Bolton Hill marathon doesn't have any of that, which at first glance makes it easy to skip past in the race listings in favour of more glamorous, challenging or sexy sounding marathons. But don't do that. It's the best fucking marathon ever.
Having just done it for the fourth time and spent the last three days walking around with a stupid grin on again, I've been trying to work out what make it such a great race – great enough to stand out head and shoulders above the 40 or so marathons and ultras I've done in the last 12 months. I've narrowed it down to a few things…
The hills. Ok, the clue is in the name, and there's about 3,000ft of elevation across the course, which certainly isn't flat, but it's a long way off things like Hell of a Hill. There's a massive climb up Winter Hill to start with, but it's runnable, the view from the top is great, and you get to bomb down the either side which is neat early on. Then, apart from a few little lumps and bumps, it's mostly flat until about 21 miles in when there's a nice tasty climb to set up a sweet downhill finish. It's a really great distribution of the ascent, most of it early when you're fresh, or late when you're knackered. Way more interesting than say Kielder which has the same ascent but made up of like a million 10ft ups and downs, or Stroud which stuffs the same amount of climb into the last few miles just for a laugh.
The terrain. It’s REALLY multi-terrain. There's road (not much), moorland, rocky paths, forest trail, grass trails, the lot. The only thing it doesn't have is sand, and I'm not arsed about that because I live in Formby and sand’s all we've got. It's a proper trail race with a bit of everything, and as you're always moving from one type of trail to another you get a real sense of progress as the terrain changes. Because of that there are no seemingly endless bits where you find yourself wondering “will this rocky/hilly/muddy/grassy bit ever end?” because every few miles you're onto the next bit. This also makes a great race for running discussion boards, because there is no right answer to the question “what shoes should I wear?”.
The organisation. The whole operation is spot on. Registering is easy, the check points are in the right place and the marshals are brilliant, the course marking is good without needing 26 miles of barrier tape, the start and finish area is great, and the fair next to the start/finish area has an inflatable gorilla. Every race finish should have an inflatable gorilla.
Then there's the last three miles. Oh the last three miles. All downhill, all a bit rocky and technical, and just inviting you to give it whatever you've got left – if you can stay on your feet. And I think that's at the heart of why I love this race so much. If you drop the pace, walk up the big climbs, go easy on the rocky bits and coast down the last descent, you'll have a grand day out. But as soon as you crank it up a bit, it just gets tougher and tougher. There are gambles to take everywhere, and whatever pace you're comfortable at on any of the sections, you can cause yourself some major problems just by upping the pace a smidge. There's a glorious increase in jeopardy every time you kick the pace up a bit, whether it's pushing harder up the hills, speeding on the flatter but tricky rocky paths around Rivington Pike, or doing your best runaway mine cart impression for the last couple of miles of rocky, narrow downhill back to the finish.
As for me, this time around I ran pretty even splits and got a course PB by about ten minutes, finally hurtling (metaphorically speaking) into the finish area in about 3:47, good enough for 24th place. I took a chance and wore my Hoka Challengers which worked out great for the downhill sections and just ate up the rocky bits. I know I can do better though. I wasn't 100% recovered from Foxton a couple of weeks ago, I know I could've crushed the middle section a little more if I'd been in better shape, and I was faffing about quite a bit at the beginning. The way 2016 is starting to line up I could be in decent shape for this next year which would be awesome, I've loved every one of the four times I've done this race, but I've still not had a proper go at it:-)