Saturday, February 25, 2012

The "Parkour Pilgrimage" Documentary

While hanging out with Duncan he told me about the documentary "Parkour Pilgrimage" that he made in 2008 documenting his trip to Europe to train and "pay homage" to the parkour legacy there and to experience parkour in a part of the world that was years ahead of the American parkour scene at the time.  While minor elements of the film may seem a bit outdated today, the work as a whole is still very relevant and I'd highly recommend it for anyone that is interested in parkour, especially those looking to understand more about the sport outside their own communities.

A visit to Duncan/TK17's classroom

On my last day with Duncan I went to visit his classroom to see where he works and get a sense of the work he's doing for the next generation of traceurs in North Carolina.  While I’d had doubts as to the “normalcy” of any class lead by him, what I saw had me wishing that I could go back to elementary school to be in his class.  Between the random things that he has set up around the room to keep occupied while the kids are working (he’s definitely not the type of teacher that sits behind the desk and lectures) and the various projects that he has the kids working on, it doesn't surprise me at all that he likes his job.

Duncan is not the kind of teacher to just sit there or read a book while his students are working.
In addition to his job as “world’s coolest teacher” Duncan has also started up a parkour club at his school that is steadily growing.  Having met some of the “graduates” of the program in my first training session at Chapel Hill, I was happy to see that not only is he teaching in accordance with the Yamakasi philosophy, he seems to have managed to avoid many of the hot-heads and adrenaline junkies that seem to be especially drawn to the sport in the US.  The video below shows some of the training sessions that Duncan runs at his school at the after-school "parkour club".

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

East Coast Mini Road-trip: Greensboro, NC with TK17

After the afternoon spent photographing spots around Chapel Hill Duncan and I drove to Greensboro to check out some of his favorite haunts there.  I’ve encountered very few people during my travels that I’ve immediately felt a bond or connection with based on our training styles but training with Duncan was a lot of fun.  Greensboro turned out to have a number of great places to train and we only ended up leaving when hunger and lack of light persuaded us that it was time to go.

Duncan's video "Go" below is not only one of the better parkour videos that I’ve seen, but it also gives some great views of the training spots around Greensboro and UNC Chapel Hill that I had the opportunity to visit.

East Coast Mini Road-trip: UNC Chapel Hill with TK17

I was first introduced to Duncan Germain, known to most of the world by his internet screenname of “TK17”, through our mutual friend Dr. Julie Angel, who put him on the list of parkour people I should make sure to meet during my time back home in the USA.

A bit of background on Duncan before I talk more about the visit.  Duncan was one of the first traceurs in the US, starting way before most Americans knew what it was.  Like most of the earliest practionners in countries around the world, he was introduced to the sport via the internet and received much of his inspiration and information from the videos and forums that were the basic links between the earliest generations of traceurs outside of France.  Over time he became very involved with the 3Run forums and became close friends with a number of traceurs in the UK after visits there where he was hosted by some of the guys.  Despite his early start in the sport, Duncan seems to be fairly unknown today, both because of a long hiatus after he broke his foot and “retired” from the sport for 2 years, and because he has remained fairly aloof from the American scene due to  differences in the training and philosophy of many American traceurs.  As an American that was introduced to parkour in France and the UK, I can understand the culture shock that comes from the differences between the continents and we had a lot in common in the way that we approached parkour and our training.  In addition to have tons of parkour experience, Duncan is also a fairly accomplished filmmaker (the video below shows him in a trip to Lisses/Evry outside Paris a few years ago).

Duncan met me at the bus station and in true parkour globetrotter fashion we immediately drove to UNC Chapel Hill for a training session that Duncan and some of the other guys had organized.  The session went really well and I was surprised to find that not only did they have a clear objective of “show Blake as many of the key spots on campus as possible”, but unlike a lot of training sessions I’ve been to, we didn’t waste much time messing around at and between spots.  This was refreshing change of pace from the “jam mentality” that seems to dominate so many training sessions and also gave me the chance to see most of the best spots at UNC Chapel Hill in the span of a few hours (there are a lot).  For those that are not familiar with American universities, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is one of the biggest schools in the country with over (28,000 of students), and is very well respected for both its academics and also its top-level sports teams (Michael Jordan played college basketball there before going to the NBA).  The campus itself is beautiful in any season and I’d been to a large number of track meets hosted on its top-notch indoor and outdoor tracks.  The campus also happens to be an amazing place to train and has a ton of great spots for traceurs of all skill levels to train any manner of movement.

One spot with a ton of potential.  Perhaps one of the most variety I've seen in one place outside of Elephant & Castle in London.

From another vantage point.

You would think that they were specially designed for parkour...

