A Napkin, a Plan & a Handshake – Meet Akron Marathon’s Jim Barnett (Event Director of the Month)

Jim Barnett, race director of the Akron Marathon, is a guy who is business minded, detail oriented, and all about endurance. A retired Marine, he refers to himself as an “adventure athlete,” having been a recreational distance runner for 40 years, a cross-country skier, a long-distance wilderness canoe racer (110 miles), a Telemark Ski slalom racer, a technical rock and vertical ice climber, a whitewater kayaker, a private pilot, and a certified scuba enthusiast. (Did you have to catch your breath after reading that sentence?!) He’s completed the Flying Pig Marathon, climbed Mt. McKinley (Denali) in Alaska, and was one of the earliest whitewater kayakers to paddle the 234-mile section of the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon.

Aside from his incredible personal accomplishments, Jim has taken the Akron Marathon from an idea to a tradition, all with a napkin, a plan, and a handshake.

A Napkin
In 2000, when Jim and his friend Steve Marks (who carries the official title of founder) were having lunch. Steve’s family had some funds they wanted to donate to charity and the idea of a marathon came up. Both men have solid business backgrounds, but putting together a marathon was new to them. The two saw three challenges: money, government/city support, and community support. They knew they had to set some priorities and so they did it right then and there.

Steve proceeded to write on a napkin four reasons to have a marathon in Akron: galvanize the community, acquire national recognition, promote health and fitness, and contribute to local and national charities. To this day these items remain as their Mission Statement.

A Plan
After that first lunch meeting, Jim and Steve spoke with the mayor, and later with the president of the University of Akron and received their promises to support their effort. They joined USATF, which helps the event with liability insurance and allows runners to use their times to qualify for other races such as the Boston Marathon. Using his business acumen, Jim took the time to research the industry and get a good sense of best practices. Part of that included attending the Portland Marathon Event Directors’ College in ’01, where he met suppliers of timers, medallions, etc., and learned the ins and outs of race directing. He also reached out to the top 12 race directors in the U.S. to find out how they did what they did.

Jim knows that the real advantage he and Steve had was to take the time to research and plan, finally launching the first Akron Marathon in October 2003, which saw 3473 runners complete the event and Jay Leno, who was the post-race entertainment, do a 90-minute set. Nine years later, in 2011, the Akron Marathon had 12,902 finishers.

“Many other races are put together in a little club-like group, with a sense of athletics, but not necessarily one of developing a business,” notes Jim. “We approached it from a business standpoint first and foremost. We wanted as many runners as we could get and we’ve seen growth and success with each new race.”

A Handshake
This is a race director who sends a thank you email to each and every entrant, and includes information such as the course map, training advice, how this year’s course differs from the last, and good luck wishes. He even includes his cell phone number and email address, closing with ‘I look forward to shaking your hand at the finish line.’ Jim stations himself the finish line, shaking the hand of each and every runner who completes the race. We’re talking about thousands of handshakes, and several hours of standing in one spot. How’s that for including a personal touch?

“Participants love it,” he says. “I’ve received hundreds and hundreds of emails just about the welcome letter and handshake.”

Congratulations to Jim Barnett—we are very proud to feature him as our Race Director of the Month for August!

Read more about the Akron Marathon