They fly by night: How London's Run Dem Crew is putting a spring in the step of inner-city youths

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The first maxim of Run Dem Crew, in spite of all the evidence before my eyes, is: "It's not cool." The second, again in apparent contradiction of the crowd limbering and lacing up around me, is: "This is not a running club."

Yet, for all the protestations of Charlie Dark, the founder of this remarkable movement, membership of Run Dem Crew does involve putting one athletically shod foot in front of the other, often at a considerable lick. And the sight of its weekly devotees travelling as one body through the city streets does turn heads – as I learnt from a sweaty evening in the crew's company.

But it's not cool. From smoky jazz-club images of Miles Davis to Jay-Z's endorsement of champagne brands, cool's message has long been the same: inhale, imbibe, but don't perspire. And perspiring is exactly what Run Dem do.

Dark, 41, lives "in the shadow" of the Olympic stadium in east London. Running, he says, "literally saved my life". And now he's using that activity to change, and in some cases to rescue, the lives of others.

Run Dem Crew is an extraordinary mix of urban teenagers and positive-minded adults – many with highly successful careers – who run and socialise in unison. It has the potential to transform Britain's urban culture, replacing the dangerous and destructive values of the street-gang mentality with a sense of optimism and opportunity. In a country growing an international reputation as a centre of sloth, where 17 per cent of deaths are attributed to lack of physical activity, its goal is to broaden the horizons of aimless youngsters whose athletic ambitions currently take them no further than the street corner.

That sounds like an impossible challenge, but let 19-year-old Ayoola "Darkz" Ologbon-Ori explain: "Charlie found a location to build a bridge, then he built that bridge and now he is helping people across to a world where you can do anything," he testifies.

At the start of the year, Ologbon-Ori was just another unemployed, demotivated, inner-city teenager. Most of the day he shut himself in his room, ignoring relatives and other visitors to the family home in north London. "I never used to pay attention to people – I used to always be on my phone. I used to think, 'Why do I need to talk to you? I don't know you.'"

Since May, as part of the Run Dem Crew "Youngers" project, he has spent his Tuesday evenings in motion, running seven-minute miles along the pavements of the capital. He learnt of the project when he attended a spoken-word class at his youth club given by Dark. Run Dem prefers real-life relationships to the connections made on social media – although the organisation does use Twitter as a powerful communications tool.

Ologbon-Ori completed the Nike British 10K race last month, despite throwing up from the sheer exertion with a kilometre still to go. The race medal is a proud possession which has motivated fellow members of his youth club to take up running. "Hopefully, we inspired people to jump in and get involved," he says brightly. Crucially, his outlook has been altered by interaction with adults he might never otherwise have met. "It's opened me up to being more social and having conversations with people I've just met," he says. "When you talk to people from different walks of life, you can say, 'I know this guy and that guy,' and it opens the world up for you." Run Dem has found Ologbon-Ori a job in the sports industry and he is also currently training for half-marathons in Copenhagen and Amsterdam.

The bridges he talks of are not just an important metaphor. I followed Ologbon-Ori's usual route back and forth across the Thames, taking in views from the Millennium Bridge and Waterloo Bridge as dusk fell on the London skyline. It's an inspiring backdrop, and the act of running a course at a set pace in the company of friends makes the big city seem more accessible and less hostile. For some of the younger runners, it helps them break out of the confines of a gang-controlled world defined by postcodes and explore new districts in safety.

Bridging the Gap is also the name of an international alliance of urban running crews that has sprung up and spans such cities as New York, London, Paris, Berlin and Los Angeles. And in October, Ologbon-Ori will be among 80 Run Dem Crew athletes in Amsterdam, where they will race and enjoy the hospitality of Dutch kindred spirits.

For this is not only an exercise in pavement-pounding. When Run Dem Crew hosted the other global crews at London Calling, based around the British 10K race, it showed them the sights; eating in Vietnamese restaurants, running through east London streets to see the Olympic Park, and dancing in clubs such as Village Underground and the Alibi. As Charlie Dark says, "We party hard!"

Of Ghanaian parentage, Dark attended the private Alleyn's School in south London on an assisted place. Jude Law was in the year below. That privileged education taught him not to be afraid of mixing outside his social circle: "The best party you could go to is one where there are different types of people from different walks of life together in one room." He had the opportunity – and the ability – to compete at 100m and cross-country events during those years, but claims the school treated running "as a punishment".

When he left for Brunel University, he abandoned sport for another of his passions: music. When he couldn't find sounds to his own tastes, he started making his own and was signed to the trendy 1990s record label Mo' Wax.