After 3 hours of training and jogging around the campus, I realized that I had spent nearly the entire session in constant motion and by then it was too dark to take pictures of the places that I’d visited so I decided to come back the next day to document some of the spots.

And it continues...

One of the more daunting gap jumps that is on my list of stuff to do on a return visit.

Even the track stadium, where I raced multiple times when at Davidson, had a ton of stuff just right outside.

During my day hanging out at Chapel Hill I spent some time with Colin from 5th Ape, a parkour, crossfit, and fitness company in the area that offers classes and teaches workshops in their unique style of movement and fitness.  Like with Duncan, I immediately found that Colin and I had a lot in common and we spent an afternoon talking about his experiences and plans for 5th Ape.  For more information about 5th Ape, check out his site here.

Friday, February 17, 2012

East Coast Mini Road-trip - UVA at Charlottesville, VA

After my time in DC came to a close I hopped on a train to Charlottesville, Virginia to visit some close friends from Davidson and also to check out the parkour scene I’d heard rumors about.  I had initially started looking for a parkour scene at the University of Virginia my senior year at Davidson when I was applying to graduate school there and had seen evidence of a UVA PK internet presence but heard of much more than that to confirm its actual existence.

UVA, like most major university campuses in the USA apparently, is a great place to train and seems ripe for further exploration.  I managed to meet up with the school approved parkour group during my visit to train with them a few times and while the group is young, the members were very welcoming and showed me around their campus.  After a brief hiatus the past year or two, the group has been resurrected by John and Momin, who seem to have both the organizational skills and the motivation to pull something like this off.  I’m looking forward to a return visit to the campus to see what they develop.

For more information on the UVA Parkour Assoc. check out their UVA website or Facebook page.

One of the many campus elements that were perfect for training.

The reason why American universities are often great for parkour, lots of railings, ramps, and open space.

East Coast Mini Road-trip - American Parkour in DC

I spent the evening of my arrival in DC as well as my second full day in the city with American Parkour (APK), based in central DC between the Truxton Circle and NoMa neighborhoods.  Over the course of my travels I’d heard a lot about this organization, and learned about it’s impressive media and internet presence.  While I had mixed expectations about what I’d find, I was excited to finally be able to meet the people behind it all. 

My first impression of the Primal Fitness/American Parkour building was of a bee-hive of organized chaos (which very different from chaotic organization) as I walked in the big front door to find myself in the midst of a cross-fit training session in full swing.  Weaving my way through the room full of people sweating and grunting as they pounded out their lunch hour WOD (workout of the day) I made my way to the front desk.  After being greeted and signed in by the interns on staff I took a seat in the corner to witness the daily routine of the gym as I waited to meet with Mark and Travis. 

APK and Primal Fitness World Headquarters.
The building, a converted firehouse, was very different from the other buildings I’d seen other parkour gyms hosted in, both because it was built in 1895, and also because of the patchwork of improvement projects and renovations that left it with the feel of part cross-fit gym, part jungle gym, and part-little kid’s dream house.  The classes going on amid the perpetual hammering, sawing, and unpainted surfaces meant that they didn’t have the same glossed and polished look that other places I’ve visited had, but at the same time, it also felt like the gym was never meant to have that look anyway, as there would always be things to improve or tinker with.  This feeling was soon explained by my first encounter with the owner, Mark Toorock, aka M2, who broke away from his POD (“project-of-the-day) of making longboard racks to hang in the reception area to say hello and good-naturedly berate the interns on duty, Tony and Tron*, who seemed more intent on bouncing around and rough-housing than in running the front desk or helping with the facility improvement.

The reception area, whilst Tron and Tony were off flipping around.

The "POD" - apparently longboarding isn't just unique to the Melbourne traceurs.
*A quick note about Tony and Tron.  These two 16 year-old guys are 2 of 6 “interns” that are part of the APK mentoring program in which the participants work at the gym in return for free training time.  Both the guys come from difficult backgrounds in the inner-city, but they have embraced parkour wholeheartedly and have made huge progress over the 2 years that they’ve been hanging out with the APK guys, who have formed a sort of second family, complete with “family dinners” and “rules of the house”.  Talking to Mark about the project was really interesting and the academic progress that the interns have made (they have to maintain B’s to remain in the program) is yet more testament to the power of sport, and specifically parkour, to change lives.

Yeah, they like to flip a lot...

While Mark was finishing his racks I got a chance to explore the facility with Knox, who became my official tour guide for the visit.  The ground floor (or first floor depending on which side of the pond you’re on) is home to the main training area, which is used for the Primal Fitness crossfit classes and also for some of the parkour classes.  The space includes a lot of equipment for a fairly small area, and is outfitted with a variety of pull-up bars, rings, ropes, kettlebells, weights, vault boxes of various sizes, and even a “Ninja Warrior Ladder” (seems like a trend…).

