Jump First, Ask Questions Later
AS IF RUNNING FOR HIS LIFE, Mark Toorock sprints away from his pursuer and directly toward a dead end: a 12-foot-high concrete wall with another three feet of metal railing on top. Toorock's split-second advantage is enough to allow him to plant a foot waist-high on the wall, spring up, grab the edge of the concrete with both hands and boost himself up to and over the rail without getting nabbed. By the time this series of fluid movements is complete and the chase scene has ended, Toorock has attracted a crowd and inspired at least a dozen young people milling about in Silver Spring to take up the art of parkour on the spot.
"Damn! I could use that when I'm running from the police!" jokes one teenage passerby. After watching the drill repeated by 60 other parkour "traceurs" in town for an event last spring dubbed (B)east Coast Parkour Jam, the new recruit makes four failed attempts tracing the route himself before committing to enroll in the parkour boot camp class at Primal Fitness, a Northwest Washington gym that Toorock opened last January. There, the new student will be joined by police officers, SWAT team members, military personnel and Department of Defense contractors equally interested in stepping up their foot-chase technique for their own reasons: Nearly everyone comes into Primal Fitness with his or her own parkour fantasy, inspired, in part, by the hundreds of videos available online or the spectacular, stunt-filled chase scenes in recent movies such as "Casino Royale," "Live Free or Die Hard" or "The Bourne Ultimatum."
Toorock, 37, is partly responsible for the new vogue of parkour, serving as a parkour consultant and stunt choreographer for an ongoing series of TV commercials for the sneaker company K-Swiss, which features traceurs sprinting, vaulting, zigzagging back and forth off walls to propel themselves upwards, climbing, flipping and leaping through obstacle-filled urban landscapes. Still, he bristles at recent media coverage of parkour as "the sport of stunts."
"It's not about taking stupid risks," Toorock says about a week later, lecturing a gym of 18 eager new traceurs -- male and female, from 15 to 45 years old -- who have enrolled in the boot camp class. "It's about discipline and training the body in a series of constantly varied functional movements so that it will work in the way you need it to, when you need it to, and then using that body to move through the world in more creative and efficient ways, simply because it can and should."
First developed in France in the late 1980s by David Belle, Toorock sees parkour (the word is derived from "parcours," the French word for route) as the physical art of moving through the world quickly, efficiently, elegantly and playfully. Though it might not be immediately apparent in some of the online videos depicting massive leaps off buildings, Toorock says it's also about moving safely.
Parkour practitioners meditate long and hard about the most expedient ways to move from one place to another in a given environment, mentally outlining the route, then physically practicing the specific movements required before attempting to put it all together and "trace" the route. Toorock says the appearance of spontaneity and risk-taking you might see in videos is possible only because of the traceurs' strength and precision training: The practice, preparation and repetition of movement that come before are as important to parkour as is the final act.
"The human body thrives on challenge," Toorock says later, on the third night of the boot camp. His students are panting and sweating profusely from a grueling warm-up in which Toorock has sent them running through the neighborhood, crawling back and forth across the gym with 40-pound weights in each hand and doing sets of pull-ups. "Adversity is the only way that a human body actually grows and survives. Its reaction to the stresses and forces it encounters? That's life. That's growth."
UNTIL THE DAY HE DISCOVERED PARKOUR, Toorock says, he had been running all his life.
"They didn't really call it ADD or ADHD, or whatever, when I was growing up. They just called me a spaz," he says. "From as far back as I can remember, I was always running around, climbing all over stuff, jumping off of things. And I was running in other ways, too. I was just an angry, angry kid. I was adopted, never felt like I fit in and always used to base my self-worth on having been abandoned by somebody, even though my adoptive family was really great. All the cliche stuff, right up to when I ended up running away in high school.
I look at the work being done by young people in my gym now, and I have to think: If had done something like this -- martial arts, running track, anything -- much earlier, maybe I could have skipped the whole hooligan [expletive] part of my life."
Toorock grew up outside Boston, but he first encountered parkour in 2002, while living in London and working for a stockbroker, where he was shown a video of Belle running rampant in France. The experience of watching Belle's movements was transformative."I was just blown away by it," says Toorock. "I don't want to be David Belle, and I know I'll never be physically capable of doing some of the same things he has been doing, but I will give myself credit for this: I saw something; I was inspired by it; and I knew I could do at least some of it, so that's what I set out to do."
Belle got the ideas that led to the development of parkour from his father and grandfather, both rescuers in the French fire service, and from his own training in gymnastics and martial arts and a brief stint in the French marine infantry. Because of that background, he says in various videos, he prefers to think of parkour as play with a purpose. Parkour movements are useful skills, he emphasizes, based on maneuvers that his father used to rescue people and to save his own life.