In Motion

For Parkour Fans, All the World's a Gym

By Kerry Folan
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, August 31, 2007

American University senior Billy Hughes rounds the corner in time to realize that he is on the brink of missing his bus. Most people would just wait for the next one -- maybe grab a cup of coffee or send a few text messages in the interim -- but Hughes isn't most people. Slinging his backpack over his shoulder, he takes off like a shot across the quad, vaulting over cafe tables, sliding under railings and drop-landing off a balcony just in time to bang on the bus's closing doors.

It sounds like a scene out of a Spider-Man movie, but Hughes, 22, is a traceur, an athlete training in the very real discipline of parkour. It is a sport best understood through observation. Search YouTube for the opening chase scene in "Casino Royale," the most recent James Bond film, and you'll get the idea. The concept is to get from Point A to Point B as quickly and efficiently as possible, using only your body and your surroundings. Rather than avoiding obstacles -- the AU cafe tables standing between Hughes and his bus, for example -- traceurs acrobatically surmount them. Parkour (a made-up word based on the French word "parcours," meaning "route") can be compared to some martial arts, but without the violence; in the fight-or-flight response, parkour is the flight.

Although the average person will never commute to work by way of rooftop-to-rooftop leaps, there is one man in Washington who thinks that anyone can practice parkour, that everyone can benefit from the physical and mental demands of the sport and that he is the best person to teach how.

Mark Toorock, who was recently identified by New Yorker magazine as America's most prominent parkour disciple, runs Primal Fitness, a gym in the Brookland neighborhood of Northeast Washington. The 36-year-old is 5-foot-10 and stocky, with an expressive face, a commanding voice and an enthusiastic smile. He discovered parkour in 2002 when he came across a commercial featuring David Belle, the sport's founder and best-known practitioner, performing a death-defying series of stunts. Toorock has a martial-arts background but claims he's not a natural. "I'm a good teacher because I'm not the best athlete. It comes harder for me," he says.

Toorock says Primal Fitness, which opened in January, is the only parkour-specific gym in the country, and it is low-glam to the point of rustic. Think the first "Rocky" movie. Housed in a converted warehouse, the 1,800-square-foot room has exposed rafters and sliding carriage-house-style doors that remain open whenever possible. There are no cardio machines or mirrors, no smoothie bars or yogafied receptionists. Oversize tires (used in conditioning exercises) lean against the wall near the entrance. A graffiti-art mural, tagged with "APK" (for American Parkour, the Web site Toorock runs) and "The Tribe" (a group of young traceurs from across the country that Toorock coordinates), decorates the wall. Gymnastics equipment -- parallel bars, a balance beam, a few vaults and crudely made plywood boxes -- are scattered haphazardly across the floor. The chin-up bar is mounted by way of repurposed brackets collected from a defunct corporate gym and once used to hold big-screen TVs -- an incarnation Toorock finds ironic.

"In a regular gym, you do the same thing over and over. It loses its luster, and people stop going," he says. I think of my own gym, where iPod-packing 20- and 30-somethings line up to march like zombies on the elliptical machine, and I recall that it has been several weeks since I made an appearance there. "Every day here is something new," Toorock promises.

The open parkour sessions on Saturday mornings run from 10 to 12 and attract 10 to 20 people. The cost is $20, with the first class free. Participants tend to be serious athletes, but Toorock stresses that his clients represent a range of ages and abilities. The class begins with a conditioning warm-up outside. (In keeping with parkour's philosophy, Toorock likes to use environmental elements in training whenever possible and has been known to hold classes in nearby fields when the weather is good.) After several laps around the building and a few sets of conditioning exercises on the loading dock, Toorock gathers the group in the gym. For the four newcomers, Toorock gives a brief introduction to the concept of parkour. He emphasizes safety, small steps and endurance. "Do not try to do anything you don't feel comfortable with," he stresses. "It's like 'Goldilocks and the Three Bears' -- one obstacle is going to be too big, one's going to be too small and one's going to be just right."

As Toorock gets the participants going on a drill (they are attempting "tic-tacs," which involve running full-tilt toward a cinder-block wall, jumping, planting one foot on the wall and pushing off to redirect momentum), it occurs to me that this feels more like a team-sport practice than like a gym class. The group has already bonded, and the more experienced help others, offering tips and encouragement. When a first-timer who has been struggling finally gets it right, a round of applause explodes. I try to remember the last time I have seen so many people smiling in a gym.

It's a dedicated group. Adam McConnell, 26, (who is wearing a T-shirt printed with the apt announcement, "Every good idea I have gets me in trouble") gets up at 6 every Saturday and some Sunday mornings to drive the two hours to Primal Fitness from the Eastern Shore. Amanda Henry, 27, a physical anthropology graduate student at George Washington University, has fenced and competed in horseback riding at the national level but says she is "really bad at self-motivating." She comes to Primal Fitness three times a week and has lost 10 pounds in three months. More important than the weight loss, she says, are the strides she has made in overcoming her fear: fear of getting hurt, fear of looking stupid, fear of pushing herself on tasks that seem impossible.

Henry credits Toorock with improving her confidence, and I witness this during the final hour of class, which is devoted to a parkour obstacle course. The course begins at the vault -- one of the few parkour elements that scare Henry. It takes her a few false starts before -- with Toorock's encouragement -- she launches herself over the top, legs tucked under her body in a move called a "kong." She moves on to a sheer 10-foot wall that, by some miracle of momentum, she manages to scale in a single leap.

After class, no one seems quite ready to leave: Several people linger to rehydrate and rehash the day's exploits; others continue to mess around on the equipment. Toorock encourages this: "Fun and community are so much more connected to successful training than you could imagine," he says. "That's why our program works. I tell people to forget exercise and go play."

PRIMAL FITNESS 903 Rear Girard St. NE. 202-635-1941. The parkour session on Saturday costs $20. For more information about other classes and membership fees, visit

For more information about parkour, visit

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