nice stories afterwards. But while you’re doing it, there’s highs, there’s lows, there’s everything in between. But somehow you just keep putting one foot in front of the other.
GEOFF: Yep. And that’s actually, that whole concept, the idea of hindsight after the fact you kind of forget you. It becomes more difficult to relate to the actual struggle within that event or that journey. I think that’s a fundamental part of the human condition. And I was gonna say it’s like a flaw of humans, but I would actually argue it’s probably an evolutionary, it provides evolutionary fitness from the sense that we decouple ourselves from the pain of a task.
And I think it permeates everything. It’s the suffering in a race, we can never, or in a hard interval session or any sort of training. I cannot sit here and recreate that level of discomfort in my mind of the last 85– what I felt at 80K of a 100K race. Those depths, that hell, I cannot– I have an inability to know what that feels like sitting right here.
When I’m sitting right here thinking about a hard interval session I did, I cannot simulate the same emotional, like struggle and psychological, you know, in running we always call the pain, like fighting the pain. But that’s such an abstraction. And I think that inability or rather, the ability to forget that abstraction, as soon as you’re away from it, it permeates across everything we do.
I mean, it’s the same thing with like say you’re trying to like watch what you eat, or like watch your diet or something like that. And somebody offers like, a beautiful chocolate chip cookie that’s fresh out of the oven or something and it’s like, after lunch, you’re like, not that hungry. And you’re like, I know, I shouldn’t eat that cookie, but it’s like, right there.
And you know two hours later, if you like, feel guilty for eating that cookie, or like, two hours before like, I’m not going to eat that cookie. But like, in that moment, that raw drive that you have to just be like, yeah, I have to have that cookie, I’m gonna eat it. Like we can’t put ourselves in the moment of those kind of strange times of life of, I don’t wanna say stress, but like I don’t know, just putting our body and our minds in kind of like, augmented states of arousal.
JESSE: It’s like emotional gravity or something.
GEOFF: Yeah, yeah. Like when our rational brain kind of gets shut off, we can’t go back and revisit that with our rational brain. And so I think it’s just a funny thing with like, the human body. Like I said, it seems like this flaw because it would be so much better if we could just coldly analyze everything we do all the time. But I think it really is like an evolutionary adaptation, that ability to like, forget our animalistic selves.
JESSE: I’m glad you say that because for the longest time, and I don’t feel like anybody else has said this before, besides myself before you just said it that I’ve encountered. But I’ve always said, and I’m not as good at distance running as you are but I’m pretty good where the general population is concerned. I would say the thing that makes me as good as I am, are able to achieve as much as my body can achieve is my ability to forget how much it hurt yesterday.
JESSE: I always go back to that because it’s like we could sit here and be like I remember the first time I went under 16 for a 5K, and I remember the last 1,000 meters my legs were on fire the entire time. And I know that it happened logically, I remember it, but I can’t feel it. There’s that like I said emotional gravity or that suffering in that moment that’s simply not recreatable analytically. And that goes with training too, right?
Where if you have to push yourself to a certain depth in training, and you’re exhausted, and then two days later, you’ve got to do it again, well, you can’t be thinking about that thing. You have to forget that it hurt then and just focus on what am I doing right now. So, it’s like you said, I really think it is an adaptation to be able to forget and just say, this is what I’m doing right now. It doesn’t matter whether it was good or bad before, all I have is the present.
GEOFF: Yep. And I think also, yeah, it’s both empowering and scary. And it’s what makes me love racing so much because it’s the only time that you really can go to that place and it exists, at least for me because I think, maybe it’s one of my talents, or, I mean, in some cases, it’s probably a talent. In some case, it’s probably a hindrance.
But I’m very– I think I have a strong governor, from a standpoint of like, I will not like, I don’t go too deep in training or like anything like that. I’m very good at protecting myself. But races are the one time that I’ve like I can rip that off. And the goal is to go as deep as possible. And I think it’s kind of cool because you really do go into that. It’s almost like we all have a Jekyll and Hyde irrationality and rationality.
