Stepping up

Every time someone asks me how long I have been doing parkour, I feel a twist of anxiety in my guts. The truth is, I have been training (with long breaks due to injury and other unpleasant things) for about six years, and yet every single time I am at a class or event where we break down into groups, I put myself into a beginner group for new to fairly new people.

I rationalise this pretty well. I’ve trained for years, yes, but my ability is pretty low in a lot of areas – I do not jump far, my wall runs aren’t very high, I’m not very confident, I may be recovering from an injury or serious mental health stuff, it doesn’t matter anyway because you get challenged whichever group you are in, whatever. And sometimes that is fine. Spending some time in the complete beginner group when you are returning from a major concussion is pretty damn reasonable. In my case, however, I was beginner for life.

This was entirely defined by what I cannot do, with no consideration for what I can do and what I know pretty well. I cannot jump very far – but I can land with precision and I understand technique well enough to know when and why I want to jump two footed (never, thanks, I hate it), one footed, and with different power levels. I can’t jump to rails with confidence but where they are low enough and a comfortable distance for me, I am fully capable of doing so and sticking the landing. I cannot wall run very high but understand what I need to work on and how to do it. I am not very able to all with cat leaps, but this is thanks to a shoulder injury keeping me off them and not a basic lack of understanding. I am afraid on high, rounded rails but am perfectly capable of balance and can do a few variations. On a flat rail I am happy to balance at height, and am able to bail safely enough to do so in situations where an uncontrolled fall would mean serious injury or death.

None of these things are a hallmark of a complete beginner with little to no training. I have been completely ignoring what I have learned over the past few years.

What I didn’t fully realise until these weekend is that my lack of progression is in part due to my choice to keep at a lower level.¬†How can I start to work on my technical hangups and improve my vaults if I keep myself in the group of newcomers who are just starting to learn how to get over a wall? In what way will it improve my jump skills to keep myself learning absolute precision basics over and over again? Training those basics is vital, but I have years of knowledge and am capable of doing so on my own.

And so I made a choice to draw a line under that, grow a pair (of whatever) and step up – and that is why I put myself squarely into the intermediate group at Rendezvous XII.

It was the best RDV weekend I have had in years, and this is why:

  1. I’m going to sound very unlike myelf for a minute. I’m never going to be an awesome top-tier parkour expert but… it turns out I am so capable. I am so much more capable than I realised. I cannot get over how much I can actually do. It may not be impressive to experienced traceurs, but holy shit yes I can balance VERY HIGH UP with confidence, I can chuck myself forward on a rail (not at danger height!) and still land safely and controlled, I can do weird step vaults over slippery, awkwardly angled branches, I can clamber up old drainpipes and across stairwells pretty good. I can drop from height, I can jump from difficult angles onto weird targets. If I had done my usual “Well I’m not so good at stuff, better stay in beginner group” I would not have done all this to the level I did over the past three days. People in any group at these events are challenged, but the higher level of the people around me meant that partners and coaches expected more of me – but instead of scaring me, it gave me the confidence to believe that yes, I am so very capable.
  2. I knew more people in my group. Beginner groups are often really great for getting to meet new people, as most people in them have not been around for a huge amount of time. Seeing your new friends grow and develop over a weekend is magical. It amazes me how much people can learn and change over an intensive few days like RDV – people come in on the first day looking scared and apologising for how bad they imagine themselves to be, and a couple of days later they are hardened, can do things they never imagined and have pushed each other and built each others’ confidence as they faced stuff they are probably not at all used to. You don’t come out of a weekend like that unchanged. But when I joined the intermediate group, I met people who had travelled to be there and also got to hang out with people I have trained with. We knew how to help each other out and cheer each other on. Nobody demanded I be able to do everything (thankfully) but everyone’s assumption that yes, I belonged here and have experience and ability pushed it home that I am very much part of London parkour. It was not a surprise to anyone that I could do things.
  3. Honestly, there was plenty I couldn’t do. My wall runs need an awful lot of work. I need to take more (calculated) risks with my vaults. I need to be less hesitant with jumps and risk bailing (which we worked on, by the way – this was especially helpful for me). This is something I was very much afraid of. Even though I know it doesn’t work tat way, I was afraid that I would be told by someone that I couldn’t keep up and that I should go to the next group down, that my inability was bringing the group down and that I didn’t belong there. Sorry, guys. I know you’d never do that. I just get irrational fears sometimes. In actual fact, the things I couldn’t do were helpful. I needed that challenge all along. I didn’t collapse in an emotional heap. I finally understand that I should be training at a level where I struggle to keep up sometimes and that it doesn’t have to make me feel bad about myself. At one point, we were crawling along hanging underneath a rope. I was so much slower than everyone else – and instead of sadly accepting that I was too low in ability level, I automatically assumed that I could do it if only I figured out where I was going wrong. It turned out that I just needed to stop trying to keep three points of contact at all times.

If I had stayed at my comfortable fake beginner level, I would still have trained hard this weekend. I would still have challenged myself and learned stuff. But I would not have come away with a huge confidence boost, the realisation that all the coaches who have been telling me I am better than I think I am have been right all along, and the overwhelming eagerness to make some real progress. It is well past time I level up, and it is going to happen.


Surviving the Night Mission

I did something difficult recently. I undertook a Night Mission with Parkour Generations.

This wasn’t the first time I’ve done one. It’s not something you do lightly, it’s not something you can do often, and it’s never easy. The basic idea is that you train parkour all night. No, that’s not sensible. It’s not part of a sustainable training program where you eat the exact right stuff, train the same things consistently for set goals and get enough sleep every single night. So why would you do it?

