Every year, the Marine Corps Marathon (MCM) gathers local athletes, active duty soldiers, retired veterans and hundreds of spectators for a 26.2-mile race through Arlington and Washington, DC.
Just getting to the starting line can be a feat for many, but this will be Frank Fumich’s 100th time taking on the 26.2-mile distance on Sunday, Oct. 27. His first-ever marathon was the MCM in 1997 and he hasn’t stopped since. In 2009, it was his 12th marathon (and he’s run quite a few since), and in 2019, it will now be his 100th marathon since he started running at almost 30 years old.
We caught up with Fumich just two weeks before the MCM to look back at his racing career, his previous experiences with the race and what the 100-marathon mark means to him. He’s run marathons guiding a blind veteran, others with carrying a 35-pound backpack and a few carrying military flags. See highlights from our conversation, below.
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Let’s start way back at the beginning. When did you start running?
I was a month shy of my 30th birthday and had never run a race before, let alone even gotten into running in general. My aunt had been diagnosed with a brain tumor and she was in a lot of pain, so I signed up for the 19976 MCM as a way to inspire her, and put myself in some pain with her.
Back then, it was much easier to sign up and I think I did it just three months before, and just started my training then. I signed up for the MCM because it’s my local race (as a lifelong Arlington resident), and each year I was aware of it happening, and thought the people running it were crazy. And with my family praying for my aunt, I just thought a great act might help inspire her to fight. I gave her my medal upon finishing the race. Sadly, some months later she lost her battle, but I’m forever glad I did it for her.
Your father was a second lieutenant in the Army in WWII, so you also have a veteran connection to the race. Can you tell us more about him and how he inspired you to run?
My father, George Fumich, was an amazing man. He was a second lieutenant in the Army who fought on the front lines in Italy, and helped liberate that area from the Germans. He was also a prisoner of war for a short time, being captured just four days before the war ended. He was freed by the Italian partisans. I’m not sure he inspires me to keep running, but he inspires me to be a good person. I think if he and my mom were alive now, they’d probably say, “OK son, you’ve probably done enough now.” But I know they are proud of me, especially when I run marathons to help other people. And I love walking to the start line of the MCM because I get to pass Arlington National Cemetery, where they are both eternally resting, and I have a nice moment with them.
What was it like running that first marathon back in 1997?
I remember it well. It was one of only two marathons that I had to be carried off on a stretcher (the other one being a qualifying race for the Boston Marathon, where they put me in a wheelchair and not a stretcher, to carry me away). I just remember I wanted to give it everything I had, and I also wanted to break four hours because some friends told me that there was no way I could. Plus, of course, I wanted to hurt and feel the pain for my aunt, and on only three months of training, I wasn’t a very good runner yet. I finished in three hours and 50 minutes, but don’t even remember crossing the finish line. Two marines put me in a stretcher and carried me off, to sort of come back around. I remember realizing I had finished and that there was a medal around my neck, and I had two marines shaking my hand and congratulating me. I remember thinking it was me that should be thanking them. What a day!
This year’s race will be your 100th marathon. What are you looking forward to, and why is this one also going to be special?
Well honestly, I am a numbers guy and very goal-oriented. Although 100 was never really my goal, I just kept running them. But maybe when I was at about 80 marathons, I started thinking about how neat it would be to hit 100. It was never really a question of if, but just when. And I also thought, how cool would it be to make my favorite marathon, the MCM, my 100th since it was also my first? It’s a nice bookend to a ton of amazing experiences and a lot of learning about what I’m capable of. It just seems a perfect number to nicely reflect on where it’s all taken me, and all of the people I’ve met along the way. It all started right here. I’d say it was a massive life wake-up call and a huge turn in my life. My life goals really changed then, and I never looked back.
Last year, you ran the MCM as a seeing guide for Aaron Hale (a blind and mostly deaf Navy and Army veteran, who was severely injured by an improvised explosive device
in Afghanistan, who also lost his hearing from a case of bacterial meningitis). What was that experience like for you?
