I'M WATCHING AS HUMAN spring Ryan Ford clambers up to a balcony 20 feet high, leaps over my head, and arcs toward a narrow wall 15 feet away. It's a feat of athleticism that makes Acapulco cliff diving look like doing a cannonball into your backyard pool. If Ford, 21, blows the landing, he'll end up in traction. But he sticks it, feet planted firmly, and peers down at me. "Your turn!" he says, prompting a shriveling sensation below my waist. Then he laughs: "Just kidding."
Before you disable yourself trying to mimic the parkour pros on YouTube, get a taste of how tough it can be with this basic move, called a precision jump. It's like a plyometric-box workout, only more fun (and more difficult).
(1) Find a curb or low rock, or place a two-by-four on the ground anything to act as a target=.
(2) From a flat starting point a few feet away, jump onto said target= and land on two feet.
(3) Absorb the momentum of the jump by dropping into a squat, then stand up while maintaining your balance. Repeat.
(4) Start with small distances just a few feet and work your way up to longer jumps..
I've come to Boulder, Colorado, to join Ford's training school, Colorado Parkour, and find out whether this burgeoning fad is a serious fitness tool or an acrobatic expression of youthful angst. Closely related to free running, this French-born activity uses natural and man-made objects walls, stairwells, cars, whatever to pull off vaults, climbs, and jumps. Think Cirque du Soleil meets running from the cops. You might know it from YouTube, or the chase scene from Casino Royale, in which one of the sport's creators, Sébastien Foucan, hops between tower cranes.
Ford's class is one of many proliferating around the country, designed to recruit people like me. And it's working: Membership on americanparkour.com has doubled over the past year, to 41,000. I didn't have any grand illusions of jumping off a grain silo, but I thought parkour's basic skills would help my skiing and climbing.
"There's really nothing that it won't benefit," says Mark Toorock, a.k.a. M2, one of the original practitioners in the U.S., who now teaches parkour classes in Washington, D.C. "Power, endurance, agility, flexibility it'll all improve."
I arrived at Ford's training center a small gym in the back of an old church along with 15 other students. In front of me was Evan, eight, who was half my size. Behind me was Camilo, a 34-year-old educational director for World Trade Center Denver. He'd been doing parkour for nine months and had lost 35 pounds. The rest of the group all guys were in their teens or early twenties. A few looked like they had just come from punk-band practice.
After the warm-up, Ford and another instructor coached us through vaulting exercises over a four-foot-high box. Before long, I managed to do a "kong," a basic vault in which you run at the hurdle, jump, plant both hands on top, shoot your legs between your hands, knees first, and continue running on the other side. Parkour's two prime mantras are "Be strong to be useful" and "Repetition is key," so we cranked out lap after lap, leaving me drenched in sweat.
After the drills, the instructors set up an obstacle course that required us to clear a vault, leap up onto a box, do "precision jumps" (see "Target Practice" sidebar), and then scramble over a high wall before dropping into a shoulder roll. While attempting my roll I veered into some gymnastics equipment stacked against the wall, bringing the gear down on top of me with a loud crash (thankfully, the only thing injured was my ego). We concluded with a final workout a grueling circuit of push-ups, sit-ups, and a few other core-crushing exercises.
Before leaving the next day, I asked Ford to show me some real live parkour. I followed him around the University of Colorado campus while he and a friend leaped into stairwells, flipped over walls, and balanced on handrails like Olympic gymnasts, causing passersby to stop and gawk. I casually mentioned that getting older seems to take me away from the kind of imaginative fun that parkour entails. And then Ford, who is too mature for his age, said something that stuck with me: "We don't stop playing because we get old. We get old because we stop playing."
On the drive home, I kept catching myself eyeing random features in the landscape, wondering if they might be vaultable. I was hooked. The next day, on a trail run, I saw two big boulders spaced at what seemed to be just the right distance apart. But when I tried to do a four-foot jump between them I came up short, tweaked my ankle, and limped back to my car. That's the thing about parkour: The pros make it look easy. It's going to be a while until my YouTube debut.