Just beyond a forlorn strip of collision-repair shops and cement factories that dot Industrial Drive in Springfield, the St. James emerges like a glorious vision, like the kind of megachurch frequented by Justin Bieber or Kanye West. In fact, with no apparent sign, the St. James could be a celebrity church, all sleek lines and soaring windows reaching toward heaven.
But step inside and you enter a different sort of temple, one dedicated to fitness—a 450,000-square-foot behemoth with two NHL-size ice rinks, a gymnastics center, hardwood basketball, volleyball, a climbing wall, and enough treadmills to blow a city’s worth of hamstrings. There’s also a FIFA-regulation-size soccer field, an Olympic-size swimming pool, batting cages, a full-service spa, and Vim & Victor, a refueling station in the form of a Spike Mendelsohn–helmed restaurant. And this is just a partial rundown.
Tired yet? I sure was when I arrived at the St. James at 4:30 am on a recent Friday. I hadn’t been up this early since nursing my son, Leo, eight years ago. Which was also, incidentally, the last time I’d set foot in a gym. I had missed it. The way the ellipticals always lined up with military precision, the smell of floor wax on the courts, the piped-in fight music—a little Cardi B to go with your cardio.
Some weeks earlier, I’d read in this magazine about the debut of a 24-7 megagym whose size would dwarf an ordinary workout spot. I had an idea, one that owed more to my being a journalist who loves stunts than to my being a mom who misses exercise. What if I spent a full day there and tried out as many of its bazillion options as I could possibly manage?
My editor had a counteroffer: What about spending 24 full hours there? After all, I’d once spent the night in an upscale pet hotel in pursuit of a story. Alas, the magazine offered neither combat pay nor the promise to cover my hospital bills. So we agreed on 12. Still, I was curious. Could this assignment also kick-start my fitness routine?
Craig Dixon and Kendrick Ashton are cofounders of this sports megaplex. They considered LA, Chicago, and other cities before opening the St. James here. “We didn’t pick DC because we’re from here,” Dixon says. “We looked at every major market in the country and considered things like population, economic stability, and wellness consumption.”
They settled on Springfield, or more precisely the 20-acre lot once owned by Washington Gas & Light Co. “There are 1.2 million people within ten miles of this site,” notes Dixon. So far, about 8,000 of them are members of the St. James, with monthly rates starting at $169. Dixon, a mergers-and-acquisitions attorney, and Kendrick, who was a Wall Street investment banker, are businessmen at heart, not fitness evangelists. The duo have also hinted that they have plans for future expansion, which suggests they see the St. James as a destination, a theoretical Mall of America where the whole family can come and never have to leave. Where a mom could work out at the health center while the kids are in swim practice or kicking around a soccer ball and dad is practicing his golf stroke.
As I make my way through the cavernous club, I see two members pumping and spinning as if they’re on the final leg of the Tour de France. It’s not even 5 am. But don’t tell that to Evelyn Rabil, a personal trainer who is so buzzing with energy she appears to have mainlined an urn of coffee. She’s a ringer for Meghan Markle, if Markle should ever pierce her nose and take up bodybuilding. We head upstairs—guess which one of us is bounding—and Rabil, 32, begins my personal fitness assessment. After taking my vitals, she asks me to stand on something called the InBody, a contraption that’s part scale and part video game and is capable of measuring all sorts of ugly truths about my insides. Naturally thin until my fifties, I never worried much about my BMI or whether I had the good kind of fat around my organs or the bad. But over the past few years, my weight has edged up and settled into what my husband lovingly calls a “pooch.” Not surprisingly, the results—including the need for me to convert 18 pounds of fat into 12 pounds of muscle—confirm that my bikini days are over.
The next reality check comes in the form of a functional-movement screen. Rabil watches me like a cat as I hold a plastic pipe in various configurations behind my back, perform (badly) a series of one-legged balancing tricks, and try to do what my seventh-grade gym teacher referred to as “girl” push-ups.
After 45 minutes of observing me stumbling around, Rabil delivers the verdict, sharing her concerns about my shoulder and ankle mobility, weak core and glute strength, and tight lats. Lest you think I’m a walking disaster, Rabil has some good news. “You have great hamstring flexibility, hip mobility, and hip-flexor strength,” she says brightly.
As she escorts me down to the High Performance Center, Rabil turns to me and says, “Aren’t you excited?” Which I take to mean “You have nowhere to go but up!”
I arrived at the St. James with a schedule cobbled together by the club. At my next stop, Rabil seems to have confabbed with instructor Derek Arledge, because what was listed on my itinerary as a 6 am “hard-core” class seems more tailored to a geriatric, squishy set. We do most of the twists and crunches while sitting on a large, firm cube, and despite my being the only one in the class, Arledge delivers instructions as if he’s onstage. Across the empty expanse of room, I see a woman around my age performing squats for her trainer. With his gleaming muscles and shoulder-length hair, he looks as though he wandered off the cover of a romance novel.
It’s still early, but as I glance around at all the unoccupied machines, I begin to wonder if Washingtonians are really as fitness-crazed as I thought. Perhaps Dixon and Ashton are hoping that if they built it, people will come?
I get lost trying to find my way back to the locker room and run into, literally, Mark Clarke, who until recently was director of sales and client engagement. High-fiving everyone he sees, Clarke was the first person to greet me at 4:30 and, for the rest of the day, will appear out of nowhere with a bottle of water or a round of applause for my efforts.
