Charlie Dark is a modern-day renaissance man. Alongside his successful career as a DJ and founder of the influential movement Run Dem Crew, he’s a poet, mentor, yoga teacher, community builder and a global lululemon ambassador.
We sat down with Chalrie to chat about his creative process, how to improve diversity in running, and how we can all be mindful runners.
How’s your running as of today?
Because of Covid, my relationship with running has had to change. Prior to lockdown, a large amount of my time was spent running with other people but over the past year, a lot of that has been exchanged for running by myself or with my partner.
But running for me has always been about much more than just training for races, distances, speeds, and so on and so forth. It’s definitely become a more holistic connection, definitely a more mindful connection. I’m definitely very thankful for the fact that I had running in my life – and the movement practice in my life – to get me through the course of the last year.
What role does running play in your creative process? One of the strings to your bow is that you’re a poet as well...
I’m a poet and a DJ, and I would say I wouldn’t be able to continue doing those things if I didn’t have running in my life. They’ve always gone hand in hand. When I first started running it was very much about making music in the studio, writing poems, recording these soundtracks to run to. Being able to record my thoughts around running in a poetic form was really important to me, particularly in trying to encourage new people into it.
Now, it’s very much about thinking time. It’s the only time of the day when I’m not contactable by email. Generally, I will have my phone off, it’s good to have that space. It gives me the chance to work on new ideas, think about new ideas, develop new ideas, listen to new ideas. The thing about being a runner is you’re always thinking about where the next footstep will get you in the future, be that a race or a goal, and as a DJ you’re always thinking two, three, four records ahead. There’s a parallel in that. So the ability to get into the zone whilst running I find very helpful in the creative process.
We’d be mad not to talk about Run Dem Crew and its influence on the running scene in the UK, globally. Where did it come from?
It came out of a period of darkness where I was really disillusioned by the music industry and the creative industries - I didn’t really feel like I had a place. I wanted to restart my journey and I fell into running through having a large trainer collection. I just accumulated this humongous trainer collection. It was Christmas Day and around that time of the year, you started assessing your life and your achievements for the year. I think I was in a place where I was looking in the mirror and I wasn't happy with what I was seeing. I went out for a run on that Christmas Day, and my life changed from the first step. I fell in love with this new world and wanted to share it with as many people as possible, but particularly people from the music industry, from the creative industries, the people that I was working with and had friendships with.
My experience of running clubs and the running industry was that it was very focused on running and not how what you were learning from running and how that was impacting on the rest of your life. I just thought, ‘This is an amazing drug, you’ve got to check this out. It’s really cool. They do these races, and they dress up in funny gear, and they’ve got their own language, it’s really cool.’ I think when we look at running now, after this 15-year boom and renaissance of running – it’s quite cool to hang out in lycra all day, there are all the gadgets you can get – it’s easy to forget how it used to be.
Run Dem was an accident. It wasn’t supposed to become as influential, or as large, or as globally recognised as it has become. But I think it was something that just arrived at a time when people really needed a way of connecting with each other. At a time when the world – because of the rise of technology – was actually making personal connection quite fragmented.
One of the really important things about Run Dem is that it was representative – it offered non-white people a place to run with people who looked like them. How important is this to you?
It’s very difficult to explain to people who’ve never had to think about it, when every door is open to them and every opportunity is available, but for a lot of people who grow up in communities of colour, before you’ve even tried something you’ve had your whole childhood being told, ‘that’s not what we do’. So a lot of us will arrive at something that could be really beneficial for us with this fear and trepidation.
If you look at rap videos, they’re always in the sun in Miami, in a massive mansion surrounded by models, with a massive swimming pool that no one ever gets into. It’s just this thing that’s there because you’ve been taught, ‘Oh swimming, no no no. We don’t swim, we don’t do that.’
I just thought, why is it that runners of colour who are fast are celebrated, but we’re not celebrating the fireman who’s running the five-hour marathon. Running is in the DNA of everyone, regardless of race, colour, gender. Over the years, some people have just been told it’s not something that they can do. But as a black man coming into the running field, I felt really welcomed in. So I realised I was arriving at these situations with my own reservations and I realised running could be a bridge to conversations about race, class and gender. I knew it would change the narrative of the options available to other young people like myself in my community. And we’ve proved it with the Youngers project; you’ve got these young kids of colour coming out and their whole world has been transformed by the fact that they’ve been encouraged to do something they never thought they could do.
