In realm of fitness, Joe Decker is king

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Catching up with Joe Decker presents more of a physical challenge than ever.

Since becoming the World's Fittest Man, the 33-year-old ultra-athlete not only trains daily for 100-mile runs, adventure races and strong-man competitions, but also schedules interviews and strategy sessions for his developing fitness career.

One sure way to find him, however, is to show up at dawn in the suburban park in Gaithersburg where he still holds an exercise boot camp.

A recent day begins with pushups, ab crunches and triceps dips executed to near muscle exhaustion on a cold slab of concrete. There are no mirrors, no lights, no high-energy soundtracks and no empathetic train- ers murmuring, "Goooooood jahbbbb!"

Decker's version of tender persuasion is, "Keep it going, two three! Ten more, two, three!" Inspiration is watching this 5-foot-9-inch, 185-pound man lift 30-pound weights as if they were soda bottles.

Sometimes, Decker asks his clients to push a van up an incline. Sometimes he has them run hills, or scamper on trails through the woods. That's the stuff he used to do as a farm kid in Cuba, Ill., long before there ever was a Guinness World Book 24-hour Physical Fitness Record.

"Did you know Joe's the world's fittest man? Why, he'll even tell you himself!" jokes C.B. Dexter of Silver Spring.

A few years ago, Decker helped Dexter train for the Pittsburgh Marathon. Now Dexter enjoys ribbing his trainer about the attention he's gained since earning the World's Fittest Man title 18 months ago.

The title has generated new opportunities: Decker is co-author of a 350-page book, Four Weeks to Total Fitness: The World's Fittest You, scheduled for publication in December.

He has also launched a fitness advice newspaper column in The Indianapolis Herald.

And who would have guessed that the man who flunked his first Army physical would join Ben Affleck, George Clooney and Matt Damon as one of People magazine's 50 most eligible bachelors?

The strongest link

In the past year, Decker has also won $75,000 for charity on The Weakest Link quiz show and discovered he needs three agents for his various TV, book and endorsement deals.

"I still don't think of myself as the world's fittest man," he says. "I don't see myself that way. I see myself as this average guy that can do these incredible things."

Here's what Decker did, in 24 hours, to be named the World's Fittest Man:

* Cycle 100 miles.

* Run 10 miles.

* Hike 10 miles.

* Power walk 5 miles.

* Kayak 6 miles.

* Swim 2 miles.

* NordicTrack 10 miles.

* Row 10 miles.

* Complete 3,000 ab crunches, 1,100 pushups, 1,100 jumping jacks and 1,000 leg lifts.

* As the crowning touch, Decker also lifted a total of 278,540 pounds -- 228,380 more than the previous champ. (He accomplished much of this through repetitions on various weight machines.)

Before he began working out with Decker in 1999, Mike Yoder had never run further than a mile. Now the 38-year-old electrical contractor has completed several ultra-marathons. More important, he says, is that he has absorbed Decker's can-do attitude.

A few years ago, he ran along with Decker near mile 73 of a 100-mile race. "It was amazing that he still had the will to keep going," Yoder recalls. "To me, it just became an inspiration that taught me that anything's possible. I applied it to every aspect of my life."

Decker hopes that publicity about his physical accomplishments will provide a national platform to motivate thousands of others. Meanwhile, he will continue his endurance competitions.

Along with completing dozens of marathons, he has twice finished the 135-mile Badwater ultra-marathon, widely considered the world's toughest. He has also competed in triathlons and such multisport events as the 520-mile Trans-Himalayan Raid Gauloises Adventure Race.

"I don't do this sort of stuff for the publicity or for the media. Believe it or not, I like doing what people consider this crazy, insane-type stuff," he says. "It helps me keep my sanity, helps me make things balanced in my life. I definitely know I have anxiety issues. I am an extremist. ... Beating myself up like that helps keep me balanced."

A grueling routine

Monday through Friday, Decker works out three times a day. After boot camp on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, he lifts weights, keen on maintaining his ability to benchpress 400 pounds. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, he runs -- speed work, hills or tempo runs. Each afternoon, he runs, cycles, paddles, uses the rowing machine or the elliptical trainer.

