World’s Fittest Man, ultra endurance power athlete, fitness trainer, and creator of the popular San Diego based Boot Camp Gut Check Fitness, Joe Decker, 41, holds another prestigious title – Death Race Champion, 2010. Decker is a record breaker who makes achievement look easy, but don’t be fooled. He has worked hard to get where he is today, and he’s earned every bit of the success.
Decker grew up athletic but poor on a farm in Ohio. After his time with the 10th Mountain Division he moved to New Orleans, where drugs took over his life. He was regularly using cocaine and spending his weekends strung out and eventually became suicidal. He knew that there could be a life beyond what he had, but that he had to be the one to make the change. Decker returned to fitness, embracing what the human body was capable of, and he never looked back.
Decker’s “World’s Fittest Man” title earned in 2000 is one of his many accomplishments. The competition consists of a 24-hour physical fitness challenge with 13 events. It’s simple – whoever can do the most in 24 hours, wins. When Decker originally saw the challenge on Guinness Primetime television in 1998 while studying for his Exercise Physiology degree, he and a buddy wrote the events down on a piece of paper and put it on the wall, initially believing it to be impossible to achieve. “But, I kept looking at it on my note board on my office. I couldn’t ignore it. When I turned 30 I decided to do it. [I wanted to] really make it an epic year.“
Decker earned his Death Race Champion title in last year’s event. Known for the phrase, “The only way to define your limits is to go beyond them,” Decker had been pushing his own limits for years. Some of his ultra distance races include the Marathon des Sables, in Morocco, a 152-mile race across the Sahara Desert, as well as The Badwater 135 UltraMarathon in Death Valley, CA. He is also one of only ten people in the world to compete in the Grand Slam of UltraRunning in 2000, which consists of completing the Old Dominion 100 mile in Woodstock, VA; the Western States 100 mile, in Squaw Valley, CA; The Leadville 100 mile, in Leadville, CO; and The Wasatch Front 100 mile, in Kaysville, UT.
“The Death Race,” says Decker, “is right up my ally. You don’t know if you are going to make it or not. Fail or succeed, you learn about yourself. Some of my greatest learning experiences are from losing.” Even more impressive than his finish and his win is his affection for the race and its unknowable elements. “As miserably painful as it is, I felt like a kid at Christmastime waiting for Santa to come. Santa wouldn’t make me eat ten pounds of onions though.” He laughs, recounting a task last year in which he and the other competitors had to consume ten pounds of raw onions, only one pound of which he estimates he was able to keep down. “It’s tough, but it comes with the territory, I guess. I really enjoyed the whole thing.”
Decker does not expect to win this year’s event. He knows how dangerous that is. “I never go into it looking to win,” he says. ”[If you do that], you are setting yourself up for failure.” In last year’s event, Decker wasn’t the early favorite. “There were a bunch of guys that were fast as hell – and some young guys and ultra runners…I didn’t want to get behind but at hour twelve, I had to tell myself, ‘Decker, run your own race.’” It was good advice. The front runners thinned out and disappeared over the long stretch of taxing and sleep-deprived hours, and Decker won. He intends to have the same approach this year. “My mentality is to have fun and do my race.”
Decker is bringing four of his trainees to the race this year to compete alongside him. As a motivator and coach, he has given them, Death Race newbies, some much-needed advice. He tells them, “Don’t think–just do. Just go forward and focus on what’s next.”
Sleep deprivation is a threat to many competitors, especially on the second night. “Late at night, when the demons come dancing between midnight and daybreak, don’t let them in the door. They’ll tell you that you could drop out. That you should just quit. Don’t listen.”
He prepares for the conditions by going out for long stretches of training and then not sleeping afterwards. “You can’t survive sleep deprivation under stress unless you train for it,” he says. “See how far you go before you can’t go on. We all function differently on limited sleep. How far can you function?” Many competitors aren’t prepared for the effect of lack of sleep on cognition, endurance, and performance, which is why Decker ensures that it’s part of his training protocol.
Decker looks forward to his Death Race experience this year and he expects to enjoy it. “Have fun, find out who you really are and what you are made of. Maybe you’re not as strong as you think you are and maybe you are stronger. You don’t know until you go beyond your limits.” With Joe Decker, we’re not sure that limits apply.