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Heavy Competition

Dave Alexander is on his hands and knees in front of the VCR.
After shuffling through a pile of videotapes, he pops one in and--with noticeable effort--hoists his five-foot-eight-inch, 250-pound, 51-year-old body off the floor and onto a leather sofa.

The television's oversize screen soon fills with images of hard bodies in Speedos, milling about the deck of a ship just off the island of Alcatraz in San Francisco Bay. In a few moments, a sportscaster announces, the athletes will jump from the ship into icy, shark-populated water and swim to Ghirardelli Square--the first leg of one of the most challenging events in competitive endurance sports, the triathlon.

In this particular triathlon--Escape From Alcatraz--entrants swim two miles, bike 22 miles and run 14 more.

Alexander scoots to the edge of the sofa, his gut straining against the buttons of his short-sleeved shirt, and scans the screen until he spots a familiar, round head.

"There's Davey!" he squeaks, pointing and grinning.
And, indeed, there he is.
Dave Alexander has entered 261 triathlons in the past 13 years--including Escape From Alcatraz--and, while he's never been the first to cross the finish line, he has finished every one.

This week Alexander leaves for Turkey to compete in the European championship, the International Alanya Triathlon. The race includes a one-mile swim, a 25-mile bike ride and a 6.25-mile run. Alexander figures the winner will finish in less than two hours.

He hopes to make it in less than four.

This may be the age of Olestra, but count Dave Alexander out.
While the rest of us scarf up low-fat Pop Tarts and Baked Lay's, Alexander refuses to give up "good food." That, combined with a slow metabolism, means he'll probably always be overweight--about 100 pounds overweight, at the moment, according to insurance charts and Alexander's own estimate.

"I have a very tough time with my weight," he says, over a plateful of deep-fried chicken flautas. "I can lose weight. Anybody can. But I never could lose very much. I get to a certain point and, boy, my body just fights it. It just gets harder and harder and harder at a certain point. I haven't given up, but it's not in the cards for me to be 160 pounds."

Because he's in training, Alexander scrapes most of the cheese, sour cream and guacamole from the flautas, and skips the rice and beans.

Now, don't misunderstand: Dave Alexander is a successful man, and practical, too. Early in life, he gave up a career as a magician for a more lucrative, if less creative, sales job in the petroleum industry. Today he owns CalJet, a refined-products terminal in west Phoenix that treats gasoline to specification and then delivers it to gas stations all over the Valley.

Alexander lives in a nice house at the Pointe at Squaw Peak with his wife of many years. They travel around the world. He collects antique maps.

And he competes in triathlons. Alexander has averaged 20 a year for the past 13 years, but business has been so busy this year that the triathlon in Turkey will be his first in 1996.

Most endurance-sport competitors drop any excess fat they may have in their early days of training. Jim Fixx, author of the 1977 fitness guide The Complete Book of Running, lost almost 60 pounds when he began running. (Of course, he also died of a heart attack a few years ago, but that's beside the point.)

Alexander's weight has never dipped below 210 pounds.
Aside, perhaps, from synchronized swimming, it's difficult to imagine a sport Dave Alexander is less suited for than the triathlon. So why would this busy man spend so much time on a sport he can't win, and one which puts a tremendous strain on his body?

The answer is simple. Alexander isn't in it to win. He admits that his training consists mainly of "weekend warrior" activities--long bike rides and runs through the Squaw Peak Mountain Preserve.

He says he enters triathlons to see new places and make new friends. Actually, he's been competing in triathlons for long enough that now he has old friends around the world. Alexander likes to enter exotic, foreign triathlons, many of which--like the International Alanya Triathlon--never had an American entrant before he showed up. The Turks know Alexander; so do the Hungarians. He's become an ambassador, of sorts.

It sounds corny, but it's true. Dave Alexander is the proverbial jolly fat man.

He's acquainted with some of the best triathletes in the world, including Mike Pigg (who, his last name notwithstanding, has the lean physique of a typical endurance-sport professional). Pigg has won about 80 triathlons, often coming in first in the races Alexander finishes last. Pigg and Alexander often bet ice cream over the outcome of a race. Alexander gets a hefty handicap.

 

One might think that a serious competitor would view Alexander as a fool, just some tubby guy who gets in the way of serious business. But Pigg says he has great respect for Alexander. Some of the top competitors won't bother to finish a race if they know they're not going to win, Pigg says. Not Alexander. He prides himself on finishing--even if he finishes last.

