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An Intimidating New Class: The Physical Elite

". . . Their emblems—terry toweling, running shoes, skis—signal their existence to one another and their exclusivity to all of us. . ."

From the May 29, 1978 issue of New York Magazine.

New York has always been a place where the elite meet. But elitism has taken the standard forms: breeding, money, intellect, swift-moving fads in politics and fashion. Now it is clear—guilt-inducing to the rest of us, exhilarating to those who are In—that a new class has come among us that defines elitism in an entirely different manner. For this is the time of the Physical Elite, a class of American men, women, and children who are taking to the roads, paths, courts, fields, gyms, courses, mountains, pools, rivers, lakes, oceans, and skies of this country in numbers quite without precedent. They are exercising—a little, a moderate amount, or in staggering gulps—to such an extent and in such a variety of ways that to codify them is nearly impossible. But they are there, here, all around us. And ye shall know them by their behavior, even in street clothes.

In movie lines, for example. Outside Cinema I, any given night of a decent picture, the runners stand out as if they were naked. They jiggle a lot. Isometric little businesses. Keep their feet moving. They stretch. They lean against buildings with their fingers and push, up on their toes, then down. Work kinks out of their necks like dashboard dolls. A good deal of hunching and unhunching.

Or in restaurants. The Physical Elite, particularly the long-distance runner, who by his own declaration (and the grudging agreement of lesser athletic mortals) is at the head of this class, have extraordinary feeding habits. Watch, the next time you're in a restaurant, for the man or woman engaged in lengthy discourse with the waiters. Dr. Thaddeus Kostrubala, a kind of high priest of long-distance stepping and the author of The Joy of Running, once demanded in a California restaurant that a whole onion be cut into his omelet. He had a terrible time of it, but he finally got the onion, to the considerable dismay and incredulity of waiter and chef alike.

The point here is not whether an onion is good or bad for you—or for Dr. Kostrubala. What is significant is that this spontaneous drive for the body perfect is creating a new cut of American, the self-aware athlete who relies on feelings, on an almost mystic self-awareness and self-direction. Kostrubala had been eating onions in abnormal quantities for days because he, well, knew that onion was called for.

And onion isn't the end of it. These people are almost a race apart. Their behavior doesn't seem to conform to the urges that govern the rest of us. They stop smoking and drinking without hitch or pain or plaint. They become vegetarian and give up all that dangerous dairy stuff, not because they believe it's right but because they prefer it that way. Their direction comes from within. "They will," says Kostrubala, "get up and walk out of theaters, not because the play is bad but because they find the air unbearable."

What's more, it's not just the observations of you, me, or laboratory psychologists looking on like young Darwins at quaint behavioral tics that set these people apart. They too see themselves as different from the rest of us. They can identify one another in a crowd, and it's no accident that they can. While color of skin and hair are the natural distinguishing marks of racial groups, other groups wishing to announce their existence must do so by means of artificial aids. Where gays rely on their hors de combat suits, their measured gait and slick short hair; where London businessmen find their plum-in-mouth utterance, furled umbrella, and bowler indispensable, so the Physical Elite adorn themselves with satin, terry toweling, tennis shoes, running shoes, skates, skis, or shiny leather cases handcrafted to carry their squash racquets. With these emblems, they signal their presence to one another and their exclusivity to all of us.

"Runners," says Kostrubala, "seek each other out. They regard other runners as good and trustworthy, particularly the marathon runner, and look down on other people, thinking of them as bad, lazy, indolent, immoral." This is true of all athletes, and they celebrate and share their exclusivity in private conversation and in colorful public swarms at clinics, in sports-equipment stores, and at the entrances to parks. (They also have a tendency to bore the rest of us to distraction.)

Intimidating, this idea of an emerging super-race. Yet figures have been coming in from respected counting-houses such as the Gallup Poll which suggest—no, make clear—that commitment to the better body/mind is practically epidemic. Today's bizarre behavior by a small band of runners may be tomorrow's norm for millions.


  • Archive: “Features
  • From the May 29, 1978 issue of New York
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