Weekend leisure: Running free

By Danielle Wright

Danielle Wright tags along with a parkour group and learns why they are running for their lives.

A parkour enthusiast leaps over wall at Aotea Square in central Auckland. Photo / Kenny Rodger
A parkour enthusiast leaps over wall at Aotea Square in central Auckland. Photo / Kenny Rodger

It's as if I've stumbled on a flash mob training session. Around 10 people are taking turns running up walls or performing one-arm handstands; doing their own thing, but somehow in a collaborative way.

The group is practising parkour, or "the art of movement", which was developed in France and has similarities with some eastern martial arts, as well as gymnastics and old Hollywood movie chase scenes. A practitioner is called a "traceur" or "traceuse", believed to refer to escaping without trace.

Rather than a list of "moves", the idea of parkour is to approach each obstacle - wall, building, car - individually and as efficiently as possible, as if escaping from something as fast and quietly as possible. Being French, it also offers existentialist philosophy with its fitness training.

As Waikato parkour enthusiast Damien Puddle says: "If it doesn't change who you are, you're not doing it right."

Earlier in the day, I watched the YouTube traceurs jumping from rooftop to rooftop of high-rise buildings, going up escalators on their hands; it's impressive. But, the show of strength and physical prowess is just the tip of the iceberg.

"It's about self-improvement as well as getting stronger physically. You learn to approach anything in parkour, and in life, with the question: 'I can do it, but how?"' says Johnny Chow, who works in IT and chose the sport for a bit of excitement after sitting at a desk all day.

"I used to party and drink a lot," admits Chow, "but, after a year of parkour, I'm now a lot more focused on health and fitness."

Solomon Riversage, a psychology student, actively looks for ways to help people in the community with the strength he has gained in parkour and thanks to the philosophy behind the movement. He says opening hard-to-open jars for people is one of the ways he's helped. As he bounds up high walls, I imagine him as a kind of parkour superhero saving us lesser beings from those hard-to-open jars of pickled onions.

After around 300 "climb up" drills - practising hanging from the edge and pulling yourself over a wall - we move from outside the Auckland University bookshop in search of inspiration and things to balance and climb upon, as if the world was a huge urban jungle gym.

A high ledge catches Riversage's eye and we spend 10 minutes watching as he attempts to jump up to it. Unbelievably, he does make it, though shrugs off the achievement with the parkour rhetoric: "Once is Never. We like to nail a new obstacle three times - do it once, do it well and thirdly, do it fast."

Although there are people offering advice, it's not a formal lesson and not a sport that can be taught in a regular way. It's more about teaching and challenging yourself, in the company of like-minded people.

"Many people who are into parkour are into other alternative practises," says Riversage, who also does magic and juggling.

The sole female of the group, Zelya Koss, has practised parkour around the world.

"In France, the parkour is very efficient and fluid. In Spain, they always want to go further and be more powerful, it's a little bit different in each country," Koss explains, adding,

"I like the freedom it gives me, it's good training and opens my mind, releasing any obstacles."

Around the corner, we find a dingy walkway with hand rails for Chow and Riversage to demonstrate "equilibre", including horizontal handstands from the high rail, showing impressive balancing skills.

I notice groups of men playing indoor basketball as the sun starts to set. Chow, Riversage, Koss and their crowd seem in slow-motion with their controlled poses against the busyness of these other athletes rushing around.

Parkour is more than a way to stay fit, more than the art of movement. For the traceurs, it's a way of life.

Joining in:

Find a group near you by visiting nzparkour.co.nz. Parkour has a related sport, free running, which is similar but involves more creative expression and individuality as opposed to efficiency of movement. Auckland Parkour meets every Thursday, 5-7pm at the grassy area at the University of Auckland quad.

- NZ Herald

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