Alumni Spotlight: Cross Country And Track Athlete Hugh Geller

Alumni Spotlight: Cross Country And Track Athlete Hugh Geller

Welcome to the fourth edition of the Goucher College Athletics Alumnae/I Spotlight! 

The Alumnae/I Spotlight is a Question and Answer feature of some of your favorite Gophers. We look forward to updating you on several former Goucher athletics and if you are a former Gopher and would like to participate in our Alumane/i Spotlight, Click HERE and we might use your responses for our spotlight feature!

Today we put the spotlight on former Goucher track and field runner Hugh Geller: Geller was a member of the cross country and track and field teams for Goucher from 2010-14. He participated on the team for three years after taking off his junior year to study abroad at Oxford. He was the Landmark Conference Scholar-Athlete of the Year in his senior campaign for cross country.

Why did you choose Goucher College?

I originally was not interested in Goucher but chose to look at the college my junior year of high school because of my family history (all on my mom's side) there. My great-grandmother graduated with the class of 1925, my grandmother with the class of 1951, my aunt with class of 1978, my mom (who was the goalie for the field hockey team) with the class of 1982, and one of my cousins completed the post-baccalaureate premed program in 2007.

From there Goucher stood out because I realized I could continue with track, ballet, theatre (I only ended up taking two acting classes), and math. I received a performing arts scholarship from the dance department and was recruited for high jump. I never actually ended up doing the high jump as I became a distance runner; I focused predominantly on cross country and chose to focus on the 5000 meter for indoor and outdoor track.

In general, I was very interested in a liberal arts education because of the wide range of classes I could take. I took everything I could from math and chemistry to acting, ballet, and photography. The cherry on top of it all was definitely the study abroad requirement. I ended up winning an additional scholarship to spend my junior year studying advanced mathematics at the University of Oxford; which would then inspire me to pursue a graduate degree in mathematics.

How did Goucher College prepare you for the real world?

It's hard to say how Goucher has prepared me for the real world because I know plenty of people who would say that I have yet to enter the real world. I will say, studying abroad for a year definitely prepared me for moving to a place where I did not anyone and had never visited before. In some ways, South Carolina felt a bit more foreign to me than Oxford did, so I'm glad that I had already had the experience of establishing myself in a very new place.

How did being a student-athlete help shape you into the person you are today?

It's hard not to be stubborn when you're a long distance runner; to be competitive, you need to be able to say "wow, this sucks, it hurts a lot but I'm going to push harder." This attitude was super helpful my first two months of graduate school when they put us through a "math boot camp." We had four hours of lecture a day and then 12ish hours to complete and type up a problem set comparable to a weekly senior math major homework as well as type up the lecture notes. It was overwhelming enough that some people dropped out that summer. For me, the cross country mindset taught me to take my problems one at a time, whether it's another repeat on the track, another mile through the woods, or another advanced math problem. This approach carried me through all my qualifying exams, my thesis proposal, and preparing publications.

Being a cross country and track captain also has had a huge impact on me. I had to learn how to balance me own needs with the needs of the team. Sometimes we would go out for a long run and halfway through we've split into two different paced groups. As the captain, I had to figure out who should stay and take charge of the leading group and then circle back to make sure the other group was okay and make sure they don't get lost. I find myself doing an analogous thing with calculus classes; I have to create learning activities and homeworks that will guide the more advanced students through the material while I circle back to help students who are struggling with whatever concept we are focusing on. Being a captain forces you to develop an awareness of the people around you, especially when they're looking to you for guidance.

What was your most memorable experience at Goucher athletically?

It's hard to pick just one memory but a lot are tied to specific cross country races or long runs. I was never fast enough to be on the radar of those winning the cross country races, so a memorable race for me meant drastic improvements. When I talk about my cross country experience, I'll talk about placing 72 of 87 my freshmen year but improving to 23 of 77 my senior year (that race is usually the second or third story I tell). I'll also tell people about how much time I shaved off over the years; my worst race was in the mid-32 minute range whereas my best race was the regional meet my senior year when I ran 28:06.1. However, my go-to memory is sophomore year regionals.

