The Death Race Profile Series:  2011 Champion Joe Decker

The Death Race Profile Series: 2011 Champion Joe Decker

Yearly Archives: 2011

The Death Race Profile Series: 2011 Champion Joe Decker

by Carrie Adams
Original Article

270259_225183544170611_147674081921558_790272_7776221_nWhen Joe Decker eased  his way into the culvert that runs under Route 100, he’d been racing over 24 hours.  He was the first 2011 Death Racer to get to this point in the race.  The water level was higher than he expected, and he had just finished a long hike back from Roger’s Farm.  Pushing his pack ahead of him, he crawled forward.  Halfway through the culvert, he felt what he thought were water droplets on his face.  Looking up, he realized that he was surrounded by hundreds of massive, thumb-sized spiders.  With no room for him or the spiders to move, he knew he’d just have to deal with them crawling all over him until he could get to the other side.

Joe Decker returned to the 2011 Death Race as the 2010 Champion, but he didn’t263646_225179954170970_147674081921558_790216_841183_n return to defend his title or to compete with anyone but his own training and preparation.  “I can only think of a race like this one task at a time and hope I put in enough time and training to be successful.  That’s what it’s about for me.  Pushing myself.  Did I do enough?  Is the training there?”


His training proved worthy.  Joe Decker led early on in the race and held that lead for the duration of the race that spans the small town of Pittsfield, VT ultimately coming out on top for the second year in a row.  True to his positive attitude and upbeat personality, he maintained that level of performance and did so almost always with a smile on his face.  Tasks of the 2011 Death Race included hiking, wood chopping, climbing, water crossings, and mental challenges that left only 35 of the origianl 155 competitors standing at the cut-off time of the race.  Of those 35 finishers, only six had completed all the tasks on the race list.  Those tasks were outlined in a previous post on the Spartan Race Blog, and the finishers were also outlined in more detail in a previous post.  Grace Cuomo Durfee was notably among the six finishers who accomplished all the tasks, and she finished as first female in the race.

271133_225174957504803_147674081921558_790127_3047319_nDecker credits his training for his success.  This year he was bringing four of his trainers from Gut Check Fitness, the award winning Boot Camp he runs in San Diego, California.  “A lot of training went into getting ready for this race.  As we got into it, it took on a life of its own.”

For the back to back Death Race champion, how did 2010 compare to 2011?  “It was amazing: the degree of difficulty compared to last year.  I’ve been around the world doing races, and I’ve seen a lot of really tough stuff.  I can rank races.  Last year was a 7 – definitely challenging – but this year was a 9.  This year was tough.  I was taken aback.”

Constant rain, heavy packs, difficult challenges, and steep, technical terrain made this year more difficult than previous years.   “What can you do?” he laughed.  “The ravine and over the mountain for the Gaza strip stretch up through the briars…I was flabbergasted by the difficulty.”

Always prepared, Decker ran into unexpected hydration challenges five miles into the ten mile stretch of Gaze strip.  “I ran out of 100 ounces of water at the top.  You can’t let yourself get dehydrated or let your blood sugar drop.  It worked out okay.”

264156_225182470837385_147674081921558_790253_2133817_nWood chopping was a fixture of this year’s event.  Watching Decker plow through the wood piles was quite a sight.  He credited his rural upbringing for some of his skills in this type of race.  “I grew up on a farm in a rural area, lower income, so we didn’t have a lot of money.  I grew up burning wood.”  He explained, “It becomes a matter of do you want cut wood or do you want to freeze?  So, I cut wood every day until I was 18.”  Humbly, he added, “It plays very easily into my life.  It’s just fortunate.”

Next year is still up in the air for Decker who has openly been challenged by one of the261472_225184577503841_147674081921558_790289_1572889_n Death Race creators, Joe DeSena.  He has some big plans for his 2012 season, but he can’t discount that the Death Race will be a part of it.  “I enjoy it.  I just love seeing what the hell I can do.  You don’t really know yourself until you test yourself.  You don’t really know.  Guys and girls realized they weren’t as tough as they thought they were.”  He also maintains a great deal of respect for anyone brave enough to take on the Death Race challenge.  “This year had some amazing athletes.  I was proud to trudge alongside them all over those mountains.”

If he does return, it won’t be to defend the title.  It would be to see if he can handle another year of the training, of the preparation, and of the challenge it represents.

