“People are looking to get fit or lose weight,” says Charlie. “Trying to prove to themselves that they can do something. Battling mental health demons. And no one in the industry wants to talk about that. It’s very unpopular to talk about that. And it’s spoken about in this very kinda wishy-washy way. I have no time for that. Because thekind of people I’m trying to reach, they need it real. And they need it now.”
So how can any of us make a difference? Well, Charlie certainly thinks everyone has a responsibility. “It’s all about the grass roots,” he says. “And that is what I mean when I say everyone has the ability to do something. Whether it’s getting your friend out who doesn’t run at all, but you’re out with them and you’re like, ‘We’re just going to walk for 10 minutes. I’m going to come with you. And I’m going to badger, badger, badger you until you say yes.’ It’s not something that should always be laid at the feet of Sport England or sports brands. Because a lot of the time, they don’t know what to do. They don’t know how to get to the people.”
And Charlie also suggests that peer-to-peer encouragement can really make a difference in improving diversity in running. “Let’s be clear – the lack of diversity in running is a real bugbear for me. A real bugbear. Because I just feel that it’s a thing where I feel like the industry doesn’t think it’s a problem.”
Charlie Dark talks about the fact that when he was younger, running wasn’t a mainstream activity. Those few that did run were generally middle class, white and male. He sadly thinks that not much has changed.
“I feel like the obstacles we face now, some of them are really hard to break down,” says Charlie, “because the running industry itself has not kept up. So eventually you get to the point where you’re like, ‘I have done everything I can do.’ So for me, when I go to the London Marathon and there are 45,000 people running but I’ve only counted maybe 2,000 under the age of 20, I think: ‘Let me go and hang out with cyclists,’ because that’s, you know...”
Charlie trails off. He knows there is greater diversity in other activities. During the past few years, an underground cycling movement has emerged, with London group Bikestormz at its forefront.
“I walk into that world and people are like ‘Wicked, great – what can you teach us? What can we learn from you?’ And you can see the information you impart being taken on board and the fruition starting to happen.” Charlie goes on: “Whereas in the running world, it’s quite frustrating because there’s a lot of barriers. And there’s so much resistance. The industry itself is old-school – it thinks in an old-school way. It’s happy to think in an old-school way because the old-school way is still making them money.” So what could the future of running look like? Charlie believes it is about diversity – not just the people who run but also the way runners approach the sport.
“I want to be in a room with the kids that are riding mountain bikes and skaters and the CrossFit guys and the yogis and all these other people who understand that running is part of the lifestyle. It’s one of the things you do,” explains Charlie. “I think that what people have failed to understand is the reason we came to running is because it was easy and immediate and didn’t require embarrassment. Or other people or teams. And it was a door. You could say: ‘Oh, I’ve run a marathon’ or ‘I’ve run 10km – man, now I can go to the gym and hang out. Because at least if I can’t pick up the heaviest weight, I can get on the running machine and dust everyone off. Or I can go to the boxing class and not die because I may not have the punching strength but I have the cardio to get me through the round.”
“So now it’s possible to see how we can add Charlie Dark to the pantheon of inspirational figures in running. Charlie may not be breaking time barriers like Kipchoge or Bannister, but his belief in the grass-roots approach is breaking barriers in its own way. He believes in people inspiring people, one-on-one. Dark believes in the power of community. He believes that you can be what you can see. And he’s determined to help people find the belief they need to get started or go further. For that we can all be thankful.“Let’s be clear – the lack of diversity in running is a real bugbear for me.”
This article originally appeared in a Like the Wind collaboration with lululemon