NEW YORK — A poster of Muhammad Ali looms over Matt Lauer's cluttered office up the stairs from NBC's "Today" show studios. Both men are accustomed to training for grueling physical feats.
Lauer ate better, stepped up his workouts and slept more during the past few weeks in preparation for his ninth "Where in the World is Matt Lauer?" marathon, which begins Monday morning.
The big difference with Ali's regimen: Nobody's punching Lauer in the face.
Each morning this week, Lauer will open "Today" from a different location. His destination is kept a mystery from both his on-air colleagues and viewers, adding to the fun of his exotic travelogue. The stunt has become his signature, something a one-time rival privately calls the best idea in morning television in 25 years, and a reminder of his show's continued dominance.
Lauer has logged 210,721 miles on his trips, turning up at the base of Mount Everest, by the Pyramids in Egypt, at the casinos of Monte Carlo and at the Taj Mahal in India.
"It's really hard to keep your body from getting completely ruined on this," he said, "so I come home and I say that I'm never going to do this again. And that usually lasts for three or four months."
His trips are usually ratings magnets, as if "Today" needs any help.
Even by the show's unparalleled standard of dominance, it's been a good stretch. The "Today" average audience was a gaping 1.2 million more than ABC's "Good Morning America" the first three months of the year, nearly double "The Early Show" on CBS. A key transition _ Katie Couric to Meredith Vieira _ succeeded despite some early worries.
"With all the turmoil and change in the morning television landscape in 2006, it took some time for things to settle," said Jim Bell, "Today" executive producer. "There was an adjustment in there both for us and an adjustment for the audience.
"I think any doubts have been completely erased."
Vieira had her learning curve but now feels completely comfortable, Lauer said. Having a strong news period with the presidential campaign has also helped the show, enabling it to spend less time on tabloid topics that don't hold his interest, he said.
A folder on Lauer's desk outlined with a map of the world contains research for this year's destinations.
Bell offered only one hint, saying the series opens at a place "of particular interest to Americans looking to travel, particularly with the economy the way it is."
A destination must meet certain requirements to make the cut. It helps to have an iconic image, that viewers can recognize when the camera pans back to show, say, the Eiffel Tower, but that's not always possible. It has to be interesting enough to talk about for two hours. It's usually important to have light, cutting out the one-third of the world in darkness when "Today" goes live, although pictures of an erupting volcano in Hawaii looked better in the dark.
Some of Lauer's personal favorites were Mount Everest, Easter Island and Bhutan, the latter a highlight from last year.
"I like places where when the door of the plane opens, you know you're not in Kansas anymore," he said. "I love Paris, it's wonderful. I love London. Ireland is great. But I want the people to look different, I want the buildings to look different, I want the clothing to look different. I want the whole environment to feel like it's someplace exotic."
A stop he could have done without was the Taj Mahal, where the 118-degree heat radiated from marble sidewalks and almost made him pass out mid-show.
Powerful television lamps also lit a temple at dusk during an Asian visit.
"We attracted every insect in Cambodia," he said. "I was live on the air and these things would land on my back that were this big" _ he makes a motion at something the size of a doughnut _ "and they would crawl down my shirt."
While he's doing the time zone tap dance, Lauer, 50, keeps his watch set to New York time and tries to keep his body on that schedule. When it's 9 p.m. in New York, he tries to sleep, no matter how bright the sun wherever he is.
It would be wise not to ask him a week from today how he feels about "Where in the World is Matt Lauer?" (It might want to avoid yelling that to him on the street, too; it's about as original as telling Billy Crystal he looks marvelous.)
Still, he knows it's a popular feature and has no plans to ground himself.
"There will be a time when I say it's a nice time to draw it to a close, but at the moment I'm not going to do it," he said. "The nice thing is I have a lot of say over where I get to go."
Next stop for Matt Lauer: Who knows?
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EDITOR'S NOTE _ David Bauder can be reached at dbauder"at"ap.org