And I am somebody who in so much of my life is so overly coldly rational and like analytic that the race becomes that time that not even like I go into it thinking like yes, I get to, like rip that off. But just by proxy, by going there, you have no choice but to like have it ripped off. So, you go into that state of like, I’ve just altered consciousness.
And then it’s not, I don’t think it’s altered consciousness, like thinking of like a runner’s high or like having hallucinations. I just mean altered consciousness, like Jekyll and Hyde from the standpoint of like you put yourself in such a state of like– Again, we think back to evolutionary terms almost like existential crises. And to that point of trying to achieve a goal or in the best sense, not even trying to achieve a goal but trying to accomplish something in the moment, like beating somebody else that you then–
Again, it’s like, I always one of the things that I kind of like mantra that I have in races that I think about is I always say like, going into wolf mode. And so like I think of like, I’m stripping away and I’m just like, I’m hunting and reacting. And that’s like– It’s just thrilling to go there sometimes. I mean, all the time if you do it, right it’s incredibly distressing. But it’s cool– It’s just cool to see each time, what– because you can’t conceptualize what it will be. It’s like each time is like– it’s like jazz.
It’s l improvising within the structure. So, that’s what I always tell people, ultramarathons are like jazz operas. They have these like long like acts and operatic rises and falls. But within them, there’s so much improvisation that you can’t script. So, it’s like, yeah, it’s a jazz opera. And I think maybe all running is that to an extent or all endurance, I would say all endurance exercise.
JESSE: Yeah, you mentioned, like stripping things away to get to that place. And that’s, I feel like that’s a common thread anytime I talk to other runners or endurance athletes. It’s like we try to figure out how to strip away the ego or the rational mind, not necessarily the same thing. But it’s like– So, we’re gonna go off track here. It’s like we’re layers. It’s like we’re an onion. Gotta peel back the layers of the onion.
GEOFF: [??? 32:27].
JESSE: Right. But it’s like– Sometimes I feel like when I’m trying to do something creative, like I was writing a song before we’re recording noodling around here. And it’s like, getting into that creative place where my brain is working musically. It’s much like when I’m running, there’s this noisy mind that’s going on just as an automatic thing that gets in the way.
When we sit at the computer, and we’re not focusing there’s just chatter, always going on. And then when you’re running, and you find that place and getting towards being in the zone, it’s like, that chatter starts to quiet down and hopefully, eventually, dissipates so that like inner self is revealed, in some sense. And it’s quiet, it’s focused, it has one goal, it’s just that like, motion forward.
GEOFF: Yeah, I love that. I 100% agree that or rather, to build on that, I think, I strongly believe that athletic endeavors are so much, so similar to musical and artistic endeavors as well. They’re movements of the human spirit. And athletic endeavors, take it in a second and physical form. So, it’s like an expression of the human spirit through physical means.
Whereas the arts are an expression of the human spirit through whatever artistic medium that is. And I think that we as humans when you’re doing it, the experience that you just described is the same as that where it’s tapping into something deeper. And it’s like, if you do it, right, it’s not like it’s gonna be easy.
I have a little bit of disdain for the concept of like flow states, which like, I mean, I’ve had a few races, I would say certainly not recently, but for early on in my career where like, everything clicks, and it’s like what that canonically is, But I don’t think that’s the majority of people’s experience [??? 35:08]. I think it’s more often what you describe where you kind of just peel back, I don’t know, if it’s peeling back the layers of distraction and layers of rationality, or maybe just quieting them down and focusing on something.
And for the majority of the time, like I said, where you do that, it’s not like, it makes it any easier. If anything, it makes it, like the pain, quote-unquote, much more heightened and difficult, but like, maybe easier to– not easier. But like, you feel more adept to navigate it once you’ve kind of silenced everything.
