I've recently taken up parkour/freerunning
got into it a year ago, and I've spent most of the intervening period tolerating him incessantly showing me freerunning videos with varying degrees of patience. (Most of the videos are of people with very advanced skills, and I find them more off-putting than anything else: I'll never be that
much of a ninja, so what's the point?)
A few weeks ago, sick of never getting to see him on Sundays, I went along with him to a training session. I had a good time, despite being relatively unfit, started learning about how to jump, and enjoyed throwing myself with determination at various walls until I managed to scale them.
After that I started insisting that Denny show me parkour videos made by women, such as Tam with a Cam
. These felt a bit more accessible. But the video I found most motivating was by TraceurSteel
, one of the Supa XXL Sunday Trainings crew (this is the group that Denny mostly trains with, and which I had gone along to), which showed him warming up, stretching, drilling and conditioning, including trying and failing the same thing over and over again. This was much more immediately inspiring for me than a showreel of successes.
I went back a couple more times. Today was my fourth session training with the Supa XXL crew, but this was the first time I really got
The previous two times I'd been out, I found myself getting very easily demoralised. Surrounded by ninjas doing things I couldn't hope to do, I'd struggle to find anything I could have a stab at. You have to design your own exercises in parkour, and as a newbie, without either confidence or competence, I sucked at it. I relied totally on Denny to find things that might be within my range, and coax me through trying them. Failure (which is inevitable) would leave me feeling discouraged and hopeless, and Denny had to spend a lot of time persuading me that it was worth persisting. By the time I achieved what I'd been working at, I'd be so cross with myself for having made such a meal of it that I wouldn't be fully able to enjoy the victory.
Intellectually I knew that failure was inevitable, persistence crucial, but I couldn't flip the switch in my head that found the journey fun and successes rewarding. Everything was just difficult
. Finding things I could have a go at was really hard; it all involved throwing myself at new techniques that required skills I didn't have yet, and just failing over and over again until my body started to learn what was required of it.
My second time out, I tweaked my ankle ("ankle thingy" seems to be the technical parkour terminology, or "top bit" - it's when you land a little short of a wall jump and jerk your toe up too sharply, causing a mild sprain in the top bit of your ankle) and it was five days until I could put weight on it properly again.
I've been doing fitness stuff for a couple of years ago now - starting out with pilates and swimming, and moving on to yoga and weightlifting, both of which I now do regularly. Still, in parkour training I struggle with my strength/bodyweight ratio.
Added to that, outdoor urban parkour is fucking terrifying. Everything is made of brick and concrete that will take your skin off if you slip or miss or land funny. The third time I went out, Denny taught me to lazy vault
over a rounded railing in the park, which was nice and friendly. When I tried to apply this skill to a brick wall, I skinned the outside of one of my thighs and got a bruise that lasted over a week. Jumps that are perfectly doable on the ground become psychologically impossible when you're doing them from one wall to another, with small, precise take-off and landing areas, two or three or four or more feet up. Every repetition of an exercise comes with a fear of skinning your shins or landing on your face. If you want to practice a jump you just have to conquer your fear, again and again and again.
You don't know what you can do until you try, so you have to try a little bit of everything. And, like the first time I attempted a cat leap
, when you square off against something, look at it, psych yourself up to it, try it - and then come nowhere near to it and realise how many months of work lie ahead of you before your body is ready for this particular movement, it's hard not to feel discouraged.
This aspect of parkour - the mental conditioning, the psychological component - is well documented, and Denny wrote about it after his training session
the week after my first time out. Anyway, I didn't do a scary double rail precision like he did, so I'm sure there are plenty more revelations in my future, but I felt like I started to get my head around this today.
At the first spot we went to, a kids' playground, everyone launched themselves at different jumps and balances and climbs, and I just looked at all of it and knew it was beyond my level. I had a go swinging from monkey bars, but I'm not strong enough for that, so I had to cheat by kicking one leg up on the far side and hoiking myself across that way - but after a few goes of that I had blisters forming on my fingers, and had to give them a rest.
I talked to another woman who was there for the first time. She was a dancer and had been going to indoor classes, where you could practice things at different heights made of less skin-destroying materials. That seemed like a much better idea. I started to think that I was approaching this the wrong way.
Denny walked with me in search of things for me to do, and once we were out of sight of the others I couldn't stop tears coming. I felt totally despondent, not good enough and not even able to do anything to help myself improve. Why was I even bothering? I just wasn't fit enough.
I dried the tears pretty quickly, and after some hugging Denny found a rounded border on the floor which I could practice balancing on. I sucked at it, but it was something to work on. Then I had a go at railing traverses
, at which point the blisters on my hands started popping, and we did some precisions on the square tiled floor.
Thankfully, the next spot was much more friendly, with a lot more options for n00bs. I found a railing to practice my lazy vaults with another lady who was also a beginner. One of the guys, Jonnie, drifted over and started offering encouragement and advice. He taught me the basics of a step vault, which gave me something else to practice. I met TraceurSteel in person, who gave me some useful pointers with the step vault and kindly held my fingertips while I walked along the rounded rail so I could get used to the height and the movement, since I can't yet do it without a support. Basically, everyone was as friendly, welcoming and encouraging as you could wish. I practiced lots of vaulting and precisions, did some conditioning exercises like quadrupedal movement and monkey walks, tried a cat balance on the round railing and fell off. The sun was out, we were clambering and jumping all over things, people were being nice to me, I had things to work on and I was having a good time.