Dark's years as a recording artist and globe-crossing DJ inform the Run Dem philosophy, as a lesson in how and how not to behave. For years, with trip-hop band Attica Blues, he lived the high life. He regularly flew to New York to perform, and was a fixture on the international festival circuit, even touring with the Beastie Boys. Then, in 2001, Sony cancelled his contract and his world fell in. "A bout of depression arrived in a big way," he says. At least he still had his collection of 400 pairs of trainers and, after several years of malaise, "I was sitting in my house thinking I didn't want to be on medication any more." And so he decided to go for a run in the park.

Embarrassed by his chronic lack of fitness, he switched to the anonymity of night-running and instantly felt "empowered" chasing something more substantial than the ephemerality of the music business. "Cool is irrelevant to me," he says now. "My main interest in Run Dem Crew is people's personal stories and journeys. I don't care about cool because I spent a large amount of time in an industry that was cool and I know cool is very replaceable."

Having moved to Stratford, east London, he was told of plans for Olympic facilities and how they'd transform the neighbourhood. His immediate thoughts were: "We don't have an exercise culture in the UK, like Central Park in New York or Muscle Beach in LA, where everyone goes to exercise without stigma. I'm going to live next door to an amazing park that no one will use."

Dark began teaching poetry and creative writing to inner-city teenagers on courses which he felt were all too brief. "It was like, this guy has encouraged you to look at the world differently and now he's leaving you to fend for yourself by walking round your estate with a copy of Romeo and Juliet."

Such were his thoughts as he pounded the streets at night. It was at this point that he decided to up his running game and participate in an official 5km race. But, arriving at the course in baggy basketball shorts, he was made to feel hopelessly out of place among a field of club runners. In that moment, all Dark's thoughts came together and Run Dem Crew, a name inspired by the bravura culture of dancehall reggae, was born. "I thought, 'I'm going to make a running crew and I'm going to crush your crew.' Everyone else is like Bognor Regis Harriers or Peckham Flyers, and then there's Run Dem Crew. That was why we started."

He knew a similar attitude would attract the urban teenagers who he wished to introduce to the pleasures of distance-running. Run Dem Crew uses the phraseology of the street, with members referred to as youngers or elders. But Dark also draws on his experience at Alleyn's, as he brings creative-agency owner Mark "Chop" k Fleming, 42, graphic designer Linda Byrne, 37, university lecturer Lawrence Lartey, 35, blogger Muireann Carey-Campbell, 31, and charity projects strategist Maja Luna, 31, into the company of youngers such as Drew "Skinny Macho" Mari, 22, Dre Sanganoo-Dixon, 18, and Tokunbo "Tok" Aofolaju, 19. "I went to private school and the old-boy network is a gang. The private members' club that you pay a large amount of money to is also a gang," notes Dark. This, then, is his "gang".

Aofolaju, for one, appreciates this company. "I empathise with their passion and want to share in it. It's more than sprinting from one spot to another. One of the first things they said to me was that we don't just come here to run – running brings us together, but we have fun."

Nyx Deyn might be 25, beautiful and the sister of the supermodel Agyness Deyn (herself a keen runner), but it was Run Dem Crew that helped her find her feet in the capital after she moved down from Manchester.

"Charlie has put this whole family unit together," says the fashion designer, model and DJ. "When I had a tendon injury and was on crutches for seven weeks it was so upsetting not to run and see my 'family'. I know I can go to them whenever I need anything and they will be there to support me, whether it's about career stuff or personal or about running, they're always there."

Safety is taken seriously in Run Dem Crew, where I was among 150 runners divided into groups according to ability: the hares, the greyhounds, the cheetahs and the elites. My greyhounds were led by a schoolteacher, Glenn Hancock, and our run was preceded by a long "housekeeping" session in which lessons on running etiquette and training discipline (the crew's motto is "Go Hard or Go Home") are accompanied by race medal ceremonies and wild cheering. The group has already published three books to spread the gospel of running and has a recording arm which produces soundtracks to train to.

The meeting place is under an east London railway arch, converted into a retail and creative space by Nike, which has had a long relationship with Dark. His goal now is to keep encouraging the youngers. "I've heard about the death of middle-distance running in the UK and it's no surprise because most people don't start running until they are 30, when their midlife crisis hits. We are starting a Junior Run Dem Crew for the under-14s."

A committed networker, Dark already has England Athletics on side; he hopes to have a Run Dem Crew Youngers graduate in Team GB by the next Olympics and to reverse the under-representation of young people in the London Marathon. He also wants London Mayor Boris Johnson, a noisy advocate of fighting youth crime, to put his money where his mouth is and make contact.

Yet Run Dem Crew still has work to do, not least in overcoming young people's prejudices about vigorous exercise. "It's deemed to be not cool to look after your body and watch what you put inside it. What's cool is getting hammered and talking about how much you got hammered. But there should be no stigma attached to looking after your health."

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