Longboarding – The Voices Made Me Do It

I bought a longboard before I could talk myself out of it. It wasn’t a sensible decision. I noticed my backpack had straps to hold a skateboard, and I remembered that I’ve wanted to skate for a long time. It’s always the same story with these things. I’m walking along and I see something, like someone cruising along on a skateboard, and I stop dead in my tracks to watch. My heart soars a little bit. I want to try it so much that it almost hurts. Then that ever-present voice starts whispering in my ear – “Come on. Be sensible. You can’t do that – you’d just fall. You’d just make a fool of yourself. That’s not for you. Let’s be realistic.” My heart drops. I obediently start trudging forward again, in a straight line, sensibly. The skater is already out of sight.

Things have changed lately, though. Sometimes there’s another voice – a tiny whisper of rebellion. It says “realistic” is an excuse to avoid trying, and “sensible” is a lie designed to keep me in my safe but depressing comfort zone. It asks me what I’m more afraid of, deep down – falling over, or always being the one watching and wishing that was me? So this time, when I realised how sensible it would be to forget about longboards and all that nonsense, I got one.

This kind of makes it sound like I bought a longboard because the voices told me to, doesn’t it?

I took it to the park, feeling like everyone was staring at me in my bright red helmet, plucked up my courage, got on the board, and stumbled off instantly. “Told you so,” said that insidious voice. “What were you thinking? You look stupid. What a waste of money.” So I got back on.

The next several lunchtimes were spent plucking up my courage, getting on, moving slightly, and stumbling off. I stopped focussing on how stupid I looked. The intervals between stumbles grew longer. I learned that I could actually make the board turn. I started to attempt tiny little slopes, panicking partway down and jumping off. It was kind of like a montage, only slower, taking place over several different periods of time with lots of space in between, and sadly lacking in motivational background music.

I got to the usual panic point on my tiny slope one day, and something strange happened. Instead of involuntarily stiffening up, I relaxed. All my doubts fell away. I was moving fast, I was in control, and I was not afraid. I was riding, and I was happy. The nagging voice was silent.

I’ve started making tentative attempts to skate with other people. It took a few weeks to get the nerve up to try the Sunday Slalom Skateboarding School, where an incredibly good skater with all the patience in the world has already taught me to stand properly and increased my confidence massively. Slalom basically involves going around cones. It turns out that my massive beast of a board isn’t so great for that, but I’ve been able to borrow one to play with both times I’ve gone along. My next step is to attempt the Saturday morning beginner slide sessions at Crystal Palace. If they’re as nice as the slalom people, I think it’ll be okay.

I love my longboard. I can’t do any tricks, and I’m not very fast, but I love trundling along on it. I love the feeling of balancing, and turning, and dodging around things in the way – but there’s something else too. That voice that’s always telling me I’ll fail, that I’m going to fall, that I can’t do it gets a little bit quieter and more tentative every time – and the rebellious whisper gets a little bit louder. That feels pretty damn good.

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Inside a Parkour Gym

My regular gym doesn’t have top of the range cardio equipment. It doesn’t have Nautilus machines, a juice bar, dumbbells or free towels. Instead, it has squat racks, barbells, two benches, some giant tyres and a whole lot of scaffolding jammed into some concrete. My training and social life both pretty much revolve around it. Welcome to the Chainstore.

On one side, we have an open area, the racks (my preciousssss), the platform (it’s a spongy bit of floor for dropping weights onto, FYI) and the weights:

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On the other side, we have a magical parkour playground known as the parkour zone. There’s a mini climbing wall, scaffolding, boxes and concrete. The scaffolding moves around regularly, so there’s no point in getting attached to the layout:

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I am at Chainstore almost every day (feel free to say hi) and yet I still never know what to expect. I might come in planning to work on some balancing and leave two hours later, having spent the evening on impromptu routes that all end in sliding down a slope. I might plan to work on vaults and end up doing nothing but precisions, because I can see other people doing them.

I never know exactly who to expect, either. I might finish a squat set, turn around, and see a weightlifter trying to balance on top of a 250kg tractor tyre as someone runs inside it like a hamster wheel. Sometimes it’s an acrobat practicing backflips. Sometimes it’s an entire parkour class sweating copiously as they crawl up and down during their warmup. Sometimes I walk through the door and see a bunch of friends, and sometimes it’s populated by people I have never met before.

If you’ve ever been to a climbing wall, you’ll know that even when you go alone, you end up cooperating with others – taking turns on routes, figuring out problems and so on. The parkour zone is no different. I have seen one box incorporated into three training routes for three separate groups of people at the same time, with absolutely no conflict or problems whatsoever. I’ve seen people join in with each others’ training, help each other with techniques and learn just by watching. There are times when I feel like I can’t be bothered to push myself, and then I see someone facing up to their own fears and weaknesses, and suddenly I have the energy after all.

