Parkour Camp 2008: A Student’s View

Morzine Blane Shirley

Parkour Camp 2008: A Student’s View

After arriving in Geneva, I met up with Forrest, Thomas, Simon, Dan and Naki from Loaded magazine, and Mark, another unsuspecting ‘guest’ at the camp.  Whilst waiting for the rest of the guys to turn up, we sat down and grabbed a drink.

‘We have a few surprises for you’ was Forrest’s first understated description of our itinerary.

‘It will be hard’ – another understatement ‘we will be using the environment, doing things we can’t do in London’

Beyond that there wasn’t much more of a description of our activities, so we all left the airport with a sense of excitement and fear (Forrest laughing whilst saying ‘it will be hard’ did nothing to ease our concerns.)

During the transfer to the chalet, Forrest enlightened us with probably the greatest bit of wisdom for the next few days ‘Seriously guys, we are going to be doing some hard stuff, so whenever we are at the chalet, rest’.  This became our mantra for four days.

On arriving at the (very nice) chalet, we dumped our kit in our rooms and trundled into town to grab some lunch.  It was at this point we realised how deserted the whole place was out of season.  Great.  A whole town to ourselves.  On the way back, Mark spotted a Cafe with a pool table.  He suggested we could go for a game during one of our ‘rest’ periods, which seemed like a good idea at the time.  Strangely, it never happened.

That night we went to see an ice hockey match, and got back to the chalet about midnight.  Forrest then told us we would be going for a jog at 6:00am the next morning, and would be meeting downstairs at 5:45am.  Everyone was shattered from their early starts, and the thought of not having a full night’s sleep was the beginning of our mental conditioning.

The next morning, we all met at the designated time and went out for a shortish run, with a few press-ups thrown in for good measure, and a brisk uphill tack at the end.  We then eagerly went back to bed for about an hour before getting back up for breakfast (every meal was excellent).  Again, after breakfast we had another hour or so to rest, so all went back to bed.

Our first training session was a simple wall run. About 6ft high onto a low garage roof.  Easy.  One hundred times, not so easy.  If anyone failed to control themselves on the way down, that rep didn’t count – for everyone.  That was hard on both the muscles and the mind, but the determination of everyone not to inflict more reps upon their colleagues was amazing, and despite torn hands and badly aching muscles there were some truly heroic efforts being displayed.

After lunch, we went back into the town for session number 2.  We had been told to bring a towel, and possibly an extra t-shirt.  We started with some basic balancing drills, and then some short precision jumps.  Nothing fancy, just core work.  Then we moved off to a footbridge over the town’s frigid looking mountain river, about 15 foot above the rock strewn water.  With Thomas and Forrest keeping a close eye on us, we each walked across the railings.  The task was not physically difficult, but the prospect of falling into the water and worse, the protruding rocks, added an extra level of mental difficulty.  Thomas then got us all to sit on the railing, with our legs dangling over the edge.  This was actually much worse than walking across it, but after a few moments, we each began to relax and feel more comfortable.

We then ran along a path that wound through a wooded area, utilising various exercise equipment along the way for pull-ups etc.  We eventually reached another bridge across the river, this one only about 7ft high.  One after another, we had to hang underneath it with our hands holding one girder, and our feet resting on another so we were in an inverted hands and knees position.  We then had to traverse the river like this which was a killer on the arms and shoulders, not mentioning the fear of falling in, or the bridge debris raining down in our faces.  Once on the other side, we had to traverse the upper side of the bridge by placing our hands on one railing, and our feet on the other ala superman stylee.  Finally, we had to walk back across the handrail.

Thomas then led us to a fallen tree that had bridged the river.  This was just above the surface of the water, and had become wet.  The tree wasn’t that large and consequently had a lot of movement when walking across it.  I became the second ‘booty’ victim of the day when I slipped off.  I wasn’t especially pleased about doing the rest of the session with a soggy foot.  I needn’t have worried.

