I’ve never been much of an adrenaline junky. I played women’s rugby through university, but I would always prioritise finishing a game with all of my limbs still attached over securing a victory, so I was never any good at it. When faced with a high place, my legs start to feel like they belong to somebody else, they shake uncontrollably and I lose all dominium over them. I just don’t think I have the extreme gene, so this was an alien world that had always baffled me.
My first ‘extreme’ adventure was a Parkour lesson with Dan Edwardes, the co-founder and Director of Parkour Generations. Also known as free-running, Parkour is essentially the art of getting from point A to point B, in the fastest, most controlled and most efficient manner. It involves a lot of jumping from one high scary place to another high scary place, balancing on narrow things, swinging under things, scaling high walls and pulling out a few flips.
Dan is a Cambridge educated martial arts protégé turned Parkour frontman. “Parkour is so much more than just exercise,” he tells me, “it’s a philosophy, a way of life. It’s about being fit for purpose, and developing the confidence, both mentally and physically to overcome any obstacle”.
We try a two-footed jump from one wall to another, over a sloping stairwell. I don’t think I have attempted anything like this since I was a kid. I muster up the courage, swing my arms and go to launch myself but bail at the very last minute, falling unceremoniously into the stairwell.
“That’s a classic mistake”, he says, catching me and propping me up as if I weigh nothing. “Once you decide to make the jump, that’s it. You can’t have any doubt in your mind. Hesitation is the enemy. You have to commit to it, get your mind in the moment and focus on the technique”.
“Isn’t all of this a bit dangerous though?” I ask him, “that’s the thrill right?”
“Not at all”, Dan says, “in fact, most Parkour practitioners are risk averse people. They carefully calculate whether or not they can make a jump, and when they know they can, their focus shifts entirely to the execution. The best way to minimise risk is to commit 100% to everything you do. It’s mental discipline, not recklessness”.
After a few more attempts, I make the jump (sort of) so we move on to balancing across a railing, vaulting over various walls and swinging through handrails. Dan makes me repeat every exercise we do again and again and I feel myself improving slightly every time, in confidence mainly, but this translates directly into ability.
“Parkour is a transformational practice”, Dan explains as we walk back to the station after the lesson. I have heard that sentence before, from Ashtanga Yoga teacher John Scott. Both practices hold to the same philosophy; ‘if you prepare the mind, the body will follow’.
The following weekend I head to ‘Eastbourne Xtreme Festival’, with Gary in tow. On the first morning, as we head down the beach towards the skate park we pass a three-story platform that people appear to be throwing themselves off of, like lemmings.
“We have to do that!” I say to Gary, knowing this is true, but dreading it with equal force.
The drop is 7m into a huge inflatable bag, and the idea is to give you the experience of BASE jumping – the thrill of the free fall – without the danger.
I climb the scaffold and once at the top my legs begin their familiar shake. The man beckons me half way down the platform. “Don’t look over the edge”, he says. “Just run from here, as fast as you can, and throw yourself off”. Sure.
I try this, get to the edge, and freeze. This is sooo high. I try three more times to run up, but stop with a jerk every time. I want to do it, I really do, but it’s as if my body will not physically let me. I suppose this is why human beings are so good at staying alive, an inbuilt survival instinct that prevents us from jumping from high places. Pretty smart really.
I can feel my pulse in my temple and look down to see that an audience has started to gather around the platform; 30 people all staring up at me. Great. I tell myself to stop being so stupid, walk to the end of the platform and jump. Well, I say jump. I sort of half jump, half fall, my heart in my mouth as my limbs flail wildly during the 3-second plunge. I land on the bag with a thud and the audience cheers.
Still pumping with adrenaline, we head across the beach to watch a Freestyle Display Team during which Joe, Josh and Oly navigate a multi-platform obstacle course on trial and mountain bikes. They are joined by Pip, a professional free-runner who moves as if gravity doesn’t apply to him, looking more like Spiderman than a human being. In fact, here he is as Spiderman.
“The community is strong”, Pip tells me when I interview the team after their show. “I did a whole European tour by crashing on the floor of other free-runners I’d only ever met on Facebook”.
“Do you have any coping mechanisms for the fear?” I ask.
“Music can play a big part”, Joe says. “It helps you focus. But the fear never really goes away. You only get better if you push yourself, and you can’t push yourself unless you scare yourself”.
I was surprised by how calm and modest the boys were throughout the interview. I had expected to meet a bunch of extraverted, reckless, adrenaline junkies but instead I was faced with some of the most thoughtful, level headed and disciplined human beings I had ever encountered.
As this all clicks into place, for a short moment, I get a bit carried away. “Yeah. I understand completely”, I say, as if I am a kindred spirit of these professional daredevils. “I did this airdrop yesterday” – I point it out, in the distance. It looks a lot smaller than I remembered – “It was terrifying”.
They look at me blankly. I don’t think they were very impressed.