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Secret Parkour Paradise with Justin Balczak

Finding parkour spots that are more than a series of curb-height jumps or a sketchy cluster of electrical boxes is one of the most frustrating tasks in parkour. One can spend hours scrolling their city in Google Maps looking for the vaguest hints of jumpable walls. We all dream of finding the kind of parkour spots that not only inspire our movement, but the community as well, tantalizing the social media masses with glorious challenges and untapped parkour potential. Justin Balczak (@balczak) has done just that. Between himself and the local parkourists of Phoenix, Arizona, Justin has released the Phoenix Parkour Spot Map; a brilliantly assembled list of parkour spots that are the biggest and baddest that the desert has to offer. I spoke with Justin about assembling this list, and his hopes of driving parkour tourism to Arizona. 

Me: Well I suppose we might as well jump right into things. How long have you been practicing in Phoenix?

Justin: Well I’ve only been practicing the sport a little over a year, period. So I’m really new to the sport. But I’ve been in Phoenix since 2018, started my business here then, and have been doing that since. Then in December of 2020 I tried parkour for the first time. 

Me: How old are you again? 

Justin: I’m 29.

Me: You can’t tell that you’ve only been practicing a year, you’re doing some good shit. 

Justin: Thank you, I appreciate that! I’ve been putting a lot of time and effort in so I’m glad it’s showing. 

Me: It definitely shows man. I really have enjoyed the content. So how long did it take before you realized you were sitting on a goldmine of big spots?

Justin: You know, when I first started looking around, I knew things were going to be big. I was looking for small standing pre’s so that I could start progressing, and it was really difficult to find smaller pre’s. I was consistently finding 10+ foot standing pre’s, and I was like, “Everything just seems kind of big here.” As I got into training and scouting for spots, I realized that there were some insane spots here. I actually found some of our best spots before having met people in our community. So it was an interesting route that I took.


Me: How long did it take before you started training with the community?

Justin: March 1st was the first jam that I went to, so it was three or four months.

Me: What was your first method of spot hunting, before you were aware of what the community knew?

Justin: Google Maps, riding my bike around, just going out and enjoying an afternoon, riding my bike for a few hours and looking for spots. Google Earth and Google Maps were a godsend for me. I got online and looked at some of the other major cities that we have here in the valley, and would just look for unique designs and patterns, and wouldn’t you know, there are some crazy spots. 

Me: Absolutely, Google Maps and Google Earth are like the lifeblood of spot hunting.

Justin: So nice, so nice. Like being able to put them onto a list that you can share, it’s so nice.

Me: And it’s not on Instagram, it’s Reddit right? That’s where there are a prolific amount of people asking, “Hey, who’s doing parkour in my area?” You don’t see that on Instagram as much. 

Justin: No not really, and I tried that in the beginning, I tried. To no avail. The main way I connected with the first few people, especially the people still training with me like Devin specifically, is the first video I made and posted, that got shared by Jimmy the Giant; Devin saw that video, reached out to me, and then the second video he started training with me and it’s been like that ever since. He got in on our second video and stuck around the whole time. 

Me: So what is the community like in Phoenix? You don’t see a lot of content coming from Phoenix.

Justin: They post content, and some of them are pretty consistent, not necessarily with YouTube content, but they’re active on social media. They’re constantly putting out lines and training and all of that. But, it’s just not the type of stuff that I think is gonna get as much attention as the big stuff that people are doing. You look at Instagram and the type of content that people are putting out, it’s an aggressive field to try and keep up with. I think they’re an active community and they do a lot with each other, it just doesn’t seem like we’re trying to push our community “out there” as much as we could be. And as I started getting into it, that was at the top of my priority list. There’s a lot of stuff here, and it seems like everybody skips over it. No one recognizes Phoenix as this place to come and train. I wanted to change that, so that’s been part of the mission as I grow the channel and try to get the name out there, and then also try to grow my personal training along with that. It’s really my goal to get more people into Phoenix to train.

Me: I really think that spot maps you’ve created are an incredible way to do that, because you can say, “Look what’s happening here.” How did you go about deciding to create a massive list and start sending it?

