By Art Carey INQUIRER STAFF WRITER
Posted: March 14, 2001
One day in December, Joe Decker decided to become the best in the world.
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]