Desert High
For ultra-athlete Frank Fumich, running a marathon is routine. That's why he set out to finish six of them -- in five days -- across the driest landscape in the world.

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.

He lives with Chelsea and their 150-pound Great Dane, Winston, in a suburban Arlington townhouse, where the new-home smell lingers, around the corner from his mom, who still lives in Frank's childhood home. (Frank's father died in 2005.) They live quietly: 10 p.m. bedtime, Mass every Sunday. Despite a few gray flecks in his dark-brown hair, Frank looks younger than his 40 years. He is 5-foot-10, with a square face sitting atop strong shoulders, and strong-man muscles that push his arms out slightly from his sides, a consequence of many hours at the gym. Frank isn't a born athlete. His mom, Marie Fumich, proudly recalls the only touchdown he ever scored, in his last high school football game.

Frank says he started running because it hurt. In 1997, his aunt was battling cancer. To suffer in solidarity with her, and though he had never run a long race, he signed up for the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington. He trained for a mere two months, yet still finished in 3 hours 50 minutes -- not too shabby, considering his lack of preparation, he says. Now he enters marathons as training for races like the Atacama. He usually finishes in the top 30 percent.

As for the folks back home, he says, "I don't really give them all the details about what it's like out here," at such races. "I don't think they'd really understand."

The people who do understand are the ones running with him. Which is why Frank, a relative lone wolf in races before this one, decided to try a new twist on the 4 Deserts: binding his fate to a three-man team. Frank met Mike and Pete in June 2007 at the Gobi March through northwest China, another 4 Deserts race. Each day, the Aussies would jolt out too fast; Frank would start out slow and inevitably pass them (a pattern he calls "reeling in the next fish"). So they've named him team captain. "I'm actually in charge of being slow," Frank laughs, "rein us in a bit."

The Aussies each have an array of Ironman medals hanging on their walls back home (Mike has nine; Pete, 10), and both have been taking on marathons and other ultra-athlete events for 19 years. Mike, 41, is built heavier than his teammates and claims to be the slowest runner. He's thrilled to have escaped his corporate sales job outside Sydney for a week, but he carries a letter from his three young daughters and stands in line each evening for his turn at a generator-powered laptop, where he can read e-mails from his family Down Under.

Pete, 34, is the single guy and the tallest of the three, with long arms, a lean build, a strong jaw and a signature squint. He's impulsive but watchful, and when he chimes in, it's usually with the punch line. In his 9-to-5 life, he's a systems engineer for a racetrack-betting organization in Sydney.

RacingThePlanet is a for-profit company that organizes these types of races in deserts around the world. Ultra-racer Mary Gadams founded the organization in 2002, signing up 42 competitors, and participation has grown to 500 registrants for this year. Gadams attributes part of its success to its relative accessibility: Anyone can enter by paying the course fee and passing a medical checkup on arrival. But don't equate accessible with easy, as evidenced by a 10 to 15 percent average dropout rate, which doesn't include the 15 percent who end up walking most of the course because of exhaustion or injury.

Competitors qualify for Antarctica, the most prestigious of the 4 Deserts races, by completing two of the other three: the Gobi in China, the Atacama in Chile and the Sahara in Egypt. They need only finish; there's no cutoff time. For each leg of the race, teams are assigned their slowest member's time, and teammates may never be more than 50 yards apart. If members don't finish as a team, they don't qualify as a team. The test will be whether these three can endure one another's foibles and triumph in the desert over their one competitor, the only other team in the race: a trio of Chilean runners, two of whom boast intimidating reputations.

The odds are against Frank and his teammates. "To finish one of these races as a team and still be friends is incredible," Gadams says. "Very few can do that. It's just too much an individual mentality. And very few teams ever come back together a second time."

THE MEN, WHO'VE DUBBED THEMSELVES TEAM TRIFECTA, put Frank's meticulous plan into action as they pack in their hotel room in the dusty town of San Pedro de Atacama the day before the race. Every ounce they can leave behind is one less to haul more than 160 miles on their backs. They spend the next three hours agonizing over long or short sleeves, dehydrated meal flavors and the most critical decision: wet wipes or toilet paper? To keep weight down, a fellow competitor has sawed the handle off his toothbrush.

