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"The World's Fittest Man"

"The World's Fittest Man"

The following article appeared in The Fresno Bee Newspaper on 30th April 2001.

Joe Decker, the world's fittest man, proves his mettle by the mile.

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-foot-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."

Most of what the fitness trainer does routinely would kill most people. For the Gaithersburg, Md., resident, 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.

Decker calls himself "a country boy at heart." In some ways, his boyhood in central Illinois 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."

In high school, he power-lifted, ran track and played football. After graduation, with no money for college, Decker joined the Army. He followed that up with a stint at Western Illinois University, in the prelaw honors program. By the end of sophomore year, he was having second thoughts about becoming a lawyer.

He dropped out and traveled the country, ending up in New Orleans, where he worked as a bartender on Bourbon Street. 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. 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. 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."

This page last updated: Saturday 20 March 2010

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