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The flow of freerunning
Parkour jumps, hangs, and glides into New England
BY SARA DONNELLY
Getting started

So you want to flow like a superhero? Jam like Jackie Chan? Well, hold your horses, kids. Here are a few things you should know before you hit the ground running:

Gear. Yeah, technically you donít need gear to do parkour, which is part of the beauty of it. But letís not pretend you can nail a precision jump on stilettos, either. Get yourself a pair of sneakers with good treads. Portland parkourist Chris Levesque warns against kicks with anything other than rubber soles (the plastic decorative stuff in the arches of some sneakers could send you skidding off a rail). Parkour founder Sebastien Foucan encourages beginners to wear kneepads and elbow pads.

Work out. Parkour is a physical sport, and if youíre not in shape and in tune with your body, you could make a stupid mistake and hurt yourself, or worse. Most traceurs do a little warm-up before practicing (like jogging or some sit-ups to get the blood flowing), and all of them say you should stop when youíre feeling fatigued. Pushing yourself to execute that last move could result in a misstep and an injury.

Buddy up. Check out Web sites like www.urbanfreeflow.com and www.meetup.com to meet other traceurs who can help you hone your skills and rein you in when youíre about to try something you canít handle.

Start small and go slow. The goal here is not to impress your neighbors, but to flow gracefully. Learn how to consistently nail the small leaps and rolls before progressing to the tougher stuff. Focus on technique rather than flash.

Donít be a punk. Traceurs pride themselves on respecting property. Donít mess around on a private lot, and donít damage something that isnít yours. If youíre asked to leave a spot, flow on without hassle.

Donít be an idiot. Donít jump between buildings, please. According to Mark Toorock, a professional parkourist and an administrator of urbanfreeflow.com, there are only four traceurs on the planet who can leap buildings, and weíre willing to bet youíre not one of them.

_SD

The wall Chris Levesque has chosen to run up is about 10 feet tall. Itís made of concrete blocks and lines the wide staircase connecting downtownís Canal Plaza to Union Street in Portland. On a recent Sunday, Levesque faces the wall dressed in jeans, sneakers, and a red T-shirt emblazoned with his nickname: "Bopher." He sizes up the height of the obstruction from about 10 feet away, waiting for the cars to clear the Key Bank ATM behind him. His girlfriend sits on a nearby curb and presses her chin into her palm, watching. He takes two deep breaths and charges. Leaping off the ground, he propels himself upward in three fluid steps, his sneakers scraping the cobbled surface of the blocks as he scrambles. In the blink of an eye, heís three-quarters of the way up the wall. Levesque slaps his palms on the top ledge and pulls himself up the last few feet. He stands on the edge briefly, then casually jumps down onto the mezzanine.

Itís that fast, it seems that easy, and Spider-Man couldnít have looked any smoother.

Levesqueís girlfriend stands and saunters over to him. She smiles. She points out the pink scrapes on his forearms from the wall climb. He shrugs.

"Lindsayís accepted the fact that I might die young," he says sarcastically.

Levesque may move like a superhero, but heís a sportsman at heart. You can call him a parkourist. Or a traceur. Or a freerunner. All mean the same thing ó that Levesque practices a new urban sport called parkour, which after 15 years has spread all the way from its birthplace, the middle-class suburb of Lisses, France, to cities and towns across the US.

The name parkour is a bastardization of the French le parcours díobstacles, meaning "obstacle course"; parkour is also known as "freerunning" or PK. The sport is part martial art, part art form, and part metaphor for life; the goal is to navigate urban obstructions in a graceful, and often acrobatic, way. If you come across a fence, you climb over it. If you pass a railing, you pendulum swing around it. Even walking backward along a curb could be considered parkour, if itís executed well.

The most advanced parkourists jump between rooftops in a single bound and execute handstands on ledges more than 100 feet high (no one really recommends this, though, so donít get any bright ideas). There are a handful of basic moves, but beyond these, itís up to the parkourist to decide how to "flow" gracefully through his or her environment. When a series of techniques are combined one after another, itís called a run. In Jump London, a 2004 British documentary which helped launch the PK craze in the UK, parkour co-founder Sebastien Foucan and two other French traceurs engage in a marathon run over some of Londonís most famous landmarks.

Sound like the grown-up version of what children do in the playground? Thatís no mistake.

"A big part of what makes parkour fun is itís natural," says Mark Toorock, one of two US administrators of the Web site www.urbanfreeflow.com. Urbanfreeflow was founded in 2003 by 13 traceurs, all in their 20s. It is one of the more extensive parkour Web sites and includes amateur and professional video, parkour event listings, and regional message boards.

Jackie Hai, an 18-year-old traceur from Lexington, says navigating an environment as a freerunner is like tapping into the primitive. She believes kids who hang from monkey bars or who walk on curbs instead of taking the sidewalk are practicing the basics of the sport.

"Theyíre doing the essence of parkour," Hai says. "Itís a disregard for what youíre supposed to do. Itís the childlike want to play around. Itís a natural desire in all of us, I think."

ĎThe Wayí

David Belle and Sebastien Foucan, who "founded" parkour in Lisses, got their start in the late 1980s, looking, as teenagers will, to kill time in a town that didnít offer much in the way of entertainment. Athletic by nature, Foucan and Belle began by balancing on low posts in a downtown park and hopping between them; this became the PK technique called "precision leaping." Then they balanced on rails, vertically, like a cat ó the "cat balance." Then they learned to leap from higher spots and roll on the ground to diminish the impact ó the all-important "roll."

Eventually, what was once screwing around downtown evolved into a sport with a distinctive philosophy ó the "path of the traceur," as Foucan calls it, or simply, "the Way."

Foucanís Web site, www.foucan.com, details the meaning of "the Way":

The Way is the path of silence.

Cut across town quietly at your own speed.

Concentrate on footwork, your touch, your own sensibility.

Look for cat-like silence and you will find the path ...

This is the Way.

Today, Toorock estimates some 20,000 people worldwide have adopted Foucan and Belleís "Way." Parkour is most popular in the UK and France, where many of the most advanced traceurs live (including Belle and Foucan). The sport is relatively new here in the US. According to Toorock, there are about 5000 traceurs in the country, although keeping track of the exact number is difficult because of the sportís newness (some estimates peg the total as low as 450).

Since the scene is fragmented and only somewhat organized by posts on Internet message boards, Levesque isnít absolutely sure how many traceurs live in Portland. But since he hasnít seen anyone around doing it, and since he hasnít yet gotten any local feedback from his Web post on a proposed group practice, or jam, that heís planning in Portland in August ó heís pretty sure heís the only one.

But heís wrong.

Nate Dingley and Luke Filipos, both 18, are just getting the hang of parkour, and while they donít practice as religiously as Levesque, they can still whip out a good roll when necessary. Dingley, whoís been practicing for about a year, and Filipos, whoís PKed for two, get together every now and then with four other friends from Portland to practice techniques around town. They first learned about parkour the way most US teens have ó they read about it in a national publication. Then they Googled parkour online. They found urbanfreeflow.com, checked out a few moves, and started practicing.

"Itís kind of an escape in a way," says Filipos. "Itís about challenging anything that would normally impede where youíre going. There are times, when youíre in the middle of a good jump, it feels like youíre flying."

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Issue Date: July 8 - 14, 2005
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