- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 4, 2001

The standard New Year's resolutions are not foremost on Joe Decker's mind.

While many Americans were researching health-club memberships to shed those holiday pounds, the Gaithersburg, Md., resident was shattering the Guinness Book of World Records' mark for athletic events completed in one day.

Mr. Decker completed the local 24 Hour Physical Fitness Challenge 13 athletic feats the first week of December to add to his already impressive resume of fitness accomplishments.

From running and cycling to push-ups and abdominal crunches, he performed without sleep through a grueling sequence of activities that would seem impossible to the hardiest weekend warrior.

"I don't think I'm any different, physically, than anyone else," says Mr. Decker, 30, a fitness trainer and endurance athlete. "It's a matter of setting your mind to it."

For a man with a body-fat level hovering around 7 percent and forearms thicker than most men's biceps, such modesty rings hollow at first.

But he punctuates his conversations with an easy smile, and he talks of fitness training with a zeal that tells you anything is possible if you adopt his unflinching work ethic.

Mr. Decker, president of Body Construction, a Gaithersburg-based firm that provides fitness consulting work to corporations, isn't a fanatic when it comes to a healthy lifestyle.

He eats pizza. Lots of it. He also likes a good cigar, and he isn't averse to an occasional glass of wine to accompany it. This is how he celebrates a job well done or in his case, a race well run.

He inadvertently has been preparing for the record challenge in recent years by competing in several endurance contests nationwide, punishing races that can drag on for days.

"This event played into all the training I did," he says. "I had to hit the pool a couple of times [to practice the swimming portion]. Everything else I'd been doing."

Among the endurance races Mr. Decker completed this year were the Badwater Ultra Marathon, a 135-mile trek across Death Valley, Calif., held in July.

Mr. Decker first heard of the record while watching a Guinness Book of World Records TV special about two years ago. He read more about the mark months later in Men's Health magazine.

The man who held the record, Steve Sokol of San Jose, Calif., completed the task in August 1998.

The idea fermented in Mr. Decker's mind, and after completing a run of endurance races this year, he figured the time was right to attempt it.

"I love challenges. When I see something like that, I like to prove to myself I can do it," he says.

He contacted Guinness via its Web site. The organization sent him a list of rules to follow, including the kind of track equipment required and the witnesses and procedures he needed to qualify.

He says 50 to 75 people, including emergency medical technicians, watched him go through his physical paces.

"I broke it all down on paper, timewise. I mentally completed the thing before I physically did it," he says. Potential problems, such as a flat tire on his bicycle, had to be considered.

As it turned out, nothing got in his way. He wrapped up his mandatory exercises with about 2 and 1/2 hours to spare. To break the record, he had to match all of the previous marks in the 13 categories, then exceed at least one of them.

When he realized he had time to spare, the former powerlifter hit the weights. Hard. His final tally included lifting 228,380 more pounds than the previous record holder.

He didn't sleep during the event. He did eat, though, wolfing down Subway sandwiches and McDonald's hamburgers, among other snacks.

"You want stuff that's going to get into your system and 'bang,' " he says.

Looking back, he considers the record a triumph of the mind, not the body.

"The physical part wasn't as tough as the mental part," he says, quickly conceding how cliched the sentiment may seem.

His house's basement, stuffed with workout accouterments, speaks to that philosophy. Framed inspirational slogans, including, "Pain is only weakness leaving the body" and, "What does not kill me makes me stronger" line the walls.

Rockville resident Mike Yoder, a friend of Mr. Decker's who has served as a crew member for some of his endurance runs, wasn't surprised to hear about the Guinness record falling.

"I knew he could do it," Mr. Yoder says. "Compared to other stuff I've seen him do, the Guinness thing wasn't that big a deal."

Mr. Yoder recalls watching his friend compete in the Leadville Trail 100 race in Colorado in August.

"He had to go over two mountain peaks, twice," he says. "It's the most impressive thing I've ever seen anybody do."

Mr. Decker fought exhaustion and altitude sickness and "could barely walk at the finish line," Mr. Yoder remembers. "He would not quit. He's always testing himself. Always."

Mr. Decker, compactly built and sporting a military-short coiffure, looks as if it would take considerable force to budge him if he didn't wish to be budged.

Yet physical toughness has not always been the Illinois native's trademark.

He played football and ran track in high school. A leg injury ended his gridiron days he points to a long, nasty scar with a nonplused expression. A healthy teen-age appetite as a high school senior bound for military service helped him pack on 25 unwanted pounds.

He flunked his first Army workout and earned a chorus of condemnations from his superiors.

"I remember how humiliating it was," he says. "That's pretty much what sparked me."

Since then, "I've always held myself accountable for anything that goes wrong," he says. "I know whose fault it is if I decide not to work out."

The 190-pound endurance athlete wakes each weekday morning for a 5:30 a.m. class he teaches covering fitness basics. From 7:30 to 9 a.m., he can be found at his local gym or elsewhere around town, pumping weights, doing abdominal exercises or jogging around his bucolic neighborhood.

"Variety" is his exercise mantra.

"I use every single machine in the gym," he says. His regimen, he adds, relieves boredom and helps shock his body to keep it strong and flexible.

"I'm constantly changing my workout," he says, something too few people do. "People change their careers more than they change their workout," he comments.

The key is to plan, he says, from training schedules to diet.

"I know today what I'm going to eat tomorrow," says Mr. Decker, who holds a bachelor's degree in exercise physiology from Western Illinois University in Macomb.

"Five days a week, I watch what I eat," he says, downing whole-wheat products, turkey, stir-fries and pasta. Fruit curbs his midday cravings. "I don't do anything crazy, no supplements."

On weekends, he lets himself go.

"A person has to be human," he says. "I could eat pizza seven days a week."

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