An Intimidating New Class: The Physical Elite

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.

Attend to this Gallup Poll. As of late last year, 47 percent of all Americans “say” they participate—and who in the world would doubt them?—in some form of daily physical exercise. That is twice the figure recorded when a poll was taken in 1961. Of these, half are joggers; it goes without saying. The New York Road Runners Club is the largest sports club in the city. In two years, membership has tripled to 6,000.

Who are these exercising people, and why are they doing what they’re doing? Gallup says they are the “upscale” people, college-educated, those in upper and upper-middle income brackets, professionals, business people, the general run of white-collar workers. Not exclusively, by any means, but they began it all, it seems. Gallup writes: “Many behavioral and attitudinal trends in America follow the ‘trickle-down’ process—that is, they are taken up by the affluent and higher-educated groups and are later picked up by others—and the case of exercise appears to be no different.” Thus nearly 15 million men and women are joggers, and roughly half of them have been to college. A nifty piece of information: Nearly half of all sporting shoes sold in the United States today are for running. A second nifty fact: Americans are spending $65 million each year on such conditioning equipment as barbells, treadmills, and stationary bicycles.

The “why” is of course more important, and much harder to get at. That this is a monumental change in our national behavior—risky word, but there you are—seems to be a given. Gallup says the drive toward projecting the physical self represents the biggest behavioral change he’s witnessed. Kostrubala maintains that only the Crusades and the inception of dental hygiene are comparable.

Kostrubala: “We can only conclude that there is a shift in the ‘collective unconscious.’ The nation as a whole is evolving toward another set of beliefs, values, and goals, and with no clear-cut pressure to do so. It is coming from within. If you ask Mr. Ordinary today what he thinks of meditation, religion, vitamins, diet, exercise, and health in general, he will give you a very different answer from the one he would have given ten years ago. We are seeing a simple revolution, a revolution in behavior.”

James F. Fixx, author of The Complete Book of Running, suggests these reasons why the quest for fitness has suddenly seized so many of us:

“A predisposing factor is that our society is currently in a distinctly self-centered mood, one in which the bestseller lists are flooded with such unabashedly narcissistic works as Looking Out for Number One, Designing Your Face, and Adrien Arpel’s 3-Week Crash Makeover/Shapeover Beauty Program. Having lost faith in much of society—government, business, marriage, the church, and so on—we seem to have turned to ourselves, putting what faith we can muster in our own minds and bodies.

“A second factor is that, contrary to what we may sometimes feel, most of us have more leisure than we once did.

“Perhaps the most significant reason for the fitness boom, however, is that the masses have finally discovered what athletes have known all along, that exercise makes you feel good.”

“… The sudden drive for the body perfect is the biggest spontaneous behavioral change since the Crusades …”

So, in sum, Watergate set us free, and we have more time to pursue ourselves. If this be revolution, evolutionary forces were at work. In the beginning, there was Barbara Moore, who walked the length and breadth of England and then came to this country and did the same thing. A lot of people followed her onto the roadways.

In another beginning there was Justice William O. Douglas, of the United States Supreme Court, who climbed mountains and marched along the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad bed in Washington.

There was the Eisenhower-era heart specialist, Dr. Paul Dudley White, forever sounding the call to exercise. Who can forget the sight of him pedaling his bicycle around Boston at the age of 82?

Were not the Kennedys, in their White House years, a force for a better us? All that multi-spirited touch football, and those calls to get out and hike 50 miles. (Wasn’t it poor, pudgy Pierre Salinger, loyal to a fault and wrongly believing himself full of the Kennedy vigah, who attempted one of those hikes and fell out in the early going with blisters? And didn’t the late Prince Stanislas Radziwill keep going only through the discreet ministrations of Dr. Feelgood, Max Jacobson?) Dean Rusk played basketball; William Childs Westmoreland played tennis at the Cercle Sportif in Saigon, hard by the war (beating Henry Cabot Lodge regularly).

What have these forebears wrought? The numbers are inescapable: The trumpet call has been answered. Millions of tall people, short people, fat and thin people, old and young, have signed up. They have their shoes, racquets, uniforms, skates, bats, balls, vitamins, and diets. They are distinctly into a physical elitism that has changed, and is changing, them. How?

Dr. Arnold Mandell, professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Diego, finds that the involved athletes tend “to be more assertive, to exercise their dominant feelings more freely, to show their aggressions more readily.” He emphasizes that they do this “not in a bad way but in ways directed toward life goals.”

He adds: “They develop a feeling of fraternity. They share the experience of being a ball player or runner with others who are doing it—across the whole gamut of athletic enterprises.”

Dr. L. E. Trachtman, professor of communications and associate dean of the School of Humanities, Social Science, and Education at Purdue University, who has worked with men and women in the 30-to-60 age range, found that exercise produced greater emotional stability. “They developed greater self-assurance and became less practical and more imaginative,” Dr. Trachtman said. He found that the new athletes had “a richer subjective life, could sustain inner probings more readily.”