So, anyways, the experience is the same as another creative type, going through their process. But also, then for the people bearing witness to it, whether you’re a fan watching a race of some kind, or somebody watching a brilliant performer on the stage, or looking at a piece of art or something like that, it’s the same thing where you see their movement, and you feel it yourself, or you feel something about it.
And it’s one of the things that I’ve spent over the last couple years, spent a lot of time in South Africa, for the comrade’s marathon, which is one of my big race each year. And then I’ve done two research stints at the University of Cape Town there. And one of the things that I keep coming back to that country that I love is they have this reverence for sport, that I don’t think we have in the United States as much.
In the United States, sports are these, you know, on a professional scale, when we look at football, basketball, etcetera, they’re big business. But I think sports are viewed as like entertainment here and like, just people out, exercising, playing basketball, or playing tennis on the weekends, or going for bike rides, or just out running.
It’s like, we view it as it has to be either exercise or entertainment, from the standpoint that it’s like, if you’re not a professional doing it to entertain us, you’re gonna make yourself healthier or better. And then looking at it as such, I think athletes are kind of viewed as I don’t want to say people look down on athletes, but like the athletic pursuit is viewed as kind of like this derivative, or like, kind of basic non– It doesn’t have the same respect that some sort of intellectual pursuit has or even that we kind of give to the arts of beauty, any sort of kind of respect to that.
So, getting back to what I was saying about South Africa is they have this reverence for sports that puts it on the same level as scientific or intellectual pursuit, or artistic or musical pursuits, or something like that. So, that people, even people who are prioritizing, you could be a middle of the pack runner, but if you’re training hard, and giving a portion of yourself to it, your community like sees that and respects the hell out of it. And like, if you are a good athlete, or a high-level athlete, it’s like you are viewed– It’s almost like they view you the same as like, a Ph.D. scientist or something like that.
Yeah, there’s a reverence for it as well as I would say there is a respect for the expertise and the process involved. Whereas like, I don’t think– It’s not like people in America are going to look at an NFL player, and they would see them now as like, an expert, but rather than some freak of human nature that can like do these crazy things.
But I look at those guys and I look at an NBA player, like all of them, I think that they are experts in their bodies, in their process, in their preparation. And we lose sight of– Because all we ever do is report scores and outcomes. Everything that we talked about at the beginning of this podcast, the process, what goes on in the weeds, I think that all is part of their, you know, an athlete of any kind of their artistic process. The day to day struggles, how they get through it, what inspires them?
What I’m thinking about when I go out on just a day to day training run, what gets me out the door? What gets me riled up on that run? What gets me through it? What worries me, what’s on my mind that week? What are the challenges within that, that micro cycle of training like universes exist in our brain just to get through each week, you know?
Like I said, if an ultramarathon is a jazz opera like that opera plays out, day to day, week to week, like everything is this constant challenge, and we find different reasons and struggles. And I think that’s all part of the artistic process. And it’s like, I wish that was better communicated about athletes of all kinds. Because right now, we just have, like we view sports and athletics from a journalistic standpoint of like I said, we just see results.
And so that then athletes are just essentially machines for producing these results. But we gotta understand the humanity of it. And so I think yeah, it’s something that I think, going back to that idea of like creativity as an artist, creativity as an athlete; I think it’s all an exercise in creativity. Because to get out the door and suffer each day, you have to have a reason. Yeah.
JESSE: So, as you’re talking about it, I’m thinking about, like how does our, I guess the North American culture or US culture, present athletics, [??? 42:02] thinking about ESPN and you get on ESPN, and sometimes even though the big guys or ladies on debating this person versus that person. But often it’s like a circle jerk of stats.
Like what’s the best stat we can come up with, and it becomes such an obsession that it’s like, you’ll get insane stats, like he’s a first 300-pound linebacker who ate a hoagie before half time to catch a ball, be an eligible receiver and catch a ball [??? 42:46]. It’s like so specific that it’s like, well, of course, nobody’s done that before. It’s such a specific thing that like, yes, obviously. And like the obsession with stats is really laid bare in that absurd examples that happen.
