Desert High

By Lauren Keane
Sunday, August 31, 2008

There's no feeling quite like running up a 200-foot-high sand dune with 19 miles behind you and 7.2 still to go to the finish line of a marathon through the world's driest desert. It's a challenge so intimidating -- and a potential triumph so sublime -- that Frank Fumich is determined to capture it on video for the folks back home. The 40-year-old Arlington native paws his way up the towering dune and overtakes some of his running mates, sand flying behind his heels in little winglike arcs. He stumbles to the crest of the dune, cursing with the effort, kneels in the sand and fumbles in his chest pack for his tiny camera. Peering through an LCD screen blurred by a crust of dried salt from his own sweat, Frank captures his two buddies' most wretched moment of the afternoon as they stumble up the last 10 feet of sand.

A tall Australian named Pete Wilson hauls up the hill first after Frank. Mike Hull, another Aussie, falls to his knees two feet from the top, tripping over some obstacle only he can see. His forward momentum carries him, but not far enough. His water bottle slips out of his hand and into the fine sand, and he stares at it for a moment before reaching down to reclaim it, as though wondering whether it's worth the effort. The only sound Frank's video captures is men gasping desperately for air.

"This is my happy place," Mike deadpans to the camera between breaths. Frank takes his cue: "That was quite a poor performance by all three of you chaps," he says, struggling to maintain his signature dry wit. "Quite ... " -- gasp, gasp -- " ... shameful."

Pete, who's doubled over, shakes his head slowly, stealing a glance at the line of pink course-marker flags that lead off toward the horizon. Seven miles to the finish: to fresh water, to dropping this heavy pack, to dinner, to snuggling down in a sleeping bag. And to the other defining routine of this race: waking up before dawn to do it all over again.

It's their third day in the desert, and Frank and his teammates are among 71 runners hoping to finish the 4 Deserts: Atacama Crossing, a spectacle of ultimate physical endurance under the auspices of RacingThePlanet: six marathons in five days (a total of 155.3 miles), followed by a 6.2-mile sprint to the finish.

Traversing a northern Chilean desert where, in some places, rainfall has literally never been recorded. Carrying all their gear, food and survival equipment (only water is provided) on their backs. Chasing a fitting prize: a coveted invitation to do it all over again ... in Antarctica, the world's largest, coldest desert.

For Frank, this race is his first as part of a team, and that offers an extra challenge: Will an ambitious runner whose strategy centers on methodical focus and unyielding control be able to persuade two others to do it his way?

COMPETITORS PAY GOOD MONEY FOR THE PRIVILEGE of this punishing regimen: On top of a $2,900 entry fee (which will increase to $3,100 next year), there are airline tickets, hotel rooms, personal trainers, nutritionists, specialty food products, how-to books and piles of gear. Frank, who has been participating in marathons, Ironmans and other ultra-athletic events for the past 10 years, says that when all is said and run, he spends at least $15,000 on race-related expenses for four or five marathons and four ultra-races each year -- this mostly for events that offer no cash prizes.

Ask Frank why he tests his body in such an extreme way, and he likes to answer elliptically. "If you really have to ask, you're never gonna get it."

No one at home does get it, not even his wife, Chelsea, 27. "No way in hell I'm going to get up at 5 a.m. to go running," she says, sitting at their kitchen counter. "But if he didn't race, I think he'd go crazy. Frank doesn't do anything a little bit."

Frank acknowledges that his habit borders on obsession. "I don't like thinking that there's a race out there I don't know if I can do," he says.

That's the same approach that has helped him succeed as a businessman, running an airline catering company. After graduating from West Virginia University in 1992 with a degree in business marketing, Frank managed a fast-food restaurant at Reagan National Airport but took on extra work loading baggage. As he watched vendors deliver food to the aircraft, he realized that it could be done faster and more efficiently. Eight years later, Express Catering's 18 trucks cater 900 US Airways flights daily out of four East Coast airports. Frank says he runs the business mostly from his BlackBerry so that he can spend time training for races.

CONTINUED     1                 >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company