The All-Nighter and the Hero’s Journey

If you think you’re too weak, if you’re really not sure you have the parkour skills and if you’re absolutely certain you’re going to be the weakest link and hold everyone back, it’s a really good idea to sign up for a Night Mission.

There are good reasons for this. It’s meant to be hard. If you’re cocky, sure of yourself and think this is going to be super easy, then what’s the point? Why take the challenge? To show off? To let everyone see how amazing you are?

The fact is, I don’t think anyone feels that confident. They may well be confident about completing the night and not dying, but staying up and out all night even without the parkour is pretty tough going, and with night missions being small group affairs, you’re not going to get to hide at the back while others do the tough work.

You’re going to be on the move all night. You won’t be left behind, but you will need to keep up, no matter what that takes. If you’re me, that might mean the team hauling you up to cross a dizzying height that’s enough to make you fear for your life while being fully aware that you’re not actually going to fall unless you do something REALLY stupid. It might also mean staying back and going a safer, far less glorious route when you can see that a climb is too high a risk for your current physical limits. You, and everyone else, are faced with what you can and cannot do. There is no hiding, even in the darkest part of the night. Especially in the darkest part of the night. No matter how good you are, it’s going to be a long, hard undertaking. That made the Hero’s Journey an appropriate theme for the night, really.

Everyone knows the Hero’s Journey, even if you don’t think you do. In stories around the world, a protagonist leaves home and crosses out of his or her everyday world and into a land of danger to recover wisdom, knowledge or some other prize – an “elixir.” They face challenges, puzzles, enemies, riddles and trials. They prove their worthiness in mind, body and spirit. Helped by allies, they return home having completed their quest – not quite who they were when they first left. It’s the story of Odysseus, crossing the oceans past Scylla and Charybdis to come home to his family. It’s the story of Luke Skywalker, uncovering his past to find the Force and defeat the Empire. It’s the ancient Dragonslayer, facing down the beast to save the princess. It’s in our DNA, but most of you reading this live in a time and a place designed to help you avoid the necessary discomfort of facing your own trials.

It sounds a little contrived and even arrogant. Going out on an all night parkour trip is hard, yes, but heroic? Especially with guides who are going to ensure you aren’t left behind by the group and who will step in if you’re at any real risk of injury – not exactly the Odyssey, is it? No cyclops is going to bite you in half, nobody is going to die and in 2018 London you can tap out and get an Uber home at 3am and congratulate yourself for making it that far.

This is where the night and sleep deprivation come in. When we solved each written clue, completed challenges and passed through each symbolic (and literal) gateway as a group, things got more and more intense. It sounded kind of cute at first – simulating a quest as a group, stepping further and further into a different world where everyday rules and limits were suspended – but through the night I certainly passed into a different mental state. Normal life was far away. The challenge mattered. The journey was real. You could not have paid me to take that Uber, because if I did, I would have lost something valuable and important.

In other societies and in other times, rites of passage would be marked by a separation of an initiate from normal life for a period of time and a trial, or trials, to be undertaken. We don’t really do that now, and we therefore don’t step into that mental space. On this night, I sure as hell got there. We didn’t travel to a magic land full of monsters, but I know that in the dead of night I faced down some personal demons – panic attacks, fear, shame, inadequacy all seem so much more powerful when it’s just you and your group in the dark. I came back from the night a little different. A little stronger.

We vicariously relive the Hero’s Journey almost as soon as we’re ready to hear and understand stories. In books and on TV we see groups of people coming together with unusual skills – on one end of the scale the nerdy kids in Stranger Things with their Dungeons and Dragons knowledge giving them insight into the dangers around them that the normal grownups can’t understand, on the other groups of godlike superheroes with the ability to fight whole armies and save the universe itself from being destroyed. Every talent or skill or piece of knowledge has its place. The builder of superweapons, the Wakandan king with the connection to ancient totem spirits and crazy technology, the crazy little wisecracking raccoon from another planet all have a role. This trope saturates our entertainment, and it’s unrealistic and contrived as hell. Nothing in life fits together that neatly, does it?

And yet on that Night Mission we found among us a quiet man who happened to be an expert in a particular kind of puzzle solving, a bright kid who had a talent for riddles just when we needed that the most, a little bit of arcane terminology knowledge that ensured a challenge was done correctly, an expert climber able to reach places the rest of us could not. It wasn’t put together that way. It just happened.

None of us were literal gods like Thor and Loki in the Avengers. None of these skills were supernatural. None of us learned to solve puzzles and riddles and climb difficult routes because destiny was leading us to this one Night Mission. And yet under pressure, we were forged into that multiskilled group with different individual skills coming to the front as required. On a smaller, more realistic, much more human scale, we became that archetype – and yet, without the pressure of facing challenges under difficult conditions, it could not have happened.