Saturdays mean long runs -- perhaps a 30-miler. Sundays, he takes time off to read, and maybe hop on a mountain bike.

His diet consists of "lots of lean meats, veggies, whole grains and all that good stuff," along with a few chocolate peanut butter cups and steak or pizza on weekends. Despite his activity level, Decker says he gains weight easily.

"I have a metabolism that crawls along like old Father Time. On average, I probably only take in 2,500 calories a day."

He knows his body well enough to realize when he has over-extended himself. One year's competition schedule was so demanding that it depleted his immune system, he says, forcing time off from training. At the moment, he is nursing a shoulder injury that may require surgery.

Decker is philosophical about his lifestyle. "You can choose to drive your body like a mini-van: Never go over 55 all your life, and it may last for 80 years. Or you can drive it like a sports car and get 65 or 70 years. I want to look back and say, 'Man! Do you remember the time I was in the Sahara Desert? In the Himalayan Mountains?' "

Growing up in a farming community near Peoria, Ill., Decker had planned to go to college on a football scholarship. But a leg injury ended his chances. So, he joined the army. After the embarrassment of flunking the running portion of his physical fitness test, Decker lost weight and threw himself into the conditioning regimen that would become his life.

He eventually graduated from Western Illinois University with a degree in exercise physiology. Settling near Washington, he opened a fitness training business and realized he had found his life's calling.

"I'm actually good at that," he says. "I have something, I don't know wheth-er it's a gift, or something I developed. To make a difference in someone else's life, I think that's huge."

Searching for challenges

Decker strikes you less as an Amazing Hulk and more as a fellow shopper at Home Depot. With a wide grin and one heck of a lot of "darns," the World's Fittest Man comes across as a congenial, blue-skies kind of guy. It might take a while before you notice his foot-tapping restlessness.

"The only time I've known him to slow down," his friend Mike Yoder jokes, "is when he's on the Internet looking for the next physical challenge."

He can find some unusual ones. In February, he competed in the annual Empire State Building Climb, finishing 86 flights and 1,576 steps in 17 minutes. He would have had a faster time, he says, had he not just flown back from England's Tough Guy Competition, a daunting obstacle course that required swimming through icy waters then running through a field with electric wires whose voltage was "double what you need to stun a bull elephant."

Decker seems comfortable with endurance multitasking. A week after winning his age division in Dances With Dirt, a 50-mile race in Hell, Mich., he placed fourth in the lightweight division of the Mid-Atlantic Strongman competition. Last November, the day after he finished the JFK 50-miler in Hagerstown, he ran the Philadelphia Marathon.

"I'm never going to win any of them," Decker says of the races. "When I'm really on my game, I do pretty well. I finish in the top 25 percent, which is good for someone who's not concentrating on that one discipline."

Although he's making money, he says he's pouring most of it back into building his motivational fitness career. He has signed a contract with television weatherman Al Roker's production company to develop a health- and fitness-related TV show. New Balance has sent him $5,000 worth of shoes. Sports-clothing maker Under Armour is also a sponsor. For a while, he represented Icon, one of the world's largest manufacturers of home fitness equipment.

Decker says he most admires people who manage to overcome their physical limitations.

"My mom has emphysema real bad, and each day is a struggle. She could easily sit around saying, 'Oh, woe is me,' but she doesn't give up. She really inspires me. So do other people who have a tough hand dealt against them and don't complain. That's what motivates me."

When the World's Fittest Man recently entered a 142-mile race across the Sahara Desert, he chose to run it with novice competitors, one of whom had recently recovered from lung cancer.

"The group that inspired me the most are the people at the back of the pack, the ones it's a complete struggle for," he says. "The ones at the front -- hell, they're runners. They should be able to do well. For me, it's always the people in the back, the underdog, the dark horse."

Joe Decker at a glance

Marital Status: Single. "My primary concern right now is my career. ... There's no blueprint for this."

Favorite book: A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole.

Newest Toy: 2003 Silver Harley Davidson V-Rod motorcycle.

Daily food supplements: A multivitamin and glucosamine and chondroitin (to slow the progression of osteoarthritis).

Next tough race: June 14. The Texas Boat Safari is a 262-mile race from San Marcos to Seadrift that must be completed within 100 hours.

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