But I think part of the inability for us to have that reverence is a little bit in our ability to relate. And then also in a lack of ability to articulate those skills. Like us sitting here trying to talk about the process and articulate the experience of peeling back the layers or quieting the mind, just between ourselves that we’ve both been through that. But we’re even struggling to find the right like the pinpoint language to say that this is the thing that we’re talking about.
And we understand each other because we’ve been through it. But if you think about, let’s say, like the NFL, think about, because we like to give football players a hard time about just being dumb jocks, right? Which they’re not. Maybe some are but I think in aggregate, probably not.
GEOFF: But even then… So, I’m gonna let you finish but I want to say to that point, I think that’s one of the biggest problems is that we have this, that dumb jocks, we associate intelligence with academic intellect. But what I would counter that with is that like, even somebody who can’t– If they’re not going to like– If they’re not a wiz at algebra or trigonometry or like don’t have a 1,600 SAT vocabulary or something like that;
I would say some of these guys have just absurdly beautiful and brilliant, I would say like athletic intelligence as well as like, physical intelligence of like the ability to read spatial situations, read games, read like, just instincts, intuitions, but also reading their own body. So, like, you don’t get to that level of sport or achievement without having a expert level, ability to read your body.
It’s not necessarily a conscious thing wake up and say, ah, this hurt today I should work on that. Or… No, it’s like a very intuitive thing much like, I think I have a very intuitive understanding of like statistical modeling and mathematics and things like that, that’s just the way I think about things. Some of those quote-unquote, dumb jocks have understandings of bodily movements, body control, spatial awareness that are beyond what anybody else has. And I think it gets back to that idea of like, we don’t– We fundamentally don’t register that as, like a form of intelligence, and I wish we would. [crosstalk]
JESSE: Right. I mean, that’s exactly where I was going is that part of the difficulty is that these guys, I think between us, it’s easy for us to have a conversation about running because this is what we do. But like, I have very little experience playing football. And by that, I mean, the last time I played football was probably like Middle School so like, I don’t know, anything about the intricacies of the game. I can watch it on TV, I’m starting to see some of the patterns, but it’s not the same in any sense of the word, as if you took like, current top players, former top players, even referees.
Like my brother’s a referee, and the only reason he could be an NFL referee is because he’s not tall enough. So, he got cut for that. But he can see things I don’t see because he has that intelligence, that experience. But I think part of the issue with that pervasive idea about the dumb jock is that it’s hard to articulate those things to somebody who, number one doesn’t have the experience, and then finding a common language.
GEOFF: Yeah, I love that… [crosstalk]
JESSE: Like if it’s two quarterbacks talking to each other, they can probably say a few words and communicate something at a deep level that we would be like, I have no idea what just happened.
JESSE: So, you think about like a reporter on the sideline, who, in often, it seems like, this just may be a media thing. It often seems like they try to put like a pretty blonde lady on the field to talk with the players. Right? Not always blonde, but as a stereotype. And she’s clearly not played in the NFL so she doesn’t have the experience to talk to these guys at the same level that they’re playing at. Yeah, so it’d be the same thing if you stuck me out there. Like, I could probably talk to him, but it’s not going to be a very interesting conversation for them because I can’t relate on their level.
GEOFF: Yeah. I mean, that could actually get to maybe one of the fundamental reasons why we have these viewpoints in why we view sports as an athlete as we do because, and this is gonna go deep. This is like structural [??? 48:58] because the people who get the education and the quote-unquote, intellect to report on these things and to communicate on them are not the same people that have gone through it.
And very rarely, I mean, the most common thing is like sometimes you’ll have former, not sometimes, it’s often, you have former players come through, and they’ll do like commentary. And that, I would actually– I think that’s almost less more often than not, not helpful. And more often than not, they’re like, not the right people to be doing that because they have no training in communications or skills on that front.