In most retellings of the Hero’s Journey, it’s one protagonist who is the hero all of the time. In TV, you may get side episodes or storylines expanding on the journeys of his or her allies. Maybe they become heroes themselves in spinoffs – think Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel. In real life, things are more complex. You may be the protagonist of your own personal story, but everyone around you is the centre of their own as well. Our experience brought that home.

The thing about everyone having their own skill is that everyone else must step back in order for it to shine. You may be the one who can balance under pressure, and everyone else has to keep quiet for you while you do it. You may be the best climber or jump the furthest, and everyone needs to get out of the way while you face a challenge for the group.

Every one of us had to step forward that night and complete a solo challenge in order for the group to progress. EVERY ONE. And some of us, being recognised as the strongest, were needed to do more. But in order for that to happen, the rest of us had to acknowledge that we needed them and pay a price – for every additional challenge our greatest champions had to complete for us, we had to complete a certain number of reps of a given exercise. Sounds easy? You see how you feel at 4am when you need to do 50 squats so that your best jumper can have another shot at a difficult precision in the dark.

In the Hero’s Journey, you are not always the centre. You are called on to fight your demons, face your fears and then to step back and act a supporting role while someone else completes their quest. Your ego is tempered constantly. One smaller member of the group recognised that she was the lightest and easiest to carry and took her place as an unconscious body for her team to complete a carrying challenge efficiently – she let go of the glory of carrying and being strong, even though she could have done it, so that everyone could benefit.

It’s not dramatic, to be able to balance on a rail. It’s not saving the universe when you say “I’m smallest. You will go faster if you carry me.” It’s just what was needed, and what was done without fuss.

The irony of the Hero’s Journey is that we see glorious renditions of it on big screens, in comics and every night when we sit on the couch watching Netflix, and yet we have never been further from experiencing it. It’s become a pure fiction, something we indulge in watching while we avoid as much discomfort as possible, making sure we never go through it. Those of us who choose the difficulty of parkour go to a reasonable number of classes in a safe environment, or train with our friends when the weather is good. After all, why do a Night Mission when you could just drill your jumps during the day? Why take the risk of overdoing it while exhausted and sleep deprived when you could gain strength in an air conditioned gym? Why risk your ego risking failure in front of a group when you could just do retakes of your best jumps until you have something that looks amazing on Instagram, right? It’s not necessary. You can live comfortably without the effort and the risk. Why push it? Why go to your limits when you could stay within them?

And we’re the minority. Most of us in the developed western world in 2018 avoid even that – physical exertion is alien to so many. The discomfort of controlling your diet rather than just indulging under the pretense of “self care” is avoided to the point that people will deny even the most obvious of medical repercussions. The discomfort of exercise is waved away with fears of “over training” and “doing too much” by those who will not even face sweating for an hour in a carefully controlled, incredibly sanitised, purpose-built gym with showers and a sauna. We are too tired to be strong after sitting down all day and then being moved from work to home by mass transport. We are drip fed comfort and reassurance as we sit on soft furniture and enjoy the adrenaline rush of fictional risk and adventure. We pay millions to enjoy spectacles of increasingly fantastic heroism in cinemas while we carefully avoid undertaking any realistic trials of our own.

There’s a price for this. A lack of physical and mental growth. Growing aches and pains as you become too physically unfit to move well over the years. And most of all, the loss to the world of the hero you could be, and the hero we need. Not a super-powered fantasy character who can fly or defeat aliens, not a godlike figure who faces down titans. Just someone brave enough and willing to go through physical, mental and emotional discomfort to see themselves and become able to do what they can in the world.

Opportunities are around you to step up, let go of your ego, undergo trials you may well fail and grow. It will be uncomfortable, though, and risky.

It’s up to you.







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.

Physical Culture: Clanging weights, grunting and making friends

I hear a lot of female friends complaining about gyms. The free weights section of local low cost chain gyms seem to be the source of frustration, anger and fear. The weights themselves are not the problem, but the racks, benches and platforms are inhabited by the absolute nemesis of every woman and a lot of men who have basic intelligence and aren’t narcissistic thugs – the BIG, MUSCLY, GRUNTING, SWEATY MEN. They lift more than the rest of us. They look huge and intimidating. They’re probably judging you. They think you shouldn’t be there. Their brainpower has an inverse relationship to their constantly growing muscle mass. They stink. They take up all the space.

What if I told you that the most enormous, most gym-obsessed guys hoisting three times your bodyweight into the air with a grunt can be gentle, kind-hearted, intelligent, knowledgable and encouraging? What if, instead of being people to hate, despise and avoid, they could be one of the greatest supports you ever have in your own training? What if you actually walked into the gym and were genuinely happy to see them there? And what if a large proportion of muscly people bench pressing more than you can ever imagine, surrounded by a small crowd of enormous men yelling encouragement, were women?

