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.