Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Urbanathlon - Results

The final results were posted today, apparently compiling the data from the racing chips was too hard to do in less than 48 hours…

The top 5 finishers of the ~300 people entered were:

1 #154 McEwan Brian 0:29:50
2 #292 Evitt Blake 0:31:11
3 #188 McCall Andrew 0:32:35
4 #177 Thornton Colin 0:34:47
5 #167 Babraj John 0:37:58

The start of the race (I was in the first wave of 15 runners). Unfortunately the photographer wasn’t fast enough to get any pictures of the leader or I after this.

Thoughts on the race (and Glasgow):

- It was one of the hardest courses I’ve ever run. The entire 8k course had a combined total of 400m of flat terrain, and my workouts leading up to the event definitely did not prepare me for the Scottish hills. I will definitely be doing some hill workouts before I head to Edinburgh for the last race. That said, the rolling hills and forest that the race ran through were beautiful and it was hard to believe that we were so close to “civilization”.

- The obstacles were not very difficult at all, and I actually would have liked more as I was able to make up ground on the leader on most of them, only to lose it again as he scrambled up the hills in his trail-running shoes. While I know that the next races will have more formidable obstacles, I think that the parkour training over the last few months has me very well prepared for them so I’m hoping that I’ll be able to sort of catch my breath from the running part for some of them.

- While this race was not the best-organized or biggest race I’ve run, there was a distinctly friendly “Scottish” attitude throughout, which was not at all hampered by the drizzle that came and went all day. While I wasn’t impressed by the timing system or photographer, the actual run was well staffed and everything ran relatively smoothly.

- And Glasgow… A city that seems to be as architecturally diverse as London, but with more of a gritty and industrial feel. This contrasted sharply with the green hills and grazing sheep and cows that we passed on the bus ride up, but gave the city a distinct flavor. I can’t tell if this was more of a “Scottish” flavor, since many of the Scots that I met seemed to have a weathered air about them, or if it was a Glasgow-specific thing. The fact that I was there for Friday and Saturday nights meant that I saw a lot of drunken people and scantily clad women, but besides a noticeable increase on the amount of makeup on many younger women, it could have passed for a rowdy night in London. I was also struck by the lack of diversity in the city, although I think that this is primarily because I’ve been spending so much time in London. I would have liked to be able to go explore some of the nearby castles and museums, but didn’t have the time, money, or energy to do so after the race. All-in-all, it’s definitely someplace that I’d like to have a few more days to explore, especially during the “non-rainy” season (if that exists). I’d say that the weekend trip was a success and definitely worth the 18 hours that I spent on the bus over the course of the weekend.

Some of the more interesting architecture of Glasgow.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Different Sports, Same Goal

I came upon this article in the newspaper on the way back from practice tonight, “Street cricket project ‘helps bowl out youth crime in 15 boroughs’”. It wasn’t just the interesting oxymoron posed by the title “street cricket” that caught my eye, but also the connection between a sporting activity and youth crime reduction. Since the use of parkour as an agent for positive social change is one of the primary things that I’m investigating during this journey, I’ve been very interested to see how other organizations are using different sports to accomplish a similar goal. To me, the most impressive part of the article was the fact that the program has already reached 94 schools in 15 boroughs around the city, with an estimated 13,000 children- all since July 2008.

I was intrigued and a quick Google search brought up the “StreetChance” website . Reading through the site not only strengthened my admiration, but also answered a lot of the questions that I had about the program, its funding, and the actual effect on the neighborhoods. All in all, I was pretty impressed, and seeing such positive results for the program has been encouraging for my own research.

For those that might be curious to see the parkour side of things, and also one of the big inspirations behind my Watson project, "Jump Westminster" is a great video and gives a taste of some of the work done by Parkour Generations.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Urbanathlon – The day before

As I look out at the foyer of the hostel and try to get myself back into “race mode” for tomorrow I muse to myself about the irony of what I’m about to do. It was only a few short months ago that I was telling anyone that would listen that I was “officially retired” from the sport of running. No more getting up and thinking “I have to run 12 miles today”, no more Sunday morning 16-mile long runs, no more having Monday nights dictated by the need to get a good night’s sleep for Tuesday’s workout, and no more getting up at the crack of dawn for breakfast on race day in order to digest before the race.

