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The World's Fittest Man

Former couch potato Joe Decker is about to become the Guinness World Record holder in fitness after working out for 24 straight hours and completing 13 different exercises including lifting a total of over 200,000 pounds of weight. He is here to tell us about his journey from couch potato to self-made ultra-endurance athlete and fitness trainer.

Joe Decker changed himself from a self-avowed couch potato to one of the world's top endurance athletes and recently spent 24 hours straight cycling, running, rowing, hiking, and weight lifting to break ;The Guinness Book of World Record;'s 24-Hour Physical Fitness Challenge.

How did you hear about the Guinness Record's 24-Hour Physical Fitness Challenge?

I was sitting around watching television a couple of years ago with a friend and saw the Challenge on TV and thought that I could do that, too. It stayed in the back of my mind always and finally when it turned the year 2000, I decided that was the year I was going to do it.

So, I entered some of the most grueling endurance races out there--the Raid Gauloises and Badwater Death Valley Marathon and the Grand Slam of Vulture Running, which is doing four 100-mile runs in 1 year to get the Grand Slam trophy. These races got me in such good shape I thought I should go for the Guinness Record.

But come on--this can't be for just anyone, right?

I believe that anyone can do this, if they put their minds to it. I am nothing special. I am 5 foot 9 inches, and I don't look like a runner or a swimmer--more like a stocky football player. In fact, although I was an athlete in high school, afterward I became a couch potato. When I signed up for the Army, I was in really, really bad shape. I flunked the fitness test and was put on "fat boy" program. Gosh, it was so humiliating. Imagine what that does to an 18-year-old boy. So, I just worked really hard at getting fit and that started me on the road to fitness.

How many hours did you work out training for the Guinness Record and are you keeping that training schedule now?

I did not have to do too much extra for the Guinness 24-hour Challenge because I had been doing extreme endurance races all year. But to keep my level of fitness up between them, I stick to a set schedule that I do every day, but only 3 hours a day. I run, cycle, row and lift weight. On weekends I occasionally do a 20-50-mile run and ride 50-100 miles. Otherwise the runs are between 10 and 20 miles--and less cycling.

But the key to all exercise and really, really good fitness is just some basic guiding principles. The first is to make a mental contract with yourself or even write one out about what you want to accomplish.

The second is to keep it simple and take baby steps. You didn't get out of shape overnight, and you won't get in shape overnight, either. Make a plan on how to do it and when and stick to it. In fact, you don't need a lot of fancy equipment, and you don't eed thousands of dollars in equipment. I train people and we use everything from picnic benches to cans of chili as parts of the exercise. Make sure you are doing your exercise correctly.

And finally, stay accountable for yourself. You cannot blame the weather, your mood, and your country, your mom or God. Be accountable and responsible for yourself and your program. Remember, when you are exercising, it is for a reason--not to flirt at the gym, not to socialize, but to get fit.

As a personal trainer yourself, would you recommend these races and your training?

Yes, but on a scaled-down version--and not at my level, but according to the level that the client wants. I honestly think anyone can do it. It is not the physical endurance that is the roughest part, but the mental conditioning that goes on. You need mental toughness when things get grueling. You can never quit, and you have to remain positive at all times, stay focused. Don't allow "can't" to be part of yur vocabulary.

I have seen double amputees run across Death Valley. You have got to believe in yourself. You can't think negatively. That's a great thing I have learned out of endurance races. Always think about the positive.

But don't you get bored training? That is such a common complaint, that and, "I don't have time!"

Nope, it is about attitude. I tend to find myself thinking how lucky I am to be outdoors in a beautiful country [and] that I will feel so good when I finish. It is time to myself--to think about my life. In fact, on the really long marathons, I think I have sorted out all the world's problems. Maybe I should start bringing a tape recorder along with me.

You have done the Raid Gauloises and Badwater Death Valley Marathon and the Grand Slam of Vulture Running. Are such endurance tests really healthy?

Physically, No. They are not that healthy or good for you. You can have kidney failure or dehydrate or have a stroke. You have to know what you are doing and have trained appropriately or you will really, really hurt yourself. But mentally I say they are very healthy because they put you in a frame of mind you carry always--that there is nothing in the world I cannot do. My mental condition is incredible."

You've had some close calls, yes?

Yes. I almost died during the Raid Gauloises in the Himalayas. I got a lung infection at 15,000 feet, and my lung capacity went down to 15 to 20%. I almost hyperventilated to death. But I made it. I simply refused to quit.

What's your advice for the fit people if they want to do endurance races?

Read, read, and read first. There is a lot of good literature about endurance racing on the Internet. Read accounts from people who have done the races. That is how I started. I read everything I could get my hands on.

Make up your mind and train accordingly. If you want to do 100 miles and have done a marathon in the past, start to bump up your trainin accordingly and be responsible. Anything is possible.

But remember, running is not enough for the bigger tests. You must do cross training, strength training, and keep all the muscles strong.

What are your plans for this year, 2001?

I am doing the Boston Marathon, then a nonstop mountain race in June, and then the Triple Iron Man. Well, I have to admit that I see a lot of the same people at the hardest races. We are our own subculture. But it is getting bigger and bigger. More and more 24-hour mountain trail races are popping up and increasingly hard iron man races. So it is getting pretty popular.

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