"The only non-mandatory thing I'm bringing is a sleeping pad," Mike brags. Later, he'll sheepishly admit to one extra pair of socks. When pressed on his luxuries, Pete holds up a package of strawberry gummy snakes, "for when things really get rough out there."

Then Mike glances over at Frank's piles and lets out a loud guffaw. "Shampoo, Frank?" he asks incredulously. He points to a one-ounce bottle of yellow gel that is decidedly not on the mandatory equipment list and is quite uncharacteristic of their no-nonsense leader. Frank has pulled out a calculator and is furiously trying to measure the number of scoops of electrolyte powder to dump into a Ziploc bag so he'll have enough for exactly 161.5 miles and no more. He looks up and shrugs. "I like to keep clean, boys," he says with a smirk.

His pack weighs in later at 22 pounds, just above the 20-pound average for a 4 Deserts race. Pete's is 19, and Mike's is just under 16, a fact that results in a lot of chest-puffing until it's announced that the lightest pack in the competitor field belongs to Juan Encina, a member of Trifecta's rival team. The Chilean runner's 11-pound pack hugs tight against his small, muscled frame.

Frank has real reason to be anxious about his pack weight: He has a stress fracture in his right shin. He doesn't mention the injury at his pre-race medical review, but he doesn't want to hold anyone back. Still, he's hesitant to bring it up again with his teammates. When Frank finally finds the right moment to mention it to Mike, however, their exchange is the equivalent of two soldiers swearing to drag each other back from the battlefield.

"Look, Frank, worst-case scenario," Mike says, "at a checkpoint, you couldn't go on and finish the stage for whatever reason, and Pete and I went on, it would just mean as a team we're not eligible to place in the overall teams thing. ... And if your leg feels better, you can start with us the next day; you just don't get a medal at the end."

Frank replies: "Right, and I wouldn't qualify for Antarctica. I'm convinced that whatever happens, I'll finish. ... Either I'll walk or I'll hobble, but I'll finish."

"Look, the only way we would go on without you is if you weren't gonna finish the race."

A long pause. Frank seems out of words. "Well ..."

"-- 'Cause we'd just wait."

Another pause. "Well, that's, that's really cool of you." Frank adjusts his shoelace.

"What're you gonna do, mate? We're a team."

RACE DAY DAWNS WITH THE CONTESTANTS GATHERED UNDER A GIANT YELLOW BANNER beneath a deep blue sky. A five-member Chilean band serenades the crowd with tunes from the indigenous Mapuche. The musicians play reed flutes and tiny guitars, and look out with mild amusement at the spectacle before them: runners decked out in neon spandex sprouting tentacles of "hydration systems" and waving spindly trekking poles.

The 60 men and 11 women, 20-somethings to 60-somethings from 18 countries, are racing for at least as many reasons. For Dean Karnazes, 45, a professional endurance runner whose athletic résumé includes running 50 marathons in 50 days, it's about his reputation. He and six to 10 other front-runners will jockey for position at each stage. Karnazes will trade the lead five times before edging out his main challenger, Rob James, an amateur British runner known for his bright green shoe covers. Adil Chaudhry, 50, an American living in Singapore, wants to take a long desert stroll with his iPod, listening to travelogues and pondering the scenery. Singaporean P.J. Toh, 32, wants to collect visuals, so he hauls along a four-pound Canon digital single-lens reflex camera. And Briton Mimi Anderson, 45, writes her last pre-race blog entry about the importance of a good waxing and manicure before a run. For Trifecta, however, there's only one reason to run hard in the stunning Chilean desertscape: to win a ticket to the next race.

The starting gun fires, and some runners tear toward the horizon, but Frank, Mike and Pete put their heads down. Day One starts at 11,000 feet, a real home-court advantage for the altitude-acclimatized Chilean team. The course drops down, following the ruins of an ancient highway that once stretched from Argentina to the Pacific Ocean via Chile; it leads through deep-cut canyons and finishes on a blistering hot plateau.

