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Extreme Running

Made popular by a recent James Bond film, a new urban art form called free running hits the streets

"I didn't know what I was looking for when I was young," says Foucan. "Then I started to have this passion."

Shortly after the turn of the millennium, Belle and Foucan's playful assaults on urban facades surfaced in the public consciousness. In 2002, a BBC ad showed Belle sprinting across London's rooftops to get home from work. "There was a huge reaction," says English filmmaker Mike Christie. "No one really identified it as a sport, but I think it caught most people's eyes."

A year later, Britain's Channel 4 premiered a documentary, "Jump London," that Christie had directed on this new phenomenon. Loaded with footage of Foucan and other French traceurs bounding off London's edifices, it introduced the term "free running," which filmmakers thought to be a suitable English translation of "parkour."

According to Christie, an estimated 3 million viewers tuned in for the project's first screening, and it was subsequently exported to 65 additional countries for broadcast. Almost overnight, the practice exploded on the Internet. Toorock, who lived in Britain at the time, recalls that a local parkour Web site he was affiliated with, called Urban Freeflow, doubled its membership in a matter of weeks.

People used sites like this to meet others interested in group training sessions and "jams," where traceurs convene in one spot to do full-speed runs together, each lasting several seconds to several minutes.

By the time Christie's sequel, "Jump Britain," reached the airwaves in 2005, the United Kingdom had become a breeding ground for traceurs. Meanwhile, Toorock, who had relocated back to the United States, was founding his own parkour community, and the nascent video site YouTube was carrying images of the sport far beyond its European birthplace.

Nowadays, the practice pops up in shoe commercials, feature films, public parks, video games and even on concert stages. While the community now distinguishes between the two forms, crediting Belle with the creation of parkour and Foucan with free running, both types still boast the same roots, requirements and rewards. All a person needs for either is a sturdy pair of shoes and guts of steel. The results can include increased physical fitness, new friends and even a changed outlook on life.

"You learn to get over physical obstacles in parkour, and then come the mental ones," says Toorock, who also runs parkour training classes at D.C.'s Primal Fitness and manages a troupe of professional traceurs called The Tribe. "When life throws you something, you think, 'I can get over this, the same way that brick walls no longer confine me.'"

For Meeuwenberg (a Tribe member), the pursuits have become lucrative. Last year, he was one of six traceurs (along with Foucan) that Madonna tapped to join her 60-date “Confessions World Tour,” which featured parkour and free running elements that she'd previously showcased in her 2006 video for the song "Jump."

In this format and other commercial work, the performers are executing a routine that may use parkour or free running skills but is divorced from their guiding principles of freedom and creative exploration of one's environment, Meeuwenberg says. The real thing usually happens outdoors, and is a longer, more fluid event than what's shown in the choppy highlight reels that litter the Internet.

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