For 10 years, his business card has read, “Race Director.”
But for many of the 13,000 folks who run the Akron Marathon, half-marathon and team relay each year, it might as well read, “Friend.”
From a personally written email welcoming every registrant to shaking the hand of everyone who crosses the finish line on race day, Jim Barnett’s specialty has been making the event an intimate experience for every runner.
“It’s really been one of our advantages,” the marathon’s executive director, Anne Bitong, said. “A lot of our runners really see Jim Barnett as a personal friend of theirs.”
The organization expects Barnett to continue to influence the race as a new member of the board of trustees, but not as race director. He retired that title Wednesday.
Barnett, 63, said he wants to spend more time on his own longtime business, Adventure Dynamics, which works with companies on team building and leadership training. He also wants more free time for the outdoor activities he loves: rock climbing, whitewater rafting, skiing and scuba diving.
Barnett was the guy Steve Marks went to when Marks first conceived of an Akron marathon in 2000.
“I was looking for somebody who really had the kind of mentality that was necessary not only to do the work that was needed, but to keep maintaining it,” said Marks, the businessman who spearheaded the effort. “He’s got the tenacity, the temperament, the raw ability to pull this thing off.”
Becoming an expert
Barnett said Marks shared his vision over a lunch, and Barnett was hooked, even though the pair knew they had no experience.
While Barnett has a varied and adventurous history as a U.S. Marine and avid athlete in everything from cross-country skiing to vertical ice climbing, he had never run a marathon.
He soon corrected that, competing in a Cincinnati marathon to learn what things were important to runners. Then he attended a school for race directors in Portland, Ore., where he had the chance to pick the brains of veteran organizers.
Barnett, Marks and Marks’ wife, Jeannine, spent three years learning the ropes and preparing for Akron’s inaugural event in 2003.
They shared duties that ran the gamut, from trying to figure out how many portable toilets the race course would need to marketing the event to a national audience. They dreamed of the race one day attracting 5,000 runners.
When 3,400 signed up the first year, “We were thrilled,” Barnett said.
In its 10th running this year, the Akron Marathon boasted a paid staff of seven people, 2,500 volunteers, and 15,000 runners when including the one-mile Kids Fun Run participants.
Key to success
Barnett has been a big part of that successful recipe, Marks said.
“He put his heart and soul into it,” Marks said. “It’s hard to find someone with passion like that. You can’t manufacture or create that.”
Satisfied that the event was thriving, Barnett started thinking about stepping down a couple of years ago, but he wanted to make it to this year’s milestone anniversary.
Bitong said succession plans have been made, but Barnett’s replacement will not be announced until January.
Jeannine Marks said she knows Barnett, as a board member, will continue to make sure the marathon remains an event that focuses on the personal experience.
“He really cares about the individual,” she said, “not just the overall picture. He takes that very seriously.”