Ever since they started life six hours apart, 47 years ago, twins Barbara Alvarez and Angelika Casta‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¬±eda have become used to finishing things in tandem. Barbara, a psychologist in La Jolla, Calif., has been a fashion model in Italy and a model and movie actress in Mexico. Angelika, a San Diego artist who works in acrylics, has also been a model in Italy as well as in Mexico, and she has appeared in Jacques Cousteau's documentaries and in feature films. The sisters have also co-owned a chain of Mexican boutiques.
And ever since they took up endurance running five years ago, becoming age-group phenomena, they've been chipping away at the six-hour gap between them. In last year's Ironman Triathlon Championship, after 2.4 miles of swimming the twins stumbled out of the Hawaiian surf hand in hand. "All bodies and bubbles around me, and I hear this familiar breathing. 'Angelika?' " said Barbara. Until that moment, each had no idea where the other was in the race. The Ironman's remaining 112 miles of biking and 26 of running produced a spread of only eight minutes and two places between them (fifth and seventh among the 25 women in their 45-49 age group). "It's in the chromosomes," says Barbara, the tall one with the frosted hair. Or maybe that's Angelika.
They finish a lot of their races—which these days are more likely to take the form of adventure runs than triathlons—like that. But however the twins finish, it's not because they race hand in hand. Barbara is too impatient to suffer through her sister's dawdling starts; in fact, one's pacing is exactly the opposite of the other's. "Barbara's a speedster," says their coach, Ted Van Arsdale of Del Mar, Calif., "and Angelika's a closer." Imagine you're at the Mount Whitney Portals, elevation 14,494 feet and 146 miles northwest of Death Valley, and here come the finishers—those who weren't washed out by the sandstorm or vaporized by the 118° heat—in the 1990 Badwater Race, which began 39 hours and 146 miles earlier in Death Valley's Badwater Basin, the lowest spot in the Western Hemisphere. Here come, specifically, the twins, who look as if they've stepped out of that chewing-gum commercial, not just one and two in the women's division (never mind their age-group category), but one and one, hand in hand. Would you think the altitude was getting to you?
Sometimes the distance and conditions of their increasingly absurd events force their separation. How could 130 miles on a desert floor not do so? At the Marathon des Sables, a seven-day stage race run over the sands of Morocco in March, the twins finished second and third in the women's division, despite 105° heat at ground level. Barbara finished ahead on the last day, running out of the dunes 20 seconds ahead of, and entirely unaware of, Angelika, who finished 14 minutes ahead of her sister for the entire race. Somebody has to finish ahead, and usually it's Barbara. In August at the Canadian Ironman, which Barbara needed to win to qualify for the Ironman in Hawaii (Angelika had already qualified in a lottery drawing), she outdid her sister by 21 minutes, which some might consider the equivalent of a whisker after 140 miles, but for these women it amounted to pages torn off a calendar.
The twins claim there is a scientific basis to the fact that Barbara usually finishes first. "I was born first," says Angelika, who by her air of authority does seem the older of the two. "I had to push and shove. She just slipped out, and so has always had more strength left than me." This reminds Angelika of that old twins chestnut: "For six hours in my life, I was very happy."
The twins agreed to meet after the Canadian Ironman—but before September's Texas Hill Country Triathlon—at Angelika's house in a San Diego suburb to be interviewed about their adventures. They were, as you might hope, dressed identically for the interview, which soon proved decidedly too rambling for Barbara. "I think we're getting into too many things here," she said at one point. "Don't you feel it? Can you write in bits and pieces?" She was quite anxious. So when Angelika told her little birth joke, Barbara seized the moment. "Now," she said, "we start at the beginning. Finally, some structure." Why, given their lives, structure should suddenly become so important is something that Barbara might better discuss during her office hours at the La Jolla Center for Psychological Services.
The twins, the youngest of Hans and Ingrid Müller's five children, grew up in the Austrian Alps near the Swiss border in a town called St. Johann. Hans owned an auto-repair shop as well as several movie theaters. Ingrid, who as a young woman had been a member of the Italian ski team, was the family's athlete; she still runs almost daily in the Tyrol, where she and her husband now own a hotel. The twins had "a fairy-tale childhood"—skiing, hiking and climbing the mountains around them, while always wondering what lay on the other side. As teenagers, in 1960, they went to Florence to study art history, graduating four years later from the Accademia di Belle Arti. To pay for their education, they worked as fashion models, and during the summers they took jobs on cruise ships that sailed to Africa and Saudi Arabia. But their wanderlust wasn't satisfied, and in 1965 they decided to continue their art studies in Mexico. "Colombian art," says Barbara. "Pre-Columbian," corrects Angelika.
In Mexico, art studies were soon abandoned, and they again found work as fashion models. Their modeling careers had a six-year run, providing them with a springboard to a chain of four boutiques—two in Mexico City and one each in Acapulco and Guadalajara—and, eventually, a charm school in Mexico City, which had as many as 800 students a year. At the same time, Barbara became a Mexican movie star, known as Barbara Angely, a combination of the sisters' names. Though her voice was dubbed at first, her Austrian accent was eventually considered to be sufficiently chilling to win her the role of the villain in 25 feature films, some of which her two daughters, Ingrid, 17, and Katrin, 10, are delighted to find occasionally on a San Diego Spanish-language station. (Barbara is not so delighted.) Angelika, meanwhile, got into underwater performing, finding work in documentaries; she doubled for Farrah Fawcett in the 1979 feature Sunburn.