Justin: I think originally I looked at a couple of apps that are trying to do that. In my experience with them they didn’t work well, there wasn’t a large community there. I thought, “I’m gonna make my own list and put it out there, because there’s more chance it can reach people in the public.” So that’s where I started and my background is in filmmaking and photography, so I can make something at least half decent. When I had my GoPro and I started experimenting with things like that, and using extremely long poles and stuff, I was like, “This looks so nice for establishing shots.” I didn’t even need a drone for it. I was able to capture the ambient audio right from those shots, it just looked nice. I wanted the video to focus on the spots, no fancy editing, no over-the-top trying to make the spots look good, just present them as they are, and let people make their decisions on whether they like them or not.

Me: How long did it take to build and pare down the spot map?

Justin: It didn’t take too long actually. When I made that video I was pretty in touch with the community at that point, so I got everyone’s feedback and I kind of shot them the list and said, “Hey this is what I have so far, do you have anything else you think should be added?” We added a couple more, and eventually it was getting close to that 10 mark, and I was like, “We need one more, just to make it an even 10, and call it good. Our top 10 best spots.”  But it was a week of asking the guys, and then I shot all of the footage over the course of a weekend, and made the pdf in a couple of nights or so.  Me: So thankfully a communal effort.

Justin: Getting a couple of the spots, there were a couple hidden that I didn’t know about. But I had a majority of the big ones, and kind of the complexes of different spots in one area. There were a couple of hidden gems that I didn’t know about, so I was glad to get the feedback from the guys. 

Me: Were there caveats to what spots did or didn’t make the cut?

Justin: Man… to me it just needed to provide enough for multiple people to do something with. I just wanted something with lots of links and connections, some elevation change, something to make it worthwhile. That was kinda the premise of which spots were good, and thankfully I didn’t have to try too hard. You look at some of the spots and it just kind of presents itself. There are some that could be on there with them, but in my head I was like, “If I add those, what would I take away?” And there’s not a spot that I would take out of there to replace these other ones, so I think we got it pretty well nailed down.

Me: Is there a Spot Map 2, the ones that didn’t make it?

Justin: Like the evil step-children of Phoenix hahaha. Here’s the thing, there’s a lot of spots here. I think my personal spot list has something like 200 spots on it, so there’s plenty that we could do, but I really want to start showcasing other cities. That’s where I wanted to go with it initially, I was gonna go with Vegas or Tucson or something like that. But I got wrapped up in brainstorming other content for my channel, and that’s how it always works. But it still is something I want to try and do, because there are so many cities in the U.S. that show so many different types of architecture and styles of training. But I just feel they’re not represented as well as they should be. 

Me: Absolutely, you see a lot of British bricks and electrical boxes. It’s really difficult to show off the unique architecture that some states and cities have, especially Phoenix because it has that serious desert vibe. 

Justin: Yeah it does, I’m from Michigan, so the desert vibe is something I’m not at home with yet. Summer’s coming and it’s gonna be brutal.

Me: What’s your training schedule like in the summer, just out of curiosity?

Justin: So right now, we are shooting on Saturdays and that’s it. We shoot once a week, train once a week, sometimes I’ll go do a little bit extra on my own. But getting together with the group, it’s only once a week. So in the summer it’s still the same, the sessions are just shorter. We’re scrambling to try and get enough for a video in only a few hours, whereas right now we’re training 5-6 hours, because it’s just too hot. It’s excruciating.

Me: Is the spot map useful for everyday training or is it more geared toward parkour tourism?

Justin: It’s definitely good for everyday training, a lot of the spots we usually will hit. And they’re kind of scattered around the Mecca’s of the valley, so wherever we go we know one of those spots is gonna be there. They’re definitely great for smaller training, but the bigger challenges are still there. Most of the spots have a wide range of challenges to offer.

Me: How often do you train off of the spot map?

