Beating the streets: Macalester parkour

By Will Kennedy

French and badass are two words rarely used in conjunction in the good old U S of A, but parkour provides an exception. If you have ever seen somebody bolt by you, hurdle a bike rack, and then clamber over a chain-link fence, this person-with or without knowing it-is doing parkour as it was conceived in the 90’s by Parisian David Belle. Simply put, parkour is the art of moving as efficiently and rapidly as possible over the obstacles encumbering a landscape. Its practioners are known as traceurs and their growing numbers worldwide include a handful of Macalester students. Two of these invited me to tag along for one of their adventures to show me what parkour was all about. We head out at night toward University Ave. to catch the bus down to the U of M, a locally reputed parkour paradise complete with walls, railings, and tons of fairly secluded space. In order to stay out of potential trouble, these two students asked that I refer to them as Anonymous ’08 and Googoo ’08.

On the way I get a little bit of a history lesson. According to my guides, parkour originated from ‘parcour de combattant,’ the standard term for the French military obstacle course. The end of the phrase was dropped in keeping with the sport’s efficiency driven ideology and the ‘c’ was transformed into a ‘k’ to give it a harsher more aggressive connotation. David Belle and his pals took the activity to the streets where it received some initial attention in documentaries and eventually made its way into feature length films including the latest Bourne and 007 flicks.

We arrive at the campus and Anonymous and Googoo warm up, telling me to keep my expectations low because they are far from experts. Maybe it won’t be amazing, but hey, at least it’s a chance to get off campus. “People talk about breaking out of the Macalester bubble,” Anonomyous says, “Parkour destroys all bubbles.” We’ll see.

My companions jog, stretch, run up some steps and then they’re ready to practice rolling. If you fall, Googoo explains, “a roll is the best way to save your life.” The trick is to keep your momentum going forward, distributing the impact along a large area of your back. I get a basic tutorial and try it a couple of times before bruising my hip and retiring to take notes and pictures for the rest of the night. Anonymous and Googoo meanwhile leap over bushes into rolls, popping back up on their feet to run and roll some more. It’s fast paced like a gymnastics class for ADD kids and it looks like a lot of fun.

We continue to wander around campus looking for man made and natural features that provide a challenge to get over or through. A handicap accessible ramp; a fountain; a series of benches: all of these make for engaging obstacles. “It’s just like playing in a playground,” Anonymous tells me. All of a sudden Googoo leaps off a ledge and then turns around and walks back slowly, “there’s a cop over there,” he says.

We turn around and our change of direction reminds me of the story about how these guys got interested in parkour in the first place: a flight from the cops after being caught trespassing.

The chase and an introduction to parkour videos on youtube was enough to spark a strong interest and inspire a spin-off philosophy of their own. “You don’t have to do what fences tell you to,” Anonymous tells me. “Just because somebody in a position of authority put it there doesn’t mean you have to follow it.”

This anti-establishment attitude is a strong undercurrent in parkour and accounts for part of the attraction of nighttime exploration. Authorities of all kinds are famous for cracking down on daredevils and certainly with the liability issues surrounding parkour they have their reasons. ‘Teenager’ and ‘broken face’ have become noticeable entries in the New England Journal of Medicine thanks to parkour and if you browse online for videos there are some horrific ones of injuries.

This Macalester parkour duo is pretty careful for the most part. Googoo disappears through some shrubbery at one point giving us a scare, but other than a couple dings and bruises we wrap up the session unharmed. Anyone who takes parkour seriously, they say, knows that being able to come back and run another day: the best parkour athletes are those that stay healthy long enough to get good at it.

It’s about 1:00 a.m. and after exhausting themselves with a series of jumps, we head back to catch the bus. I ask a couple questions, but for the most part these guys talk unprompted and the philosophy behind parkour starts getting a little thick for a while. We’ve finished talking about how parkour is a way to appropriate urban space before it appropriates you and I’m starting to think this sounds a little more like an upper level French literature class than a sport. I go home slightly confused, but thinking it over the theory starts to seem more like an inside joke than an explanation.

Anonymous clears things up a little for me the next day. “We come up with all of these adult justifications to explain [parkour] to the outside world,” he says, “but really it’s just primal and childlike. basically its just fun.”

This is something that I can relate to a little better. It’s dangerous, but playing around-even if not in a death defying way-is always worth looking into.