Yet fame and fortune were poor pay for lifestyles that were so at odds with the twins' Heidi-like upbringing. One day, appearing on a kind of Mexican Entertainment Tonight, Barbara blurted out, "This will be the last time you see me." And it was. Similarly, Angelika began to have second thoughts about a profession whose principal requirement was to remain submerged for long periods of time in cold water wearing only a bikini.
In truth, the twins were increasingly frustrated with their inability to acquire lives of their own. Their interdependence, so natural to twins, was wearing, and in the early 1970s, they embarked on a course of self-realization that included the study of every major religion, plus a few on the fringes. They even spent time with a Mexican parapsychologist. "She messed us up," says Angelika. "But it was very exciting," argues Barbara. "Things moving around."
A less exciting and more traditional therapy—psychoanalysis—eventually helped, although even today they test each other with small claims of independence. "I am the courageous one," says Angelika, apropos of nothing. Barbara nods, saying, "But I am the strong one." Angelika: "She is a mule, but she is not so sensitive. I am the one who cries at sunsets." Barbara: "She is more dramatic, but I am the talkative one."
As they sorted themselves out in Mexico, they finally gained some freedom from each other. Barbara had married Armando Alvarez, a Mexican import-export businessman; Angelika, Henrique Casta‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¬±eda, a Mexican manufacturer of men's clothing. (They have recently divorced.) In 1980, when the Mexican economy began to decline, Barbara, Armando and their two daughters moved to Brownsville, Texas, where Armando had business connections. At Pan American University in nearby Edinburg, she continued studying for the master's degree in psychology she had begun work on at the Mexico City campus of the University of the Americas. Angelika, who had decided to remain in Mexico to oversee the twins' business concerns, came to San Diego in 1985 with Henrique and their two sons, Alexis and Angelo, now 10 and 9. There she began working in acrylics. "For more than four years we were separated," says Angelika, proudly. And then Barbara followed you? "As always."
Barbara brought with her yet another career—running. She had plunged into marathoning while in Texas—she ran her first marathon in 1983, shortly after her 40th birthday—and carried news of the sport to her sister. Angelika was in no shape for endurance running, not at first. But in their total ignorance of accepted training methods, they were running a 10K race or a marathon almost every weekend during their first six months in San Diego. On their off-weekends, they ran ultra marathons (50 miles). The twins had heard that runners shouldn't compete in more than four marathons a year, but they hadn't heard why. Unconvinced, they did two ultras in one month. And from the end of 1985 until mid-1986, they completed a 43-mile across-and-back run of the Grand Canyon, a 112-mile bicycle race (their first) in Tucson, a 50-mile run, the Los Angeles marathon and still another marathon.
At first their interest was only in learning how far they could run. After their first triathlon, though, the 1987 Performing Arts in Mission Viejo, Calif., the twins realized that cross-training was a good way to pass the time until their shin splints or the tendinitis in their legs went away. But despite their growing success in the Hawaiian Ironman—they went from eighth and ninth in 1988 in their age group to third and fourth this year—they wanted to move beyond that. Anybody could run a marathon; they had run many. And what's an ultra but marathons back-to-back? Something called adventure running appealed to the two little girls who once climbed and hiked in the Alps.
The twins finished the 1988 Western States 100-Miler, an endurance run up and down mountains in California, which they recall largely for the hallucinations it produced. "Little men up in trees," says Angelika. "I saw them, too!" says Barbara. Then they read of the Marathon des Sables. They hardly knew what to expect, but what they got was a seven-day race through Morocco, in which they ran 12 to 42 miles a day and slept under the stars each night. Of the 200 starters, about 40 got lost and were later scooped up by trailing camels. Barbara lost four toenails in the race, but the twins finished 20th and 21st among all entrants.
But that was a walk on the beach compared to the Badwater. During last year's running of that race, temperatures rose above 120° in the desert, and Angelika lost 14 pounds within the first 20 miles. And though the twins wore shoes of Angelika's design, with heels and toes cut out, huge blisters formed on their feet. Yet they set the women's record—for any age group—of 53 hours.
For the 1990 race in July, the sisters vowed to break 50 hours and, to do so, instructed their four-person crew to allow them only three hours of sleep each night. It was 118°. The twins, starting slow, lagged behind the 24 other runners and didn't begin their first night's sleep until 2 a.m. Their crew got them up and running, and soon the sisters were passing landmarks they hadn't expected to see until daybreak, which was odd. They were exhausted and slightly disoriented when they broke for sleep the next night. Once awakened, they ran on and found themselves in Lone Pine, the gateway to Mount Whitney, by sunrise. Odd. The twins were met at the finish by their hysterical crew. Very odd. Barbara and Angelika had run the distance not only in less than 50 hours—but in less than 40.
"Our crew tricked us," says Angelika. "They let us sleep just one hour the first night, 50 minutes the next. It's interesting what the body can do."
Whatever that is, the twins intend to find out. Angelika, who schemes and plots their adventures ("I am the creative one," she says, without argument from Barbara), has heard of an eight-day race, from Sydney to Melbourne, that she would like them to try in 1992. Also, they have their eyes on another race, held for the first time this summer in Europe, that like the triathlon features several sports. It covers nine countries, with participants being flown from one country to the next. Angelika has a few ideas of her own, like a race across Baja, from the Sea of Cortès to the Pacific Ocean. There is no shortage of exotic terrain that can be mapped out and run across by the twins. "It could be a business," says Angelika.
Barbara suddenly brightens. "I'm the business one," she says.