I was in an Oslo public garden a few years ago when I saw some guys in sweatpants vaulting over trash bins.
It’s a particularly well-known park that contains giant fascist-style statues of naked people, and in between the stone sculptures, guys were doing backflips and various urban gymnastics. It was pretty goddamn surreal, and I thought, They are the coolest people I have ever seen.
I was right, obviously.
Parkours, traceurs, freerunners -- whatever you want to call them, these public space acrobats are amazing. They’re like skateboarders without wheels, just feet. They jump over anything in their way, often with enviable grace. They see the whole world as their urban playground, as one giant obstacle course. If you’ve seen "Casino Royale," you’ve seen (ass-kicking criminal) parkours in action.
My fascination with parkours was cemented when I lived near what has been dubbed the world’s biggest parkour park. If you know where to find them on the outskirts of Copenhagen, it’s easy to spot the longhaired kids leaping and swinging on the concrete and steel training space.
I used to bike out to watch them but never joined in. What, I’m gonna ask some 14-year-old boy to help me learn to jump off a roof?
After moving to San Francisco a few months ago, I began to reconsider. I’m in the worst shape of my life, but I’m agile and driven. I somehow thought a Bay Area parkour jam hosted at a high school might be less intimidating than the Danish acrobats. I was right.
It wasn’t hard to find the group of several dozen impressively fit young guys in track pants on a Sunday afternoon. I must have looked reasonably confident in my thermal and sweats uniform when I sauntered up to the group. Raul immediately walked over and extended his hand.
“First time here?” I nodded as if it wasn’t obvious.
“I have no idea what I’m doing,” I admitted, smiling awkward and acting like I knew how to stretch like a stuntwoman.
He smiled even more. “Cool, we’ll get you started with some basics,” he said as he high-fived a few other guys and hung upside down from a railing.
“’Sup homo?” one guy greeted another. What does that even mean? I decided my progressive lingo and the way youth speak today must not intersect and kept my mouth shut.
A different dude was wearing a green shirt that read, “Ever made love to a ninja?” The back said, somewhat confusingly, “You just did.”
Others had tees emblazoned with phrases like “Live Free Run Hard” or the SF Parkour logo, which depicts a man jumping over Golden Gate Bridge.
Then I spotted two girls. One was wearing velour pants and a tight pink zip-up hoodie and introduced herself as Annie. I didn’t catch the other girl’s name. She was busy filming the boys’ acrobatics and tugging at her Love Pink sweats.
In case it’s not obvious, let’s get this out of the way: Parkour, freerunning, and related pursuits do not have a sizable female base. That isn’t to say women don’t do this stuff. They do! But we’re outnumbered by the boys. So it is, and so it was at the Foothill High a few Saturdays ago.
I stood by a wall for a long time, watching guys leap between concrete platforms until Annie walked over.
“Watch me,” she instructed as she raced head-on into a wall, threw her hands over the ledge, and pushed up with one foot to climb over.
I saw, but I didn’t know how. And I can’t explain in words how I learned, over the next 30 minutes or so, to do what she did. Slowly, knees banging repeatedly against the ledge, biceps burning and palms slapping the cold concrete again and again, I fought my way over that wall, and over the fear of not being able to scale it.
Pretty soon, I moved onto old childhood hobbies I didn’t know were related to urban freerunning, like trying to run up a wall. I used to be able to get two steps vertical before coming back to Earth. These slower days, I can manage only one.
I was having trouble mastering how to do a palm spin over the corner of a picnic table -- which involves basically tucking one knee to your chest and rotating your whole body over your arms in one fluid motion -- when one of the guys finally said what I’d been thinking.
“Parkour is harder for girls because they have boobs,” he noted without staring at my chest.
I nodded grimly. “I know.”
I also realized at that moment how much I miss being friends with blunt teenage boys. Oh to be an assertive 17-year-old again!
Behind me, a guy yelled, “I’m gonna stick this like super glue!” as he barreled toward shrubbery and cleared it with room to spare, his landing transforming into a somersault.
Instead of rolling on the lawn, he tumbled across one of those bold-striped mats someone had pulled onto the grass from the school gymnasium.
Elsewhere, two latecomers did a running chest bump as a greeting. I wondered how parkour women are supposed to physically say hello. I’d shaken hands with everyone I met, which was pretty sweet considering I felt like the odd person out in terms of age, experience level and gender. Maybe I was doing it right.
“There’s a beginner’s jam in Dolores Park the second Saturday of next month,” Raul encouraged me as I packed up to head home. Annie also came by and asked where I drove in from.
“We’re opening a gym in Sac,” she said. “You should come out!”
Another girl I’d later met, Lilly, told me she hoped she’d see me again. It was her second time out, and skill-wise, I didn’t even feel like I was that far behind her.
I’ll try anything once, and with so much support, I might even try parkour several or many times. I knew I’d have bruises, but I haven’t had so much fun jumping off of and into concrete, well, ever.
It wasn’t until I got into bed late Sunday night that I felt the deep pain in my clenched, sore muscles. I couldn’t raise my arms over my head to hug my pillow, and when my cat tried to knead my legs under the covers, I shrieked with unexpected pain in my thighs.
Thirty-six hours after I was climbing stone walls, the muscles under my boobs burned when I laughed too hard on the phone with my best friend. That was also the moment what I remembered that there are muscles under my boobs.
I guess I’m lucky my friends are so riotously funny, but damn did it ever hurt to laugh so much a day after climbing. My partner later thought it was amusing to torture me with bad jokes as I howled on the bed, clutching my sore stomach muscles as they shook with laughter. “Oooowwwwwww, hahahahah! Oooooowwwwww!”
Still, if you wanna jam in Dolores Park in a couple of weeks or meet me in the new gym in Sacramento, I’m game. I’m no worse for the wear. In fact, in spite of my tender joints, I feel fantastic.
Maybe I just needed an interesting way to get back into shape.