Welcome to Physical Culture.

Physical Culture sounds like exactly the kind of gym women stereotypically hate. It’s not small, but the gym floor is very full. There are odd-looking machines, squat racks, benches, a huge amount of dumbells ranging from teeny to ridiculously heavy, barbells, racked plates and very little empty space. There are platforms for all your deadlifts, cleans, snatches and so on, but very little space to stand around.  On a busy peak time evening, you will have to move around and share platform space with all sorts of people. Big bulky powerlifters take turns on the platforms with bodybuilders rippling with muscles I didn’t even know people could have. Olympic weightlifters prepping for competitions rub shoulders with brand new PT clients being shown how a squat rack works. The music is loud, but not nearly as loud as the weights hitting the ground after someone’s max effort clean and jerk (hehehe jerk). Guys with headphones and expressions of grim concentration curl with dumbells like their lives depend on it while people resting in between heavy squats and deadlifts chat about protein, form and the election. So why is this one of my favourite places?

Number one is the people. While PC has excellent equipment and all the squat racks anyone needs (apart from at peak time, but hey, that’s life) it’s pretty easy to go to an EasyGym and get the basics. Most people don’t need Eleiko competition plates or bars reserved for deadlifting only. But one of the things about the dedicated lifters who do need that stuff is that they tend to spend a lot of time in the gym, and people who spend a lot of time in their gym want and need it to be a good place.

Think about it – whether you are a veteran heavyweight or just super into getting hench, you don’t want to spend a significant amount of your week in a gym where the equipment is damaged or you need to search all over the place for scattered plates or people are dicks to you. You likely go at regular times, and so you get to know the other regulars at least by sight, enough to exchange greetings, enough to ask if one of them can spot, enough to be asked to spot. Enough to start giving a bit of a damn. You get used to the regulars enough then you start to notice new faces. If someone looks a bit lost hovering at the edge of a platform, it stands out – and it doesn’t take more than a few seconds to ask if they want to work in, does it? If you’re already having a bit of chat between your own sets, it becomes natural to include that new person, or at least give them a nod and smile when they finish their set and step aside for you. And so your gym stays a good place, and you are part of that, and you take pride in it.

A hardcore bodybuilder or powerlifter or weightlifter or strongman also tends to be just a tad enthusiastic and even nerdy about their sport. If you have ever been enthusiastic about a sport, ask yourself if you have ever disparaged anyone new to it. If the answer isn’t “of course not” then please stop reading this and take some time to reflect on yourself – but I bet most of you tend to be really keen on seeing new people enjoy learning and get better at whatever your interest is. I bet if you’re a skater then you have seen and experienced so many failures yourself that you don’t judge a fresh meat struggling with a T stop. If you’re a full on crossfitter, you get psyched and high five a n00b managing their first pull up. Hell, never mind crossfit – if you do cross stitch you are probably understanding when someone gets it wrong and screws up their pattern (or whatever happens – I don’t know how cross stitch works).

Lifters are no different. A dedicated lifter physique and challenging lifts are a sign of intense training and enthusiasm, not being a dick. The giant men at Physical Culture enthuse over someone’s best lift to date like a parkour practitioner cheers someone’s first vault. The giant, enthusiastic, mighty Physical Culture lifters are not going to shake their heads at your tiny overhead press. They’ve been there, they’ve seen others start small, they also have more than a basic understanding of how bodyweight and gender changes realistic expectations of what people can lift. They will just enjoy seeing someone slowly grow and develop over time.

People also like to have training buddies. Sometimes you want to put your headphones in, get yourself into a rack and just do your thing. But sometimes you want to work together. Heavy bench press needs a spotter, so people pair up. One of the best things I have ever seen at PC is a guy coming in with a pile of decorations and quietly putting them around the bench. Why? Because his friend and training partner,  a long term regular, was coming in and it was his birthday. It was infectious. The gym owner fully endorsed and helped put the decorations around the place. The gym crowd were carrying on with workouts while shooting surreptitious and amused glances at the preparations. The owner put a happy birthday playlist on. Anticipation built as we waited for the birthday boy, who was late, to walk in and see it all. We were all in on it. We all signed his card – and we all stopped to enjoy his reaction when he finally came arrived. There was cake, there were happy birthdays, there were bench presses. Not all of us had known this guy for years, but we were all part of that birthday surprise and shared it with him and each other.

Some sports NEED group training. Strongman is one (at least around here). It’s one I am new to, and I already love it. It involves an awful lot of going backwards and forwards while carrying enormous things, kind of like going home from Tesco but a bit harder. This means space, and as we’ve already talked about, there’s not a lot of empty gym floor. Definitely not enough to run 20 metres in a straight line with an enormous metal frame on your shoulders.