Dr. Mandell, who uses exercise as a psychiatric tool, said that he had observed among his patients something unheard of in psychiatry’s history—a “return of courage.” When he took a closer look at what was happening to these people, he identified a syndrome, the parts of which—overweight and hypertension, cardiovascular disease, pain sensitivity, depression, tranquilizer taking, tantrums, and sleeplessness —added up to “Type A personalities gone cowardly.” He says that the entire syndrome may be based on a single chemical imbalance, of norepinephrine, and that by getting his patients off and running he was able to help them find the courage they lacked. If this is true, it is a breakthrough of a rather high order in psychiatry: Courage is one factor which, like aggression, remains a constant in psychiatric case histories.

The Russian chess master Boris Spassky ran off to find courage and peace of mind during his now legendary match with bad boy Bobby Fischer in 1972. Spassky said the incredible strain of hours and hours of chess was much reduced when he ran five miles before the match. (He lost, but presumably he felt better about the whole thing.)

“… A psychiatrist who prescribes exercise sees ‘the return of courage’ to his patients—unheard of in psychiatry …”

Much has been made of the high energy levels attained through rigorous exercise. Also of the “high” itself. Mandell speaks, however, of many routes that will lead to the release of what he calls “survival energy” in the brain. Such things, for example, as meditation, a walk for hours along the seashore, the playing of a single note over and over on the oboe. “You can think of this,” Mandell says, “as teasing the brain until it issues forth survival energy. This is a state of energy that exists in polar opposition to aggressive energy. It is the brain function that keeps us going above and beyond the normal capacities of human endurance and endeavor.”

In the Mandellian theory, there are three stages that lead to the release of survival energy. First is pain, guilt, and depression (it may fairly be stated as the typical New Yorker stage). This goes away after about 30 minutes of working out and stays away if you stick with your exertions for five or six months. Next is the amphetamine or, obviously, the high stage that nearly anyone can achieve by running for an hour or so. But the final stage, the best one, is transcendence. You get transcendent, you just won’t quit—on and on as long as you like, even as the wind.

Other chroniclers of the Physical Elite tend to explain themselves in less spiritual fashion, but perhaps the result is the same. Robert Paz, a 36-year-old New York City cop, starts his day with 150 sit-ups, 150 push-ups, 300 hand-grip squeezes, and a workout with a tension bar and a 130-pound barbell. At the precinct house he bench-presses 200 or 250 pounds twenty times a day, swings a jump rope for fifteen minutes, and does chin-ups. He says he is better both off and on the job for being in shape. “Once,” he says, “a woman was about to jump from a ledge. I was able to grab her and pull her by holding her around the waist with one arm. My strength enables me to run upstairs without getting tired and to wrestle violent psychos to the ground. An officer on the beat needs more strength than the average guy. The weirdos out there are getting stronger all the time.” Fixx concludes: “If a rival—in business, love, or anywhere else—turns to serious athletics, watch out.”

What have we here? What does it all mean? The Physical Elite of New York and points west are there plainly to be seen. Just catch the action around the reservoir in Central Park at almost any hour of the day or night. But have we, as this super-race develops, brought ourselves to a new fascism? No, says Kostrubala. Yes, many runners have built themselves into a kind of Ubermensch, and yes, Nietzsche (who wrote “Body I am entirely and nothing else,” and “I want to teach men the sense of their existence, which is the Superman …”) is the philosopher closest to the runner’s world. But no, not fascism or Nazism. True runners depend on their own inner will to continue inner will to continue.

Where is all this leading? Well, there are a couple of facts you ought to know if you are not yet, and want to become, part of America’s emerging new elite. After all, there certainly seems to be a lot going for you if you do. Psychiatrists hate to admit this about their trade, but it’s the strong patients who really benefit, and Mandell has found this to be the case with his exercising patients—real neurotics get better, but those who come in with strengths and capabilities become great. That could be you. First fact: Competitive sports are out, and there is a kind of consensus—bless all the squash players—about the best exercise for real physical and mental fitness. These are running, swimming, and biking. They just are, that’s all, and they must be done daily, or “almost daily,” as one doctor puts it, for 40 to 60 minutes. Well, giving up squash, tennis, and softball isn’t so hard; they are rather difficult and unnaturally demanding games. But then you will also have to give up sex—all studies worth their salt have found that people’s appetites for, and therefore engagements in, sex spontaneously diminish as they get more and more into rigorous daily exertions of the kind you need to clear your head. So much for the psychiatry. Now for the body. It’s going to hurt you. Whether you run, swim, or bike, your muscles will ache and yearn to be stretched. And then there are inflamed Achilles tendons; stress fractures; hamstring pulls; shin splints; back, shoulder, and arm aches; not to mention blisters and blackened toes.

Thus you will, if you take your anxiety-free life seriously, become a hypochondriac. When the mainstay of your newfound freedom is the proper functioning of your body, it is inescapable that you will spend unpredictably long hours inspecting, measuring, and tending to your body. When you feel a twinge, it will be a dire forewarning, but if there is no twinge, you will worry that all is not well with your nervous system.

So that, too, is a way of spotting your friendly neighborhood member of the Physical Elite. He or she is stretching, bobbing, twisting this way and that, the better to make a great symphony of rock-hard muscles and rolls of fat. But he or she may just be trying to ease the pain.

An Intimidating New Class: The Physical Elite