Endurance Athlete Rides Into Entrepreneurship

Endurance Athlete Rides Into Entrepreneurship

Laura Frank Barnard for Atlanta Jewish Times
Laura Frank Barnard celebrates completing her fourth consecutive Boston Marathon in April.

By Fran Memberg | fmemberg@atljewishtimes.com

Laura Frank Barnard has always been on the run. Running, biking, skateboarding. “I’ve always liked to move,” she said. “It makes me think better and feel better.”

That desire to move recently has taken her on extreme travel. During the winter she completed the Triple 7 Quest: running seven marathons on seven continents in 11 days.

She was back on the marathon trail in April when, for the fourth consecutive year, she ran the Boston Marathon as a guide to double amputee Scott Rigsby, whose Marietta-based foundation inspires, informs and enables disabled people.

Little did Barnard know as a child that her love of movement would one day draw her out of a mental and physical funk and be the catalyst for her own entrepreneurial venture: EnduranceLeaders — eLconneX Athletes Worldwide.

“My focus is not on me and my runs and rides but on the journey and helping others find ways to continue to move following life incidents that could cause them to give up or stop moving,” Barnard said. “We all have things that get in the way of life, but as long as we keep pushing forward, we can make it through any life challenge thrown in our path. PFM — positive forward motion. Just move.”

EnduranceLeaders has a threefold approach:

  • ELConnexus, or My Athlete Buddy, is a friendship engine that will connect people, from novices through endurance athletes, locally and across the globe with common interests across their fitness, volunteer, professional and nonactive hobby activities.
  • EL Multisport Adventures provides international adventure travel opportunities.
  • EL Foundation, which will be funded by the growth of eL to benefit military and civilian challenged athletes; mental illness awareness, prevention and recovery through fitness programs; and confidence enrichment and empowerment for women and girls through fitness and nutrition. The first foundation fundraiser will be held in Atlanta in August. A mobile app will launch this summer.

Barnard is takin’ it to the streets at major endurance sporting events to spread the word about membership-based EnduranceLeaders. For example, EnduranceLeaders sponsored an interactive hangout tent on the Boston College campus during the Boston Marathon on April 20 to launch www.enduranceleaders.com. Barnard ran the Wings for Life World Run in Dubai on May 4. And she will join with Race Across America on June 20 for a 3,000-mile, eight-day bike ride from Oceanside, Calif., to Annapolis, Md.

An April 27 EnduranceLeaders event at Camden Yards, the Baltimore Orioles’ baseball stadium, was postponed with that night’s game because of the rioting that followed the death of Freddie Gray in police custody several days earlier.

It’s a bold venture that developed from Barnard’s corporate financial experiences, during which she coined the phrase “endurance leaders.” Her initial idea of writing a book morphed into launching a website as a platform for endurance leaders to form friendship connections.

She said she wanted to “help them find a fitness buddy, to help them stay fit, to be the matchmaker of the athletic world.”

One idea led to another, and she added a charitable foundation and an extreme athletic travel component to EnduranceLeaders’ offerings.

Ideas come quickly to Barnard. While hosting the hangout tent at Boston College during the marathon, Barnard’s team laid plans this fall to launch the Invictus Initiative, a humanitarian effort that links college athletes with wounded service members.

Staying active and achievement-oriented has been a way of life for Barnard, physically, professionally and civically. She and her three siblings followed in the service footsteps of their mother, Sherry Frank, who was the executive director of the Atlanta Chapter of the American Jewish Committee for 25 years and who played a prominent role in her children’s schools and in the Jewish and general communities.

Similarly, Barnard has served on the boards of Temple Sinai, the Epstein and Weber schools, and Camp Twin Lakes.

Early in life, she ran with the all-girls Red Runners in Sandy Springs, traveling to meets throughout the Southeast. She earned slews of medals and a spot in the Junior Olympics. “Track gave me a chance to excel. It was a confidence builder,” she said. It was also one piece of what Barnard calls her “great friendship community of school friends, Jewish friends and athletic buddies.”

In 2006, after career moves to New York, Chicago and California, Barnard, now 50, returned to Sandy Springs, where she spent much of her childhood, to become the chief financial officer of Atlanta-based Halperns’ Steaks and Seafood. She is a graduate of the University of Georgia and earned an M.B.A. from the University of Chicago.

Barnard and her husband, John, have four daughters. Two attend Davis Academy, one is a senior at Weber, and the eldest is a sophomore at UGA.

Barnard’s main physical activity after college was bike riding. She met her husband on a bike tour in 1989. They’ve continued biking as a family.

“They’ve grown up with helmets on,” Barnard said of her daughters.

She wanted to run marathons, but her schedule as a wife, mother and business woman didn’t allow time to train. That changed in 2007 when a member of Temple Sinai’s leadership program, in which Barnard participated, decided to train and run in the Atlanta Marathon. She joined and since then has completed more than 20 marathons and upped her game to completing five Ironman competitions — 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and 26.2-mile run — while continuing to ride in 100-mile bike tours.

In September 2013, Barnard was competing in an Ironman under extreme winter weather conditions and uncharacteristically pulled out of the competition, feeling unmotivated to get to the finish line. In the weeks that followed, she said, she “began to lose concentration at work and had a sense of feeling foggy and uneasy about what was happening.”

After consulting with internists, a psychologist and a psychiatrist, Barnard was diagnosed with a mental illness, which months later proved to be a misdiagnosis treated by the wrong types of medication.

For eight months Barnard’s symptoms worsened. She put together a new team of physicians and took a leave of absence from work to recover. She continued to run and remained active while her new medical team, including the Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation Centers of Atlanta, monitored her.

Early in 2014, Barnard received her correct diagnosis: chronic fatigue and post-traumatic stress disorder, a mental health disorder that can spring from any trauma, not only from military experiences.

After the 2014 Boston Marathon, Barnard directed her physicians to wean her from medications; she sought alternative treatments, like acupuncture, and in less than two months she began to feel well. When Halperns’ was sold in January, Barnard decided not to resume her CFO duties with the new corporate entity and instead launched her own entrepreneurial pursuits.

“I feel fortunate to be healthy,” Barnard said. “I decided to start something of my own. Every company I’ve been with has been high growth, but I never thought I’d start a company from Day One. It’s more of a movement than a company.”

Terry McDonnell of Baltimore worked for a company bought out by Halperns’ when Barnard was CFO. McDonnell kept abreast of Barnard’s ideas and now serves on the eL Foundation board.

“It’s an insanely different project,” he said. “There’s no one I’ve ever met with more energy once she puts her mind to something.”


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