This means teamwork. We need to get the equipment from the gym to the nearby park. A few weeks ago, this meant the gym owner, Chris, helping us to get access to various items, figuring out which of us could carry what, and having a buddy come along with a car – she herself was too injured to join in, but helped out with the transport, timed us and was encouraging. In the space of one afternoon I felt like I was part of a team.

Number two is how Physical Culture is run.

In an age of the customer always being right, convenience, promises of instant results and reduced staffing for reduced costs, I have never heard the term “customer service” at Physical Culture. You are a member, not a passive consumer of a “fitness” product. As members, we are part of a community and responsible for that community. Customers do what they want and expect to be catered to – I once saw a friend jokingly say that the best thing about just going to the gym instead of a taught strength class was that nobody made her put the weights away. Members, however, are responsible for those weights and their own behaviour. We put the damn weights away, because we respect our community resources and our fellow members.

Members are accountable. Membership is a privilege, not a right. Should your behaviour be unacceptable, that privilege an be revoked – there will be no harassing of people, rudeness or casual chucking around of the equipment at PC. If you give respect and consideration to others, you will get it in return.

Members have expectations of each other. Another customer at a chain gym is someone who has paid to be there. They’re not answerable to you, and when the customer is always right, gym staff are there to keep their employers profiting, not to protect a community. As a member of PC you get to be part of the community, and know that everyone around you is held to the same standards that you are. You’re all equally expected to share the equipment, play nice, be considerate to each other and so on.

Staff command easy respect and affection. The gym owner is not a man who is desperate for your money. There are no quick buck making schemes – PC has been going since 1928 and it offers nothing but honest training and results. There is no treating staff like skivvies and expecting them to pick up after you – we’re all part of this community. Rather than someone far up a corporate chain looking at profit margins and innovative ways to make ever more cash, we all matter as people. We’re held to account, yes, but we’re also worth so much more than our monthly membership costs (which aren’t high, to be honest). this is a guy who posts updates on how busy the racks are. This is a guy who wanders down and hands out bottles of lucozade, who brought us water and coke when we were training in the park, who celebrates our achievements and milestones. Show me a chain gym with a manager that will chat to you about taking some of the rustier weights to the park for a couple of hours.

There are PB boards for both genders on the walls, and I have seen a larger number of women lifting in this gym than I have in any other weights area. Women outnumber men some nights and there is no sexism. There is no talk about lifting like a girl. We are absolutely equal. I saw someone recently write that they were once asked by a man at their gym whether they would get off the leg press so he could “use it properly” – I have absolute confidence that this would never fly in our gym. It’s not just against the rules. It would offend everyone on the gym floor, male and female.

There are no drop in passes for Physical Culture. Part of the deal when you sign up is that you are there to stay for at least a while. This creates a place where trust and personal relationships matter. I have seen so many mobile phones left out on benches, ledges and next to racks. I think nothing of chucking my bag down in the changing room before I head downstairs. Nobody there is coming in for one night and therefore doesn’t care about how they leave the place when they are done, whether their behaviour will upset others, if they will be allowed back. Everyone you see is someone you will probably see again.

And so this is how a place full of loud, muscled grunting men can be absolutely perfect for a small woman trying to regain her fitness and work up her lifting ability. This is how the giant men can become friends and supportive training buddies. They give respect, and they deserve it in return. They have boundless enthusiasm and want to see you do well, and that lets you see beyond the intimidating size to the actual kind-hearted, good-natured people underneath.

So instead of fearing the giants in the gym, give them a chance to be part of your community. Offer respect, and see if it is returned. Build a community instead of a nemesis, and see if you can create a place like Physical Culture. And if not – if your gym is honestly full of assholes – then know that you have options, and it doesn’t have to be that way.


The best step vault I could ever do

I’m not a very good or confident vaulter. Coming into parkour overweight, with dyspraxia, pretty poor fitness levels and worse confidence doesn’t help you to leap gracefully over walls and railings and boxes on day one. Or day two. Or day three. Building up fitness, improving body composition and getting that coordination take time. The confidence takes even longer. I still don’t lazy vault anything hip height or up. I can turn vault small obstacles and have even managed kongs, but for honest to god years the only vault I could or would do was the step vault.

This was hard. In the first few weeks of parkour classes, I had gone from basically crawling slowly and ashamedly onto a box while the rest of the class at Moberly sports centre (Remember Moberly? I ‘member) threw themselves gracefully and carelessly into the air, speed vaulting and slide monkeying with increasing skill and confidence. Not knowing Parkour Generations then like I did now, I had a creeping terror that there was a time limit. That one day they would take me aside and say as kindly as possible that it had been ten weeks or twenty or whatever the cutoff was and I couldn’t vault properly yet, that maybe I should reconsider and that this might not be for me right now.