Now sitting in a hostel in Glasgow the night before my first “independent” race in 4 years I realize that despite all that talk I’m racing again. Except that this race is different. Yes, it’s a 10k, but it’s a 10k with a twist. This type of race, called an “urbanathlon” is probably best described as the unique offspring that would be created if cross-country were to get with parkour. Take your typical cross country race, and in addition to the normal puddles, hills and mud; add some 8-foot walls, water slides, military style obstacle courses, monkey bars, and some “surprises” unique to each course…

The link to the race site.

I found out about these races (there are 4 of them over the next month and a half) in early August and the idea bounced around in my head for a while before I decided to suck it up and sign up. My reservations weren’t for the parkour part, but for the 10k part. If you’ve followed my running career over the last 12 years, you probably know that XC was not my favorite season (Note to non-runners: XC = cross-country). I’ve always disliked the longer race, and combining that with the “it’s getting colder and darker” seasonal factor made for a tough combo. So, when I saw the words 10k my mind immediately jumped to the long runs and grinding workouts in semi-darkness that XC has come to mean for me. I did a tentative 10-mile “test-run”, throwing in some hills and surges as I started feeling better, and by the end of the run I decided that I actually enjoyed running again. Since then I’ve been gradually increasing the mileage and intensity of the runs, which I’ve been treating as cross-training twice a week.

XC pic from back in the day- Does it look like I’m enjoying this experience?

Despite the fact that I’m doing this “for fun”; I’ve realized that these events are also useful to my research. Not only do they let me get outside of London to see some more of Britain (namely Glasgow, Cardiff, Nottingham, and Edinburgh), but they are also another sort of offshoot from parkour. Initially started by a group that does “urban fitness training” that is very similar to parkour training, the urbanathlon race has some of the same goals of parkour- useful fitness for everyday life while exploring and exploiting one’s environment. I know that there are quite a few traceurs that compete in these events, so I’m hoping to get a chance to talk to some of my fellow competitors to learn about their motivations for the doing the event- are there other runners like me that wanted something more “challenging” than XC? (No, I’m not say that XC isn’t challenging, just that it’s not the type of challenge I’m looking for right now).

I also have to admit that I’m looking forward to this event for a purely selfish reason. I’m feeling the need to compete. As most of my close friends and family know, I’m pretty competitive, so the last few months have definitely been a learning experience. One of the things that I’ve found most challenging with parkour is that I find it difficult to gauge my progress if I’m not competing. With track I was always running against teammates or against the clock. With parkour I’m always competing against myself, which is not always the most uplifting experience, since no matter how well I do, I can never “win” (something that is not necessarily valued by everyone, although I’ve found that Americans tend to prize “winning” more than the Europeans I’ve met- another subject for another post). So I’m curious to see what happens when I line up at the line tomorrow…

Not quite what I’m expecting but who knows? One thing is clear- I'll definitely miss running in the "pack".

Results and (hopefully) pictures to come in the next post...

Rendezvous 5

So I realize that I’m writing about this post a month after the event took place but it has taken me a while to totally digest the action-packed few days that were “Rendezvous 5”. This event, which took place on August 14th and 15th and was hosted by Parkour Generations in the Southbank region of London (near Waterloo Station in London), was a sort of international gathering of traceurs, similar to the ADD Experience that I went to in France this past June (see first blog post). The weekend included 2 full days of training sessions, workshops, group discussions, and general networking with traceurs from around the world, but with a special focus on those from throughout the UK. While the activities and training was great, the thing that made the event so special was the atmosphere that pervaded the event.

The logo of Rendezvous 5, designed by Andy Pearson.

After having endured several weeks of veterans hyping the event, I was both curious, and I’ll admit it, a bit apprehensive about the event. After the ADD Experience in France, I figured that I had been to the best parkour event possible and couldn’t see what the Brits could do to equal it. In retrospective, I think that this might have been due to the fact that I hadn’t quite come to understand the depth of the Parkour Generations organization yet, and also because I was (am still am) fiercely loyal to the group of people that “introduced” me to parkour.