For this memory it's important to understand the significance of the 30 minute mark for the 8k in cross country. For a lot of the men on the team, that's the first big goal. An 8k is just shy of 5 miles, so you're aiming to run roughly 5 consecutive 6 minute miles (more precisely 6:02.4). I had fallen short of this mark my freshmen year, so it became the sole focus of my sophomore year. Throughout that fall, fall 2011, I kept falling short and found myself at the mideast cross country regionals at DeSales University with one last attempt to go under 30 minutes.

On top of this, my parents hadn't been able to make it to any of my races that season. They would plan to come to one race or another but then something would happen and they'd have to cancel. The night before regionals, my dad texted me saying he would be there but my cynical side immediately assumed something would come up. The next morning, I kept an eye out for him during warm-up and at the start line but I didn't see him anywhere. I had prepared myself for this but was still disappointed when I lined up at the starting line.

The starting gun goes off and we fly down the first couple hundred meters, everyone jockeying for position as the width of the course rapidly shrinks from 100-150 people across to no more than 10. I try to avoid a burnout sneaking up on me later in the race and cross the one mile mark at 6:10 pace; way too slow for breaking 30 minutes. I barely notice though because I look up and see my dad. He picks me out of the pack and starts cheering for me, encouraging me to speed up a bit. I felt like crying because I had set my mind to the belief that he wasn't coming but there he was. The next mile looped around and we ran past the same spot on a parallel trail and my dad was still there as he cheered me through the 2 mile mark. Miles 3 and 4 had us zigzagging across campus and then took us through the woods, away from the cheering crowds (coach would always call this part of the course "the badlands"). I turn a corner to tackle a hill with one or two other runners and hear my name being cheered. Somehow my dad had figured out which trails the course would take us over and set up camp right where I needed it most to survive the badlands. I pull ahead of the other runners (I don't actually remember if I stayed ahead of them) on that hill and make my way towards the last mile.

I don't see my dad again until the end of the race but I do see Coach Tilghman (a team alumnus) as I exit the woods and approach the 4 mile mark. He knows that I'm chasing that 30 minute mark, he had chased himself when he was on the team years before, so he's extra invested in that moment. He's yelling that I need to run a 5:45 mile to break 30. He's telling me to go for it but that cynical side rises up again and I don't think I can do it. I settle on going as hard as I can to just to get as close to breaking 30 as possible.

The cynicism melts away as I turn the final corner to start final, couple hundred meter stretch. I can see the race clock and suddenly that sub-30 8k seems possible. The women's team is lining the final stretch; they all know how much the men's team values the sub-30 and they're screaming. My dad is there with them as is one of the captains, Joey Negreann (who had finished minutes earlier to qualify for nationals), and my best friend, Troy Browne, who had finished maybe 30 seconds earlier and stumbled his way back to see me through the finish. I shift my stare from the clock to the finish line, digging deeper than I ever had before just willing my feet over the timing mat. I stumble out of the finisher area and collapse into the arms of my teammates who are all cheering, huge smiles etched across their faces. They help me over to my dad. At this point I'm crying; I'm dead tired, I'm so happy that my dad is there, and I've been informed that I cross the line in 29:58. I've had plenty of phenomenal meets since then, but none of them came together quite as perfectly as that one.

What was your most non-athletic memorable experience at Goucher?

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention my late nights in the athenaeum building forts by stacking couches and chairs (to Public Safety's dismay) but, and I wouldn't be surprised if this is a common theme, my memorable non-athletic experience was probably my study abroad. I was part of the international scholars program, so I could only consider semester and year-long programs. I applied to and won additional scholarship to study the University of Oxford.

I suppose I could try to pick a specific memory or two but it's so difficult and a bunch are still running related. I ran for their club cross country team which was key to making a lot of my memories there. I took part in the annual Oxford and Cambridge ski trip where a couple thousand students from both universities get together and take over a ski resort in the French alps. I hopped around Europe, staying in hostels, meeting people from all around the world. Most importantly (but probably least relatable), I got to take some of the coolest math classes I have ever taken. It was actually this experience that had me change career paths; originally I planned to move to Los Angeles to be an actor after graduating from Goucher, but these math classes convinced me I needed to learn more math.

What advice would you give current college students interested in pursuing a career in your field?