One day, I was the first to arrive and the coach asked how I thought training was going. This was it, I thought. I apologised. I acknowledged I could only do a step vault. He said that was fine, that all of the coaches see all sorts of abilities. They see athletic people doing athletic stuff every day – and they didn’t care the way I thought they did. They weren’t impressed only by skill. They could see my effort, and they loved it. It didn’t matter whether I never got onto the highest box in the room. They didn’t care. All I needed to do was keep working.

But I felt like maybe I would never progress beyond step vault, I said. That might be it. And then that coach changed everything.

“That’s fine. We’ll just make it the best step vault it could possibly be.”

We’ve all heard about trying your best or just keeping going or it being okay to learn slowly. But what about knowing that even if you can only do one simple thing, you can make it the best possible version of that thing? What if, instead of dwelling on the stuff I couldn’t do and feeling ashamed, I became so good at step vaults that I could do them with speed and skill and grace and impeccable balance? What if the simple technique I felt ashamed to be “stuck on” became an awesome skill that I could be proud of?

I didn’t immediately stop feeling bad, of course. This isn’t a Disney movie. But I remembered, though. Whenever I started to feel like I shouldn’t be doing parkour, I remembered that it didn’t matter where I got to as long as I was giving it my honest all. And when coaches demonstrated a route that made me want to cry because I didn’t think I could do most of it, I found that one thing I could do and I made it as good as I could.

So I did. Every time I couldn’t do the kong or lazy vault or speed vault or tic tac, I remembered. I made that step vault better. And one day, years later, I saw something important. We were working on step vaults and I saw a fellow practitioner of a much higher skill level than me, who normally ignored the basic step vault in favour of a turn vault or speed vault, try to get over a railing. I couldn’t vault like he normally did. I was still stuck on that step vault of mine, landing one foot on that rail every time, and I naturally assumed that as a much more gymnastic traceur than me he would find this exercise insultingly easy.

He did not. He may have been able to do everything else miles better than I could, but he could not do this one simple thing as confidently and easily as me. All the time that I had been disparaging my step vault as the easy way out or baby version of a “proper” vault, I had been failing to see what it was teaching me. Without knowing, I had been practicing targeting – landing  with the ball of one foot on a narrow surface- and the balance skills it takes to stay stable enough to complete the motion. Every time I had cursed myself for being too slow or pausing partway through, I had been training the balance to hang there mid-vault, balanced with one hand and one foot on a metal railing or narrow wall while I remembered what to do next.

Making my step vault the best step vault I could possibly do not only got me through feeling awkward and incapable. I had been building very important skills the entire time.

This lesson is especially important for me right now, when a bunch of health issues have left me less capable than before. I can’t yet do as much as I could, but every time that starts to overwhelm me, I remember. And I look at what I can do, and I grind. If I can only get onto the smallest obstacle, I make that approach as smooth as I damn well can, even if that means working to shave off a single step. And I never, ever disparage these “basic” skills like I once did. I stay open, respectful and appreciative of what they have to teach me.


Beach body acceptance and YOU: losing weight and losing your mind

My mum was weird about food when I was a kid. She’d have us eat massive amounts of junk food for dinner on Fridays – multiple packets of crisps and mars bars, not just some pizza or something – and then she began to go through phases of weird diets and being pointed about what I ate. I distinctly remember her having me eat a sausage sandwich and 2 cream cakes for lunch daily, then telling me my face was too round. I also remember her vowing to eat nothing but cereal because she was too fat. No surprises that I didn’t really understand much about balanced meals and healthy eating by the time I got to adulthood, then.

I was pretty overweight for most of my adult life, with occasional drops down to almost regular BMI at particularly active times. I was also pretty anti diet culture and vowed to never count calories because that was stupid, and I didn’t really like to think about weight because it made me feel bad and it was all shallow rubbish anyway. But I’m not blind. I could see that most parkour regulars were leaner than me. I knew I huffed when I ran. I knew I wasn’t keen on what I saw in the mirror. So what could I do?

When you look at weight loss now, pop culture gives you two basic options. They’re probably more complicated than how I see them, but I’m a pretty simple person. Here is what I see in front of me:

Option one is to be beach body ready. I have to strive to eliminate those “problem areas.” I should exercise for weight loss, burning as many calories and as much fat as possible. My aim should be to get as thin and as hourglass as possible within a basically safe weight range, then wear tiny waisted jeans. Or I can join some kind of slimming club – count points, listen to calorie burning tips, listen to people talk about their metabolisms and so on. Did you eat off plan yesterday? That is NAUGHTY. You have been BAD.

