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At age 76, Dave Burnett hopes to set national record in cross country bike race

Norwich — Dave Burnett will embark Saturday on a trip across the country that will take him from a beach in southern California to a seaside dock in Annapolis, Md.

He will cross the Rocky Mountains, the Mojave Desert, the Great Plains and the Mississippi River, and pass through Gettysburg.

But he won’t have time for sightseeing.

“Just the road in front of you and potholes,” Burnett said Friday, about what he will be looking at during the prestigious Race Across America.

The RAAM website bills the event as “the World’s Toughest Bicycle Race.” The race has solo riders, who need specially designed braces to support their necks due to fatigue, as well as teams of four or eight riders. In its 38th year, RAAM normally draws racers from around the world, but COVID-19 restrictions on international travel will shrink the field this year.

“There is no other race in the world like RAAM,” the website states. “There is no race that combines the distance, terrain and weather; no other event that tests a team’s spirit from beginning to end. The Race inspires everyone who has been a part of it — racer, crew, staff and fans alike. RAAM is the true test of speed, endurance, strength and camaraderie, the ideal combination of work and play.”

Burnett, 76, will compete in a four-man team with an average age of over 75 years, with a vital 12-member support team coordinating everything from bicycle repairs to food to making sure their well-labeled gear and clothes bags follow them.

His team is named N.O.M.I. or No Old Man In, named for the Toby Keith country song, “Don’t Let the Old Man In,” which urges aging men to “get up and get outside” and not let the old man knocking at the door enter. It is sponsored by Hammer Nutrition, maker of endurance sports nutrition supplements.

Burnett who said he will have his "front wheel on the starting line in Oceanside” on June 19, is scheduled to be on the road as the team climbs to the highest elevation, about 11,000 feet above sea level at Wolf Creek Pass, Colo., and expects to be in the final sprint across the finish line.

Team N.O.M.I. has higher aspirations than finishing the race.

In 2012 at age 68, Burnett was part of a four-man team that set the record for the average 70-year-old age category in the RAAM. This year’s teammate, Dur Higgins of Chattanooga, Tenn., was on that team. Now, with Higgins and new teammates, Ed Chamberlain of Colorado and Larry Peterson of Utah, Burnett wants to set the record for the 75+ age group.

The 2012 team finished in six days, 13 hours and 13 minutes, an average of 19.04 mph. Burnett recalled pressing desperately to the finish line to keep above the 19-mph mark.

“It just sounds so much better to say 19 miles per hour than ‘almost’ 19,” he said.

The book “More Than a Race” by Don Metz chronicled Burnett's 2012 team. The cover pictures Burnett climbing at Wolf Creek Pass. Burnett said shortly before the photo was taken, he had passed the rider seen in the distance.

“Competition is in my blood,” Burnett said.

In his early 20s, he went to California to race motorcycles. Later, as the longtime director of Reliance House, now Reliance Health in Norwich, Burnett competed locally in running road races. At age 60, an old prep-school football knee injury ended his running, and he took up bicycle racing.

His race uniform is trimmed with red, white and blue stripes, white stars inside the blue stripes. Only national racing champions can wear those stripes. Burnett has won six individual USA Cycling Masters National Championships.

Locally, Burnett often rides from his Huntington Lane home in Norwich up Scotland Road north into Canterbury and Scotland. Or he heads west toward Colchester or south to Mystic. But for his final training session, Burnett did not leave the stationary bike in his basement, simulating the nine hours stretches of riding for 20 minutes and resting for 20 minutes that he and a teammate will experience during the race. He will then the rest for nine hours while the other two team members ride.   

“He can make a competition out of anything,” said Nancy Burnett, his wife of 43 years. “If he and his brothers were coming up the driveway, they would be in a sprint by the end. They could make a contest out of anything.”

Nancy Burnett will stay at their Huntington Lane home Tuesday after sending Dave off on a flight to California to prepare for the four-man relay that starts Saturday, June 19. She will track his progress on Facebook and racing channels and plans to time a trip to Annapolis to meet him at the finish line. Their adult children, daughters Molly in Berkeley, Calif., and Laura in the Boston area, and son Andrew in Norwich, will follow their father from a distance as well.

In the 2012 race, Burnett’s body rejected the punishment and shut down during a stint through the Arizona desert. He ended up in a hospital getting 3 liters of IV electrolytes. His teammates did extra lengths of the race during his absence, and Burnett recovered in time to sprint those final miles to the finish line.

“We have the experience now, but he’s nine years older too,” Nancy Burnett said of her worries. “I’ll be glad when it’s over. However, he might be safer than when he’s riding on the back roads here.”

c.bessette@theday.com

 

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