Unfinished business: Burns overcomes injury to win Chicago Ultra Marathon, looks to South Africa

Traverse City West alumnus Geoff Burns runs during the 2017 Chicago Lakefront 50/50 Ultra Marathon Saturday. Burns won the race with a time of 5:14:25.

TRAVERSE CITY — Geoff Burns has 56 miles of unfinished business.

The former Traverse City West and University of Michigan distance runner has dreamed for years about competing in South Africa’s Comrades Marathon and had intended to do so in June 2017.

Injuries derailed Burns’ plans as hamstring strains and lower back spasms reduced him to shell of his former self. In November 2016, Burns finished fifth at the 29th International Association of Ultrarunners 100k World Championship.

Constant nerve irritation reached such incredibly painful heights during Burns’ training that he couldn’t sit or stand comfortably, let alone run. Burns tried taking time off, he tried rehabilitation.

Eventually, Burns had to admit he wouldn’t be taking the trip to South Africa. The admission, Burns said, was the hardest part of the entire recovery process.

“It was a sobering moment because it was a race I dreamed about doing for years and years,” Burns said. “I wasn’t sure if I was ever going to be the competitive runner I once was.”

Burns was sure he was going to do all it took to find out if that was true.

After focusing on singular muscles and potential weak points, Burns adopted a more inclusive approach. He began using “a whole suite” of training methods to improve his core strength, his hip mobility and his ankle ability, and finally, by August, he began to feel himself improve.

By September he was in full training mode with his sights set on the 2017 Chicago Lakefront 50.50 Ultra Marathon — his first ultramarathon since the 2016 World Championships.

Burns said he had doubts prior to the race.

“(In past races) I had no doubt my legs could go the distance,” Burns said. “This time I wasn’t sure if I was going to break or not.

“In many ways it felt like I was doing it for the first time all over again. I wasn’t sure I would have the strength late in the race to hold it together.”

Burns definitely didn’t break. He won the 50-mile event with a time of 5 hours, 14 minutes, 25 seconds. Not only that, he posted the fasted United States 50-mile time since 2013.

The running field consisted of a couple hundred runners, none of them had a chance to push Burns.

“I suspected early in the race I was going to win,” Burns said. “Nobody went with me from the start. The real opponent became myself and whether or not I could run the speed I wanted to run. I wanted to run close to a fast time for 50 miles.”

Burns’ time was less than three minutes off the course record — a goal he had set prior to the race.

Despite not quite eclipsing the record time, Burns was happy with his performance and said the Chicago race will hold a special place among all his other races.

“It has a unique place. Each ultramarathon is such a new experience that you finish it with its own level of pride,” he said. “I didn’t finish it with the same elation as my first 100k, but this was more deeply satisfying, rather than any external validation. It was proving to myself that I’m back.

“That being said, I was really happy it wasn’t 100 kilometers at the end of it. I couldn’t have gone 12 more miles.”

There likely won’t be another 11-month layoff between Burns’ next race, and he’s definitely planning on the Comrades Marathon in 2018.

Burns still has goals to run a 50-miles race in under five hours. He likes the symmetry of having to run five 10-mile segments in an hour each. He likens it to distance running’s equivalent of the four-minute mile.

But if Burns is running in South Africa next June, he’ll be running 56 miles and focusing on finishing what he started after last year’s World Championships.

As trying as his injury and rehabilitation experience was over the last year, it all might just help him complete his dream.

“(Ultrarunning) makes you continue to learn how to confront the negative side of yourself that comes out when you’re testing yourself physically,” Burns said. “Every time out, there are new demons that come out and voice their opinions that you should stop.”

Burns learned another thing through all this. He’s not stopping.

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