This is not for me. I wasn’t exercising to lose weight – all I wanted was to be able to train more and better! I wanted to have lower bodyfat levels and more muscle mass, but I wasn’t interested in looks. I wanted to run and climb and tear my trackies on walls, not pose in jeans.

Option two is to reject weight loss completely and be happy as I am. BMI is rubbish, restricting calories is always pointless and bad for you, and that beach body chick is unrealistic anyway. Just eat what you want and work on strength only. Anything else is just giving in to diet culture and there are no health implications with being overweight. Also, everyone ends up at their natural predestined weight anyway, so there’s no point. Restricting food is punishing yourself and hating yourself.

Well… this kind of doesn’t work for me either. It’s a lot harder to pull yourself onto a high wall when you are heavier. It’s harder to run, too – you have more to carry. You’re weighed down when you jump. And I’m afraid I’m going to err on the side of caution with the health stuff and go with the medical scientist guys.

I think it was the strength training and weight lifting that pushed me over the edge. In weightlifting, your bodyweight is a vital piece of information – if someone weighs 52kg and squats 80kg, it’s a different game entirely from a 75kg person squatting the same. And then there’s the concept of power to weight ratio – you want to have the muscle mass to be able to move yourself explosively without weighing enough that it is harder for that muscle mass to do it. I don’t care about jeans or bikinis, but I care very much about being able to do stuff. And so, with advice from the long suffering Emmet, I decided to lose weight – but if options 1 and 2 both seem wrong to me, what should I do?

It turns out that there’s an option three. You can just decide what you want to do and then do it. You don’t need to worry about whether it’s supporting sexist ideas about what a woman should be if you want to drop ten pounds and make pullups easier. You don’t need to experience actual guilt over eating a cookie (why do people do that? Feel guilt about being a dick on public transit or something, not eating a cookie. Just eat it or don’t). You don’t need to buy into celebrity diets or try to keep up with a Kardashian. You don’t have to want to punish yourself for how you look because you think your power to weight ratio will be better in a lower weight range than you are currently in. You decide what you want, what is probably actually sustainable for you, and you do that thing.

The best thing about taking option three is that it is different for each person. Would you like to be an ultra badass triathlete? Cool! Your body composition will probably be pretty different from someone who wants to be a MEGA POWERLIFTER, which is also incredibly awesome. Are you gonna be a big heavy roller derby blocker who just shrugs jammers halfway across the room? Ain’t nobody gonna mess with that. Good choice. I imagine you might feel comfortable being built very differently from a dedicated ballet dancer or an acrobatic flyer. It’s all good. You do you.

So what next? Well. That’s almost as contentious. You’d think that reducing your calories would be a pretty non controversial thing, but NO. Upon starting to eat a certain amount of calories daily (making sure I had a balance of protein, fat and carbohydrate that worked well for me), I was told the following COMPLETELY TRUE FACTS by a variety of people who had previously had little to no interest in my diet:

  1. calorie counting is unhealthy and will give you anorexia (no it won’t – Anorexia is a horrible, horrible condition that takes years to recover from, and you don’t catch it from calorie counting like it’s the bloody flu)
  2. Weighing food is obsessive and miserable and makes you obsessive and miserable (not really. It only takes a few seconds to weigh something like a portion of rice)
  3. Calorie counting means you won’t eat enough and will try to eat so little you get ill (not really, unless that’s your goal. There are plenty of ways to figure out a reasonable level for you that will create a caloric deficit without actually resorting to starvation)
  4. You will go into a magical STARVATION MODE that means your body stores everything as fat (how exactly would this work, if you are taking in less? Do you photosynthesise and store that as fat while you use your food energy to walk around and function?)
  5. Your metabolism will break (why do people think your metabolism is like a small device inside you that arbitrarily breaks down if you don’t overeat? Your metabolism is based on your mass, age, gender and activity level. It is not magic. Technically it will slow as you lose weight, in that having less mass means you need fewer calories to do your thing)
  6. You’re eating too much meat/the wrong kind of rice/a cookie/not enough fibre/too much carbohydrate/too much fat/too much protein and are probably DYING (dieting means that everyone needs to advise you, apparently. Even if you’re already being advised by someone who actually knows their shit, and ESPECIALLY if you’re not eating whatever the people around you expect you to eat)

Great. Really helpful. The good news is that people do get tired of this as you fail to spontaneously combust, starve to death in front of their eyes or gain 400kg because your metabolism broke down.