So, they understand whatever their subject matter on an intuitive level, but they’re not skilled at communicating it at all. And so that can sometimes set us back. And then you flip it, people who are really good at communicating things, and maybe whether it’s brilliant journalists with great English degrees or going through like different communications degrees and lots of experience and things like that, they fundamentally haven’t been in the trenches and experience those things, that they then also may be good at communicating, but fundamentally don’t have the actual subject matter to communicate.
And so if our whole media structure is set up on people who are able to communicate the subject matter, but don’t have any intuitive understanding of the subject matter, and people who have intuitive understanding of the subject matter, but don’t have any ability or developed the ability to communicate.
There’s just this fundamental mismatch that we can never bridge that gap to bring people in. And I would say the one– I always get back to this because this is like, the shining example of where it’s done well is my favorite sportswriter of all time is Kenny Moore. And he was fantastic, national-level marathoner in the late 60s, early 70s, [??? 51:31] Oregon, under Baumann, and he represented the US at the Olympics in the marathon. But he was a journalist and he wrote for Sports Illustrated, wrote freelance, just a brilliant writer, who also had been through the process.
And so when you read his pieces on running, that’s when I’m like, if we can have this for every sport, for all of running, this is what it is, because it’s somebody who’s been there, felt it, but also has busted his chops in the trenches, in the pursuit but also honed his chops and practice in the art of getting [??? 52:15] It’s like we need good translators, right?
So, I mean, it’s a skill, but I think that, getting back to that idea of like, you’re talking about, like the reporters on the sidelines and whatnot, I think it’s like because the system is just structurally built on the entertainment industry brings in people who haven’t done it to report on it, they can’t guide us, they can’t take us along on the process because they haven’t been through the process.
But the people who go through the process aren’t the ones who have, like the level of achievement that they have gotten to that place to give them expertise in their skill, and their athletic ability is almost mutually exclusive– it makes it almost mutually exclusive for like developing the skill to then communicate it back. So, yeah, so maybe just that concept of like, the entertainment industry of sports just gives us that gap, and we can’t have our cake and eat it too.
JESSE: I feel like you are, I think every once in a while, you are going to get somebody who comes back and can communicate those things. But– [crosstalk] it is gonna be more rare.
GEOFF: But one of the, I think maybe what we need to get away from too and this is what’s really exciting is I think we are is getting back to that idea of like the stats in the sports center phenomenon is that’s what all of those, all of those sports programmings have always been what we were talking about earlier, where it’s just that high-level story, all they give you; Sports Center top 10.
All that is just like, clickbait like snapshots of what happened. When you give… The whole Support Center structure is on the side of the screen here the 20 stories are going through in this hour, rattling them off minute by minute by minute. Like I said, you could do an entire hour-long series on like, one set of downs in football. Or like one four down drive.
Like there’s so much complexity and beauty going on there. Not that you necessarily should but like, I think the like really compelling humanistic expertise side of the sport is in that. But the whole entertainment structure is built on stat, stat, stat, stat, high level, high level, high-level nothing in the weeds. But what I was getting back to you for hope is that there are a growing number of like sports programs out there, and I think even running is, we’re seeing a lot of brands and running do this.
Cycling is starting to do it really well of having content within teams and athletes either within races or within training sessions. So, like, one of my favorite programs like on HBO each year is Hard Knocks inside an NFL team.
So, you actually get to see the day to day life and struggles of these players, and you come to like, just feel the gravity of their athletic pursuits so much more and respect the process. 24/7 on HBO, like when they do lead-ups to boxing fights, that is so good. Like to see how hard these guys train, how they live, what they’re thinking about day to day, like what is the backdrop of their struggle whether it’s their families, their kids, like just the reason they’re doing it.
What’s going on in their life, the people out there that are telling them, they can’t do it, the people out there that they’re raging against, like those stories that you get are just so beautiful. And then like I said, there are a lot of cycling teams out there that are doing this really, really well now, where they’re doing like short films inside their teams, even a couple running squads are doing that really well.
