On a warm Wednesday evening in August, I found myself running full speed straight into a brick wall. A year ago, this statement might have been metaphorical, like, “Look at me, I’m running full speed into a brick wall…of health issues due to bad diet, inactivity and too many glasses of bourbon,” but on this particular evening, it was literally a brick wall.
I was staring at the face of a 10-foot-high brick wall on the corner of Queen and Orange streets in downtown Lancaster, as I sprinted toward it in an attempt to vault myself over. I failed. Miserably. But I tried again. And failed again. This time, a little less miserably.
No, I wasn’t running away from the police. I was doing parkour – the form of natural movement-based training which originated in France, where you navigate obstacles in your environment to vault over, balance on and climb around. I was participating in a session of Andy Keller’s Parkour Generations class held at 6:30 p.m. every Wednesday – rain or shine – at Binns Park.
Why was I doing this? I could’ve called Keller on the phone and asked him some basic questions about parkour, but I wanted to see what this was all about for myself. And now, clinging to the side of a brick wall on Orange Street during rush hour traffic with bloody palms and a sweat-soaked T-shirt, I was definitely finding out all about it.
Fly After 5 photographer Steve Kale and I arrived at Binns Park about an hour before the class was scheduled to begin in order to meet instructors Keller and Katie Esbenshade, and we were quickly blown away by their acrobatics and athleticism. Within 10 minutes, Keller ran straight up a wall and launched himself into a backflip, front-flipped from the top of a set of stairs and finally, leapt from one thin metal rail to another over a 30-foot-high gap. Not only that, but he made it look easy. A Latin church group was holding a service from the stage in the center of the park and I considered asking them to pray that I wouldn’t snap my neck during the class.
People in athletic clothes began to gather in the area across from Binns Park and Keller quickly gathered everyone together. I was surprised to find that the participants ranged in age from 11 to 48. Maybe this wouldn’t be too bad. If an 11-year old could do it, surely so could I.
After a quick opening stretching session and a few warm-up exercises, Keller asked if we’d been watching the Olympics, and then told us that today’s class would be the Olympics of parkour. (Each of Keller’s weekly classes is totally different, to keep things fresh.) We broke out into two groups: experienced and inexperienced. I went with the inexperienced group. Katie led two girls in their 20’s and I over to a little three-foot-high wall on Queen Street and walked us through two essential vaults: the Step Vault and the Kong Vault (“Kong” because it mimics the movements of the big-screen gorilla).
The Step Vault was pretty basic, and I was able to get it almost right away; the Kong Vault needed to be broken down into steps. First, placing my hands on the base of the wall and letting them support my weight as I lifted my legs up onto the wall. From there, it was just a matter of continuing the momentum of my movements and swinging my legs through my arms so I just get over the wall in one smooth motion.
Katie demonstrated a flawless, fluid Kong Vault. It took the rest of us a few tries before we could grasp it. I found myself wanting to use my legs and jump to get over the wall instead of transferring my weight to my hands, pushing my body upwards as I swung my legs through and over the wall. Eventually, I got it. It was a basic move. Nothing flashy. But I had a great sense of accomplishment.
From there, we moved on to balancing on top of a metal bench, “cat hangs,” (hanging on the side of a staircase and climbing up), jumping – and trying to land exactly on – lines in the sidewalk to simulate jumping between rails, and working on running up walls. These were all basic building blocks of parkour, and after about an hour of this sort of training, I was feeling good. Sweaty, but good. Maybe “sweaty” is an understatement. My strategically-chosen black T-shirt was drenched, and when I bent over and put my hands on my knees to catch my breath, my knees were slick with sweat. I had sweaty knees. I didn’t think knees could sweat, but apparently mine do.
Then Keller called us back into a circle and told us the next phase of training: “the parkour pentathlon.” I was still feeling good at this point. Ready for anything. Although, at that point I’d never heard of a thing called the QM Marathon.
The parkour pentathlon was a set of five tests. Keller handed out sheets of white paper with the Parkour Generations Lancaster logo at the top for us to record our results and make notes about techniques. First, we did some pull-ups while hanging from the side of the stairs. I didn’t do great – only nine (although, in my defense, we were already over an hour and a half into the workout, which was about an hour longer than my normal workout routine). Next came a sprint the length of the courtyard of Binns Park. I finished in the middle of the pack. OK, still feeling good here. A little winded, but we had to be coming up on the end of this workout soon. Next came pushups (finally, something I could do) and squats. One event left and then we were done. Keller came over to check in and see how I was doing. I huffed some inaudible reply meant to convey that I was hanging in there.
“I think you’ll like the QM Marathon,” Keller said with a mischievous elfin grin.