In precise 10-minute intervals, Frank follows a run-eight-walk-two program. He's stopwatch-serious, giving his mates a 30-second warning and a countdown to each stop and start. They run mostly in silence, marking the passing of desert time by Frank's warnings and by the long minutes it takes to get from one medical checkpoint to the next, about 6.2 miles down the course. Pete tends to chomp at the bit of Frank's time schedule, so, to distract him from racing ahead, Frank assigns him the task of leading the trio up all the hills. Six hours, 7 minutes and 50 seconds later, the three cross the finish, notching 15th place overall and posting a comfortable 45-minute lead over the Chileans, who finish 23rd. In the end, the Aussies follow Frank's run-walk program with ease. "It was hot," Mike reports afterward, "but we just got it done."

On the night after Stage One, two members of the Chilean team -- Juan Encina and Pablo Lambert -- stride over to Trifecta from the tent next door. In Spanish, Pablo congratulates Trifecta on the day's win. Juan is a compact, muscular man who speaks little and bounces lightly as he walks. He runs a 2:26 marathon (the men's qualifying time for the 2008 U.S. Olympic team is 2:20). Pablo, Juan's longtime running partner, is the opposite: tall and long-limbed, with a thick salt-and-pepper beard, boisterous and partial to sweeping hand gestures. He says his personal best marathon time is 2:45.

The two don't know much about their third teammate, Matias Anguita, who has close-cropped dark hair and an unassuming vibe. "Our manager put him on our team," Pablo explains. He says that Matias is younger and slower, a 3:30 marathoner. Then he shakes his head as he laments that Matias's shoes don't fit, adding that he's concerned that the younger runner's pace is dragging them down. "Big problem for us," he says.

Pablo's competitive spirit is as palpable as Frank's fierce determination. The similarity is no surprise to sports psychologist and Temple University professor Frank Farley, who has studied ultra-athletes for most of his career. "No question they're a different breed from the rest of us," Farley says. He's even coined a term for people like the elite runners, mountain climbers, skydivers and others who seem addicted to challenge: "T-type personalities." T is for thrill-seeking. "It really comes down to a thrill," Farley says. "They tire quickly of everyday things, and their only remedy is to take on the next challenge, hoping for more stimulation."

He and other psychologists note these athletes' defining characteristics: They're independent thinkers. They're methodical about goal-setting. They believe they control their own successes or failures. They thrive on novelty. They're energetic and often innovative. Many are entrepreneurs.

THE RUN-EIGHT-WALK-TWO PLAN CONTINUES TO WORK SMOOTHLY for Trifecta on Day Two. The morning begins with 3.7 miles through an anomalous knee-deep stream along the bottom of the stunning Atacama slot canyons: red rock sliced by centuries of water erosion into slits so narrow that it's rare to get full sun at the bottom. The water slows everyone to a walk. Then there's a brutal, dusty climb to a ridge, followed by a steep descent down a sand dune -- all of which, in wet shoes, is a recipe for blister disaster.

The vistas distract the Chilean team enough for them to lose the course, turning down the wrong side of the ridge, as Matias's feet succumb to blisters. They lose 40 minutes in the valley below, which is enough to give Trifecta a solid lead.

It's not easy to concentrate on minutes and strategies instead of the grand surroundings of the Atacama, but Frank does his best. When they're not on the course, the Trifecta men spend almost all of their time in the tent, which they share with three other runners. Outside, a central campfire crackles (the temperature drops precipitously at night, to a median April low of 36 degrees). Many runners gather round to eat, exchange race gossip and rehash the day's run. But Frank, Mike and Pete stay curled in their sleeping bags with their feet up on little stools. They look like brightly colored inchworms in traction.

The tent is the nylon equivalent of a football-locker-room-cum-freshman-year-dorm. The floor is littered with half-drunk water bottles, discarded bandages, food wrappers, sweat-laden socks and other stray gear. It's common to see one guy slicing open his blisters with a Swiss Army knife six inches from where his tentmate is eating his rehydrated beef stroganoff dinner out of an aluminum pouch. The men are a raucous bunch, bantering about pro wrestling or how much they would pay for a cheeseburger and fries. They also talk strategy and size up competitors. But they don't speak much about their lives outside the race. If they mention wives or girlfriends, it's usually in reference to how they might charm them for permission to run the next marathon. And they hardly mention the backdrop for their adventure. The majestic Andean peaks to the east and the lofty dunes that bake below appear to have made little impression.

