Running with the Pack

Back when I was researching schools to transfer to, I looked at their extracurricular activities as one of the criteria upon which to objectively judge each possibility. Obviously, after spending three years immersed in campus leadership, I knew I couldn’t remove myself from the realm of student organizations without experiencing some measure of withdrawal, but I’d also learned the importance of being able to relate to people outside of class who share your interests or other points of commonality–such as a love for writing or politics, or inclusive communities structured around sexuality or religion. We’re communal creatures, we humans, and we all have a need to belong.

We can also immerse ourselves in new interests when we dive into new groups–and today, that’s what I did. I haven’t dived so much as jumped, and I’m proud to say I walked away mostly unscathed.

Mostly.

It began with a taste for needles. Well, technically they were blue plastic toothpicks coated with a myriad of allergens, and after that–since this particular skin test came back completely inconclusive–I had five or six vials of blood drawn for additional lab testing.

Such a pleasure. Such a joy. But absolutely necessary.

Next I attended a seminar on derangement–not of mind, mind you, but of math. Mathematical derangement–and you can skip the remainder of this paragraph if you wish–is a subset of permutations in which each object does not land in that object’s place (that is to say, the first object never appears in the first place, and so on). This involved a lot of counting and a number of plugs for combinatorics, and since I’m researching electives since I’ve only got two more mandatory math classes, that was a pleasant perk for participation. After a few moments playing with series and choices, we discovered something remarkably natural about trading hats. But I’ll leave that for another talk. Or if I’m feeling professorly, I’ll leave the proof to the reader.

Finally came the paramount picture of the day: Parkour. For those unaware, Parkour is a martial art founded in France in the 1980s. It is the art of movement and its staple philosophy is swiftness and efficiency in moving from one point to another as well as the personal freedom that comes from this practice. It’s closely related to freerunning, a similar exercise that places more importance on the aesthetics of the art and incorporates more gymnastic movements, such as flips and spins, on top of the basic elements of Parkour.

I arrived to a small group forming outside the library and was almost instantly given the required waiver to sign. Pretty much I was saying, should I die, I won’t blame the club–not that I could, being dead, but what else is a waiver for? Thankfully, they say, no one’s died. Yet.

Around 5:45, when the group had tripled in size to around eighty, we were lined up for a group warm up. I can only imagine how silly we looked, rotating our heads, spinning our arms in circles, gyrating our hips and touching our toes. And jumping in place, then dropping down to do pushups. As soon as we were done, I felt I was done. But the night? It was just beginning. This was just the warm up, after all.

My first station was the traversing and QM station. We began with a few squats to warm up, and then we leapt to the walls. Imagine Spiderman without the webs. Yeah. It was a lot like that. I grabbed on, but I couldn’t grip the cement itself enough to hold on, so I opted to grab onto the first or second rung of the railing we were working under. My feet kept slipping, but I kept going as far as I could. By the end of our rotation, I’d made it mostly all the way down the wall, but I’d taken a lot more breaks than most of my peers. I’d also established my first two injuries of the evening: A nasty blister-like tear on my right palm and a minimal scrape against my right forearm. Was it a positive start? Not as bad as the guy who was already bleeding.

We followed the traversing with QM–quadrupedal movements. We did a set of crawling, backwards then forwards, and although crawling seems fairly easy, there’s a very specific manner of crawling in Parkour. Your back stays parallel to the ground and you move alternating hands and feet–that is, when your left hand and foot are next to each other, your right hand and foot are apart, and you move your left hand with your right foot to ensure that one side is together while the other side is separated. Simple enough, at least in practice.

We also did a drill of side monkeys, which consist of squatting in a wide stance and then–either to the left or the right–swinging your hands out to touch the ground then springing your legs beyond them, very much like watching a monkey moving through the trees. It was perhaps one of my favorite singular moves of the entire evening. Fast, efficient, and fun, not to mention reminiscent of the crab walk in certain NES games I played as child. Ah, yes, there were many NES references today–from Kongs to Mario jumps, the fun was just beginning.

The next station was based upon balance. We began with a few exercises with both feet on the ground: Balancing on one foot and then the other and then balancing on each foot with our eyes closed. We then walked heel-to-toe for a few minutes before moving onto our main exercise: Walking along rails.

Yes. Mothers shouldn’t watch.

We began by stepping up onto the lower rung, crouching mostly until gaining the legs to stand, and then by slowly stepping up onto the second rail–the real rail–and going from there. I struggled with this at first. I could stand on the lower rung easily enough (the upper rail assisted the balancing act), but it took me many attempts to be able to step onto the high rail–and many of my first attempts ended with an almost immediate hop onto the ground. Landing in the grass? Not that bad. Landing on the bricks? Surprisingly not that bad either. It’s all a matter of ensuring your land on your feet, that’s all….

After more than a dozen tries, I was able to balance atop the rail for a few seconds. After a few more attempts, I was even able to take three steps forward. I’ve got a long way to go before I can say I’m a true traceur–that is to say, a practitioner of Parkour–but balancing atop rails? Well, let’s just say, it felt quite invigorating.

