With every finish line and every training mile, we all register our small acts of heroism. But some runners take our sport’s power beyond themselves, saving lives, uniting and inspiring. Here are the stories of some true running heroes.
The Life-Changers: Run Dem Crew
Run Dem Crew is expanding running’s reach, changing lives and building communities. Just don’t call it a running club…
After 20 years in the music business, discovering running was an epiphany for Londoner Charlie Dark. Finding existing running clubs intimidating, he started an alternative. The ‘Crew’ has since grown into a life-changing phenomenon.
“I wanted to create something that was the antithesis of a traditional running club, so me and five friends started our own from someone’s kitchen,” explains Charlie. “Nike came on board a year later and it’s just grown from there.”
Capping membership of the original Crew at 100 or so this year, Charlie still treasures its unique identity: “What distinguishes us is our people: many of them have overcome adversity to be here.”
A spoken word artist, his ‘housekeeping’ speeches are legendary. At a Crew meet, Charlie’s passion is evident as he exhorts members to leave negativity behind and be the best ‘us’ possible. Amid deafening applause, he presents race medals to members who’ve overcome obstacles like obesity, car accidents and bone disease.
If passion is one vital ingredient here, altruism is another. Now a schoolteacher, Charlie has children of his own and sharing the love of running with youth is part of the Crew philosophy: “I’m into helping people better their lives,” says Charlie. “Lots of kids get into trouble after projects designed to help them come to an end. Many of them want to be in graphics or media but don’t have the connections. Their network is a gang – but business is a gang, too.”
Charlie knew lots of people his age (he’s 41) who wanted to work with young people but didn’t know how, so he set about bringing these groups together using running as a connection. Mentors are assigned to help ‘Youngers’ like Nathaniel Cole, 21, who admits he had no direction before joining RDC. Tonight, a previously overweight Nathaniel accepts a medal for a 1:37 half marathon. But that’s only part of it.
“The Crew has opened up new paths for me,” says Nathaniel. “Strangers become your best friends, but most importantly they believe in you. Now I’ve got a job and goals.”
It’s hard to be young these days, Charlie thinks: “We had people we looked up to – not pop stars or footballers – but older people in the neighbourhood who were role models.” So far RDC has helped young people start 10 satellite Crews across London, with a target of 50. In the aftermath of last year’s riots, Nathaniel is opening one for the youth of Hackney. “Medals mean nothing without a legacy; if I can help just one person, that’s something,” he says.
“Running is a metaphor for life,” says Charlie. “If you can run a distance you’ve only ever covered on a bus, then you can do anything. That’s the belief we’re trying to empower people with.”
Splitting into pace groups ranging from ‘Tortoises’ to ‘Elites’, the fired-up members emerge into the night for a 12K. Considering “this is not a running club”, they certainly put the miles in.
Words: Simon Cole