Justin: Pretty consistently actually. Like I said, we still have so many spots, in between 100 and 200 I know, at least. The biggest thing right now is trying to find video ideas that aren’t just focused on training. So now I’m starting to find ideas that require specific spots or challenges, so I’m starting to reverse how I look for spots to train at. Now it’s coming from the idea for the video, then I have to find the spot; rather than just going and training there and making a vlog on it. So it’s making me get out of the comfort zone of the spot map and just look for new things, which is nice, always progressing and finding something different.

Me: It sounds like it improves the narrative of your vlog too.

Justin: I think so, the past two months our vlogs have started doing much better in terms of retention and overall watch time for the videos, people are sticking around longer, and I’ve switched up the editing style to make it much more high-paced and constantly moving. So the channel is trending in a positive way, it’s just slow man. 

Me: Do locals aside from the people you train with refer to the spot map?

Justin: That’s a good question, I’m not sure. I remember when I made the video and shared it a few people downloaded it, I’m not sure how often they look at it. The biggest thing for the spot map is that I wanted it to be shown to people outside of Phoenix, to give them interest in coming. Then if they do come here, they don’t have to worry about trying to meet up or connect with people, they have the spot map, the Google Map links, they can come hit a few spots for a day, and then drive back to LA or wherever. It just makes it easier. I actually had that happen recently. We were out training and we ran into an extreme pogo-sticking team, they came to Phoenix to shoot their yearly video, and they found our spot map and were using it to get their clips that they wanted. That was super random, we rolled up to a spot and people were doing these extreme drops on their pogo sticks. 

Me: That’s so cool, it’s great when there’s crossover community value.

Justin: I knew there was going to be, I have a couple of friends in the BMX community, the skate community, I knew that they already trained these spots, and even though I was releasing this as a parkour spot map, I knew other people in other sports would stumble across it.

Me: So who have you sent it to outside of Phoenix?

Justin: Benj and Max Cave, I sent it to them right when I made it. I’ve been communicating with them a little bit, they started following my stuff on Instagram, so I was like, “I have to send it to them, just to see what they think of the spots.” I was also sending it to them to get feedback on the pdf, like are there things that they think could be added to it, and make it better? I sent it to them, I sent it to a couple of guys in Denver, and I sent it to the Phat boys. I’m really trying to get some of the UK guys here, because I know what they can do and I feel like they can destroy these spots. 

Me: Have you sent it to any U.S. athletes? 

Justin: Yeah, so I sent it to a few of the guys from the Unknown Project, I tried sending it to Bailey Payne in LA, so I’ve tried spreading it around. I feel like some of the guys in LA know that Phoenix has good stuff. Because it seems like the connection with Phoenix and LA, they’re consistently going back and forth, everyone just gravitates to LA. 

Me: I definitely think if you sent it to some of the LA freerunners like Dominick Hughes or Z, that you’d get a hit. Dominick is a friend and this sounds exactly like something he’d be into.

Justin: I wanted to do something like an outdoor skill competition, then I wanted to challenge people to do these pole strides that I broke recently, and do a $100 cash prize for the first person to do them all. I was talking with someone out in LA and it totally fell through. So that makes it tough trying to do bigger community things, because one little thing and it falls apart. 

Me: That’s something I wanted to ask you about was if you had managed to host any street competitions at those spots.

Justin: I want to, I think it would be a lot of fun. Not even just those kinds of comps, but like stick comps, or big games of add-on with the community. Anything that would help the community to come together and make a good piece of content. I did it recently with our water challenge video, I got a few people to come out to that, and everyone threw down for it. I want to keep doing stuff like this, and I feel part of it is some of the guys may think, “Oh we’re gonna go shoot this video, and it’s just going to Justin’s personal page.” I don’t know if they’re thinking like that and I just need to be like, “I want this to be a community thing, and a community video, but it’s going to go on my personal page.” That’s another battle I’ve kind of been toying with.

Me: Yeah, it’s hard to convince people to make content that goes onto someone else’s personal page for sure, but at the same time, if they put the same effort into making this content, there could easily be a team page, right?