The third station was the vaulting station. We were first taught the safety vault, a basic movement in which you vault over a low wall with one hand and the opposite foot braced against the horizontal surface while leading your free foot through and over to the other side. Next we learned the speed vault, a faster safety vault in which you jump with both feet as opposed to bracing the movement with one. Finally we learned the kong–a two-handed vault, perhaps the most iconic and recognizable movement in all of Parkour, in which you leap into the air, place your hands upon the wall you’re sailing over, and swing your feet through to the other side. It’s very graceful, when performed correctly.

I did not perform it correctly. And amazingly, my instructor knew why: He pointed out to me that I was jumping too late and raising my knees too much. “You’re afraid you’re not going to pass the wall,” he told me, and I realized he was right. The motion’s sort of like diving–except you’re not entering a pool of water, you’re projecting yourself toward an ocean of brickwork. He gave me some pointers–keep your torso as parallel to the ground as possible and enter the vault as if performing a pushup–and it aided me in attaining a stronger form, but after a single fifteen- or twenty-minute rotation, I was no master. And I’m okay with that. Another principle of Parkour is that your only competition is yourself. You should work at your own level and strive only to improve upon your own form–a philosophy I’ve always regarded, especially in the realm of academia, and have often shared with my math tutees. And now it’s coming back to me. Life is rich.

The penultimate station was wallrunning. And wallrunning is precisely what it sounds like: Running on a wall. It’s not nearly as simple as stated, however, since it involves running up the wall and projecting yourself skyward with a delicate balance of power and thrust. My first go at it, it was like running into a wall. Because it was literally running into a wall. And psychologically, there’s a wall to overcome when you’re running into a wall. A legitimate metaphorical wall as well a literal wall built of bricks and mortar and capped with a slab of cement. And if you’ve ever run into a wall, you know what it feels like to run into a wall. And if you’ve never run into a wall, it feels exactly like what you’d imagine running into a wall would feel like.

Walls aside, of all the movements I attempted tonight, this was the most challenging. Yes, traversing was difficult, and I don’t have nearly enough upper-body strength to do it skillfully, but this? This was not only a physical challenge, but also a mental challenge. Sometimes I put my foot too low and slid down the wall more than propelling myself up it. Other times I thought too much about the lead-in and didn’t have enough power in my steps to get up the wall at all. I was finally able to perform a few successful wallruns, and the second or third time I was actually able to hold onto the top for a moment–the end-goal, ultimately, is to be able to pull yourself over the wall, but we weren’t going that far tonight–but in doing so, I split some skin on my finger.

It didn’t look so pretty. And it bled just a little.

The final station was devoted to underbars, which is also what it sounds like: going under bars. This was not nearly as challenging as the other stations, since we were merely being taught how to slide between the rails and onto the other side. We were taught to go through them going down, then taught to go through them going up. This part was painful on account of the amount of strength required in your quadriceps, and let me tell you, even two hours later, my quads still feel stiff. I should do some more stretching actually.

We also performed some vaults over the bars, basically combining a safety vault with some of the moves we had learned here. Not so much new, but something different.

We concluded the night in another mass ensemble that was somehow much smaller than the group we had begun with (I know some people had to leave for evening classes, and I’m certain some others just left). We did some stretching (and at one point, it must have looked like a yoga club to outsiders) and then we did some pushups, because apparently we’re masochistic. Then, at long, long last, we were finished and free to go home.

I stopped at the dining hall for food. And many glasses of juice and chocolate milk. And when I got back to my room, I did the unthinkable: I took the elevator. My quads would not have it any way.

When the night began, I knew if I would learn just one thing from the seminar, it would be that I’m not in nearly as good a physical shape as I’d like to be. And although in many regards I learned precisely that, I also learned that I’ve got a lot more potential when I put myself to it than when I don’t. I worked out for two hours straight, performing moves that challenged me physically and mentally, and I walked away sore with only minimal injuries. In some way I feel justified, proud of myself for proving–to myself–that I was able to accomplish this.

For as long as I have known about Parkour, I have wanted to learn it, but I’ve never had the opportunity to indulge this desire. Now that I’m here, now that I can be a part of this movement (pun intended), my biggest concern would be that I’m just not physically fit enough to participate. Tonight I proved to myself that that is simply not the case. I have a tremendous amount of room for improvement and additional conditioning, but I can still do Parkour. I did it tonight, didn’t I? I know belonging to this club will require substantial sacrifices of time and energy, but for this opportunity, it is completely worth it.

A friend of mine, when I first showed him videos of Parkour, told me it looks reckless–and from the outside, it certainly seems to be the case. But on the inside, when you’re the one performing the movements, nothing is reckless, but instead controlled to the smallest detail. Being reckless is inefficient, and Parkour is all about efficiency. It’s about maximizing our movement potential and our personal potential. And if that isn’t worth committing my time and energy to doing, what is?

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