If your nutrition plan is sensible and you stick to it, you’ll start to lose weight. As your shape changes, you can expect the following from the people around you:

  1. Helpful critiques about your current appearance – my favourite moment was when someone pointed out how undefined my forearms were. Um. Thanks?
  2. Helpful reminders not to go TOO FAR. If you are a woman, people may want to let you know how important it is to maintain your current breast size (because that’s your most important feature, right?) or that you don’t want to look too much like a man or a female bodybuilder, which is pretty much the same thing (it turns out that both sex changes and becoming a competitive bodybuilder take a lot of time and very specific efforts, so don’t worry about this)
  3. People trying to get you to eat junk food. Just this once. Oh, go on. You can “afford it.” This is weird as hell and kind of creepy. If you do this to people, please stop or at the very least tell me wtf your motivation is, thanks
  4. Other people starting to tell you how skinny they used to be or how healthy their diet has been lately. I do not know why. I can barely find matching socks in the morning and I am more likely to be thinking about giant space fish than your diet, unless you’ve started one of those weird milkshake scams or have decided to only eat fruit for two weeks, in which case you are weird. Either way, though, I’m not the food police so please stop
  5. Other people telling you how fit they used to be until they turned 30/took an arrow to the knee/had a kid/got Netflix, giving you reasons why they could not possibly run at lunchtime/go to a gym/do zumba/bench press 3 times their bodyweight like they used to and/or informing you how hard their pilates/yoga/jog/body pump was last night. And not in a conversation way – I’m up for talking any gym bullshit – but an EXPECTANT way, like you’re meant to approve or disapprove or something.

What are you meant to do with all this?

I just don’t know. To get serious for a minute, losing weight did great things for me. I felt better, strength exercises were easier and I gained so much energy. I could run more, do more parkour, do pullups, lift heavy. Even my breathing was easier. I slept better. The actual process of following a sensible nutrition plan was not difficult – it took a long time, but as it wasn’t an extreme diet or particularly restrictive, that was no biggie.

Peoples’ reactions and expectations are another matter. Ten minutes on the internet blasts me with statements about how weight loss is self hate and self abuse, that I’m not light enough, that my legs are too big, I don’t have abs, I have too much muscle, I don’t look like a woman, I’m not feminist enough, I’m giving in to the patriarchy, riots not diets, how to cut belly fat, ten foods to never eat, how to avoid bloating. I’m too fat, I’m not fat enough, I should smash my scales and I should check my diabetes risk because IT COULD HAPPEN.


But I don’t belong to any of these people. I don’t have any need to meet their expectations. I will choose what I want to do, I will make sure it is sustainable and actually realistic, and I will do it. I will consider my body composition in relation to my health and the activities I want to be good at. I will track and measure as much as I want, or not at all. I’ll never be thin enough for some, and I’ll never be anti diet enough for others, and that’s okay. I’ll be a tiny ball of determination and enthusiasm about everything, including nutrition, and that’s good enough for me.


Couch DOMS: The pain of inactivity

Hello. I haven’t been around for a while. I didn’t quit, but life got a little difficult. By “a little difficult” I mean that my post concussion symptoms stuck around and a major mental health crisis landed me in inpatient psych care a couple of times over the past few months. It wasn’t exactly fun, and it was serious enough that I’m not sure I’d be here without intervention by some very good friends and NHS crisis services. I’m not fully better, either. Recovery from a serious breakdown like this is not fast. There is ongoing treatment and I’m limited in various ways.

There are, however, opportunities and things to learn in this situation. I’m not glad I’ve gone through this, but it has taught and is still teaching me a lot. This is one of the more painful lessons.

I’ve never understood why people experience aging differently from me. At 34, I felt better than I ever had in my life. Sure I wasn’t the fastest or the strongest in the world, but I was strong and able. While my coworkers were talking about sore knees, I was squatting more than my bodyweight, jumping from height and running on a daily basis. I ached plenty, but it was not the depressing degeneration other people my age described. I had the pain of well used muscles that would peak around 48 hours after training and then dissipate. They talked about waking up with throbbing joints and stiff backs that gradually worsened over time, reducing their ability to exercise. They were “too old” to jump. This pain, they comfortably assured me, was inevitable and permanent. Soon I too would be unable to run and lift because of my knees realising I was no longer 20. It was amazing that I was still able to jump at all.

I had very strong suspicions that my training was exactly what was keeping me from this. A few minutes on google will give you an idea why – regular exercise is well known to keep your joints healthy and supple. Not only that, but I could see parkour practitioners, runners, skaters and lifters much older than me casually demonstrate their fitness every day. It seemed far more likely to me that the majority of my “too old” coworkers and acquaintances were feeling the long term effects of sedentary lifestyles and poor diets than waking up on their 30th birthday too old to move.

One of the interesting things about being in the middle of a mental health crisis is that physical activity is pretty hard. It’s not just a matter of willpower to get off the couch – your cognitive capacity drops like a crossfitter after a Grace workout. How does exercise even work? you need shoes. How do those go on? Outside is too hard. You can’t go out there. Maybe you could do some stretching but suddenly you’ve forgotten why you’re standing here.