“I just love the event” he said.  “That much I know for sure.”

Carmel Valley trainer wins Spartan Death Race again

By Karen Billing
Staff Writer
Original Article

For the second year in a row, Joe Decker crawled, hauled, suffered, survived and ultimately bested “The Spartan Death Race.”

Decker, who runs the popular Gut Check Fitness boot camp at several Carmel Valley parks, recently completed the Vermont race in 39 grueling hours — about 11 hours longer than it took him the first time he won the event in 2010.

The race, which started June 25, involved obstacles such as eight hours of chopping wood, 10 miles running through an ice-cold river, 30 miles hiking up a mountain with a 70- pound backpack, and crawling through barbwire.

“All kinds of nonsense. Luckily there was no eating bad stuff this year,” said Decker, referencing last year’s race in which he had to eat 10 pounds of onions.

Decker ran the race with a team from San Diego, including Roger Bernstein, Vu Tran, Gentry Marks and Jeff Bales, a teacher at Ocean Air School. The group trained for nine months in preparation for the unpredictable, physically and mentally demanding race.

Very few of the 150 entrants are able to complete the race, where the goal is to get people to drop out. Tran was able to finish the race about five hours after Decker, and Bales and Bernstein lasted 28 hours.

“Overall, they did a really good job and I’m very proud of them,” Decker said.

There is always an East-West Coast rivalry, with the East Coasters calling Decker’s team “California Girls.”

“Someone from California won it for the second year in a row so apparently we’re doing something right out here,” Decker said.

Decker said the hardest part of Death Race 2011 was coming down the “substantial mountain” and hiking up a stream for two to three miles on a straight vertical—even through a waterfall. Running through acres of blackberry briars was also brutal and he has the cut-up ankles and calves to prove it.

“I’m in so much pain,” Decker said in an interview on June 30. “I have bloody marks all over.”

Despite an aching back and thighs that were virtually “filleted” by the axe used to chop logs, Decker expected to be back working out by Monday, July 4.

“I’ll take the weekend off and start again,” said Decker. “I enjoy [working out], it’s my life. It keeps me balanced, it keeps me sane.”

Death Race, he admits, is a little bit insane. Insane but fun. He’s not quite sure if he will sign up again for 2012 but he won’t rule it out. He’s got a title to defend and a three-peat is a definite possibility.

In 2000, Decker broke the Guinness World Record’s “Twenty-Four-Hour Physical Fitness Challenge” to help inspire and motivate people to get fit. In addition to breaking the world fitness record, Decker has competed in many of the world’s most challenging endurance and adventure fitness events.

After serving three years in the Army with the 10th Mountain Division, Decker graduated from Western Illinois University with a B.S. degree in exercise science.

Decker has appeared on “The Today Show,” “Discovery Health,” “The Early Show,” “The O’Reilly Factor” and Fox News, and has been featured in numerous national publications.

Decker’s Gut Check Fitness Boot Camps are held six days a week at Sage Canyon Park, Torrey Hills Neighborhood Park and Carmel Valley Recreation Center. To learn more, visit

The Fittest Man Alive Joe Decker Gets The Title In The Guinness Book Of World Records. It Was A Long Trip For A Man Who Doesn’t Fit The Stereotypes About Endurance Athletes.

Subscriber Services | Inquirer| Daily News

Posted: March 14, 2001

One day in December, Joe Decker decided to become the best in the world.

And so:

He bicycled 100 miles.

He ran 10 miles.

He hiked 10 miles.

He power-walked five miles.

He kayaked six miles.

He skied on a NordicTrack 10 miles.

He rowed 10 miles.

He swam two miles.

He did 3,000 abdominal crunches.

He did 1,100 jumping jacks.

He did 1,000 leg lifts.

He did 1,100 push-ups.

And he weight-lifted, cumulatively, 278,540 pounds.

He accomplished all this in 24 hours, in front of duly sanctioned counters and witnesses. For his efforts (and pains), he earned a place in the Guinness Book of World Records: the fittest man alive.

“It was fun,” Decker says. “I enjoyed the whole thing.”

