Longform

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.

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Amy Silverman is a two-time winner of the Arizona Press Club’s Journalist of the Year award. Her work has appeared on the radio show This American Life and in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Lenny Letter, and Brain, Child. She’s the co-curator of the live reading series Bar Flies, and a commentator for KJZZ, the NPR affiliate in Phoenix. Silverman is the author of the book My Heart Can’t Even Believe It: A Story of Science, Love, and Down Syndrome (Woodbine House 2016). Follow her on Instagram (@amysilverman), Twitter (@amysilvermanaz), and at amy-silverman.com.