Right then, I knew I would hate the QM Marathon.
The QM Marathon is a 10-minute circuit run alternating between jogging, bear craws and crawling up and down a set of stairs. Nice, I thought, the bear crawls will give me a break from the jogging. Naïve, pre-QM Marathon me.
For an extra challenge, you could do a backwards climb up the staircase, and just to show I was still in it, I went backwards up the stairs. A quarter of the way through, I knew this was a mistake. I made my way into the first stretch of jogging and then onto the bear crawl part. Somewhere in the middle of crawling along the gritty brick of Binns Park on my hands, I started questioning my life choices. At the time, I didn’t know what QM stood for, (it stands for Quadrupedal Movement) but I could guess it was something like “Quiet Murder” or “Quit, Mike!” I made it through one lap and slumped against the wall and chugged 20 ounces of water. The marathon wasn’t even halfway done. For the first time, in the nearly two-hour workout, I thought I might throw up. Which was actually a win, because there was a strong possibility that that would happen within the first 20 minutes. I slogged my way through another lap, and finally we were done.
In a daze, I went through the cool down stretches and looked at my sheet of paper. There were some random notes like: “landings are where the most chronic injuries occur,” and “working out should be fun” (haha) and “sweaty knees.” There was also a little blood stain on it too.
I walked with Keller back to my office so I could ask him a few questions. I wheezed through some questions and chugged another 20 ounces of water in one gulp. In the middle of one of Keller’s answers, I excused myself and made my way to the bathroom. That’s when I threw up.
When it was all over, I sat in my car, tired, slightly dizzy, sweaty… and feeling the best I had in months.
Andy Keller is the head coach of Parkour Generations Lancaster. He’s been practicing parkour for 10 years. He’s a polite and mild-mannered guy, but when it comes to parkour, he’s a beast. I spoke with him after participating in one of his weekly intense two-hour parkour workouts. Listening back to the tape, I could hear the sweat in my voice.
MA: Wow. That was a crazy workout.
AK: Glad you survived.
MA: Barely. So, how did you get into parkour?
AK: I started in high school after seeing a documentary on the Discovery Channel about parkour in London and thought it was interesting. I had tried some sports and was never really into the organized sports scene. It looked cool and seemed like it fit me. I started by just trying to vault over the couch in the living room. And I’m still here 10 years later. Still doing it. It’s been a cool journey. I’ve done it this long and I imagine doing it the rest of my life.
MA: So this is your full-time job now?
AK: It is. I do a few other things. My family has an auction company so I’m an auctioneer. I quit my day job [a month or two ago]. I was actually working for an Auntie Anne’s franchise for a year and a half. I just wasn’t that passionate about pretzels. Parkour is something that kind of involves every aspect of my life. I get to do workshops across the country.
MA: It’s kind of crazy that all skill levels can participate in this class. I never felt like I couldn’t hang – well, maybe toward the end – but somehow, you guys design this class so that all levels can really do it and feel challenged.
AK: That’s one of our biggest focuses and one of the things that we’re proud of. We can have anybody from high-level athletes that could be in the Olympics and I could easily coach and challenge them, down to people that haven’t jumped in the last 10 years.
MA: Have you ever injured yourself doing parkour?
AK: Not severely. I’ve taken a few big falls, but nothing that put me in the hospital.
MA: How do you approach a new challenge or obstacle and it kind of freaks you out a little bit? What goes through your head?
AK: That’s a good question. That’s something that we try to do often. Even as you advance in training, you still want to find those moments. It becomes easier as you go on because you get the method and you know sooner if you can do something. So, if I was standing at a jump, I usually know within five percent distance of what I’m going to be able to do for that. So, I can stand there and look at it and know whether I can do it or I can’t. If I can do it, it doesn’t take me long to make an attempt.
MA: What’s unique about parkour in Lancaster?
AK: A lot of it depends of the architecture. So, like, here there are a lot of brick walls and boxy things, so we do a lot of jumping and vaulting. But, like, in a bigger city, you’ll find more scaffolding and railings, so they may be better at swinging.
MA: Do the police ever ask you guys what you’re doing?
AK: People ask, but they’re usually cool about it. I think the diversity of our group helps a lot. It’s not like we’re a group of teenagers that they may have preconceived ideas about. It’s more like, “Oh, well, there’s somebody my age and somebody half my age.” We’re not a gang and the classes usually look somewhat organized. We’re not loitering. We’re training hard. We’re sweating more than they are, so they usually leave us alone.
Andy Keller’s Parkour Generations Lancaster class takes place every Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. in Binns Park in downtown Lancaster. The cost is $20 per session or $65 per month. Visit lancasterparkour.com for more information.