FF 9: Parkour (fall 2011)



    It was already a little surreal sitting in Holliday Park by the Lloyd Center mall in Portland, Oregon on a warm, late September afternoon. I had picked the pocket-sized urban park as a rendezvous point with Bill because the large, mostly empty parking lot by the adjacent cinemas was a place I could confidently park our giant new truck without my navigator. Parking the truck went well, but it had taken careful scrutiny to find the best point in the park itself to sit--a place that maximized the distance between us and the panhandlers, the young lads practicing being juvenile delinquents, and the considerable traffic noise. We’d managed to find a bench with a relative sense of calm and peacefulness from which to exchange stories from our rare day in which we’d spent hours apart and then it happened: an ‘other dimensional’ experience flew in from out of nowhere.

    My tireless safety surveillance monitors signaled ‘fast moving, incoming something’ off my right shoulder and I turned away from Bill to see a tall, neatly dressed and groomed young man reach his left hand out towards the large picnic table as his long striding run was transformed into flight. In a fantastically smooth arcing motion he became horizontal as he vaulted over the table and benches with room to spare and then hit the ground running.  A 4’ high freestanding electrical box was the next targeted object, which he was standing on top of after a single bounding motion. He hesitated a moment atop the metal cabinet before he leapt into the crook between the trunk and jutting branch of a deciduous tree at about the same height. Like a cat, he was back on the ground in a flash and went running down the sidewalk as though he were late for a business meeting.

    It was the second time I’d seen such a playful engagement with the environment--the first was in a Pisa park in 2009--and my desire to play too had swelled then as it did now. After seeing the similar outdoor acrobatics in Pisa, I attempted a little vaulting over downed logs when in the Alps but I was terrified. My dislocated shoulder was only months into its long healing process and I fretted both about injuring it and seriously banging my shins. But seeing this display for a second time convinced me that it must be a form that was taught, and probably in Portland, and that being taught the techniques would quell my fears.

“So That’s What It Is....”

    My first search that evening for “urban jumping Portland” did the trick and in seconds I was reading about the Revolution Parkour academy in the distant ‘burbs. Undeterred by their 55 year old cut-off, I called explaining that we weren’t your average 60 year-olds and I wanted in. Flashing our trendy new credentials of “working into barefoot running and trail running in 5 Fingers” was sufficiently reassuring to trigger an invitation for us to join the introductory class the next afternoon. In just over 24 hours we went from being stunned witnesses to Parkour in action to becoming practitioners of the form.  I could hardly have been more excited.

    Part way through the hour class I checked in with Bill
, who grinned and said “This is great!” Quite a rapid shift from “I don’t think so” when I invited him to join me the night before. We were putting miles on the truck that day by driving to the coast and back and the academy was on our way home. “That’s OK. I’m going. You can sit in the truck, come in and watch, or join the class--what ever works for you.” No looking back for Bill--he was instantly hooked and was as eager to play again as I was.

A Perfect Fit

    Parkour, which is a new sport of French origin, favors fast, efficient movement through the obstacles in the environment and can involve flips and story or 2 leaps, looked like it was designed for us. The basic movements patterns fully utilize the strength, skill, flexibility, and confidence we’ve developed from our outdoor activities over the last 5 years in an attempt to counter the disabilities associated with aging.

    In our first class we were jumping down from a height of 5’, which is greater that we ever do. But we could feel in our joints that our occasional play of jumping down from big rocks and rock walls, as well as training by going down flights of stairs 2-at-a-time, had made our bodies just sturdy enough to withstand the repeated impact from these greater heights. It stressed my confidence to the limit to make the big jump but it was thrilling to land well and feel that I could withstand the impact and still keep my balance--and do it again and again.

    Our improved steadiness from our own balance games on curbs, walls, and the slack line was put to the test on the academy’s real balance beam--especially going backwards, on all 4’s, or with our eyes closed. But doing a few minutes here and there of eyes-closed hiking and balancing over the last half dozen years assured us that we were up to their challenges.

    Our barefoot and minimalist shoe hiking and running paid-off repeatedly at the Beaverton academy because we were already in the habit of precise foot movement, which is essential on the indoor Parkour obstacle courses.  The one-legged jumps between big tires challenged our strength and courage but we had the needed confidence in our foot work.

    Vaulting over 4’ high boxes was something we had not been even remotely practicing but the resistance training with our P90X DVD set had beefed up my injured shoulder to the point of being fearless and it was ready to play. And many of the warm-up moves of Parkour were familiar from P90X, which helped sustain our confidence in the face of repeated challenges and to support my claims about our fitness, despite our age. We are always working on our flexibility, especially with big range of motion in our hips and legs, and we used every smidgen of it when hoisting ourselves up onto the course’s large wooden boxes from which we jumped.

  In the days after the class, the reports from our bodies indicated that our first adventure had been almost perfect for us. We both ached a little bit in a lot of places, some that would almost qualify as slightly injured, but nothing that wouldn’t self-correct in a few days. Well....my back strain required some help during a scheduled sports massage appointment, but that was it. Our massage guy took his own inventory of both of us 4 days after the first class and invited us to go for it, so we did, that night.

    The new moves in the Beginners class resulted in new senses of having pushed our bodies to or just past multiple edges, but it doesn’t get much better than that when trying an entirely new form.  Almost all of the elements were familiar to our bodies--what was new was stringing them all together and with speed. No yoga or tai chi pace here, Parkour is about speed, efficiency, and smoothness.

    We felt like stars for having fully participated in the classes and survived but of course we weren’t the stars but instead the laggers. But matched against the energy and willingness to be reckless of preteen boys, we thought we put on a good show for our generation. Apparently Parkour is practiced by adults but in our indoor sessions we were working on another new skill, which was learning how to make conversation with 10-12 year olds.

Looking Ahead

    We managed to squeeze in 3 hours of Parkour classes before we headed out of state with our new truck and camper--something we could not have managed at all without a vehicle--and we were thrilled by the experience. We would loved to have done more classes but clearly Parkour is more a mindset than anything else so we were content to have had the exposure to the form that we did have. And the fact that the young instructor didn’t really teach technique but instead set up courses and said “Go do it” made being in additional classes seem even less important. After 3 classes we were convinced that we had attempted enough moves to keep us energized by the possibilities without the benefit of an indoor course or leader for the next several months. 

    Even before we left town I had found a 4’ high brick wall around a nearby dumpster to practice vaulting on to the top of as well as began breaking down the skills I’d need to master single handed vaulting, like I’d seen over the picnic table in the park, but over much lower and smaller objects. I doubt that I’ll ever clear a picnic table but it sure spices up hikes and runs to watch for objects to bound up, over, or down.

    And by chance, it was just as well that we were leaving town: during our 3rd and final class I slammed into and unceremoniously slid down the front of a vaulting box on my first and miserably failed attempt at a one-handed vault. I bruised a rib and banged a shin so hard that I wouldn’t have dared go to a class for a month while the tender bones healed. Their vulnerability didn’t keep me from playing on my own even though I had a deep, new appreciation for how Wiley Coyote felt in all of those Road Runner cartoons in which he slammed into things.

    Normally I think everyone should try everything we do but Parkour is an exception. Ballistic forces and pushing your edge abound in Parkour and I’d only undertake it if you feel sturdy, are confident in your abilities, and like to play hard.  Even dabbling on our own, I’m still bruising and scuffing myself while I improve my timing and coordination, especially on the remedial vaults.

Below: Practicing Parkour weeks later on hiking trails in the SW.