Sustainable training is really important in parkour. I’ve been taught to drill movements over and over, to condition myself sensibly so that I can deal with high impact jumps, to be aware of my diet. You cannot just do mad things without sensible training and hope to still be active and healthy decades down the line.

But where parkour differs from the other sports I love is the need for a wild card every now and then. In parkour, you face things you don’t expect. That wall is going to be a foot higher than you have been carefully training. that rail might not be entirely steady. Bucketing rain might turn a safe landing point into a slippery death trap. You might get chased off from your chosen training spot. When you train in the gym, the only thing you really can’t predict is how long the wait for a rack will be. In parkour, you have to be ready to adapt to any number of unexpected factors.

The Night Mission is one of those wild cards. What is it like to try to do your thing at 2am when it’s dark, you’re tired and you should be in bed? How does it feel when the park is empty and your usual way out is locked? And most importantly, what can you see and where can you go when most of the population are fast asleep, and what can you see when the lights go out?

It’s not just about the physical challenges. We all know what it’s like to train with a group in normal hours. You can’t help but bond in ways that are impossible when just hanging out with friends. You see each other at your best and worst, triumphant after achievement and embarrassed after undignified failure. You help others in ways you didn’t know you could, and others help you to do things you never imagined could be possible. You push each other through challenges and pull each other past difficulties.

But when it’s 5am and the world seems empty apart from you and this group of people you’ve been running with all night, how does that feel? How do you help when people start to fade out, and how do they help you when they get their second wind but you’re beginning to flag? And when you start the night together as strangers and return to Chainstore as brothers when the sun rises, how have you changed each other?

It’s also a test. Night Missions are not competitions. Nobody emerges as the victor over anyone else. There’s no time to feel superior or inferior. If you’re tall and athletic and first up a huge wall, you are too busy boosting or pulling the smaller and/or less experienced up there to gloat. If you’re not able to get up there without help, you are too busy figuring out alternative ways to get there, with or without an assist. and however you did it, you’re too busy handing bags up to each other to remember exactly where you were in the order of making it up there yourself.

But you are still testing yourself. Can you actually do this? Are you willing to risk facing fears when the tubes are closed and you can’t just hop on one to go home, and are you able to put yourself forward to keep going for the whole night?

This was a very personal challenge for me. A few months ago, getting through an entire class or training session was difficult for my recovering brain. Facing even stress, let alone fear, wasn’t possible without a mental health relapse. This was the first time I felt able to say yes to all of the above. I was confident that I had both the physical and mental strength to manage all of this and have a good time doing it. And I could, and I did.

You learn a lot from night missions. The first time I did one was with Blane, and I turned up terrified that I was too weak, too incapable and would hold everyone back. That night I learned that if I stopped turning my critical gaze inwards and assuming I needed the most help, I had a lot to give. I learned that your physical skill and ability does not limit how much you can help someone else. Sometimes it’s just offering a word and a tasty snack. Sometimes it’s seeing that someone else is struggling and needs a companion so you can do it together instead of being isolated and focussed on yourself. There is always something, and that is a lesson I never forgot.

This time, things were different. As well as parkour, we were there to learn urban survival skills. How do you keep yourself warm and sheltered if there’s a disaster and you cannot get to anywhere safe? If power and water goes out, how do you get clean water? How do you fight back if you’re attacked?

These were very practical skills. I started the night anxious, and finished with a strange sense of personal power. It changes things, knowing that i can whip out a tarp from my bag and build myself a little shelter. I can make a fire if I need to, and I know where the water is. This gives me a new sense of calm and self assurance. I will be okay in so many situations, and this was only one night of tasting these skills.

You are never the same after a night mission. You don’t have a life crisis and quit your job the next day, but things aren’t quite the same. You’ve grown. You’ve learned. This time around, I learned that I can be very, very capable. I learned that I am far from helpless, and there is a whole set of skills out there that can make me much stronger and more able.

Throughout the night I learned that my tree climbing skills can help me escape from places, that I can deal with the pressure of physical conflict, that I don’t actually need to cower in the face of assumed authority and that when all the gates are locked, you have access to a brand new world that you fail to see in the daylight. How? Well. I can’t tell you everything. You kind of have to be there and see for yourself.

And this time, I was left with a question. Parkour doesn’t start with survival skills. You don’t go on a wilderness training session and mistake it for freerunning. But once you do start parkour training, where does it end? The Yamakasi asked what it meant to be strong. When that question is in your heart, does your training end with step vaults or do you reach out to other ways of growth and new challenges?

Parkour starts with parkour specific skills. But where does it end?

Parkour is what I do. I don’t stick with it because I’m good at it. I don’t feel deep down that it’s better than other things because of the specific techniques you learn. It’s important because it opens doors. You learn that yes, you can climb this wall and then you start to wonder whether you could have a go at bouldering or buildering or rock climbing. You do a cartwheel-like movement over a rail and you wonder if building some more gymnastics skills would be a good idea. You learn to escape pursuers and that makes you ask how to fight them if needed. You build strength for climb-ups and before you know it you’re learning about strength training and weightlifting. You swing from a scaffold bar and next month you’re applying that skill in aerial arts training. You learn to balance on a rail and the next thing you know you’re looking on the internet for a slackline.

People talk a lot about parkour vision – seeing the landscape in a different way from others, where walls become paths instead of barriers and objects are for jumping to and from, not walking around. But it’s not just the physical landscape that looks different once you start to train.

The next Night Mission is in October. I can’t tell you what you will learn, but I can promise that whatever it is, it will be more than worth it.