The World’s Fittest Man does not look the part. Oh, he’s lean and in shape, and when he pulls up his shirt, he has a flat stomach, verging on a washboard. But at 5-9 and 195 pounds, he’s on the stocky side. At age 31, he has the look of a pleasantly softening collegiate jock. If you were to stand next to him at the starting line of an ultramarathon, you’d write him off as an early dropout. Which is fine with Decker: “I can run, row and paddle millions of miles, and my body doesn’t change,” he says. “I like being built like this. I’m a dark horse. People underestimate me.”

Decker lives in Gaithersburg, Md. He makes his living as a fitness trainer. He calls his business Body Construction, and he designs corporate fitness programs and leads personal and group exercise sessions in the early morning and late afternoon and evening. His office is in the basement of his duplex in a new subdivision. When he looks out the sliding glass door, he can sometimes see deer.

Most of what he does routinely would kill most people. For him, a marathon is a training run: “I don’t mean to sound crazy, but once you get to a certain point, it’s just nothing. I run a marathon a month.”

It’s not unusual for Decker to run a marathon on a Saturday and be out doing intervals – sprinting up hills – on Sunday. On a typical Saturday, he’ll rise at 4:30 a.m. and run maybe 40 to 50 miles, or bike 50 to 100 miles, or kayak 20 to 30 miles. That way he’s back by early afternoon and can spend some time with his girlfriend.

A tad extreme?

“I’ve got a high idle,” Decker explains with a laugh. “It’s hard to sit still.”

The year 2000 was momentous for Decker. He received a handsome trophy, topped by a statuette of a bald eagle, for completing the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning – four 100 milers. The fun began in May with the mother of all endurance contests, the Raid Gauloises, which last year was a 520-mile adventure race from Tibet to northern India via Nepal and the Himalayas. He finished in eight days.

You may be wondering:

(1) Is Decker certifiable? Totally over the edge? An obsessive-compulsive body Nazi to the 10th power?

(2) Is Decker bionic? With a nuclear-powered bilge pump for a heart, bones made of titanium, joints made of Teflon, and steel-belted muscles that never produce a drop of lactic acid?

He doesn’t fit the stereotype. Endurance athletes tend to be sour and sullen, introverted and dyspeptic, grimacing in perpetual agony like the long-suffering St. Sebastian, exuding all the warmth and personality of a dead haddock. Decker, by contrast, is all smiles and Midwestern congeniality. He says “darn” and “heck” a lot, and his face is so sunny, wholesome and all-American it deserves to be on a box of corn flakes.

“He really has a way with people,” his dad, Dan, says. “He has friends all over. He’s just a real nice guy.”

Decker calls himself “a country boy at heart.” He grew up on a farm in central Illinois, near the town of Cuba, about 50 miles southwest of Peoria. His father is a farmer who also worked for Caterpillar. His mother, Diane, was a custodian at the local elementary school. “She’s made of tough stuff,” Decker says. Her hobby: breaking horses. Decker couldn’t beat her at arm-wrestling until he was 13.

Decker was the oldest of four boys who made their own entertainment. “I was never inside. I was not a TV kid,” he says. “We had only one black-and-white set. I was always outside, swimming, climbing, running, playing in the woods.”

Joe Decker remembers his youth as a happy, idyllic time. Money was scarce, the work hard, the days long, but so what? “Growing up on a farm is growing up rough,” Decker says, matter-of-factly. In some respects, his boyhood was more 1870s then 1970s. Until he was 13, he used an outhouse. Come winter, when the arctic wind would roar across the prairie, plunging the temperature to 20 below, the whole family would sleep in the living room, laying mattresses on the floor, huddling around the wood-burning stove, the only source of heat. At 5 a.m., Decker would rise, bundle up, and venture into the blast to slop the hogs and milk the cows. Says Decker: “You had to do it for the family to eat and survive.”

As a kid, he was chubby. One day, in sixth grade, he took part in a weight-lifting contest on a Nautilus machine. Bench-pressing 60 pounds, Decker managed to do the most reps. “I had found something I was actually good at,” he says. Infatuated with power lifting (a sport that involves lifting your max in three events: bench press, squat and dead lift), Decker began working out with the older guys at the high school. As he matured, he grew stronger and more serious, showing up at the weight room to practice at 6 a.m. In power-lifting meets, he was invincible. He earned the top ranking in the state and, while still a teen, was benching over 400 pounds. “I’m an all-or-none person,” he says. “I wanted to be the best.”

