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Parkour: It's Hard on the Bones
Is Free-Running Bad For You?By Adam Sinicki
My Mum has allways worried about me bodybuilding and since moving out other people have worried too. Still, the worry pales in comparison compared to the time I did a handstand on a bridge over a motorway.
They're not too keen about my habbit of jumping off things either, high things mostly, as part of this new trend called 'parcklore' (or something like that). Even if I don't do anything wrong or have any accidents they reason that I might still be doing damage from constantly impacting on my knees. It makes sense right?
Like all new things there hasn't been the opportunity yet to test the long-term effects of free running and related practices. Even with good technique, rolls etc, used to minimise the damage surely it's got to be one of the sports most taxing on the bones and joints? Well as one of the 'first wave' of traceurs having begun rolling around on buildings in 2002, I can quite safely say that 'yeah, it screws you up'.
Before I go any further though allow me to share a true story with you that has up until now been mostly kept secret. I reason that no-one I know will read this who shouldn't do. If they do then wish me luck - I could have a whole lot more pain coming my way...
It was a summer's day and the birds were chirping merrily. Probably they were anyway, I was indoors so I couldn't hear them. I'd just been to a martial arts seminar with my buddy Pete at a the sports centre in Little Down. We were getting a lift from my Mum later, but the class had finished early so we decided to explore the premises. In doing so we came across an empty hall that had been left open by the staff. Being the naughty little rascals we were (I believe it was around 2004), we decided to creap inside.
While the room was mainly empty what we did find was a selection of large foam toys that they let kids climb on and stuff. You know, the ones you find in those ball pools at Guss Gorillas (is that still open?). Me being a 'stunt man' and all, we decided it would be a great idea if I built a tower of the things and then grabbed onto the ceiling fan and span around all funny. To be honest this was a poorly thought through plan under the best of circumstances as we'd never discussed how I would get back down.
The way the tower worked was that I would stand on a toy, then Pete would throw another one up to me. I'd then add this new toy to the pile and clamber on top of that as well. The brilliance behind the plan was that if I were to fall I'd be surrounded by foam toys which would cushion the impact.
The plan seemed to be going smoothly for a while and soon I was nearly at the ceiling, a good four or five metres above the wooden floor. I gave the signal and Pete threw another one up to me, but as I caught it the structure began to give way and topple like the leaning tower of pizza. In an effort to right myself I attempted to go against the gradient meaning that as I fell I kicked the toys out from undermyself leaving myself no cushioning. For a brief moment that seemed like forever I hung in mid-air as the toy I'd failed to catch span infront of me. And then I fell. And landed. Hard.
For a moment I thought I was dead. My arm had hit first followed by my head and when I first opened my eyes all I could see only black. When the world came back into focus though I found myself lying flat on my back with Pete pearing over me. My elbow was stinging and I felt pretty ill but wasn't sure why.
'Get up' said Pete, ever sympathetic. And so I tried. Only when I was pushing on my arm nothing was happening and I couldn't seem to take my own weight.
'I can't' I said honestly.
'Don't be stupid!' he shouted, again, a great person to have around in a crisis. I tried again but again it was useless. I inspected my arm and immediately the problem became clear - my hand was on backwards. No exageration, my entire hand had actually pivotted and the skin around the joint was rippled and contorted. Not good. Pete and I shared an expression of pantomime disbelief before I came up with an action plan. My Mum couldn't know this had happened; I'd be dead. We were meant to be going on holiday and I was meant to be doing my GCSEs. Luckily I was pretty sure my wrist was merely dislocated.
'Pull it!' I instructed Pete all excitedly.
'Pull it,' I explained, as though he were being stupid for hesitating, 'and it will snap back into place. I saw in on The Simpsons.'
'Ah good idea,' agreed Pete, obviously aware that The Simpsons was the best source of knowledge on all things. And so he grabbed it and pulled.
'Well that doesn't seem much better...' I admitted admiring my now diagonal hand and lose 'ear lobe' of skin. 'I think I may have to go to the hospital after all.' and at that point my voice was intermitently going squeaky and high pitched.
The two of us headed over to reception and I slumped my wrist on the table, dripping in sweat and trying to stay awake. They knew what to do.
When my Mum arrived Pete ran out to calm her.
'Don't worry Caroline,' he said to my Mum in his best bedside manner, 'the ambulance is on the way'. Great job Pete.
When I got to the hospital I sat in the waiting area with my Mum. Hilariously, I had a sick bowl on my head to demonstrate my fighting spirit, but still I wasn't feeling my best.
'They won't have to amputate it will they Mum?'
'I don't know honey... I just don't know...'
Pretty grim eh? And the last bit wasn't added for dramatic effect either, my Mum really did say that. She honestly thought that would be the best thing to say to a terrified 15 year-old. Apparently she 'wanted me to be prepared for the worst'.
Fortunately I still have a hand, but it's not quite the shining example of handiness that it once was. I had managed to snap both bones and shatter the growth plate resulting in it actually becoming detatched from my arm other than the muscle, flesh, veins and tendons. For future reference it's impossible to dislocate your wrist without breaking it.
The recovery was fraught with problems too and thanks to my insistence on climbing a tree and doing somersaults I actually managed to break it again while it was inside the cast. The second time round I had to have it pinned and have a cast up to my shoulder. Only thing was it moved again during its time in the case and a piece of bone from the growth plate became detatched. During a check-up they told me I should have another operation and permanent metal plates. I told them where they could put their metal plates.
So after nearly 5 months in various casts my wrist came out still pretty messed up. A visit to a private hospital also informed me that the bone was on 30 degrees wrong. I can feel it all the time. Whenever I move my wrist it crunches. It's hurting right now from typing. Imagine how it feels in the gym.
So a cautionary tale to all you free runners and traceurs! And that's not all that hurts either - I also broke my ankle in year 9 and my big toe doing a back handsping. Even where I haven't had any specific injuries years of abuse have taken their toll; today my knees creak (especially on the squats) and my shoulder crunches. I regularly get back pain.
So taking all that into consideration is Parkour still worth it? Hell yeah!
First of all, the fun I've had doing it more than makes up for the pain it's caused later on. At school I used to run around on the roof or walk around on my hands to impress other kids, or just to entertain myself. I remember hiding from caretakers by lying flat against the roof while they searched around for me, only to have my friends return half an hour later and gingerly call my name.
And sure I ache now, but there are still other sports and activities that can do as much or even more damage. At least I'm not going to end up like Ali from too many concussions (unless I get particularly shit at it) and footballers break their legs all the time far more seriously than I've broken my wrist.
And I'm still having fun now, six years on. Despite the pains I can still move pretty well if I do say so myself and I have a feeling that a certain amount of extra agility will stay with me for the rest of my life. Just look at Jackie Chan - it's his job and he's still going strong coming up to 60. Just today I was waiting for the bus and I decided it would be cool to sit by pressing my legs against a lamp post and my back against a wall. While I was doing it I heard some kid go 'awesome'. I pretended not to notice as that would ruin the effect but it was well cool. My back aches like mad now but was it worth it? For sure.
Further more we are now more aware of the sport and its inherent problems. There are more opportunities to learn good technique on the internet, shoes designed specifically to lessen impact in your knees and there are even now gyms specifically for practicing Parkour in safe environments. Plus, I'm hopful that in twenty years or so they'll be able to just cut off my hand and grow me a brand new one. (To lessen impact try Kickbak Speedsoles, they're only a tenner and used by athletes)
Nope parkour is for life and achey joints are just part of the package.
Just don't try and yank your wrist when it's broken.