Justin: Yeah essentially. And like, it is my name on the page, but if the content has our community on it, and we make that the norm, then who cares if it’s a personal page or not? People are getting to know the community, and the people that are there. I think that’s what really makes a good video. 

Me: I think so too. It’s definitely hard to get an entire community’s effort for sure.

Justin: Yeah it is, but at the same time, I’ve been able to do what I’ve done so far with them being there a little bit. If they do decide to come around and do more stuff, we could make some amazing content. I have so many ideas man, so many ideas. Now it comes down to, can I get enough people involved to make it worthwhile, and then, am I going to be in the right place with the channel where I can get a sponsor to help fund it? We’re starting to get into that space which is fun, but also a nightmare at the same time.

Me: So if someone wanted to undertake a task like this, what would you suggest?

Justin: I would say reach out to me, and I’ll just come train at your spots and take the videos for you. That’s what I would say! Because I do think that there are a lot of people who could do it, and there are plenty of people who know how to edit videos, but I want to be involved because then I’m building that network and connecting with people in other states that train, who I never knew existed. But, if you were to start, just get the best spots that represent your city, and try to find spots that offer something different. If you have a lot of spots that are kind of the same ol’ same ol’, then don’t use those in the top 10, use one of the best, and then find things that are different in the community, and showcase variety. 

Me: How do you think that your community would benefit from an influx of visiting athletes? Justin: I think that it would open up a lot of challenges and opportunities that they haven’t thought of, or haven’t seen before. Me being so fresh in the sport, I am seeing bigger challenges because of my background in track and field, like I know how far I can jump and how much power I can exert, and applying it to spots, I know there are some big things that can be done here. I’m not at the mental level to do them, but I know some people totally could. From a business perspective I want the guys from the UK to come here, because they’re the top of the sport, they are the pinnacle of what parkour teams should be, and if I can get them here and they can showcase our spots, then I don’t have to do anymore work.

Me: Absolutely, it brings your city into the zeitgeist right?

Justin: Yeah, just the increase in numbers. People realize they can fly into LA, hang out there for a bit, catch a cheap flight from LA to Phoenix, hang out there for a day or two, catch another cheap flight to Texas, and hang out there, and then go home. Whereas right now, it’s LA, skip over Phoenix, go to Texas and dip out. And it’s so easy, it’s a straight shot from LA to Phoenix to Texas, so might as well stop in and add those extra spots to your trip. 

Me: Definitely! Do you see parkour tourism blowing up in America the way it has in Europe? 

Justin: I hope so! We’re so spread out, but if you can find those simple routes to take, LA, Phoenix, Texas, and then you can take it further to Florida, and just stay along the south coast. If you can have that route that people can take and make it a regular thing that people do, then I don’t see why parkour tourism couldn’t be more popular here. Right now we’ve established LA and Texas, Tampa a little bit, but everyone is flying straight to LA. 

Me: What are your goals for the Phoenix parkour scene?

Justin: I just want us to be able to give something to the bigger community. I don’t care if it’s getting people here to train at the spots, larger projects, larger videos. With my background in filmmaking, that’s what I want to leave behind in the community. I want to make some really good content to showcase the community, the spots, and what can be done here. At the other end of the spectrum, in terms of a cohesive community, we have a great community. Everyone is extremely inviting, extremely nice, I just want it to be bigger. I’m never really content with what “is” at the exact moment. I want it to grow, that's the point of everything. I don’t know if that’s getting our base community bigger, but I just want more people to come interact with our community. I think they’ll realize there’s a lot to offer in terms of people and training.

Parkour tourism in America is a far cry from what the community experiences overseas. Summers filled with travel across the country hitting myriads of parkour spots simply aren’t the norm, but it’s undertakings like this spot map that make that dream a possibility. Since speaking with Justin, I’ve begun thinking about the biggest spots here in Salt Lake City, and compiling my own list to share with the greater parkour community in hopes of showing off the locations that make training in the Salt Lake Valley special. I implore all of you to get outside, make your own spot map, and invite as many people to your city as you can, because you might discover you’re sitting on a goldmine. 


Justin’s Spot Map pdf can be found here!