Further along the path, Forrest veered off into the woods.  A short way in Thomas told us to stop, dump our backpacks and take off our shoes and socks.  Despite the odd request, we all obliged, and Thomas then led us on a monkey walk through the forest path, the muddy forest path.  After a short while, he got us to go back to the starting area by doing the monkey walk in reverse.  At this point, we had the woods to our left, and the glacial river to our right.  I don’t speak much French, and neither did any of the other guys, so Forrest and Thomas would plot all their schemes in French to keep us in the dark.  However, one word I did recognise was ‘droit’, which means ‘right’.  We were going in the river.  The water was unbelievably cold.  Even though it was only deep enough to cover our hands and feet whilst monkey walking, it froze our entire bodies.  We began moving slowly downstream, but when we stopped occasionally to let others catch up, the discomfort was immense.  A massive burning feeling that still managed to feel ridiculously cold.  After a few sets of Forrest press-ups, we reverse monkey walked back the way we had came, and back onto the bank.  We all started getting our shoes and socks back on, but something caught Thomas’ eye, and his evil brain began to hatch another challenge.  Instructing us to take our shoes and socks back off, he led us across the shallow branch of the river we had just been crawling through.  When we reached the opposite bank, he suggested we strip down to just our underpants.  Although he got a few strange looks, again we all obliged him.  Thomas then led us across another fallen tree, this one crossing a deeper and faster part of the river.  This time the tree was much sturdier, and I think we were all surprised that this obstacle wasn’t more difficult, although none of us said so.  We’d already learnt not to say something was easy.  Once we’d all reached the other side, the real obstacle became clear – we were to wade through the river back to the other side.  If this wasn’t bad enough, halfway across Thomas announced we had to grab hold of the tree and completely submerge ourselves in the icy flow.  Not surprisingly, it was extremely cold and fairly shocking.  We then had to monkey walk against the flow of the river, this time the water was deep enough to cover our shoulders and backs.  The plus side to being so cold is that when we finally got out of the water, the air actually seemed quite warm.

After drying ourselves off, and getting back into some clothes, we were all looking forward to going back to the chalet for some good hot food.  Thomas had one small task left for us.  We simply had to move some logs.  I’d guess their weight was anything from 10-20kgs, and when carried on our shoulders, it was OK.  Still barefoot, we trudged through the mud, not really knowing how far we were going.  When we crossed the river, it became obvious we would have to at least walk back to the previous bridge to get across to our starting point.  It was at this point that Thomas banned carrying the logs on our shoulders, and instead we had to cradle them in our arms.  I think Thomas led a previous life as part of the Spanish Inquisition.  Without a doubt, this was the most uncomfortable thing I’ve done in my life.  My forearms were burning, my biceps were burning and my strength was disappearing fast.  To make it worse, when we rested, we had to squat with the logs in our laps.  This is a killer on the legs, so whether we were carrying or resting, we were in pain.  After what seemed like ages, we were nearly back at our starting point.  All my strength had gone by now, and as we were so close to finishing, I started to relax my will power.  I hated the log by this point.  Just as I was about to drop it, Thomas shouted back down the line ‘Don’t put it down, we aren’t finished yet’.  That was when I broke.  For the next 20 minutes, I shuffled through the woods like a zombie, dropping the log frequently only to pick it up, shuffle some more then drop it again. When we finally finished I felt like I’d been beaten with a large stick, and in a way I had.  I’ll be honest and say that at this point I wasn’t enjoying myself.  I was feeling sorry for myself and couldn’t see the point of what we had just done.  It just seemed like a sadistic beasting, that wouldn’t improve my Parkour.  However, Thomas in his very calm manner highlighted the point that even when I thought I could do no more, I still managed to carry on for another 20 minutes or so.  I’d just discovered that my limits were far in excess of where I thought they were, and Parkour wasn’t just a collection of moves.

As we ran back towards the chalet there was a general feeling of pride among the group.  Spirits were high again, despite our aches, so when Thomas got us to crawl through a narrow concrete pipe that ran underground, none of us complained.

Back at the hotel we had no time to change and got stuck into dinner in our muddy, sweaty training clothes.  It must have looked like a soup kitchen to any other guests.

