Dartfordhalf - Dartford HarriersThe annual Dartford Half Marathon almost upon us again.  It has been moved (wisely) from it’s mid-summer spot to a more temperate date in mid-March, which appears to have increased the number of entries this year – in fact, there’s every possibility that last year’s total of 299 finishers will be doubled for 2015.

It’s the longest-running half-marathon in Kent, and celebrates its 39th event this year.  The race has changed course in two occasions, and the course now being used is extremely enjoyable – if you like a challenge!  It’s varies from the suburban to the picturesque and tranquil, and back again, and takes in some of the steepest hills in the borough.  But whilst it’s hard work, it’s also a unique way to visit some of the outer reaches of Dartford, and also one of the most sociable events in the local sporting calendar.

The race begins in the familiar settings of Central Park.  There’ll be several hundred runners, both unaffiliated, and from numerous clubs around the south east, warming up from around 8am on Sunday morning.  Prior to the race beginning, the competitors line up on a stretch of path facing north towards the cafe, and the Mayor of Dartford will officially start the race.  There’s a few well-wishing words, a quick countdown, and then that’s it – preparation and thinking time comes to an end, and that’s when the ‘fun’ starts…

It all begins with a clockwise lap of the southern field in Central Park.  This helps stretch the running field out a little before they spill out onto the roads and pavements, and helps the runners begging to settle into an early tempo.  It’s very easy to start a half-marathon too quickly (especially with all the excitement and hype of the build-up), and the escalating nature of the Dartford course means that doing that means paying a pretty substantial price later on in the race.  So… unless you’re a real superstar, nice and slowly does it in the first few minutes.  I usually try to find someone who looks as though they’re running a tiny bit slower than I’d want to, and tuck in behind them.  There’s usually lots of familiar faces waving and cheering in the park – friends and families and other runners will be there to give as much support as they can, so enjoy that while it lasts – you won’t see many smiling faces for the next 13 miles!

The race leaves Central Park down Cranford Road, and turns left into Lowfield Street.  At this point, the practicality of organising an event like this becomes obvious, as the traffic is momentarily halted in several directions, whilst the hundreds of runners head south towards Wilmington, before Hawley Road bears south-east towards Hawley.  These first three miles are still pretty flat, so if you’re looking at the clock and trying to beat a particular time, it might be a good idea to pick up a little bit of pace to take advantage of the relatively easy going.  There’s still a very long way to go though, so I’d still try to run slightly slower than the pace for running say, a 10k race.  This section of the race is a long and straight road, and passes by some very nice pubs – The Orange Tree, The Four Lymes, The Papermakers Arms – none of which will be open at that time sadly, so the temptation to duck out of the race for a more relaxing day won’t be there.  But even at this early stage in the race, the mere sight of these places conjures up images of cold beer and pub food, and I’m afraid you just have to hold those thoughts until a bit later on…  In between Wilmington and Hawley, business parks come and go, before the M25 passes overhead (rather noisily), and the runners arrive in Sutton-at-Hone for their first challenge…

The course turns left into Parsonage Lane, and soon becomes noticeably slower as Darenth Hill approaches.  It’s now about 3mile (5km) from from the start line, and the next half-mile is in my opinion, the biggest dilemma on the Dartford HM course.  Run up it to slowly, and you risk wasting time and losing that tempo.  If you run up it too quickly, you’ll have tired legs for a while to come, and there’s about 10 miles left to go…  On the other hand, it’s there to be enjoyed.  St Margaret’s Church is on your right-hand side, and it’s a striking piece of architecture, as well as being one of the oldest churches anywhere in England.  Shortly afterwards, it’s worth looking out for a memorial stone to Flying Officer Nathanial Barry, a South African pilot killed during the Battle of Britain in 1940.  The thought of a young men being slaughtered in a fight against utmost tyranny certainly puts any aches and pains into perspective, so reaching the top of this hill in a fit state to carry on seems that little less daunting.  The course turns sharply right into Roman Villa Road (for a tiny bit more uphill work), before levelling out for a mile of physical recovery and pleasant scenery.  The giant chimney at South Darenth provides a nice focal point in the distance, and on a nice day, the fresh air and natural fragrances of the farmland can be quite invigorating, whilst you’re recovering from the hill, and settling back into a rhythm.  The southern end of Roman Villa Road begins a steady climb 2 mile climb, round into Rabbits Road and towards Longfield and Canada Farm Road, the highest point on the course, and one which offers views of the open expanse of countryside ahead.  There’s hardly any buildings visible from this point – just a single-track road, winding it’s way downhill, under the Pinden Railway Bridge, back in the direction of Darenth.  These are fairly difficult miles, regardless of the incline.  There’s very few focal points, there won’t be any other people (other than runners) on the route, and it all feels a long way from civilisation at times…