BUOYED BY THEIR TWO VICTORIES, Frank, Mike and Pete are caught off guard when Day Three tests their unity. The Chileans shoot out from the starting line, and Frank works throughout the morning to keep his teammates from chasing them. "All we gotta do is keep up with them, Frank," Pete says. "Dude, that's not the plan," Frank chides him playfully.

The Chileans appear at the first checkpoint surprisingly early. When Trifecta comes into the checkpoint a full 15 minutes behind its rivals, the men's faces betray their worry. They're still ahead overall, but the Chileans are closing in today. By afternoon, the wind has picked up, and the dust tastes metallic. Heading up a particularly high dune about an hour from the finish, Pete breaks down, sobbing.

"I told Frank and Hully [Mike] I was done, I'm sick of this [expletive], and I'm going home tomorrow," Pete says in their tent later that night. "Those dunes were killing me. ... But Frank and Hully more or less told me to shut the hell up. I guess I needed that."

"I tried to cheer him up out there," Frank says, "but he wasn't having it. ... So after a while, I just gave up."

"Actually, Frank, you told him if he didn't harden the [expletive] up, you'd hit him in the ass with your trekking pole," Mike says. He punches his sleeping bag for effect.

Pete and Frank laugh. But Frank makes it clear that the outbursts have to end if they're to follow the race plan. He shakes his head, his tone serious: "None of this 'I've-got-three-grains-of-sand-in-my-shoe-my-feet-hurt-we-gotta-walk' stuff."

The Chilean team has its own worry. That evening, Pablo spends half an hour pacing through the middle of camp, clutching Matias's running shoes in his hand, furiously beating at their heels with a long, thick tree branch. He's trying to break them in. "They're giving him blisters. He can't run!" Pablo says. Thwack, thwack. "What else can I do?" Thwack. There's a hint of desperation in his voice; only two stages remain, and his team is still 27 minutes behind Trifecta. He turns the shoe around and smacks the front. Thwack!

THE FOURTH DAY'S COURSE CROSSES THE INFAMOUS ATACAMA SALT FLATS. Stories abound about how this crusty terrain has vexed runners: It slices through the soles of running shoes and cuts into the skin, breaks trekking poles and burns the eyes, sometimes causing snow blindness from the glare off the white ground, a knobbly, granola-like mix of salt and mineral deposits. Every step is a gamble. In some places, you crunch into dirt an inch beneath; in others, your foot plunges into ankle-deep sludge.

Trifecta sets off to make up for the previous day's loss. About three-quarters of the way through the stage, Frank looks out on the horizon and sees three black dots moving together a little more than a half-mile ahead. The tough terrain is Trifecta's main advantage: Matias can manage with blisters on flat ground, but here he slows to a limp. Frank gives the signal to ditch the race plan and pick up speed, and he, Mike and Pete start running, passing Matias and falling in on Juan and Pablo's heels. They stay for a moment, prolonging the smell of victory, then take the lead. The three men burst into the medical checkpoint tent 10 yards ahead. Volunteers hurry to fill their water bottles and mist them with spray. Within 60 seconds, they're ready to go. As they pull around the first curve in the road, heads high and laughing, their feet fall into step together.

Juan and Pablo reach the tent just after Trifecta, but Matias hobbles the last 50 yards, then slumps down on a stool to have the doctor rebandage his oozing feet. His progress never quickens, and eventually Juan and Pablo run on ahead and wait near the finish for Matias, who crosses nearly an hour later, tears streaming down his face.

The scene stirs Frank, and in an atypical display of emotion, he walks over to the injured runner to give him a huge hug, slapping him on the back and pumping his handshake. Afterward, when Pete asks him what he said to Matias, Frank says, "I told him he's the real brave one and he deserves a medal." Frank will say later that he felt moved by Matias's plight because he identified with him: If his shin fracture had acted up, he, too, might have been limping to stay in the race.

Trifecta's triumph is an emotional defeat for the Chileans, who realize that their last chance to rebound has faded. A few hours later, they drop out of the team race to test their individual limits on the upcoming 46-mile stage.

With the dissolution of their rival trio, Trifecta has secured the team victory ... if the men can finish together.

DAY FIVE BELONGS TO JUAN. Without an injured teammate to hold him back, he takes the lead at the start and never lets it go. His 2:26 marathon claims hold up, and he tears through the halfway point more than 45 minutes ahead of Dean Karnazes. Halfway through, a full marathon already behind him, Juan bounces on the balls of his feet while a volunteer refills his water bottles.

