Cool running

They leap off buildings and run up walls like real life superheroes. So won't Britain's top free runners, 3Run, feel restricted in a conventional theatre space? Edd McCracken joins them in their Edinburgh flat to find out.

feature (edinburgh) | Read in About 6 minutes
Published 09 Aug 2011
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Free running, as anyone who practices it will tell you, is much more than an acrobatic way to get from A to B. It is a philosophy, a way of life, a mindset that defies obstacles both physical and mental. However, unlike most all-encompassing life theories, it is rather weather dependent.

Which is why I find myself with 3Run, Britain's top free runners, in an Edinburgh flat on a rainy Tuesday afternoon wondering if a bit of drizzle ever stopped Plato.

Cain Armitage is busy hitting the walls. He slaps one after the other. “Nope,” he says, shaking his head. “Nope.” This is what happens when a free runner is trapped indoors. It's not a sign of madness, like a sad-eyed elephant swaying in a tiny zoo cage, but of determination.

“Here it is,” he says, as the sound changes from flimsy plaster to confident brick. “I won't put my foot through this one.”

For the next five minutes, Armitage and several other members of 3Run proceed to run up the wall, deftly backflipping off it. They land like cats on the carpet behind them. It's the kind of breakdancing on the ceiling that would make Lionel Richie giddy.

This is 3Run's first visit to Edinburgh. We meet a few days before their show, Free Run, is due to open at the Udderbelly, the inverted purple cow that lolls about Bristo Square every August. The plan was for the crew to teach me a few moves. Being able to vault, leap and flip your way through Edinburgh's cityscape would certainly be handy for negotiating the festival crowds.

But the inevitable late July rain has prevented that. Running up slippery wet walls is not good for keeping bones intact, let alone the soul. Undeterred, 3Run has invited us back to their flat, determined to prove the discipline's versatility.

For the uninitiated, free running involves using the urban landscape as a giant gym. In the same way skateboarders will see rails, walls, ramps and drops as opportunities, free runners use such features to perform astounding feats of gymnastics, acrobatics, martial arts – and lunacy. At its best, it is like a mayfly version of graffiti, a work of art writ large on the cityscape for a split second.

The term "free running" was first coined by the Frenchmen Sebastian Foucan and David Belle. According to 3Run however, like Adam and the animals, they only named it. The God of free running is Jackie Chan.

“He was just too humble to give it a name,” says Scott Young, 3Run's chief trainer. “Look at the first film he made. He was vaulting over things, doing wall flips. He was doing it all. I see him as the father.”

Were we to do a paternity test on free running, I would also venture that Dick Van Dyke has a decent claim too, thanks to his chimney-top antics in Mary Poppins. But since I am new to free running—not to mention the fact that everyone else's biceps in the room are triple the size of mine—I decide to keep my counsel.

Watch 3Run's selection of impressive videos on YouTube and it is clear that they know what they are talking about. This is a bunch of 20-somethings who took "don't try this at home" as an invitation. They leap, bound and flip their way through a series of glamorous locations with their tops off. They do stunts in films with their tops off. They break world records. With their tops off.

But given that so much of their work is centred around space, and lots of it, is performing within the 8 by 15 metre stage of the Udderbelly not the equivalent of shackling themselves?

“When we first pitched the idea there was concern about how we would fit a whole show into a small stage,” says Armitage. “But you would be surprised how much you can do with the smallest objects. It's not the biggest but we use the whole arena. We go around the sides, over the audience. It's a 360 degree stage.”

“We surprised ourselves actually,” says Michael Wilson, who previously represented England at gymnastics. “We looked at the stage and thought, how are we going to fit an hour in. But we had to deal with it. We've been doing the show in London for a while and it has got better and better. We've added more moves, got more creative. It's wicked.”

Proving this creativity is what leads us to their flat on that rainy Tuesday. If they can perform in a tenement room, they can perform anywhere. Nine members of the 15 strong crew cram into the bedroom of Fabio Santos, the Brazilian member of the team. They do backflips off the wall, corkscrew through the air, leap from the flimsy desk.

And then it is my turn. Back in his hometown Basingstoke, Young works with kids from tough backgrounds, teaching them the basics of free running and the underlying philosophy of respect and cooperation. Today, he attempts to tame the flailing limbs of a rangy journalist. In the process, he gives me a glimpse of free running's second sight.

“Over the years, you develop an eye,” says Young. “We look at things differently from the average person. We can't just walk down the street. You see things and think what you can do off them. You cannot turn it off. You are always analysing buildings and architecture. “Edinburgh is quite similar to London. It's great for free running. There are lots of old buildings with ledges and table tops . A lot of modern structures aren't that good.”

And sure enough, after 15 minutes of excellent tuition, that desk is no longer something to write on: it is there to vault over. That mattress is not something to sleep on, but to acrobatically roll onto. I leap, I vault, I roll. With my top most definitely on.

For most people in Edinburgh during August, all the world is a stage. For 3Run, it is a playground.