Don Burkett was an elite decathlete in the 1970's. Then he fell in love with trail running.
Don Burkett is so beloved by the XTERRA Georgia Trail Running community that when race director Tim Schroer put a message on Facebook wishing Don well after a recent fall on the ice, he received 55 comments, all of them about how fast, funny, inspirational, humble, and kind Don is. Whether he is welcoming a new runner into the XTERRA Tribe or cheering them into the finish chute, Don has been a huge part of the XTERRA Georgia Trail Run Series.
For starters, Don knows a thing or two about running and was the 2019 XTERRA Georgia Trail Series Regional Champ in the 70-74 age group. He is also the 2014 XTERRA Alabama Trail Run Champ, the 2013 XTERRA North Carolina Trail Run Champ, and the 2013 XTERRA South Carolina Trail Run Champ. In Georgia, he was the XTERRA Trail Run Regional Champ in 2014 and 2016.
While most people know Don as an excellent trail runner, many aren’t aware of what an incredible decathlete Don was in the 1970’s. Unfortunately, Don’s track and field success was precipitated by tragedy. In high school, Don lost his father at a young age.
“After my father died, I was headed in the wrong direction,” said Don. “My coach took me from my sad state of affairs to a state champ in track and field, and I’ll never forget that. His morals and ethics have stayed with me my whole life and have governed my entire business career.”
In high school, Don competed in the sprints, hurdles, long jump, and triple jump and was the Georgia State Champ in the long jump.
“My high school coach said I could have been a good distance runner but I didn’t have the guts,” said Don. “To be honest, he spoiled me and would let me compete in any event I wanted to.”
Don’s success in track and field earned him a full scholarship to Florida State, where he had less flexibility than he was used to.
“The coach there told me that since he was paying me to run, I would run in the events he told me to run in,” said Don. “I wasn’t a fan of that.”
The following year, Don transferred to the University of West Georgia, where he became a standout athlete in the decathlon, which consisted of a 100-meter dash, long jump, shot put, high jump, 400-meter dash, 110-meter hurdles, discus, pole vault, javelin, and the 1500-meter run. In October of 2017, he was inducted into the University of West Georgia Hall of Fame for the seven school records he set in the hurdles, the jumps, and the relays in addition to the fact that he was often the highest scorer on his track team.
After college, Don joined the Army where he was recruited for the Army’s select athlete program in the Pentathlon. While he had to work from 8-11 AM, he trained the rest of the day. As a result, he competed against many other elite athletes (including the then Bruce Jenner) and trained with Olympic gold medalist Edwin Moses and Jeff Bennett, who placed fourth in the decathlon in the 1972 Summer Olympic Games.
When Don was competing in decathlon and pentathlon events, the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) was the governing body of track and field. After Don stopped competing, he stayed involved with the sport by heading up the Georgia Track and Field division of the AAU and serving on the board of the Peachtree Road Race for three years.
While never a fan of distance running, Don jumped in a few 5Ks in order to build endurance for the 400-meter hurdles. But it wasn’t until 2011 that a friend suggested that he hit the trails.
“I’m still a newbie to trail running,” said Don. “A friend told me that as a hurdler and jumper I would be a natural at it so I gave it a shot. I have to tell you it was love at first sight. Now 90 percent of my racing is on trails. I came home after that first race and told my wife, I love this. It was a 10K but it didn’t seem like six miles. You are just so intent on your surroundings and the terrain and on not falling. I got hooked.”
It wasn’t long before Don found the XTERRA Georgia Trail Run Series, produced by race director Tim Schroer.
“In the eight seasons of XTERRA Trail Running I’ve done, I’ve only missed three of Tim’s races,” said Don. “Two times it was because I went to a national championship, and once I was in the hospital.”
“Don is a true ambassador for the running community,” said Tim. “I don’t think he’s missed a race in years. One of the things I like about Don is his ability to make everyone at our events feel special. It’s never about him and his accomplishments. He always digs to see what makes other people tick. Don is always open to sparking up a conversation with anyone.”
“They call me ‘The Mouth of the South,’” said Don. “Just ask Tim. We talk or text every day, mostly about running and how to put on the best events we can for the athletes. I’ve been running for 58 years now, so at this point, I have a lot of experience.”
“Even when I don’t ask for Don’s feedback, he gives it to me,” said Tim. “And honestly, that’s one of the reasons our races are so popular. Not only does he keep me on my toes, but I trust him and welcome his input because he wants the best for all runners at our races. Don is in it for the greater good. He loves running. He loves all the runners, and most of all, he loves seeing people find success in a sport where he has had plenty of it his entire life.”
“I’ve run in some of the smallest races in the country to the most elite and no one- I mean no one – puts on more consistently good races as Tim,” said Don. “He high-fives everybody no matter what place they get. He’s out on the course congratulating everyone and he loves getting the kids involved. Tim is just a wonderful person.”
It’s hard to know who has more fans – Tim Schroer or Don Burkett, but luckily, it’s one thing that isn’t a competition. It’s clear that both men are highly regarded by the XTERRA Georgia Trail Running community.
Deanna McCurdy, who got her start in XTERRA through the XTERRA Georgia Trail Run Series still coordinates her trips to visit family in Georgia with the XTERRA Georgia Trail Runs, when possible. She races to raise money for Angelman Syndrome through her team, Miles for Smiles, of which Don is a member.
“While Don might not be an official coach, he gives more of himself and his time to volunteer, cheer others or wear the singlet of others he believes in. I am truly honored to be part of Don’s team in sport and life," she said.