He also ran track and played football. In his senior year, playing fullback, he was speared repeatedly by the helmets of tacklers in his left leg. His leg swelled and his skin turned purple, but it was more than a bruise. Decker’s leg grew numb from the knee down, and his foot began to drop. The diagnosis: anterior compartment syndrome, a crushed nerve. Decker underwent surgery and returned home with a 13-inch scar. It could have been worse – amputation.

He was sidelined on crutches until the last game of the season. True to form, and against his doctor’s advice, he insisted on playing. “I busted it open again,” he says. “They told me I’d always walk with a limp, that I’d never be able to run again.” That’s all Decker needed to hear. He rehabbed his leg himself. By spring, he was running the 200-meter dash.

With no money for college, Decker joined the Army. He credits the Army with toughening him, mentally and physically. Once, he and his fellow soldiers were dropped off in the woods in Upstate New York in the middle of winter. “It was 20, 30 below. Snow was falling. The wind was blowing. We had no tent. I was afraid I’d wind up like a Popsicle,” he says. “But heck, we made do, we survived, and that kind of experience gave me a good mind-set. No matter how miserable it is, I know I can make it if I maintain a positive attitude. Today, I actually prefer racing when the weather is nasty. I feel it gives me an advantage.”

After the Army, Decker enrolled at Western Illinois University, in the prelaw honors program. But by the end of sophomore year, he was having second thoughts about becoming a lawyer. Miffed by a financial-aid snafu that prevented him from studying abroad, he dropped out.

Here, the saga of Joe Decker takes a surprising turn. He wandered and traveled all over the country. Eventually, he wound up in New Orleans, working as a bartender on Bourbon Street. “It was Mardi Gras 365 days a year,” he says. “If you didn’t drink and do drugs, you weren’t part of the crowd.” Decker doesn’t go into detail, but he makes it clear that the temptations were plentiful. “I lost myself for two years,” he says.

One day, he took a long, hard look at himself in the mirror. “Who the heck is this person?” he remembers thinking. His face looked haggard and dissolute; his body was soft and flabby. Then and there, he resolved to change. He began running and lifting again. He returned to college, earning a degree in corporate fitness.

“Fitness saved my life,” Decker says. “Exercise gives me the high I used to get from alcohol and drugs. It keeps me sane. It takes away stress. When anxiety builds up, it relieves it. It keeps me functioning in society. Without fitness, I’d be dead.”

Decker is actually “pretty normal,” his girlfriend, Christina Oaks, says. “He believes in moderation. He’s not a total fitness freak. He’s a lot of fun to be around because he loves to travel, he knows a lot, and he’s always willing to do new and interesting things.” (Oaks, 25, a pharmaceutical sales rep, is no slouch herself; in November, she finished her first marathon.)

During the week, Decker follows a healthy diet. He drinks gallons of water, but, except for a multivitamin, he eschews pills and supplements. Come the weekend, he cuts loose, consuming a lumberjack’s quota of calories: pancakes, burgers, ice cream, beer, and his absolute favorite, pizza. After completing an ultra, Decker celebrates with a bottle of wine and a cigar.

“It’s all about balance,” he says. “You can’t be an extremist. You got to be human, to live a little. To give up everything and be only fitness, no sir, it wouldn’t be fun. And if it’s not fun, why the heck do it?”

His body is remarkably durable. He’s had bouts of plantar fasciitis in his feet, and occasional tendinitis of the ankle, knee and wrist, but all in all he has been blessedly free of injury.

Suggest that he has a gift, that he is a genetic freak, and Decker’s face clouds. “Hang out with me when I work out and see how much is hard work and how much is genetics,” he says, his voice uncharacteristically edgy. “So many times people sell themselves short, but if you set your mind to it, you can do it.”

What’s next for Decker? He is gearing up for more marathons and ultras, and in September a triple ironman in Virginia Beach. That’s a 7.2-mile swim, a 336-mile bike ride, and a 78.6-mile run. He estimates it will take him 45 hours.

It gets worse. For 2002, he has his sights set on an event in Mexico that has to be the ne plus ultra of endurance tests – an ironman triathlon times 10! Imagine: a 24-mile swim, a 1,120-mile bike ride, and a 262-mile run, all done in a pool and on a track. Even Decker calls it “totally sick.”

Art Carey’s e-mail address is [email protected]