So, understanding the humanity, I think inside the process is going to be a key. And I hope we do that and have a better way to share it. Because it’s something that even for me as simple as like, it’s something that I’ve always thought about, but I haven’t been very good at doing myself not– I from time to time, will write essays on whether it’s like a race report or on other things. And I think I’m very, very skilled at writing and communicating those things. I just don’t do it.
JESSE: Yeah, I think you [??? 57:21] reading through different blog posts, I think you articulate things pretty well.
GEOFF: Yeah. And so it’s, maybe I need to try to do that better. But one of the things that I’ve recently started doing was logging my training on Strava, which I never did that before. More out of like, this idea of like, well, I just like not trying to hide anything or like anything like that. But it was more out of like, I wanted my running to be for myself, from a standpoint of like, it was like my running log was like a personal thing for me that, like I don’t want this to be like– I don’t want there to be any like exhibitionist element of this of like constantly thinking about having people seeing what I do.
Like this training, this is my own thing. But then I kind of, I’ve over the years, I feel very strongly of all these things I was telling about it like, you want, like people need to see that if you want them to understand your process and your struggles, bring them in like, share that. And so I kind of had this realization after I had a long injury spell.
Once I started building back up earlier this year, I was like, I’m just gonna start putting all this on Strava because if there’s 10 people that look at it, and they are, whether it’s they’re inspired, or intrigued or whatever, I want people to know that because my training is part of my artistic process. That is my output and I think it’s, to show that to people, I think it is important or valuable.
Because at the end of the day, like my races, I mean, so often the race is like, at best, the final chapter of the book, but more often than not, if you do it, right, the race is the epilogue. And the training is really that period, that’s the book, man. Those are the trials, the tribulations the like– And big training blocks I go through the seven circles of how that like race day doesn’t even approach. Like I said, if you do it, right race day is a celebration of the 40 days in the desert that you spent, you know.
JESSE: Yeah. Geoff as we’re sort of running down on time here, there’s a question I’m asking everybody this season on the show that’ll ask you too. I want you to know what do you think the purpose of sport is?
GEOFF: Man, we got it– We kind of touched on it earlier. And I think it I think the purpose of sport is– Actually, let’s see. I think the purpose of sport is to play out the physicality of the human spirit. It’s a reenactment, it’s an engagement of that fundamental component of us as a species and being and that is combative, and challenging movement in all forms.
And I think that sport is really a recreation and a reenactment of, in some ways the fight and the hunt, to survive, or to get, whether it’s to find sustenance to conquer a threat, that is part of the human condition. I think what we are, as beings, we have this, like this beautiful, symbiotic relationship between movement and kind of movement and physicality and intellect. And cognition. And I think sport is really an exercise and a reenactment of that physical side of the human spirit.
JESSE: Well put. Well put. Geoff, if people want to see your somewhat infrequent posts, but very eloquently put, see your research, any of that kind of stuff, where can people find you?
GEOFF: So, I have my personal website I’ll update with like my scientific publications as well as occasional blog posts ideas. So, that’s GeoffreyBurns.com. I also have– I am infrequently/frequently active on Twitter and Instagram. I haven’t been on Twitter and in a while. Like I go in bursts where I’ll be super active and engaging on it. And then kind of pull away whether I need to, like start sleeping better or just kind of clear my head. So, I haven’t been on in a couple weeks.
But normally, a lot of times, I’ll be on Twitter, so you can follow kind of some of my thoughts on there, Geoffrey Burns is my handle. Same thing with Instagram. And then recently, if you want to follow my training Strava, you can probably just search Geoffrey Burns or Geoff Burns maybe. It’s probably Geoff Burns on Strava. Yeah, so all those.
JESSE: Sounds good. Thanks for hanging out with me today, Geoff.
GEOFF: No, thank you. It’s an absolute pleasure chatting. Yeah, sports, sport’s a beautiful thing. Fundamental exercise of the human spirit.
JESSE: Absolutely. Take care.
GEOFF: All right. Thanks.