When I run, I end up doing a fair amount of daydreaming. It’s this amazing sliver of my day where I’m unreachable and totally by myself. I can’t answer email. I can’t write an article. Nobody is asking for my attention or care. It’s 45 minutes of letting my mind wander while I push my body. And going for a run doesn’t just open my mind, it opens me up to the world around me. I end up noticing coffee shops that I’ve never seen or come across green spaces I’d never noticed.
Surprisingly often, I seem to run, practically head first, into really cool street art. Giant walls painted in vivid tones.
That’s what Erik Valiente, founder of running group BlacklistLA , discovered when he started running near his Los Angeles home. Being on foot put him in touch with neighborhoods he’d never slowed down to explore before, and more importantly, the amazing art in the city. He was from the city, but seeing it from a different perspective sparked something in him.
Art invigorated his running, and it made him dream a way to combine art and running for others. It was the seed of an idea that would turn into a full-blown movement.
“I was born and raised in Los Angeles,” Erik Valiente tells me. “We are dreamers. We think big.”
Valiente isn’t overstating things. He loves his city and the creativity it’s given birth to. And he fits right in with these big-thinkers — never willing to limit the scope of what he might achieve. In fact, it was his refusal to say “I can’t” that started his career.
“One of my friends had challenged me to run a marathon,” he says with a laugh. “I was like ‘Hey, I think could do that.’ As a joke, they were like, ‘I think you can’t.’ And that was the first time I went out for my longest run to date.”
Valiente had never run over a mile before. But when his friend goaded him, he ran seven miles in one go. Afterward, he decided to train for a marathon. Though he admits he didn’t have the right training (or any idea how to train for such a feat), he did finish. From there, he decided he was going to run the LA marathon every year to improve his time. Soon, he had fully and completely fallen in love with running.
“I really loved the discipline it gave me,” he tells me, “the commitment that I had to give to the sport, and how it taught me to push my limits.”
Valiente loved the challenge of running long distances, but he also loved the exploration and discovery that goes with being an outdoor runner. Running through intersecting neighborhoods, he stumbled upon strange cafes and hidden restaurants that he’d never noticed. Though he was an LA native, he realized how many gems of art and culture were hiding all around him. Chief among these: Street art.
More than mile markers, street art gave Valiente a goal — he was now running to see the clandestine art all over the town. It wasn’t long before he realized that discovering cool street art might motivate other runners, too. He decided to ask his friends if they wanted to join him on a sort of “street art tour.” Ten people showed up. But they loved it.
Soon the concept had grown beyond Valiente’s wildest expectations. He founded a running group, BlacklistLA — dedicated to running while exploring the city’s street art. Now, five years after jogging the city streets with that first small group, he has 400- 500 people joining him for his runs. The routes are like a love letter to the parts of LA that tourists rarely see.
“From the lens of TV, people think of LA as Hollywood, and Beverly Hills, the beach,” he says. “It’s all beautiful, but there’s so much untapped potential in the city. Great parks, China Town, Korea Town… There are so many pockets that I think people miss.”
BlacklistLA meets late at night. Runs start at 10 pm — hundreds of 20-somethings exploring a shutdown, abandoned-looking city.
“The streets are quiet,” Valiente says. “You’re able to just calm down and hear things. You can hear the city itself. It almost feels like you are in Los Angeles, but your own Los Angeles.”
The popularity of these runs has led to a reliance on volunteers. Friends of the group help to shine the way with lights. Valiente knows that without everyone pitching in, it couldn’t happen. There’s something magical about all the energy that goes into it. It’s more than exercise… it’s community.
Ever the dreamer, Valiente has started to expand his mission. He wants to help people train and learn to love running while falling in love with LA. To do so, he’s set up a 501c-3 non-profit. In the summer, BlacklistLA also helps people build their exercise routines from walking to running a 5k in eight weeks. It includes coaches and workout plans and it’s completely free.
This free aspect is a pillar of the programming to Valiente. When he started out, he could barely afford shoes for his first marathon. He didn’t have any idea how to prepare or have the money for coaching and help. And he doesn’t want anyone else to be stopped from working towards their running goals due to lack of funds.
It’s not surprising that when I ask Erik what his favorite piece of street art is at the moment, he mentions the new Shepard Fairey/Vhils collaboration in Silverlake. It’s called, “American Dreamers” and it represents the immigrant experience in America. It’s all about embracing diversity and being welcoming, and it draws Valiente in because he champions those things too. He wants his group to help people celebrate diversity, to welcome all, and to link the parts of Los Angeles that feel fractured and separate.
Runners are dreamers, and artists are too, Valiente tells me over and over. As he leads people through the streets of LA — witnessing artistic dreams turned to large-scale, gasp-inducing realities — he finds inspiration. He uses that fuel to continue energizing hundreds of people to run. It’s a symbiotic relationship and a constant reminder that dreams (whether art or fitness related) can come true.
“If you have a dream,” he tells me. “You can achieve it with energy.”
Valiente has no shortage of energy and he’s using it to power a movement. It’s a movement that celebrates creativity, filtered through the joy of running. In the process, he’s supporting runners and showing love to his city — chasing his own dream of running, appreciating art, and, most of all, building bridges in his community.