The second floor is divided between the offices of American Parkour/Primal Fitness (the “World Headquarters of the APK” as I heard it referred to) and a second training area.  The “offices” include a lot of computing power that is at the heart of the significant APK internet presence especially in the USA.  According to Mark, the APK site is the most popular parkour site in the USA and has 70,000 - 100,000 visitors/month, and 11,000 people receive the daily “Parkour WOD” that Travis sends out.  While part of me suspects that part of the credit should probably go to the clever naming of the company to fit with web searches, Mark and his crew also deserve a lot of credit for the work that they’ve done over the years (they have been involved in the US parkour scene for a while now).  The office is where most of the preparations and logistical work for the APK and The Tribe takes place (the media events company that includes many of the APK members) and is also where many of their videos are produced. (the APK YouTube Channel).  While all the fancy computer equipment can crank out a lot of work it was good to see that on the Friday afternoon of my visit it was also put to use to dominating the occasional online Tetris challenge (where I saw Tetris brought to a level of skill and intensity far beyond “occasional gamer”).

The second training area was pretty cool and a large amount of the space was dominated by a floor-to-ceiling scaffolding set-up.  Knox showed me around the scaf, and we spent a while messing around on it as I have a particular affinity for anything resembling the playgrounds and monkey-bars of my childhood.  As he essentially lives on the scaf, Knox had some really smooth “routines” worked out which gave me plenty of things to work on during my visit.  The space also included a number of mats, vault boxes, and rails to allow for all sorts of training and set-ups, as well as a number of window ledges and window frames that made for some unique precision jumps and landings.  The small hole in the ceiling you see in the video below is the entrance to the renovated 3rd floor/attic, which happens to be Mark's bedroom, which is one of the coolest bedrooms I've seen- sorry, no pics for Mark's sake (Mark assures me it's a great place to live, but he's had to get used to some extreme temperatures).

Knox - 2 Hours in a Birdman Shirt from Daniel Mannino on Vimeo.

After the afternoon’s activities simmered down a bit I had a chance to talk to Mark and Travis (Graves) about their experiences and perspectives on the development of parkour in DC, the growth of APK since its inception in 2006, and a lot more information about the scene in general in the US.  This was really helpful for me since they have both been involved with the sport for a while now and both are highly regarded for their parkour skills or organizational prowess in many circles around the world.  By the end of my time in DC I was starting to feel that I had a slightly better grasp on the development and current state of parkour in my home country.

After a quick bite to eat at the local Safeway supermarket (a key to any good parkour training spot’s long-term success- a low-cost source for food that has a wide variety of foods, healthy and otherwise) I headed back to the gym to join in the evening “parkour conditioning” class, led by Rob (he led the whole class on one leg since he had broken the other in a car accident shortly before).  The class was good, although the wide range in skill and fitness levels meant that I wasn’t as tired after the class as I had become accustomed to in London.  That being said, the class included some exercises and equipment that I hadn’t seen featured in parkour classes before, like the Prowler, that were obviously a cross-over from the cross-fit classes and which I found to be both effective and challenging (although they don’t work for traveling light).

After the class.
My time at APK happened to overlap with visits by the dynamic duo of Hamid and James, who had driven down from Michigan to hang out with Travis, Levi, (Meeuwenberg, one of the first nationally-known American traceurs and well-known for his work with Tempest Freerunning) and Natalie, who was about to embark on a cross-country parkour tour.  The fact that it was a Friday leant a particular flavor to the day’s proceedings, and after spending the afternoon jumping around, things started to get wilder as evening fell. 

After the official classes there was the Friday night “Open Gym” which gave me my one of my only glimpses at the parkour community that exists in the area.  Unfortunately both the class and the open gym that I attended didn’t have huge turnouts and I wasn’t able to stick around for a normal “parkour training” class so I didn’t get a chance to get a good feel for the APK community as a whole.  Despite that, a number of people showed up for Friday’s session and the resulting movement and games of “Add-on” (or “+1”) were a lot of fun (especially since I finally managed to master a few of the moves that I’d been working on over the past day and a half).  As the training only seemed to increase our energy levels, after the session we headed out to explore the DC night scene, which turned out to be a fitting finale to my visit to the city.  However, I feel that I was only able to see the tip of the iceberg concerning the parkour scene in DC due to the briefness of my visit so I’m looking forward to a return visit.

Before people started showing up for the Open Gym.
More information on American Parkour its extensive internet database or the classes they run in DC, Gainesville, and San Antonio.

More information on PrimalFitness.