My running coach, who use to train me for ultra-marathons and other extreme endurance races/adventures, has also coached Aaron at some point. She put us in touch because he needed someone to guide him at the Boston Marathon, and she knew I loved helping people and charitable causes in some of my sporting events. I had never guided a blind runner before, and Aaron and I had never run before together, other than a 10-minute jog the day before the Boston Marathon, when I met him in person.
I was a nervous wreck that I was going to guide him into a pole, but we did fine! He’s super laid-back and easy, but it still makes me nervous because I’m always afraid I will miss alerting him to a bump and he’ll fall. He did take a small fall at the turnaround in Crystal City during the MCM. We were both tired at about mile 23, when your feet don’t get up too high anymore, and his foot clipped a small curb and he went down in front of a big crowd of, “Ooohs.” But, he got up, took a bow and off we went!
In addition to guiding him twice during marathon races, I’ve also run about a half a dozen marathons supporting veterans groups. Even though I’ve never served myself, I love to try and give back a tiny bit and always appreciate the service and sacrifice of our servicemen and women. I’ve run a number of MCMs carrying various military branch flags and a couple marathons with a loaded 35-pound backpack. One year, I actually did that and dropped and did 22 pushups at every mile to bring awareness to the 22 veterans that commit suicide every day. I’ve also pushed a disabled young teenager in a wheelchair for an entire marathon. All were unbelievable experiences and much more gratifying than simply running them for myself.
What do you believe it takes to be a marathon runner?
Everyone is different and everyone has a different style or motivation. For me, I’ve always had a strong mental drive and have been successful in forcing myself to continue pretty hard, even when hitting the wall, so to speak. So, during a race, I would often go with my “Go hard and hang on,” approach, and it usually worked. But as I’m getting older, it’s letting me down more and more so I’m trying to run smarter and pace myself better. And that’s probably what I would recommend for anyone. Don’t get caught up in the adrenaline of the moment and especially the start, and find yourself trying to keep up with the faster runners. Know your pace and stick with it. Plus, it’s so much better of an experience when you have the energy at the end and are feeling strong, rather than feeling like you’re going to drop over.
It also takes a lot of patience and pain tolerance. Most people in their first marathon will feel pain they’ve never felt before. You have to be able to compartmentalize it and understand that it’s going to end soon, and not give up. When you’re in the hurt locker, you can’t imagine it ending. You just have to think about the next mile, not the end of the race. Small mental bites make the race much easier.
If you were to offer advice to someone who is thinking about running a marathon or just starting to run for the first time, what would you tell them?
Most people who want to run one marathon in their lives put it off because they think they are physically incapable, don’t have time to train, or are waiting for the perfect moment in their lives to do it. Almost everyone is physically capable to run 26.2 miles. I’m a totally average athlete and if I can do it, believe me, it’s very possible. And it doesn’t take months to train. With some smart training, it doesn’t take an entire year of grueling training to pull it off. And I always say, if you’re waiting for the perfect time to do a marathon, it’s never going to come. You have to want it as a goal bad enough and once you decide to sign up, you’’ll see it on the calendar and you will certainly find the time to make it happen.
Also, you are stronger than you think you are, and can go further than you think you can. It’s often that only after a marathon, that a person learned that for the first time. And most people say that your doubt is a bad thing and to not listen to it. But for me, I use the doubt as fuel and fire to prove it wrong. When that little devil shows up on my shoulder and starts feeding me the doubt, I want to shut him up and prove him wrong!
Is there anything else you think readers should know about running the MCM?
The MCM is my local hometown marathon, but it’s also a military run event. Seeing all the marines and volunteers, it just gives me chills when I see them. They’re very respectful and helpful, and by running this race, I feel like I’m also showing them respect and my gratitude. It’s a very patriotic event with lots of flags being carried, and injured veterans running or pushing wheelchairs during the race. The entire event is super inspiring and I think an amazing experience for everyone involved. It’s also a pretty flat marathon for folks looking specifically for a flat course, that’s conductive to fast times and a great choice for anyone looking to run one marathon, or one of many. Hey, you might run this one and end up running 99 more! When I crossed the finish line that very first time at the 1997 MCM, I swore I would never run another one … so clearly, not having a very good memory helps too!