"All I came here to do was run," he says. "Now I can finally just do it. ... I feel like a desert cat! I just go and go and go." When Juan finishes a few hours later, the Chilean staff mobs him, elated.

Night falls 10 hours after the start of the stage, and only Juan and Karnazes have crossed the finish line. Matias has dropped out at mile 20. The 63 remaining competitors plod forward by the fuzzy beams of their headlamps. Trifecta is exhausted. Pete, however, gets a sudden burst of energy as he leads them uphill through a narrow canyon. The others struggle to keep up; then, Pete crashes.

"I'm not running anymore, boys," Pete declares. "I think I've snapped a tendon." Frank and Mike laugh, but Pete is spent. Mike says he's ready to walk, too, and within a few minutes the Team Trifecta Mutiny (as they'll later refer to it) is complete. They walk the last three miles, gravel crunching loudly against the dark silence. With a mile to go, another competitor overtakes the team. Frank slams his trekking pole into the ground in anger. "I just wanted to scream [expletive]," he says, "but then I didn't want whoever it was to know I cared."

They finish about 10 p.m., and Frank storms off to his tent. He'll be even more frustrated when he looks at the team's finishing time: 13 hours 0 minutes 11 seconds. Eleven infuriating seconds earlier, and they would have had the satisfaction of being in the 12-hour bracket.

Mike and Pete see it differently. Sure, rough luck with the 11 seconds, but that's 5 hours faster than their last long stage, in the Gobi. "No way Mike and I would have done so well if we weren't all a team," Pete says.

By the next day, Frank, too, has let go of those 11 seconds. "I don't think I've ever felt this good on Day Six of a race," he says.

THE FINISH LINE AWAITS at one corner of the main plaza back in San Pedro de Atacama, a tiny, picturesque town with an urban population of about 2,000 people that has become a tourism center in recent years. Single-story adobe houses and storefront travel outfitters line the streets, and the main drag is a pedestrian plaza.

As they start the last 6.2 miles, Frank finally feels the pinch that he has been dreading in his leg, but not in the right leg. "How is it possible that I ran 150 miles on a stress fracture, but ended up hurting the other leg?" he groans.

But the smell of chicken roasting on a spit is enough to push him through the last mile, when the pain is worst. He, Mike and Pete sprint in together, hands raised above their heads, grins of pure relief stretching across their faces.

Karnazes wins the crossing in 31:49:44, edging out Rob James by 37 minutes. Mimi Anderson easily tops the women's division in 43:15:16, to place 20th overall. Trifecta's official time of 42:00:51 earns them 14th place overall. They accept their trio of engraved trophies at that night's awards banquet, where ravenous competitors and volunteers tear through an all-you-can-eat buffet with piles of grilled meat. The pisco sours flow freely, and the restaurant makes a killing on the racers' thirst for local beer, any beer.

Tomorrow they'll all board flights headed to six continents back to their other lives. Back to friends and loved ones who don't know the agony of arriving 11 seconds beyond the 13-hour mark; who wouldn't dream of heading off to Chile or China to race in a desert; who measure their runs in miles, not marathons, if they run at all.

"My wife's gonna see these feet when I walk in the door and throw me back out of the house," Frank says, laughing. His left ankle has swelled to twice its usual size and has taken on a bluish tint. Frank's feet are not the only ones in distress: On account of the last week's constant pounding, the three Trifecta men will collectively lose nine toenails.

But the lion's share of his glee that night, Frank will later say, comes from the realization that he doesn't always have to pursue his passion alone and single-minded. "You just remember the camaraderie. You can spend a week with someone, sweating buckets in a tent in the desert; you're so miserable, you have these huge ups and downs, you're vomiting. But when you leave, you're just as good friends as the guys you grew up with."

A slew of races lay ahead: a half-Ironman and the Mohican Trail 50-Mile in June, Colorado's Leadville Trail 100-Mile in August. And he'll close out the year with Trifecta, at the 4 Deserts: Antarctica in November, because the shared agony of the past seven days just wasn't enough. It never is.

Lauren Keane is the editor and producer of PostGlobal at She can be reached at

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