It’s very natural for people to be cautious of people who are different from them – that’s OK. But what I think should be encouraged is, how do you start the conversation? How do you bring change?
The art of movement brings people together, the same way that music brings people together. One thing I do know about this is this: in the final two hours of the London Marathon, when your legs are falling off, people don't say, ‘I’m going to help him, I’m not helping her.’ People just don’t care. It’s like, ‘I will take help from anywhere!’ We’re all just trying to get to the end. That’s what I love about running. Regardless of class, colour, gender, sexuality, beliefs, the road and the distance remains the same. It asks you that question: are you ready? If you’re ready it will reward you. If you’re not, it will humble you and teach you a lesson. That for me is one of the purest forms of education we can have.
Do you think running is moving in the right direction in terms of being more diverse?
I think that the running world is making more steps. I think it’s realising that there’s more work that could be done. I don’t think that the speed that it’s happening is quick enough, because there’s still a lot of handholding, a lot of, ‘It’s not about politics, it’s not about race, it’s just about running!’ That’s impossible because politics and race touch everything in this world, especially in the climate we live in.
But I’m very positive about the future, seeing organisations like Black Trail Runners network, the rise of other small tiny crews where there’s like four or five people. At least the conversation has started. As welcoming as running has been, there have definitely been situations where I personally haven’t felt welcomed and I've felt prejudged, but every ten or fifteen years there’s a change or a small bit of growth. I don’t expect it to happen overnight, because we’re dealing with an industry that has been very successful at remaining the same for a very long time.
I mentor the Bikestormz movement and 8,000 young people came to the last ride that we did. That’s 8,000 potential runners. So why is it that kids are going to ride a bike that costs money, or now a lot of kids are on roller skates, but running is something that’s not entering into their minds? I think for a lot of people that’s because they don't feel welcome and my job is to try and make people realise that they are.
Could we touch on the work you’re doing with lululemon as a global ambassador?
I’ve been working with Lululemon for about three years now. They arrived in my life at exactly the point when I needed wellness in my world. I was at a point where I had been running stupidly hard, doing all the miles, doing all the things that I thought I needed to be, and then I got injured. That's the funny thing about running – when it’s raining and it’s cold and you don’t want to go, you think of every excuse in the world, but when you’re injured it does not matter what is outside, you want to get out there.
So this idea of mindful running was introduced to me through encountering yoga. From a distance, yoga looks very gentle, but when trying it for the first time I was humbled in the same way I was humbled when I first started running.
With Run Dem where we started looking at running through a more mindful lens – the idea that it's not about speed or distance, but about how running makes you feel and the lessons you learn about yourself from the run. Suddenly it opened up the door to a new group of people. I really do feel that particularly after a year of lockdowns that this idea of, ‘moving because it makes me feel good’ is perhaps more of an incentive than, ‘I’m moving because I’m training for a race.’
What I like about Lululemon is when I go to their races they feel very inclusive. There’s as much celebration for the four-hour half marathon runner as there is for the guy who comes across the line first. That’s really important, I think, that we create a space where everyone is welcome and everyone’s ideas are welcomed.
How can we all be more mindful on the run?
A big thing for me when I go out on a run now is to think about the five senses. What do I see? What do I hear? How did the air feel against my skin? And so on and so forth. Taking a childlike approach to running.
That’s the other thing that’s really interesting about watching my own kids grow up – there was a point in their lives when you couldn’t keep them still. They were always trying to test out their running legs. I was always running after them somewhere. Then all of a sudden they went to secondary school and they stopped. Suddenly running became about who came first second or third, who was the best at it. Those are barriers that I’m my utmost to change.
You know what it’s like when you have that friend who thinks you’re a bit weird because you do that running thing? I’ve had lots of people in lockdown saying, ‘Charlie don’t tell anyone but I started running. And I really like it.’ And now they’re running more than me. That’s a really amazing feeling.
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