Joe Decker was turning 30.
He had already won weight-lifting and power-lifting medals. He had run a couple of 50-milers and a dozen marathons. He had even finished the Badwater Ultra-Run, 135 miles of desert and mountain running acknowledged as the toughest competition of its kind in the world.
But that was in his 20s.
So the Gaithersburg man made up a new year's wish list of challenges. Yet not even Decker, a man who knows himself very well, realized that in the year 2000 he would:
Complete an eight day, 520-mile adventure race across the Himalayas.
Become one of 10 people in the world to finish 100-mile trail runs over mountains in Colorado, California, Utah and Virginia - The Grand Slam of Ultra-Running.
Complete his second Badwater 135-mile run.
Run another 50-miler and three marathons.
Earn the title of world's fittest man.
Joe Decker lives life beyond climates and time zones. On a bitingly cold day, he hops out of his Ford Explorer wearing shorts and trail shoes, your basic ultra-challenge outfit. At 5'9" and 195 pounds, the fittest man looks as if he spends most of his time pumping iron and drinking power shakes. He's a rugged guy, a force to reckon with.
But you wouldn't figure him as a competitive distance runner, one of those determined twigs who runs dozens of miles a week. And you wouldn't guess that he recently qualified for the Boston Marathon by running 26 seven-minute miles.
"People still don't believe I can run," he admits. "I've had a lot of rude comments, but they just motivate me more."
Which is fitting because Joe Decker is all about motivation. As a personal trainer and fitness consultant, he helps people get in shape and stay that way. He works with as many as 400 clients through his business, Body Construction. Five days a week, he draws people from the Washington suburbs to pre-dawn and post-work exercise classes. And he always holds classes outdoors - even when it's raining or snowing.
For many people, just showing up marks a major victory. Others have realized they can run one or 10 or 50 miles more than they ever thought they could with Decker's encouragement. And a growing number of clients wants his help with grueling adventure races and 100-milers.
In the past few years, Decker has become a guide to the almost supernatural world of extreme sports, a place where marathons and triathlons are considered mere training exercises.
In this athletic sphere, the 30-year-old is a mere babe. Of the 10 people in the world who were fit enough, determined enough and uninjured enough to finish the four Grand Slam 100-mile races last year, Decker was the youngest. Two men were in their 40s, three were in their 50s and one was 60. The official group portrait of champs, posed in front of a mountain range, has an Elderhostel feel.
It appears endurance favors those who know themselves best.
"When I saw who was competing, I didn't figure that half of them could even finish a 10-K," says Mike Yoder, an electrical contractor and Decker client who ran 35 miles with him on his 100-mile Colorado run.
"But [these races] are more about finding out what you're made of and how deep down you can pull. It's this attitude of `I will not quit.' To do these races it's not so much what people have got on the outside, but on the inside."
But the body must also be willing. Physician Brian Krabak of Johns Hopkins treats runners who can't go farther than 10 miles without hurting their bodies. Veteran ultra-runners, on the other hand, appear to recover quickly from races and possess abundant energy (some would say antsy-ness) well suited to multiple daily workouts.
He says a lot of endurance athletes embody "survival of the fittest," that mysterious principle that combines genetics, personality and luck. And in this case, perhaps a tolerance for pain.
"Running 5-Ks and 10-Ks is like getting a good, solid punch in the face. The pain is short and intense," says runner Rick Kuplinski, another Decker client. "A 50- or 100-miler is like having your teeth drilled without novocaine."
In Colorado, with 70 miles under his belt, Joe Decker doubled over from altitude sickness as Yoder tried to keep up his spirits. It was so difficult for Decker to breathe during his last 15 miles in the Colorado race that he had to grab at branches to help himself up hills.
"It was unbelievable to watch him continue as bad as he was hurting," Yoder says. "He looked like death. I couldn't believe he kept moving."
So why did he?
Decker says he doesn't consider giving up. "My philosophy is that when you allow yourself to let that thought creep into your head, it will start building into a snowball. There are times when I'm thinking, `This is awful.' But then I turn it around and say, `It's going to be so incredible when I finish this thing!' "