Charlie Dark on escaping reality and finding freedom
The founder of Run Dem Crew and lululemon Global Run Ambassador on city running.
Mo Farah, Jessica Ennis-Hill, Linford Christie, Kelly Holmes, Paula Radcliffe, Roger Bannister; Britain is a nation born to run. And born to run fast. The 2020 Olympics might be on hold for now, but over lockdown, running has won new recruits in their sweaty thousands as people clutched for a legal reason to leave the house.
From jogging round the park to city sprints, amateur running has never been more popular. According to research published by Macmillan Cancer Support, an estimated seven million people took up jogging or running during the pandemic as a way to combat stress and help them feel mentally stronger. An escape from reality. A brief reprise from the four walls we call home. Time to think. Space to roam. A novel way to see the city. A burst of endorphins. And boy do we need them.
As the founder and head of Run Dem Crew, and Global Run Ambassador for lululemon, Charlie Dark has played a pivotal role in the urban running scene for the last two decades. The Worldwide FM DJ, poet, public speaker, mentor, yoga teacher and creative industry veteran probably knows London’s winding backstreets more intimately than most cabbies.
We spoke to Charlie to hear his top tips for new and experienced runners – including finding out why wearing the right kit helps athletes of all levels and abilities feel closer to their run. He’s even created two playlists to get you up off the sofa and once, twice or even three times around your local park. Ready, get set, read the Dark’s advice below.
Let’s go back to the beginning: do you remember the first time you ran?
They were doing trials for the sports team when I was in primary school. I remember lining up and the feeling of kneeling on the grass track. The finish line seemed so, so far away. There were real kudos in those days about being the fastest person in your school. I remember taking off and then looking around and thinking, wow, I’m actually winning, I’m in front. I’d never won anything in my life. It seemed really effortless and I felt really free. It was a really lovely feeling which has stayed with me forever. It’s a feeling I chase in every run that I do: freedom, that feeling of being free.
Why did you start running? What got you into it?
My return to running came from a point where I thought I couldn’t run. I’d almost given up on everything; given up on life, given up on physical activity, given up creatively. I was really searching for a purpose. One Christmas Day, I saw my trainers sitting there and thought, if I can run on this day, I can run any day. It was a pretty disastrous attempt, but it ignited something in me.
There was a feeling that I got from that run that I hadn’t felt in a very long time; the idea of being challenged physically, mentally and creatively which I really, really needed at that point. I was suffering from depression. I wanted to begin my road to recovery, and if not to recovery, to at least finding a balance and some coping mechanisms for dealing with what I was experiencing.
What does a great running kit look, and feel like, to you?
Great running kit feels like you’re not wearing any. It’s versatile, and can be worn when you’re running and when you’re not – folds well, packs well, washes well, doesn’t crease. Like lululemon’s Fast and Free Short Sleeve, which is made from a breathable mesh to eliminate sweat. Great running gear makes you feel like a superhero when you’re moving.
Can you give us any great city routes to run in lockdown?
I think one of the most classic ones is starting on the south side of Tower Bridge, then running down past City Hall, past HMS Belfast, the HMS Imperial, down through London Bridge, down through Waterloo, and then going into Leek Street, which is a kind of street art tunnel underneath Waterloo Station and then crossing over the bridge. Going across Westminster Bridge and running back along the Embankment all the way up to the other side of Tower Bridge or into the city or into St Paul’s.
I always say that we don’t do routes – we do destinations. So for me, it’s always about finding an interesting destination, finding the most interesting way to get there and then sharing that with other people.
Where do you run when you want to escape reality?
When I want to escape from reality, I’ll run very late at night or extremely early in the morning before anyone’s woken up. One of the things I really love doing is coming in from DJing and rather than going to bed, going out for a run.
When do you experience a “runner’s high”?
The elusive runner’s high happens quite frequently, actually. I don’t take the running for granted anymore. The older you get, the harder it gets. And so with the runs now, it’s a reminder that I actually enjoy it. When you can run with no expectation. When it doesn’t feel like a job. I’m not worried about what’s on the watch. I’m not worried about who sees me. Just running with freedom, and maybe listening to some music.
I often experience runner’s high when I run with my partner. I like the banter and the fact that we’re running together. It’s a reminder of how we met.
What lockdown lessons can we learn from running?
Running shouldn’t just be quantified by time and distance. It should also be talked about holistically. What it does for you emotionally, and what it does for you physically. It shouldn’t be reduced to stats.
I think a lot of people are turned away from running because it’s about stats – how fast you go, how far you can go as opposed to, What did you see on this run? What did you learn about yourself? Who have you shared it with? What impact do you hope for it to have? What lessons are you taking from your run into your life? How is your running improving the way that you sleep? The way that you eat? The life choices that you make? How are the people that you’re meeting with in running crews changing your perspective on life?
During lockdown, people have been running for their emotional welfare. And that’s an important lesson to learn.
To dust off those lockdown blues, lululemon is hosting a Strava Run challenge which people can sign up to from 26th May.
Post pandemic, are you planning to bring back Run Dem Crew?
Many people are trying to return back to normality, but my thing is always about having to look at the landscape that we’re living in.
In a post-Covid world where people are scared of being with large groups of people. It’s one of the reasons why we shifted into doing Run Dem Radio, a way of keeping the community connected and also bringing in new people. I’m looking at the restrictions that are in place and working on ways we can bring it back, but it may not come back in the same form that it was before in the pre-Covid world.
Run Dem crew has a really important place in the healing process by facilitating a space where people can come back together and learn how to be with each other again.
Charlie Dark is a Global Run Ambassador for lululemon