Norm Frank keeps hope alive for marathon mark

Jim Castor, Democrat and Chronicle September 10, 2010

BRIGHTON - Norm Frank has run so many marathons, 965, his miles circle the earth.

Turns out that's been the easy part of his life.

The hardest?

In the last two years the 79-year-old native of Rochester's east side has battled three strokes and a near-fatal heart infection that's left him too dizzy to walk.

His life's goal, to complete 1,000 certified races of 26.2 miles, was tantalizingly close after he ran 26.2 of the grueling Canandaigua Lake 50-miler in October 2008.

But now, when reality sets in and the walls and floor begin to sway as he trails his four-wheeled walker around an assisted living residence, it's oh so far away.

"It's awful," Frank said this week, concentrating on standing up straight while gripping the rails of a treadmill in the fitness center of the new home he loves ? Legacy at Clover Blossom in Brighton. "I'm dizzy every minute of every day. Fortunately, I haven't fallen yet. Next week I'm taking therapy to learn to walk with a cane."

Hope ? faint though it is ? may come from a new inner-ear device being developed by a doctor at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. Tiny gyroscopes and accelerometers connected to the brain have proven effective in chinchillas, according to a report in a national neurological publication.

Human trials appear to be at least three years away.

"I want to get on his list," Frank said. "At this point, it looks like my only hope."

Frank will be honorary starter at the MVP Rochester Marathon in downtown Rochester on Sunday. He's the only one who has run it every year since its inception in 1972, and he was hoping to hit 1,000 in the 2009 race. But that fall, when the effects of strong antibiotics to fight infection on a heart flap destroyed the tiny hairs in his inner ears, he was left with permanent vertigo, stealing his balance.

"Doctors told us they doubted he'd make it," said his son, Mark, of the severity of the heart infection and the difficulty of the recovery. "So the tradeoff from recovering from the infection was losing his ability to walk or run. Some irony, right?"

t was Mark who, the year before, had to make an emergency trip to Florida's west coast and drive his dad back to Rochester from his winter home in New Port Richey, Fla., north of Clearwater.

"He'd had three strokes and the doctors wouldn't let him fly," Mark said. "We had to get him home to Strong (Memorial Hospital). He was so thin and weak, not coherent, not even able to take care of his bodily functions. I'm a doer, so I said 'we're going to hop in the truck and go.'

"Doctors worked really hard on him at Strong. They saved his life."

Last April, on Boston Marathon Day, Norm was honored by USA Track and Field for his North American record number (a 72-year-old German holds the world record with more than 1,800). Rochester Marathon race director Greg Brooks of Irondequoit was among several dozen who attended the reception at the Legacy, and recalled that Norm inspired younger runners like himself to run, not marathons, but ULTRA marathons (anything longer than 26.2 miles). More than 100 of Norm's marathons were part of ultra runs.

"We had a group called the Canal Rats," Brooks said. "We'd take off from the old running store on Schoen Place in Pittsford. One time Norm gave us a seminar on ultras. He was doing them long before most of us had even dreamed of anything more than 26.2. Norm became my inspiration for ultras. I probably did a dozen or more after that, and I've done more than 100 marathons."

Determined to find a way back on the roads, dizzy or not, Norm left the April reception with an even stronger resolve. After all, this is a guy who has run the distance on four continents, from the North Pole to the equator, in Athens, Berlin, London, in all 50 states and, of course, in all weather extremes.

"I've always loved the challenge," Norm said, "from the very first one ? Boston ? when I was 35. That was cold and rainy. Just terrible. Yet I remember getting a thrill finishing it, like I'd never had before. I was hooked.

"Unlike any team sport ? and I've played them all ? you're not competing against anyone else. It's just you against yourself. It's a lot harder now that I'm older, but the thrill is always there for me. It always gives me goose pimples. That will never change."

He thought he'd come up with a solution in late spring when Mark found a used baby jogger on craigslist, the on-line classified ad service.

"It was at a church sale in Hilton," Mark said. "Fifty bucks. Brought it home and we filled the seat with rocks so he could handle it better. We'd throw them on and off to change the weight."


No luck.

"We went out the driveway, down Clover past Mercy High School to Blossom, and back," Norm said. "About a quarter-mile is all. I was wobbling and weaving all over the place."

A lonely summer passed ("I've been pushing the walker down the block to the railroad, sitting and watching the trains go by to pass the time") and then, just a week ago, Mark found an article in the September issue of Popular Science on the inner-ear device.

Norm read it and laughed.

"Hey, if it's good enough for a monkey, it's good enough for me. Think of all the great publicity this doctor could get, helping a marathoner like me get back on my feet.

"I'm holding out hope they'll get it approved. I realize it isn't going to happen for a while. But I've got time. These days I've got all kinds of time.

"It's my only hope. Otherwise, I have no hope."