Admittedly, this is a bit of a sore spot for me since Goucher no longer offers a math major, but I can speak towards graduate school for STEM fields. If this is something you think you might interested in, start taking topics courses as soon as possible. You want to take as many topics as you can, partly to see which you find most interesting and partly to meet all the different faculty. This is how I knew I wanted to do research in number theory and abstract algebra instead of a topic like analysis.

Meeting the various faculty members has two purposes. The first is just so you have a range of options when it comes to getting letters of recommendation. More importantly, when you get to know faculty you can learn a bit about their research. If possible, you'll want to start doing research with faculty members or do a summer research experience for undergraduates (REU). The research experience will greatly strengthen your graduate school applications and help you determine what you want to study in graduate school (or in some cases, help you figure out that maybe you don't want to go to graduate school).

In general, I caution people about graduate school. Research degrees are a whole different beast than the bachelor's degree; I feel like I have less on my plate in graduate school, but each thing on my plate carries so much importance than I am far more stressed than I ever was at Goucher. To emphasize this, at Goucher I competed all three athletic seasons, had to perform with the dance department every semester, almost always took 16 or more credits with audited classes on top of that, was a supplemental instructor, and worked in the office of international studies. For this reason (and a few others), I generally tell people not to do a graduate degree unless they need one for their desired job.

If you do decide on graduate school for a STEM field, don't go to any Ph.D. program that isn't paying you. Most master's degree will not pay you while you're in the program but some do, so if you find one that will pay you, it's a good way to figure out if academia is right for you (that's what exactly what I did since Clemson does fund MS students in mathematical sciences). If you not only decide to go to graduate school but want to go into academia, be aware that some fields (like math) are over-saturated with Ph.D.'s. This makes the job market extremely competitive and the application process extra terrifying. The best thing you can do is talk to the faculty in your area to get a better idea of your options.

Looking back at your time at the Goucher, what advice would you give to current Goucher students or someone looking to come to the Goucher? 

Take advantage of being in a liberal arts program; take as many different courses as you can. Once you leave it becomes really difficult to take a bunch of those classes, even if you go to graduate school. Life becomes extremely busy and you end up needing to focus on your work. 

Also, don't be afraid to change majors and career paths. Ideally, if you do change paths, you'll do so early on in your time at Goucher but it's okay if it happens in your junior or senior year. I was lucky in that I was always a math major but I didn't know I wanted to be a mathematician until the end of my junior year when I was at Oxford. Until then I had picked math because I enjoyed the subject, was pretty good at it, and figured I could get a decent job with it while I worked on becoming an actor.

The other thing I'd say is that staying in contact with people after graduation takes work. You'll find a bunch of people initially stay local but slowly disperse over the years while some of us take off right away. If you're one of the first to go away, you're going to have to put effort into contacting people and catching up. If you stay local, it'll be easy to keep in contact with others who stay local but it means the world to those of us who are hours away when you reach out.

Give an update on what you have been up to since graduating from the Goucher College.

After graduating May 2014, I moved home for a month before moving to Clemson, S.C., to start my masters and Ph.D. in mathematics. For the spring of 2016 when I was working as an adjunct lecturer at Queens College in Queens, N.Y. teaching calculus 1 and 2. I even have ratings on rate my professor. I got my masters in December 2016 and am looking to finish my Ph.D. May 2021 after which I hope to get a postdoctoral position at a research university before looking for a tenure track position. At the moment, I am working remotely in Arlington, VA as an unpaid affiliate faculty at George Mason University.

I've kept up with running on and off over the years. When I first got to Clemson, I ran with the university running club but switched to running on my own after I started teaching my own classes. Within the last year I've developed a love for half marathons and have a personal goal of running one in under 80 minutes; currently my best is 1:25.19 at the Charleston half marathon, placing 16 out of 2390. Once I break that 80 minute mark maybe I'll turn my attention to breaking 75 minutes or maybe I'll start looking at full marathons. As a fun fact, I keep the about me page on my professional website (http://hughgeller.com) updated with my running adventures (as well as progress in research and a pretty regularly updated CV).

If anyone is ever in the Clemson area or considering graduate school here, feel free to look me up. There are two other Goucher alumni in Clemson, Cody Nelson (swimming and tennis) and Alicia Bermudez (dance).