The event started early Saturday morning with a group warm-up session on the roof of one of the big theaters in the Southbank district. The group size was impressive in and of itself, with more than 150 people showing up to the first day’s events. The participants ranged from veterans who had started practicing 7+ years ago after the first videos and documentaries came out, to people that had heard about the event from friends and had decided to try it out for the first time (needless to say, they were pretty sore after the first day). As usual, the diversity of nationalities was also impressive, with lots of people flying in for the event from all over Europe, with strong representation from Italy and France. The event also featured special guest instructors from abroad, with Laurent Piemontesi (the Yamakasi founder who I trained with last summer and who had a profound effect on my interest in the philosophy of the sport) coming in from Italy where he is establishing a parkour academy; Sebastian Foucan (James Bond: Casino Royale); Chau Belle-Dinh, Serika Kingman, and a few other members of the Yamakasi/Majestic Force/ADD Academy team; and a number of Parkour Generations “ambassadors” who seemed to reconvene from all corners of the world for this event.

Yamakasi founder Laurent (left) and co-Director of Parkour Generations, Forrest (right). Two people who have had a huge influence on my training and development in parkour.

The instructors- it would be hard to find a more talented or open group of people.

After a grueling warm-up led by Châu and the Majestic Force guys, the participants were divided into groups based on skill levels and sent to different locations around the Southbank area. We spent the rest of the day rotating among the different instructors in our small groups, with each “station” working on a different skill set, usually with a heavy influence from the particular instructor’s personal style. After 8 hours of training, many people headed back home to recover in time for the next day, while the “hardbodies” (or masochists) met up again after dinner for a “night-training” session. Slightly different from a typical training session, practicing at night in an abandoned housing project definitely gave me a new perspective on movement and a lot of the things that one doesn’t think about in broad daylight. The entire 2-hour session was conducted in compete silence, from the mimed warm-up to the “follow the leader” challenge that took us through the 3-acre estate. I’m convinced that if we had attempted this in an inhabited housing development someone would have called the police, but the fact that the windows boarded up, there were no barking dogs or murmur of voices, and even the traffic seemed muted by the dark and abandoned towers around us. This environment amplified every sound and made us painfully aware of the scrape of trainers on a misjudged step, the thump of landings not made on the balls of feet, the clap of palms that missed their marks, the scuffle of leaves underfoot, or the muttered curses that escape when the overhang jumps out from nowhere to attack one’s head. Since moving efficiently and smoothly ideally involves very little noise, this night exercise was a great way to make one aware of corrections that needed to be made.

Stephane Vigroux, one of the instructors for the night training session. Photo courtesy of Andy Day Photography.

Sunday morning saw another early start (it felt especially early for those who had just gone to bed after getting back from the night session) and full day of training with the different instructors and trying to absorb as much of their knowledge and the general atmosphere as possible.

The first official picture of me actually doing some of the stuff I’m writing about.

One of the most striking things about this weekend for me was the spirit of community that seemed to pervade all the events. While the atmosphere had subtle differences from the one that I encountered in France, (one might chalk that up to one being French and the other British), the spirit of cooperation, unity, and pursuit of the common goal of personal development and general fitness were the same. These events really seem to be the glue that binds a lot of these organizations together. The friendships and mutual respect that are forged by two days of blood and sweat seem to create a “community” aspect to parkour that I think stems from the inclusive and progressive philosophy of the sport. An example of this is the accommodations set up for the event, with all of the “imported” instructors being hosted by Parkour Generations team members, and many of the foreign participants staying with friends that they had made at previous events.

The warmup at RDV5 (Photo courtesy of Parkour Generations)

Maybe it is the stark contrast with the individualistic aspect of the sport that makes this sense of community so striking, but it gives me a lot of hope for the development of the sport, and the desire for it to outlast the labels of “fad” or “fashion”. Much the same way that the sport of Frisbee can only be played as long as the “spirit of the game” is respected, parkour seems to depend on this as well. Not only do traceurs have to keep the reputation of the entire sport in mind when they practice, since one incident with an unhappy resident or damaged private property can result in a city-wide ban on the sport or an unfavorable view in the eyes of authorities, but also because so much of the development of the sport seems to depend on the sharing of knowledge and experiences- moves, techniques, conditioning exercises, practice spots…

Perhaps one of the best ways to capture the attitude of this weekend is with the phrase that became the mantra of the weekend, “We start together, we finish together”. Originally taken from the Yamakasi expression “On commence ensemble, on finit ensemble”, it not only describes the general practice of waiting for everyone to finish the set/route/rep before continuing as a group, but also of a state of awareness for the safety and well-being of the others that one is training with.

Rendezvous 5: I’m in the top left, sporting a bright orange shirt and the usual tousled mane.

For more pictures of the event (there are a lot of great ones) check out Andy Day's shots from the night session HERE or pics from the Parkour Generations site HERE.