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Canaan Runner, 62, Finishes Near the Top

Jim Burnett didn’t quite make it as an NFL kicker. When it comes to running, he makes the cut every time.

A runner of 49 marathons and countless other races, Burnett finished second overall among 89 runners at the Wolf Hollow 5K road race in Nashua on Nov. 25.

The 62-year-old Canaan resident finished in 21 minutes, 38.5 seconds, 1:21.5 ahead of third-place Jeff Dodge of Troy, N.H. — at 33, a man nearly half his age. Twenty-year-old Tyngsboro, Mass. resident Sam McGrath won in 18:11.5.

Running concurrently with Wolf Hollow Half Marathon competitors in a loop course along the Nashua River, Burnett didn’t realize how close he was to the front until viewing results after the race.

“We were all mixed in together, so I had no idea (of my placement),” Burnett said. “It was a nice course, but we were all timed with (computerized) chips. I was surprised (to finish so high).”

The finish time itself wasn’t unique for Burnett, whose personal best in a 5K is less than 20 minutes. His best marathon time is 2 hours, 45 minutes, 2 seconds, recorded in 1980 at South Hero, Vt.’s Green Mountain Marathon during a period Burnett calls his “first running career.”

“I started running in 1978, when guys like Bill Rodgers and Frank Schaffer were popularizing it in America,” he said. “I was always better suited for the longer races because I was never really fast, but I could endure a lot. I did a 100K race (in 1981) and some triathlons. I was a pretty rigorous trainer, but then I had kids (Joe and Hedda) and took a break for about 20 years, until they started running and got me back into it.”

Before he ever took to the asphalt, Burnett excelled at numerous team sports both in high school and college. A Hanover native, he walked from his North Park Street home to Dartmouth College to watch Big Green hockey, soccer and lacrosse practices in the late 1950s. He also frequently played golf at Hanover Country Club and never used a cart.

“It was nothing for me to walk that course three times in one day,” said Burnett, whose father, Joshua Burnett, was a doctor of internal medicine at Mary Hitchcock Memorial Hospital. “I think that’s probably where I got my legs, walking in and out of the gullies at Hanover Country Club.”

Burnett played hockey at Hanover High as a freshman under coach Forrest Branch before transferring to Holderness School, where he played five sports — soccer, hockey, lacrosse, golf and football — and graduated in 1968.

While continuing his hockey career as center at Maine’s Bowdoin College, Burnett was afforded another opportunity when Polar Bears assistant football coach Sid Watson recruited him to be a kicker.

The summer following his junior season in 1972, Watson connected Burnett with the Minnesota Vikings and he spent part of the team’s training camp trying out for the team. In those days, Minnesota’s defensive line was known as the “Purple People Eaters” for its tendency to swallow up opposing ball carriers.

“(Defensive end) Jim Marshall was there; Fran Tarkenton was the quarterback, it was great experience,” Burnett recalled. “I played in one preseason game against the San Diego Chargers. I thought I had a good shot, too, because I was a soccer-style kicker and the other kicker, Fred Scott, was a toe kicker. I kicked some field goals (in practice) that were longer than his, but I got cut before the (second) preseason game against Buffalo.”

After graduating from Bowdoin, Burnett taught at private schools in Florida and Rhode Island before taking a job at Cardigan Mountain School in 1978. That same year, he ran his first marathon at the Paul Bunyan Marathon in Orono, Maine. This year, he ran his 49th when he finished Keene, N.H.’s Clarence DeMar Marathon in 3:43.49

Last month’s scheduled New York City Marathon was set to be his 50th, but the event was cancelled as the city coped with the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy. He’ll get another shot at his 50th in April, when he plans to run in his eighth Boston Marathon. He’ll be joined by his 32-year-old son, Joe, who has yet to eclipse his dad’s top marathon time.

“He ran 2:45.09 this year, so I still have him beat by seven seconds,” Burnett quipped. “But he and (Hedda) really get a lot of credit for getting me back into running. When I saw that they liked it. ... It’s been a great way to bond with them.”

A vegan and a teetotaller, Burnett has no plans to be slowed by age. A year ago he joined the Hanover-based Upper Valley Running Club and is looking forward to the New Hampshire Grand Prix road running series next year.

“I do a lot to stay fit and healthy and running is a big part of that,” Burnett said. “I could see myself doing it for at least another 10-20 years.”

Jared Pendak can be reached at jpendak@vnews.com or 603-727-3306.