About 11pm, after another few snatched hours of sleep, we went out for a short night-time session.  It mostly consisted of balancing practice and varied cat leaps, but the main purpose was for us to see how the lower levels of light altered our perception of obstacles. By the time we got back to the chalet, we were all ready for sleep.

Day 2

5hrs 45mins later we got up and went out for our second morning run.  This one was slightly longer than the first, and the press-up portion seemed harder.

After more sleep, some breakfast and then more sleep, we had some welcome R & R in the form of white-water rafting, and as we had wetsuits on, it was a lot more pleasant than the previous day’s shenanigans.

After lunch and our afternoon nap, we went back into town to an area with a long set of stairs.  The whole flight was 80-100m long, and the individual stairs were anything from 1-2m deep.  We performed a few varied sets of precision jumps which really got our quads working, then some monkey walking (forward and reverse), then finally, stepping under and through the railings that bisected the paths entire length.  Clearly, this workout was all going to be about legs.

When we had completed the ‘warm-up’ as Forrest called it, we moved into the centre of town, and after a couple of small practice running precisions we moved to the entrance to an underground car park.  This was a road that sloped downwards in the car park.  The gap itself was about 10ft across, and we were to perform the precision at a point where the kerbs were about 45cm high.  Our run up was fairly limited – 3 steps in fact which at first didn’t seem like enough, but it soon became apparent that it was actually too much power was going to be more of an issue.  Having injured my ankle whilst doing a running precision last year (to be precise, I injured it by NOT doing the running precision), I had something of a block whilst trying to do these, and despite Thomas and Forrest’s best efforts I kept overshooting, probably because I was scared of repeating the event that injured me last time.  By the time we left the area, I still hadn’t cracked it and was strongly disappointed with myself.

Our final stop that afternoon involved a small rail to rail precision.  The railings were either side of a set of metal stairs that went down to a basement door and once again, although the jump should have been straightforward for us all, the metal stairs had a vicious look to them which certainly made us more tense.  As none of us could consistently stay in control, we received a 100 press-up forfeit.  We were spared some of these by Naki, the photographer from Loaded magazine, who made a deal with Forrest, and on his first and only attempt (ever) at precision jumping, did a better job than us, winning a reprieve of 40 press-ups.

I haven’t emphasised it, but press-ups were a common thing.  If we failed a task, there’d be press-ups.  If we didn’t put enough effort into something, there’d be press-ups.  If someone sneezed, the sky was blue or there was a ‘y’ in the day, there’d be press-ups.

At dinner that evening, Dan, the journalist from Loaded admitted that he was aching so much the night before that he had been unable to undo his shoelaces and so had gone to bed with his shoes on.  Despite having never done Parkour before, and by his own admission not doing too much exercise in general, Dan took on all the same challenges that faced us more experienced guys and didn’t once give up.  If anyone captured the spirit of Parkour at the camp, it was Dan.

That night, Forrest must have seen how tired we all were as no training was scheduled for after dinner, and we got our first proper night’s sleep.  Bliss.

Day 3

Another early run and press-up session (both of which seemed to have got longer since the day before) followed by food and sleep.  Then we piled into a mini-bus and headed off to Avoriaz.  Avoriaz is a ski resort some 800m above Morzine, and as is was out of season, it was also a ghost town.

Our first exercise was to precision from a wall onto a small ledge that stuck out from the wooden wall of a building.  The jump itself wasn’t hard or long, but the landing was fairly tricky due to the wall stopping any forward motion, so the power had to be perfect.  Several sets later we then tried to balance on the ledge with our backs to the wall.  Simply climbing onto the ledge was difficult, then staying there without using our hands was nearly impossible.  At this point, Anja, a filmmaker from Germany, had a go and managed to do it.  Either media people are naturally gifted at Parkour, or we were too tired to maintain the necessary control.