I make it about two feet into the locker room, where my schedule says I’m supposed to “shower, rinse off, and enjoy some steam-room time.” Instead, I plop into the first chair I see. A flat-screen in front of me is set to ESPN, and I wonder who in the world would want to watch sports at this hour. Then I remember where I am.
Except I don’t remember where I am and have trouble finding my way out of the locker room. Am I on the first level or the third? Maybe I should have dropped some gluten-free bread crumbs along the route. Eventually I find my way to Vim & Victor and wolf down an açai bowl and the biggest cup of coffee available. Luckily, my next appointment is right across the hall at the spa, Courted, where I’m slated for a pedicure. It seems like a strange time to get one, because next on the agenda is a squash lesson. When I tell my pedicurist, Nicole Nguyen, about putting my freshly painted toenails back into my sweaty socks and sneakers, she tells me not to worry: I get my first-ever gel pedicure, which dries instantly.
One thing I didn’t consider was how smooth and slick the bottoms of my feet would be post-pedicure. It’s something I quickly realize as soon as I start my squash lesson with instructor Stephen O’Dwyer. Every time the affable Irishman hits a ball to me—puh-thwack!—I slip and slide inside my shoes, sailing right past my intended target. It takes me a while before I find a puh-thwack rhythm of my own, and despite all the skidding, I’m shocked to learn I’m pretty good at squash. I even manage to score a few points off O’Dwyer. “Watch out,” I tell him, “I’m going to wipe the court with you.” It’s not until I later see him rally with fellow instructor Alister Walker, once ranked 12th in the world, that I realize how easy he took it on me. I can hardly follow the bouncing ball as it ricochets off the plexiglass.
Throughout the afternoon, I continue to experience things I thoroughly enjoy: eating a magnificent Beyond Meat burger at Vim & Victor, receiving a first-rate hand massage along with my manicure, and pumping iron with Rabil in the training center. (I particularly like watching a pair of couples—“influencers” Rabil tells me—documenting their reps in camera-ready spandex.) I also try things I don’t care ever to do again, such as standing in front of the rapid-shot machine and hitting puck after surprisingly heavy puck at four-second intervals. No wonder hockey players are missing so many front teeth.
I also continue to feel like the only person in the world. I’m told that more people will be sweating next to me on a weekend. (I’m here on a Friday.) Or perhaps I’m in Siberia while everyone else is in Baja. With 450,000 square feet to roam, I could just be in the wrong end of the complex. Or maybe this place is just so big that it can absorb the entire population of Springfield while still feeling like a ghost town.
With its size and smorgasbord of offerings, the St. James flies in the face of all those trendy boutique gyms—much smaller spaces where you do just one type of exercise, such as bike to nowhere in a pitch-black room or hoist tires with a bunch of keto devotees. Size has an advantage: According to St. James cofounder Ashton, much of the membership growth has been in programs that require big fields and facilities—lacrosse, soccer, hockey, baseball, softball, and swimming.
In an attempt to find life at the St. James—this time in the swimming pool—I make a wrong turn and wind up in the sales office. It’s like I’ve stumbled upon LesterCorp’s 7½th floor, with rows of desks replacing rows of treadmills. I have to fight to urge to chant, “Malkovich, Malkovich.”
Nothing prepares me for my three-minute stint in the cryotherapy chamber. The gist here is to expose the body—my body—to subzero temperatures in an effort to relieve muscle pain, sprains, and tissue damage. “After I get out, I feel like running ten miles,” says Anthony Ball, an EMT and IV-infusion specialist who is administering the treatment. Wearing a plush bathrobe along with socks and slippers, I stand in front of the machine, which resembles a huge tin can, and watch the temperature gauge fall into negative numbers. It’s then I notice a tank of liquid nitrogen in the corner. When the gauge reads minus 131 degrees, Ball swings open the chamber door. Inside the cavity, all I see is smoke, like dry ice at a Metallica show. “After I close the door, hand me your robe and I’ll hand you the mittens,” Ball instructs.
I don’t remember much of what comes next, other than my knees knocking together like a cartoon character’s and the feeling that my body is being dragged naked across the tundra. I make it 90 seconds, and the last thing I feel like doing is running ten miles.
Mercifully, aesthetician Emily Sitcou has heated the sheets on her massage table, and for the first time since sunrise, I close my eyes. Sitcou is giving me a Signature Renewal Facial, but she might as well be slathering my face with Turtle Wax. After the shock of cryotherapy, anything would feel good.
Despite my carefully regimented day, I still wind up missing an hour of Vinyasa yoga and a go at the rock-climbing wall. That’s what happens when so many choices abound. Besides, with everyone off doing his or her own thing, who’s to judge if I spend too long trying on Tretorns at Strivers, the swanky shop on the main floor? At the St. James, the full spectrum of our athletic culture is on display—from the seriously fit (DC United practices here, and while I was lifting weights, a bunch of NFL draft picks were shooting hoops across the hall) to the weekend warriors who vie for one of the seven golf simulators to the well-intentioned klutzes of the world who, like me, just want a chance at staying healthy. There is literally room for everyone.
After more than 12 hours indoors, the sensation of leaving the St. James is similar to that of being in a Las Vegas casino, where there are no windows or clocks and you could be playing blackjack for either 20 minutes or 20 years. It’s deliriously disorienting. And as a newly minted gym rat, I’d do it again. Next time, I’ll save the pedicure for after my squash lesson.
This article appears in the January 2020 issue of Washingtonian.