"He's always bubbly and positive, and he's just out there to finish and have a good time, and he definitely does that," Pigg says.

Dave Alexander is not the only overweight triathlete. There is an entire subculture of heavy competitors in long-distance athletics. The Clydesdale Running Association, for example, promotes athletes who weigh more than 200 pounds, encouraging marathon and triathlon organizers to include a Clydesdale category. There's even the Huba Buba World Championship Quadrathlon, held every year in Lafayette, Louisiana. (The fourth event is bench pressing.) Entrants are handicapped based on weight and age.

Alexander has a couple of Clydesdale trophies but says he prefers to compete against the entire pack.

"There's a man in triathlons that's blind. There are several that have one leg. Being overweight? What kind of a handicap is that?" he asks.

"So I'm going to be slower. Just because you're heavy doesn't mean you can't get in shape. I mean, I'm not gushy fat. . . . I've got an awful lot of muscle mass, my legs are huge tree stumps and, yeah, there's some fat on 'em, sure. But they're pretty strong legs, and they've carried me an awful lotta miles through some very, very difficult races."

Alexander's girth has gained him some degree of notoriety. He keeps a stack of articles, many written in foreign languages, that detail his participation in triathlons around the world.

The descriptions are rarely complimentary, viz. this piece for the St. Croix Avis, written on the occasion of a 1988 triathlon:

. . . Enter Dave Alexander, stage front, dripping wet, drooping fat.
Dave Alexander is a petroleum products businessman from Phoenix, Arizona. He looks great for sixty. The problem is, he's only forty-two . . .

Most people would try to forget such a description--maybe even go so far as to shred all available copies of the article. Alexander shares it proudly.

Still, he admits, "I would give all of that attention up and articles and things to be fast."

While his elementary school classmates in Long Beach, California, played kickball, Dave Alexander was busy performing magic. He began by ordering tricks out of the back of a magazine. At age 9, he performed at a birthday party. He was paid $5. It hooked him.

His specialty was close-up table magic, and Alexander eventually performed for Johnny Carson, among other celebrities. But magic is a tough way to make a living, and he gave it up in his early 20s, when he began selling lubricants--first in Bakersfield, California, then later in Phoenix.

"I really never did any athletics, except as a young man I did some weightlifting," Alexander says. And he never had an athlete's build. At 12, Alexander weighed 215 pounds and had reached his current height: five-foot-eight.

And so it was the lure of a tee shirt that first inspired Alexander to compete--at the age of 38.

At first, Alexander balked when a friend dared him to run a five-kilometer (about a three-mile) race in the spring of 1983. He finally accepted the challenge. It wasn't so bad, but, Alexander recalls, "I didn't get a tee shirt. You had to run the full 10K to get a tee shirt. So, a couple weeks later, there was a 10K. And he [his friend] said, 'Want a tee shirt? You gotta run the whole 10K--better practice.'

"So I got ready for it, and I ran the 10K."
That led to a short triathlon. Then a longer one. And by the end of the summer, Alexander had entered and finished the Fountain Mountain Half Ironman triathlon at Saguaro Lake, outside of Phoenix: a 1.2-mile swim, a 56-mile bike ride and a 13-mile run.

"Boy, I felt like King Kong when I finished. I mean, I really did feel great. And then the next year, I just started racing more and more and more, and now the rest is history."

That history fills three photo albums and at least one closet in Alexander's home. Exercise equipment is in the bedroom, a wall of bicycles in the garage. One of the bikes folds into a suitcase for travel; Alexander even owns a water backpack with a tube that runs directly to his mouth.

 

But the finest of equipment can't guarantee hassle-free competition--particularly when you're behind. Way behind, as Alexander often is.

At the Hombres de Maiz (Men of Corn) triathlon, held in the Peten jungle in Guatemala, Alexander's kidneys shut down, the result of overexertion and hot, humid weather. As is the case for many foreign races, no support staff was stationed along the running path.

"It was getting dark. Hey, there's jaguars there. There's deadly snakes. There's all this stuff, and it's getting dark, and I'm all alone, and I'm not feeling well," Alexander recalls.

"I just used common sense, and I slowed up," he says. "And I started pouring the water on my head, like cooling the radiator on a car. I was walking fast, and then finally I started passing water, so I started jogging again."

He finished the race, but ended up in the hospital.
Then there was the San Andreas Triathlon, located on Colombian islands off the coast of Nicaragua. Alexander started before the other competitors, so he could make a plane back to the U.S. He was more than half done with a one-mile swim when he felt a sharp stinging in his back. He didn't think much of it, at first.