A few wall runs and traverses later, we moved onto turn vaults on a set of railings that overlooked some concrete stairs (and an excellent view of Morzine valley).  The stairs provided our imaginations with some ugly images of what would happen if we slipped (in truth, Forrest and Thomas we both positioned so that we couldn’t hurt ourselves), but when we tried to do precisions onto the same railing (another technically easy jump), we all failed due to our fear.

Following a leisurely packed lunch, we moved down to a lower area housing a cable car (via a 150m downhill monkey walk).  We started off with repeated cat balances up some inclined railings and then traversed a wooden beam in the roof by hanging with just our hands.  This was the final straw for the wounds on my hands which happily shed even more skin and flesh.  Luckily I was saved by Anja’s gaffer tape (which is now part of my parkour ‘kit’).  I can’t say enough good things about gaffer tape for hand injuries.  It’s also good in kidnapping situations (I know, I’ve seen the A-team).

Thomas had sussed out a small route for us to follow that included two 5ft drops.  We did the route 25 times (meaning our legs soaked up our body weight falling through a total of 250ft), concentrating on our lightness.  Forrest couldn’t take part due to a knee problem, but hearing Thomas land (not hearing would be more accurate) was impressive stuff.

Forrest led us through a stretching session, then we travelled back down to the chalet for dinner.

At this stage we all had pains everywhere.  Legs and triceps seemed to be the most common, and we had all picked up small injuries, mostly cuts and torn skin.  Although we were all still upbeat, I think we all realised that 4 continuous days would be enough.

It’s worth mentioning that on the first night, a timetable had been posted in our chalet.  It was quite generic, simply detailing what time we would start in the mornings and afternoons, and which town that session would be held in.  However, scheduled in for 3:30am Saturday morning was ‘A surprise’.  When questioned about this, Forrest would only say ‘We will be going for a nice little walk’, and Thomas would just smile.  We had worked out by this time that although Thomas SEEMED like the nice one, he was in fact the mastermind behind many of the more evil challenges.  Sadly that night, Thomas began to feel unwell.  He blamed it on a bug, but there were unconfirmed reports of someone being seen putting something in his dinner, whilst twitching and repeatedly muttering about ‘logs’.  The 3:30am little walk was cancelled.

Day 4

The final day started without a run.  Instead we got to lie in until 6:45am.  We then met downstairs for an early breakfast, and then outside to go for a walk with Forrest, in the forest.  We tacked for about an hour up the road until we reached a pathway that led off up the hill/mountain and into the woods.  We weren’t going at a crazy pace, and both the weather and scenery were excellent, and to be honest, it actually was a nice little walk.  Sensing that we clearly weren’t suffering enough, Forrest decided that for the remainder of the walk, we would perform press-ups every 5 minutes.  This involved stopping wherever we were, and then bashing out 30-40 press-ups.  Each time we stopped, you could see people scanning the ground to find an area that might make the task even a little bit easier, but the narrow forest path unfortunately didn’t offer much choice, and frequently we would be doing them with our each arm at fairly different heights.

After about an hour of this, we reached a bench and Forrest instructed us to take a seat.  We all knew this wasn’t going to be a rest, and sure enough we then had to perform dips and some agonising back exercises.  The faces that we each pulled during this were definite gurning prize winners.

After the back torture, we staggered back down to the chalet for lunch.  As we were getting close to the end of the camp, we were all beginning to relax again, and everyone was having a good laugh with each other.  Over lunch, I asked Forrest what we would be doing that afternoon.  ‘Everything we have already done – again’.  This took a few seconds to sink in, and to clarify I asked ‘Including the logs and river’

‘Yes’.

With one word, the entire mood changed in the room.  Suddenly everyone was absolutely gutted.  We were all exhausted and the thought of having to do everything again was totally demoralising.  For me, the thought of having to carry the log again was hideous.  I was actually contemplating refusing to do it, and it’s probably only my desire not to be the only one to give up that stopped me.

We had a few hours to kill before the afternoon session, and as we had caught up on sleep, I was just sitting on the chalet winding myself up more and more about the log.  Anja asked if I would mind doing a short interview for her film, and whilst interviewing me, she asked me why I did Parkour.