At roughly the half-way point, the rural roads merge with the much busier Green Street Green Road, but only for a short time, before breaking away back into the countryside for the course’s second hill, on Gills Road.  It’s a shorter, sharper hill than the previous one in Darenth, so it should be a case of bursting up it as quickly as possible (if possible!), then enjoying more of the countryside for a downhill 2.5 miles.  The only difference in this case is that the trees and hedges along this stretch are so tall in places, that your vision is pretty much blinkered onto the road ahead for quite a while.  It is downhill though – so depending on how you’re feeling, it’s a chance to recover, relax, enjoy a gentle run, or get those miles in the bank as quickly as possible before the hard work begins again.  Personally, I try a bit of all three, whilst not forgetting to appreciate the surroundings as much as I can.  Every time i run down here, I promise myself that I’ll visit that attractive little farm shop down St Margaret’s Road, and I haven’t done so yet.  But I will…

After that three-mile detour, it’s back onto Green Street Green Road for the final stretch of the journey.  This is where legs feel really tired, and yet there’s a slight sense of excitement that the Dartford we’d all recognise is coming back into view.  The traffic is once again busy, and familiar sights such as Darenth Primary School pass by on the left hand side.  The busy road is crossed via the footbridge by Darenth Village Hall, (although running over a footbridge isn’t really what tired legs want to do at this point), and then it’s just one more mile past the parade of small shops, and underneath the M25 again to the 10-mile marker.
The 10-mile point on the course occurs at the bottom of Gore Road, and this presents the final, and perhaps most difficult challenge of the course.  Having already run for 10 miles, the task ahead is to run up possibly the steepest major road in the entire borough.  Thankfully it’s not too long – just 900m separates the small roundabout at Darenth Country Park to the crest of the hill at Darenth Park Road.  However, with 10 miles already done, it’s a very tough 900m.  Plenty of runners elect to walk up this hill, as any attempt at running won’t be too much faster, anyway.  The hill gets exponentially steeper as it continues, and the strain on runners’ knees and backs is evident in the heavy breathing and laboured expressions.

Dartfordhalf - Dartford Harriers

Richey Escourt running the Half Marathon

Personally, I focus on the bus shelter near the top of the hill, and just try to pound away until I’m at the top.  On a very hot day, this is excruciatingly difficult, so it’s easy to see why a change of date to the spring has double the number of runners taking part!  But once at the top – everything’s all well again.  In fact, it’s really rather good.  There’s small crowds of people at the top of the hill cheering on the runners/climbers, and a much-needed water station as well.  The course turns left into Lunedale Road and through the Fleet Estate, where there are usually more people happy to dish out jelly babies and rounds of applause.  And the best part is knowing that the hard work is all done.  the remaining 2.5 miles are downhill, flat, and lead past Hesketh Park for a dash down Brent Lane, and bad to the very welcome sight of Central Park.

The work isn’t quite done – there’s a few of the park’s paths to be navigated first, taking in the cafe and bandstand, before the final 500m of the course, back to the athletics track, and a lap of the track itself.  The finishing line brings one final sense of relief, a medal, and most importantly, the knowledge that you’ve just completed something very, very difficult.

Despite the physical effort required, I’d thoroughly recommend it to anyone who enjoys running recreationally.  Yes, it’s a hard race (running 13.1 miles is never that easy, Im afraid), but it’s doable for reasonably strong runners.  The course is well-marshalled, and water stations are provided, so there’s no chance of getting lost or dehydrated.  As with any road running event, decent running shoes are essential, and a good running shirt or vest to deal with the heat and moisture is recommended.  But that really is all that’s needed – the geography of course, and the excellent organisation by Dartford Harriers Athletic Club do the rest.

Over the years, this race has become something of a sporting institution in Dartford, and I can honestly say that it’s been a pleasure to take part in.  The ‘pleasure’ might not come on Darenth Hill or Gore Road, but it comes in the end, and stays for a long, long time!