Colorado's parkour pioneers are running with it

The world Ryan Ford inhabits looks very different than the one most of us live in.

Ours has boundaries, limits, margins and finite possibilities. Our daily paths are delineated by sidewalks and stairwells, corralled by guardrails and building walls. We take this confinement blithely, rarely venturing onto any surface that's not parallel with the horizon or more than a few inches off the ground.

Ford doesn't see these restrictions. For him, guardrails and building walls are at least as useful as sidewalks and stairwells. While others walk around the barriers in their way, he's more likely to vault over them. While we've been taught to steer clear of sharp drops, Ford can leap right off the edge and onto a nearby ledge. Then he can continue on, never breaking his stride, bounding off pillars, running sideways across walls and scurrying up girders.

The sky's the limit for Ryan Ford.
The sky's the limit for Ryan Ford.
APEX co-owner Matt Marshall and his wife, Carissa.
APEX co-owner Matt Marshall and his wife, Carissa.

Over the past five years, Ford has trained his 22-year-old body to do these things, throwing himself so intensely into the discipline of parkour — the art of moving from one place to the next as fluidly and efficiently as possible — that he's now one of the top devotees of it in the world. But he knows that parkour takes more than the chiseled quads and ripped biceps beneath his loose-fitting wind pants and T-shirt. He's also had to train his mind, to reboot his perspective so that he can see all the conduits and challenges and puzzles the physical world has to offer.

Take, for example, the concrete fountain in Skyline Park, where Ford is currently standing with his friend and business partner, 25-year-old Matt Marshall. Most Denverites hardly give this reddish-brown jumble of concrete blocks and towers a second thought as they stroll by or stop for a cigarette break. And while the fountain's nearly always bone-dry, most civilized adults would never think to walk on it, much less leap off of it.

To Ford and Marshall, however, it's a concrete smorgasbord of gorgeous platforms and surfaces, one that offers up unending combinations of sprints, leaps and vaults. It's as though the fountain were lined with ribbons tracing all the free-flowing routes they could take, ribbons only they can see. "Boom!" exclaims Marshall, spreading his arms wide. "It's like a fucking Christmas present. There are so many things you can do."

Thanks to this fountain and other celebrated parkour hot spots like Red Rocks Amphitheatre and the University of Colorado at Boulder campus, Colorado has become a destination for the parkour community across the country and beyond. The fountain has even earned a nickname, "Precision Fountain," because it's perfect for precision jumps, a parkour technique involving leaping from one object to a precise spot on another.

And Ford and Marshall have become young leaders in the very young discipline. They've been teaching parkour classes for years and lead a thriving local organization called Colorado Parkour, or COPK. Ford has been featured on ESPN and in the New Yorker, and the two have performed at parkour events the world over.

In April, they made their most audacious move yet, opening APEX Movement, a parkour gym in a warehouse they're leasing at 2250 Lawrence Street. It's one of the only parkour gyms in the world — and the largest.

But now isn't the time to be thinking about those things. Instead, Ford needs total focus as he prepares to hit a precision jump, one he's never tried before.

He stands on a block near the upper edge of Precision Fountain, eyeing a platform roughly fourteen feet away and four feet below. He's been gauging this jump for a while, drawn by his own trepidation. Although Ford has made longer leaps before, this one has some unusual challenges. If he stumbles on takeoff or undershoots the jump, there are all those unforgiving concrete corners and edges waiting down below. And even if he does land the jump, he'll have to control his forward momentum so he doesn't tumble head-first off the chessboard-sized platform. A few years ago, Ford clipped his foot on a different fountain jump just a few feet away and separated his shoulder.

"It's a little bit scary," he says, which is exactly why he wants to do it. Parkour is a mental discipline along the lines of the martial arts, in which the goal is to overcome not just physical obstacles, but mental ones as well — personal fears and limitations.

Ford squints and frowns, considering the empty space beyond his toes. He turns around and walks several yards back through the grassy park, then practices his takeoff in slow motion. Unlike Marshall, who's a little more daring with his parkour exploits, Ford carefully analyzes his moves. Sometimes, he admits, he may overthink things.

"All right, here I go," he announces, jumping in place to warm up as Marshall offers an encouraging cheer from the sidelines. Then Ford's off. Faster and faster he sprints across the grass, the fountain looming up to meet him. At the last possible moment, he plants his foot on the cement and swings his other leg skyward.

He's airborne.

Practitioners of parkour are called traceurs (women, though rare, are called traceuses) because they're tracing the footsteps of parkour pioneer David Belle. While growing up in the early 1990s in a Parisian suburb, Belle began creating his own variations on gymnastics, martial arts and exercise techniques. Others joined him, and a philosophy evolved. Belle and his compatriots began performing, and the films they made with handheld cameras earned them roles in French action flicks such as District B13.

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