We moved on again. The next stop had a couple of very high walls over some garages at different heights, a long way apart - twelve feet, perhaps more. Steve, the not-a-leader, ran up to the lower wall and did a cat leap from that to the higher one; then did another cat leap between the two highest walls of the same height. The three second best ninjas lined up at the edge, looking at it. People got cameras out; the rest of us gathered to watch.
Watching these incredibly strong, athletic men sniff at that high, long jump was a revelation. They would walk up to it, look at it, focus, make like they were going to do it, then walk away. They'd go and look at a harder jump, pretend they were going to do it, then walk back to the first one and see if it seemed easier. They'd jog up to it, slow down, bail, jog back. One of them kept clapping his hands, psyching himself up, saying "yes, yes, I'm going to do it, come on" out loud... then still not actually doing it. The other was quieter, more focused. Eventually it was the quiet one who went for it. He made it. The other had no choice after that. Both of them were fine. It was well within their physical limits. It was the mental challenge of launching yourself, off a brick wall six feet in the air, at another brick wall twice as high and just as far away, that was the tricky bit.
Until then, I'd been thinking that the reason I was so afraid, the reason I was finding it so difficult, was that I was unfit, I was a n00b, I was shit. Watching the psychological process writ large with two of the most skilled practitioners in the group, I learned that it doesn't get easier as you improve. It gets harder. The more physically capable you are, the harder the mental challenges you have to face in order to push yourself.
One of the ninjas laughed when I tried to express this to him. "Yep, it never goes away, it just gets more and more horrible." You'd think this would be demoralising, but for some reason it was exactly what I needed to know. This fear I'd been facing, it wasn't an impediment to learning parkour. It was
I followed a small group down the road in search of more manageable challenges. My fellow beginner climbed up the corner of a wall, three or more metres high, where the bricks overlapped and made regular footholds, and I followed her up. Denny and I found a flat-topped rail, narrow but manageable, where I practiced rail walking until I got more steady. I learned to turn around on the rail, to traverse it sideways, and realised when squatting down to say goodbye to someone that I could squat pretty comfortably with my toes on the rail and my bum on my heels, so that led to me doing rail squats while Denny filmed me. (I tried a one-legged pistol squat too, but those are much harder.)
Back on the road, different conversations helped the pieces fall into place. It's not about comparing yourself with anyone. You just have to learn to see the places where you can practice, and do those things. Persistence is always, always rewarded. It's about not giving up, about having the imagination to see the opportunities presented by the landscape. There's always something
you can do and if there isn't a perfectly placed opportunity to push yourself, you can practice things you can already do and work on moving more quietly, more smoothly, with more control and flow.
I got talking to a young woman who had just joined the group and who had also mostly done indoor training. I heard a lot of people saying that indoor training was fun but not really applicable to outdoor, as it gave you an inflated sense of your own abilities and once you were out, the brick seemed even scarier. I started to understand that there aren't any shortcuts: getting out and facing the brick is the only way you're ever going to conquer it.
I was feeling more confident now, and at the next spot my new friend was the one standing around not knowing what to do with herself. It was fun calling her over with a suggestion for somewhere she could practice vaults, and encouraging her to find things to try. I was getting better at spotting things within my range - and at the same time, my range was increasing by the hour.
By the end of the day, I'd improved my lazy vaults and step vaults, done some related conditioning, learned how to do plyos (precision jumps in a sequence, where you use the energy of the middle jump to power the next ones and can go even further than from a standing start) and spent a good half hour hopping from wall to wall like a bunny, had a go at a run-up-and-stride jump and stuck a perfect landing, and worked on getting my landings more precise and more quiet. I'd climbed and clambered and crossed obstacles. I'd been encouraged and encouraged others, and by the end of the day I was happily making precision jumps longer and higher than at the start.Best precision distance (with a good landing) 12 May 2013: seven of my feets.
Today was five hours of training (six hours out and about in all, but I don't include all the walking between spots). By hour three, I was euphoric. I danced rings around Denny as we walked along, and couldn't stop bouncing. I felt strong and lean and energetic, and I saw training opportunities everywhere I looked. I was full of exercise endorphins, but not only that, I was filled with that confidence and adventurousness that comes from conquering your fear.
Parkour is about traversing obstacles as efficiently as possible. The thing is, most of those obstacles are mental.
Another interesting thing. When I came to do cool-down stretches, to my utter surprise I discovered that I was the most flexible I've ever been. I've been doing yoga for two years and my hamstring and hip flexibility has always been very poor; I've never been able to touch my toes, and even sitting upright with my legs stretched out in front of me is very painful along my tight hamstrings.
Five hours of parkour training achieved what two years of yoga failed. I could touch my toes from standing, and in a forward bend. I spent half an hour with a group of the others doing various stretches, and I felt looser, more flexible and stronger than I can ever remember.
Today is definitely a day when I leveled up
in real life. I want to feel like this as often as I can. I am officially hooked.
Photos © Deepak Dembla 2013