‘For the personal challenge’ I answered ‘It pushes me to do things I don’t want to, or have a fear of’.  I realised how ridiculous that statement was bearing in mind how much I didn’t want to carry the log, and at that moment, decided to be positive.  It was only a log.  No matter how bad it was going to be, it WOULD end.  I was not going to give up, and even if I had to crawl through the mud dragging the log in my teeth, I decided I was going to do it, and without anymore negative comments.

So, true to Forrest’s word, that afternoon we went out and performed all the activities again.  I was given an early boost when Michael, a practitioner from Poland gave me a tip for my running precisions which I was still struggling with (simply to slow it down), after which I nailed every single one.  More balancing followed, along with the cat leaps (and press-ups).  Finally we reached the log area.  Forrest duly assigned us our logs, and we set off.  This time we had our shoes on which was a significant mental boost.  It was still extremely hard, and my muscles were already tired, but I just focused on hanging onto the log and putting one foot in front of the other.  After maybe only 15 minutes, Forrest told us to turn around and said we would be going back.  We all headed back to the start, but this time none of us put our logs down until we were sure it had actually finished.  There was excellent teamwork between everyone, and the two guys who were last to return were supported by each other and everyone else.

Next we had another session in the river.  This time was less of a shock, so to make up for it, Forrest had us doing press-ups where we had to submerge our chests into the water.  It was cold, but was an excellent opportunity to grab a gulp of water.  And that was it, we were getting back out.  I had geared myself up so much for a full repeat of the previous log and river session that this had been child’s play in comparison.  So much so that I actually got back in the deep part of the river to do a full submerge.

Our return to the chalet was interspersed with the expected press-up breaks, as well as a few other conditioning exercises, finally finishing up with some underbars.  Our absolutely last exercise was a set of 10 press ups with Forrest pushing down on our backs.  These were ridiculously tiring, and again our best gurning faces were on show.  When we were finished, Forrest informed us that we had done a total of 500 press-ups that day.  I could believe it.

We walked back to the chalet, all of us glad we didn’t have to run up the hill again, then got changed and settled down for an amazing dinner.  We could have been served a ready meal and it would have seemed good, but this was genuinely excellent food (how can the French make cheese and potato into something so delicious?).

Some of us helped ourselves to plenty of wine, before crashing to bed for the best sleep ever.

The camp had come to and end.

Was it what I had expected?  No.  I hadn’t put too much thought into it, but my mind had presumed it would be a ‘Parkour holiday’ and I would come away from it having learned a lot more moves.  I can honestly say the only ‘move’ I had successfully added to my repertoire was the running precision.

However, what I did take from it was far more than my expectations.  I had learnt the value of basic exercises, both strength and technique.  With these developed to a high level, the other moves didn’t really need a great deal of learning as they were mostly amalgamations of the base techniques.  In Chinese martial arts, there is a distinction between the external and internal aspects of the art.  I had been concentrating on the external facets of Parkour, strength, conditioning and technique, but had wholly disregarded the internal training.  This includes strength of mind, the control of my own fear and the ability to recognise, push and respect my own limits.

In the past, I’ve heard people talk about Parkour being a way of life, which to me meant Parkour WAS their life.  They had an all consuming passion for Parkour, and just trained physically as much as they could.  That may well be true, but I now know that it goes beyond that, and the mental benefits of Parkour can be applied to all aspects of our lives to help us face fears, do things that we’d rather not, and know when to stop.

My training has changed significantly since my return and I’m already seeing the benefits.  Now, when I feel like I can’t do anymore, I do just a few more.  Instead of repeating something 10 times, I do it 100.  When faced by an obstacle that’s outside my comfort zone, instead of backing down I look at it more practically to see if it is my ability or my fear that is the true barrier to overcoming it.

The Morzine camp wasn’t a holiday, and some parts were definitely not fun.  But I wouldn’t change any of the challenges we faced.  In the worst parts of the training I found the best parts of myself, and I know I’ll be at the head of the queue for next year’s camp.

by Ed Whitehead