The conditioning area is more like a regular gym, minus the rows of ellipticals etc (which sucks if you desperately needed to simulate walking through syrup, I guess). The squat racks double as pull up/muscle up apparatus, there are gymnastic rings for upper body shenanigans and a handy ladder allows for much swinging and bizarre stunts.

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You would expect these weight plates to be used for lifting, but this is a parkour gym, so they also double as height-adjusters for vaults, end up spread over the floor for strides and get stacked on top of the small concrete wall for box jumps.

All sorts of things happen in the wide open gym space. Sometimes it’s covered with mats and boxes for tumbling. Sometimes it’s full of Crossfit 1864. If you want to do Crossfit, you should give them a shot, by the way – I know Crossfit gets talked down a lot on the interweb, but looking at these guys, I can’t see why. They train like beasts and seem really supportive of each other. They have skipping ropes, barbells and a whiteboard, and they are not afraid to use them. If you’re allergic to hard work it’s probably not for you, though. They don’t screw around.

This place has heart, and it has spirit. It has people who will spot each others’ squats, and give friendly advice to n00bs. It has people who train so incredibly hard that it will inspire you, and people who move with such grace and skill that it’s a sheer joy to watch them. It has people who will play on the railings with you, help you to push yourself harder and challenge you. No treadmills, though. Sorry about that.

Pyramid Schemes

Nobody’s ever going to accuse me of being a quick learner when it comes to parkour. Not only that, but I often have trouble with standard progressions – whereas many people could, say, learn to vault sideways onto an object and progress fairly naturally to a turn vault, I won’t. I will stare at you blankly, and perform a Fuck You Step Vault (at which I am an expert. I may not display technical perfection, but nobody puts intent into that step vault like I can). I’m not unwilling. I just don’t learn in that way, and the way I see it, I had three options – continue to be confused, quit, or figure out how I actually do learn, because no matter how good coaches are (and PK Gen coaching is brilliant) they are not psychic, and because I am ultimately responsible for my own learning.

Nobody’s ever going to accuse me of being a quitter. That left me with continue or figure it out, and being a bit bored with step vaults, I started to consider the learning process.

I have noticed that I am very easily overwhelmed. When it comes to an explosive movement like a turn vault, I am likely to experience brain freeze when trying to figure it out. There’s a place you take off, and there’s a bit in between when you’re up and which leg goes up first and what happens to the other one and then my hands are meant to be somewhere and I DON’T UNDERSTAND OH GOD JUST STEP VAULT. It’s just too much. I needed to break it down somehow, and that’s when I started thinking in pyramids.

At the top of my pyramid is the target skill (in this case, a turn vault). You can’t just stick the top of a pyramid in the air and expect it to float unless you’re telekinetic, so I need to look at what supports a turn vault. From my point of view, I needed physical capabilities and mental ones. So far, my pyramid looks like this:

Turn vault (yay)

Physical ability     Mental ability

Layer three – To physically perform a turn vault, I needed jump strength, timing and the ability to hold myself in the air with my arms. All of these were fine. Brain-wise, I needed knowledge, proprioception, and confidence.

Turn vault (yay)

Physical ability                           Mental ability

Jump strength Timing Arm strength Technical knowledge Proprioception Confidence

I was unsure of my proprioception – without much vault experience, I didn’t really understand how airtime felt and so was confused about how to vault (catch 22!). This kind of rules out having any confidence.

While I could happily side vault onto something and then jump off, which should indicate that I could turn vault, I hadn’t built the confidence and the ability to control myself in the air. This was like a missing block in my pyramid, and fixing that became my new target.

This is the embarrassing part. The only way I could think of to do this was to bunny hop over a knee-high block over and over, holding myself up as long as I could in the air. This does not look impressive, particularly when everyone else is training ridiculous backflips and wallruns up a seven foot wall. Guess what, though? It worked. I got more experience of airtime, and when I went back to the turn vault, it was no longer a completely overwhelming idea. For the first time, I found myself able to do turn vaults at just about hip height.

This doesn’t just work for turn vaults, or even just for parkour. What do I need in order to be able to get on a longboard? Physically, I need balance, some strength, coordination. Mentally, I need the confidence to try, to be able to deal with moving at speed without panicking, the technical knowledge of how to make the thing go. These are the bricks in my pyramid. Are any of them a problem? If so, what do I need to do to fix them?

