Ever since they started life six hours apart, 47 years ago, twins Barbara Alvarez and Angelika Castañeda 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."