That’s if you’re safe enough to be outside without supervision and aware enough to be able to leave the room without major concentration. It’s hard, guys. It’s really, really hard.

And so I became sedentary. I’m okay with that. I lost a lot of fitness, but when you have been a danger to yourself and unable to carry out basic self care like knowing when to shower and understanding you can’t go and live in the park, that’s not really a priority. When a neighbour calls the police on you hiding in the bushes outside your house because you are so afraid to go inside in case someone in your building sees you, your lifting schedule kind of falls by the wayside a bit. There’s also the small matter of medication. In mental health crisis care, you’re quite often given strong anti anxiety and sedative drugs for a brief period. Being stoned out of your brain is not a healthy long term strategy, but can make you a lot more comfortable while you are in a very bad state. It does, however, make exercise a bit awkward. Ever tried rail precisions on valium? No, me neither. I’d suggest not.

Over the next few months, I began to feel the things my coworkers described. I had trouble getting comfortable at night because my right hip and knee ached. My hip flexor was so tight that I got used to regular twinges. My left ankle hurt where it had been sprained badly in skating and this led to pain further up the leg. My shoulders and thoracic spine ached and ached. I was degenerating. I could feel it, and it hurt. I couldn’t run like this. I couldn’t jump. I couldn’t trust my joints. What if a sharp pain hit while I was out training? What if something tore? It felt uncontrollable and unfixable. I couldn’t get stronger in this state.

This is the DOMS you feel after spending too long on the couch. I don’t recommend it if you can avoid it.

Weight change is also a thing. While in crisis, I dropped kilograms. I wasn’t really going to eat unless someone fed me (which friends and crisis staff did. I’m forever grateful for waking up confused to find the friends looking after me while waiting for the NHS to place me somewhere had left a bowl out with granola and milk right next to it, a cup with a teabag and instructions on how to eat breakfast).

In the months that followed, however, I gained fat. This is okay. Remember that impaired cognition? That doesn’t go away immediately following a crisis. You can only handle so much thinking and planning before you dissolve into a puddle of tears and stress. It was far more important that I keep my hormones in a happy state by eating regularly and as nutritiously as possible than I start considering body composition and food tracking. Weight can be lost later – I had done it before, after all. A few kilos are not going to kill me.

As I recovered enough to start taking tentative steps towards exercise, though, the effects of that extra weight became pretty clear. Running is harder – there’s more of me to move (we’re talking a maximum gain of 6kg here, but that’s a fair amount for someone my height). Jumping? Yeah. There’s some extra baggage dragging me back down there. General cardio? I can actually feel how abdominal fat affects my ability to catch my breath.

So that degeneration is my life now, right? I got mentally broken, am not fully healthy yet and won’t be for a very long time. Time to accept it.


You can’t just get off the couch and go outside for a run while in crisis. You can’t cope with a busy, fast-paced parkour class when you’re mentally vulnerable and unable to deal with stress. But it gets better, and there are things you can do.

I attempted various things off and on during the past few months. Between periods of psych care, I managed to get in some parkour classes (I couldn’t even keep up when they were running, just like when I started, but that’s never been a reason to quit). I did a bit of lifting, but not regularly enough to help me. But I also worked a lot more on lighter, gentler activities. First, I was able to go for a walk even just to a coffee shop. Then I could go to bagua class (more on this another time – for now, think of it as tai chi while walking in circles). A while later, I could swim once a week or so – no stress if I wasn’t up to it, but when I could, I did. And with just these gentle activities once or twice a week, those pains – the aching back, the bad hip, the dodgy knee – they stopped. Those seemingly incurable pains that had kept me awake and stopped me from feeling comfortable and told me I was weak now – they melted away. I barely noticed. I would suddenly remember that I hadn’t felt a stabbing in my hip for a few days, then I kind of forgot that it had ever happened. I started to sleep better. I found myself running without thinking about that sore knee.

And now I’m sitting here, writing after almost a year of feeling incapable of it, and aching again – but this time with good old post-lifting DOMS. My lower back is tender. My shoulders ache after doing overhead press with small dumbells. My legs are wobbly. But this doesn’t feel like degeneration. I can rest in this ache knowing that I’m getting stronger as I recover from it. It isn’t a pain that makes me feel helpless – it hurts because I worked those muscles hard on purpose and with purpose. It’s a strengthening ache, not a weakening one. It’s predictable and makes sense. It doesn’t make me afraid of running in case a sharp pain stabs me out of nowhere. It’s the most welcome pain I have ever felt in my life.

People say exercise hurts, but after trying both, I don’t think any training aches will ever compare to the uncontrollable, senseless, constant pain of living on the couch.