"And then all of a sudden I got another, and then another. And then I stopped and looked around, and there were thousands of . . . jellyfish, and they're not little, tiny jellyfish, they're like little man-o'-wars, and there were thousands of them around me."

He motioned to a nearby boat, but the occupants--who were supposed to be monitoring his progress--just waved back.

"I started swimming faster than I ever have in my entire life. And I got stung quite a few times. . . . I got up to shore. I was somewhat nauseous and didn't feel too good for the first few miles on the bike. I shook it off and finished the race and was able to make it back and catch my plane without too much time to spare."

Sometimes, there's no one at the finish line. Sometimes, there's no finish line at all--the equipment, including the time clock, has been put away, and everyone is long gone.

But Alexander's tendency to finish late is infamous, so people stick around just for him.

"It's nice when that happens. You hate to have people wait for you. They want to get home. They've had a long day."

Alexander remembers completing one race so late that the food table set out for the participants had been picked clean. Starving, he gobbled up four or five Power Bars--a practice he emphatically does not recommend.

He got one of the worst cases of gas of his life.
Aside from the occasional aches and pains and Power Bar-induced gas, Alexander remains injury-free. One can't help but wonder about health, given his size.

"I'm crazy, but not stupid," he replies. "And I'm prudent, and I do everything I can to make sure I'm not going to hurt myself. But, yeah, I'm a little crazy."

Jim Glinn, a physical trainer with Glinn and Giordanno, in Bakersfield, California, advised Alexander in the early '80s.

"He's always going to be that size," Glinn says, "so we had to design training programs for him that primarily revolved around bicycling and swimming, because he could only take so much pounding with his body weight before he would come down with some injuries."

Dr. Art Mollen, an osteopath who runs the Mollen Clinic in Phoenix and specializes in weight-loss counseling, has met Alexander. Yes, Mollen agrees, Alexander is rare. The doctor chooses his words carefully.

"The majority do it to look better, lose weight, so it is unusual when you find someone who's participating in those types of events who hasn't lost the weight that they perhaps should have and aren't at their ideal weight."

Dr. Roger McCoy, a team physician at Arizona State University and assistant team physician for the Arizona Diamondbacks, is equally cautious in his observations (after an initial "Yikes!" when given Alexander's physical description).

"It's sort of hard to predict what sort of risks he does take," McCoy says.
But Bobbie Slate, a local clinical nutritionist and certified personal trainer, is blunt: It's simply unhealthy for a person of Alexander's build to complete a triathlon.

"What kind of damage is he doing to his ligaments, his tendons, his muscles?" she asks.

And, she says, there's a bottom line: "You could die. You could have a heart attack."

"The travel gods are after me," Alexander says from his west Phoenix office on a Thursday morning the week before he's scheduled to leave for Turkey. It always happens--business booms when he's trying to get out of town.

 

Alexander admits that when life gets hectic, he reverts to his "weekend warrior" status, but with a triathlon a week away, he's trying to train daily.

He woke up early this morning (the middle of the night, he insists) to ride 35 miles on his fold-up bike. Tonight he might run ten kilometers, or swim laps.

He runs alone. It's a good time to think; besides, it's hard to find a partner who runs as many miles as Alexander does, and at such a slow pace.

The Turkish Berlitz guide is packed. Alexander's sister is scheduled to meet him in New York; together they'll travel to Alanya, a tourist town along the Turkish Riviera.

The Alanya race is one of his favorites.
"It starts at the base of a wall that was built before the birth of Christ. And you're swimming out in a harbor that Cleopatra and [Marc Antony] used to screw around in," he says, giggling.

The race begins in the early afternoon, as the day begins to cool from its 90-degree high.

If past years are any indication, Alexander will finish the race as the sun is beginning to set. Perhaps the winners--having finished hours earlier--will run the final leg of the race again, to keep their friend company, as they have in the past.

Maybe Alexander will beat a few of the 300 competitors. Maybe he'll be last. After all, this is the European triathlon championship.

"At a race like this," Alexander says, "you don't get a lot of back-of-the-packers."

But even if he finishes last, the race will have taxed Alexander's body. His former trainer, Jim Glinn, says competing in triathlons without proper training is foolhardy.

"But he enjoys it, and I guess there's riskier things you could probably do to yourself," Glinn says.

"I would think that he could be home drinking and smoking in the night and have a coronary just as easily as out on the triathlon course. At least it's a relatively healthy addiction.


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