This may all sound cheesy, but it prevents me from becoming overwhelmed by a complex-seeming skill. It’s not a single movement that I am incapable of. It’s the peak of a pyramid made up of simpler skills, all of which are buildable. Do the basic supporting skills sound too overwhelming? Okay. Break those down into another pyramid layer.

Nobody’s ever going to accuse me of being a quick learner. But I’ll always find a way.

Reasons I’m not coming down from here

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I came up here and then remembered I’m scared of heights. Hint: I’m not the confident-looking one.
  • It took three people about twenty minutes of coaxing, boosting and pulling to get me up here. They should get their money’s worth – it seems an awful waste if I come down now.
  • I can actually see things from up here. I’m 5’1”. Being able to see things other than everyone else’s elbows is a novelty. This is fun!
  • You know, this is actually a lot higher than it looked from down there, and it looked pretty damn high from down there. I’m really high up. I’m having strong feelings about this.
  • I don’t think I thought this through properly. I actually don’t really know how to get down. I don’t think I can. Oh god help me I’m stuck I can’t get down
  • No, it’s fine. I like it up here anyway. I am embracing my new life in the sky. Can someone maybe bring me some protein snacks and a sleeping bag?

(image by Violeta Beral)

Reasons to keep going when you suck

I’m not a reflective person. I don’t set serious new year’s resolutions – my list for this year included “eat a meatfood,” “stand on a thing” and “run at people going ‘SKREEEEAAARRRGHH.” So at the start of 2014, I didn’t have a massive plan to get fitter, hit any parkour milestones, lose ten pounds, eat more vegetables or any of those other things people get resolved about.

However, I started lifting, and it turned out that I really like it. It is genuinely the first time in my life I have tried a sport and thought “hey, maybe I don’t have to be the worst at this forever.” That’s probably the most confidence in a physical activity that I have ever experienced. I mean, I really, really like it. If I could marry weightlifting or strength training, I’d probably get down on bended knee and propose.

With the interest in strength gainz came an interest in nutrition, and with advice from a friend (thanks, Emmett – his blog is here, and you should all check it out) and with a bunch of strength training through Parkour Generations (thanks, Kristian and Bobby – you tha mans!) I somehow ended up at the end of 2014 fitter than I’ve been in my entire life. Now, this isn’t saying a lot. I’m still not great, but the improvement from my starting fitness level was huge. I lost about 6-8kg, and probably more than that in body fat, considering I visibly gained some muscle mass and more than doubled my initial back squat. Basically, I’m not as fit as pretty much any of the parkour guys, but I can pass as okay if you put me in a room full of office workers.

This has changed everything for me. I’ve noticed so many changes that may not seem impressive to the hardcore people out there, but they matter a lot to me.

  • Things that used to be hard work have become pure play. Sometimes I do stuff for fun – just going for a bit of a run (just a jog, let’s not get excited. I’m not an ultrarunner), going slacklining, trying random new things like hash running – that a few months ago would have been “exercise” and probably quite tough on me.
  • Basic day to day mobility – this is something that people who have always been fit may not appreciate or understand, but there are people out there who get tired out climbing a small flight of stairs. I have had workmates tell me that they consider a 600 metre walk to the shops a long way. Welcome to the world of the deskbound worker! I take it for granted that a few stairs or a short walk won’t be hard. That is not the case for everyone.
  • There’s a whole new world of things out there to experience and learn. I’ve spent my whole life pretty much assuming that only a certain type of person could try awesome things. Those people were “physical people,” and I was not “physical.” This probably sounds unbelievably stupid to anyone who has always been regularly active, but I swear it’s not just me. I hear other people express similar sentiments so often, without even thinking about it. I still catch myself thinking that way sometimes, but I’m slowly outgrowing it. Last summer, I tried acrobatics! Handstands! Tumbling! Things that I’d always watched from the sidelines, sure that they were not for people like me.
  • Certain goals (not flying or squatting 500kg) are achievable and concrete. I used to unconsciously divide things into “possible” and “nope.” Pull ups, for example – it never stopped me trying, but I never believed I would be able to do a pull up. Once I learned that structured and consistent training genuinely does make these things happen, it changed everything. Instead of categorising things as undoable, I now look at them and consider what to work on to achieve them.

I’m sure all of this is obvious and quite laughable to people with a sports or athletic background (if you make fun of me for writing this, guys, I will cut you), but I firmly believe that there are loads of other people out there who always lag at the back of classes or running groups, who feel out of place training with other people, who have “never been physical,” who have “bad coordination,” and who have come home from training sessions crying because they feel useless. I promise it will get better. Please don’t ever give up!