‘Fat boy’ is work-out king

The Guardian
As a teenager, Joe Decker was an overweight couch potato. He devoured beer, pizza and Twinkies, took no exercise and saw his weight balloon. When he joined the US army, his inability to run two miles in 16 minutes meant he had to endure the humiliation of extra training in the ‘fat boy programme’.Yet last week Joe Decker was named the world’s fittest man after completing the most gruelling physical challenge on earth in a record time. In the space of 24 hours, and without stopping to sleep, he ran, cycled and swam further, did more muscle-busting exercises and lifted far heavier weights than the previous winner of the Physical Fitness Challenge.

Scarred by endless jibes about his weight, 30-year-old Decker is now enjoying the title bestowed on him by Guinness World Records, the ultimate authority on incredible feats. Last week they named him ‘the work-out king of the world’. Where once he had layers of unwanted blubber, now he has lean, honed muscle.

Decker’s tilt at the title began with a 100-mile cycle ride and 10 miles each of running, hiking and rowing, moved on to five miles of powerwalking, six miles kayaking and a two-mile swim. He then completed another 10 miles on a skiing machine, 3,000 abdominal crunches, 1,100 jumping jacks, 1,000 leg-lifts and 1,100 push-ups and finally ended with a three-hour gym session in which he lifted 278,540lbs in weights. Incredibly he did all 13 events back-to-back, never stopping once to rest, much less sleep.

Chris Sheedy of Guinness World Records said: ‘His achievement is momentous, unbelievable, superhuman. When his letter arrived I thought, “to do all this in such a short time isn’t physically possible”. But he sent us videos, eyewitness statements, doctors’ reports – more evidence than we needed to validate his claim. It’s as well he did, otherwise I wouldn’t have believed he’d done it all.’

The previous record-holder, Steve Sokol of San Jose, California, took 23 hours and 43 minutes in August 1998 to complete all 13 challenges. Decker matched or bettered Sokol’s achievements in 22 hours, then spent two hours lifting more and more weights in a bid to ensure that whoever tries to outdo him will have to demonstrate almost bionic capabilities. Competition rules say any successful challenger must equal all the holder’s feats, and improve on at least one.

Decker, from Illinois, is no ordinary athlete. From Monday to Friday he gets up at 4.45am and from 5.30 leads a 90-minute class for serious fitness fanatics. After a quick breakfast he heads to the gym for several hours, then spends the rest of the day taking classes – always outdoors, come rain, snow or sunshine – and running his own business advising companies on employee health. For a bit of light relief, he runs 20-50 miles on a Saturday and cycles up to 100 miles on Sunday. His tee-shirt bears the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s dictum ‘what does not kill me makes me stronger’.

Pain and suffering do not worry him. He rates his training work outs from one to 10 on a personal ‘nausea scale’. Several times a week he does an eight or a nine, just short of ‘full-blown hurling’.

Decker is always looking for new ways of testing his limits. His favourites are ultra-marathons and adventure challenges. He has experienced hallucinations, disorientation, dehydration, swollen feet, sleep deprivation, extreme tiredness, tunnel vision and mind-numbing tedium during races lasting up to week at a time. During a 520-mile race across the Himalayas by foot, mountain bike and rope he almost died.

Why does he do it? His spur could be a childhood of extreme poverty or maybe it’s his physique, more that of a weightlifter than an athlete, or the memory of being called ‘fat boy’.

‘I’m an average person,’ he insists. ‘What I’ve done is something just about anybody could do if they put their mind to it. Don’t just want to do something; if you want to attain something, get off your butt and make it happen.’

Think you’re in shape?

In 24 hours the world’s fittest man completed 13 events:

Cycling: 100 miles
Run: 10 miles
Powerwalk: five miles
Kayak: six miles
Hike: 10 miles
Swim: two miles
Abdominal crunches: 3,000
Jumping jacks: 1,100
Push-ups: 1,100
Leg-lifts: 1,000
Skiing machine: 10 miles
Rowing machine: 10 miles
Lift: 278,540lbs

denis.campbell@observer.co.uk

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