Friday, February 17, 2012

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.

1 comment:

  1. woot woot, yeah Blake! Glad you enjoyed your time in DC, you'll definitely have to go back and check out the outdoor spots- they're killer.-Natalie