Tolkien’s Amazing Ultra Marathon of the Middle Earth

Middle Earth Map

Ultra Marathon of the Middle Earth

I hadn’t read Lord of the Rings in a while, especially after I started running less than a year ago. So as I was reading [again!] The Two Towers, it occurred to me that Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli must’ve run far to chase after the Uruk-Hai who were carrying Merry and Pippin. These Orcs were on their way to Isengard to hand them off to Saruman. Hmm, four plus days of running. That sounded like a serious middle earth ultra marathon to me. I thought I’ll try and figure out how far they actually ran before reaching the Fangorn Forest. And, huh, back in the middle earth, there were no aid stations along the way either. Just lemba bread for fuel. I bet this Elf-made bread was the equivalent of Tarahumara’s Pinole and Chia Iskiate for that extra oomph, you think?

Parth Galen – the Start of the Ultra Marathon

Parth Galen

Parth Galen courtesy Wikia

This is where Boromir goes down and the Uruk-Hai mistakenly grab Merry and Pippin and start the long run towards Isengard. Parth Galen is located on the western side of Nen Hithoel, the lake formed by River Anduin. Emyn Muil is on the eastern shore. Aragorn at this point declares that they should follow the Orcs.

Then they left Parth Galen. The afternoon was fading as they came back to the glade where Boromir had fallen.

So day 1, about 4pm, is probably when they start running after the Orcs. The chapter ends with this:

Long slopes they climbed, dark, hard-edged  against the sky already red with sunset. Dusk came. They passed away, grey shadows in a stony land.

I’m guessing this is a pretty serious trail run. It’s hard to gauge the elevation gain as the trio try and get into the land of Rohan. But here are a few clues:

They had come to the feet of the stony hills, and their pace was slower, for the trail was no longer easy to follow…The western side of each ridge was steep and difficult…All night the three companions scrambled in this bony land…They went on for a mile or more northwards.

Land of Rohan

Land of Rohan

Land of Rohan courtesy Wikia

Since this was persistence hunting with lots of ear-down-to-the-ground kind of tracking with serious elevation gain, let’s say conservatively, they were averaging a pace of 20 minutes per mile. As warriors on a hunt, they weren’t traveling super light either (swords, bow & arrows, axe, the whole shebang). Before the eastward sky was turning pale (about 5am) they would’ve run 39 miles (13 * 60 / 20). According to Wikipedia, one league is worth about 3 miles in the Tolkien books. So when they reached the crest of the grey hill and Aragron cries “Gondor! Gondor!“, far off to the left, thirty leagues or more, blue and purple stood the White Mountains. They were almost out of Emyn Muil.

The ridge upon which the companions stood went down steeply before their feet. Below it twenty fathoms or more, there was a wide and rugged shelf which ended suddenly in the brink of a sheer cliff; The East wall of Rohan…At the bottom they came with a strange suddenness on the grass of Rohan..”Ah! the green smell!” he said, “It is better than much sleep. Let us run!”

Obviously, Legolas was having a runner’s high. This was likely around 9am when they hit the grass of Rohan, which puts them at 51 miles so far. They find the brooch of the elven-cloak left by Pippin to which Legolas exclaims “Come! Let us go on! The thought of those merry young folk driven like cattle burns by heart“. Given that they are out of the steep slopes of Emyn Muil and on to the grass fields, I’m guessing that their pace is bound to increase a little to say 15 minutes/mile.

The sun climbed to the noon and then rode slowly down the sky…The sun sank…Still the hunters held on…Only twice in the day’s march had they rested for a brief while, and twelve leagues now lay between them and the eastern wall where they had stood at dawn.

At around 6pm, they had run twelve leagues or 48 miles since dawn. With our estimated pace of 15 minutes/mile we come close to 52 miles since dawn. So at end of day 2, they had now run a 103 mile ultra marathon. And they still had to keep going. Looks like the lack of aid stations was taking a toll. They slept through the second night and day 3 began at dawn (say 5am).

So the third day of pursuit began…They seldom spoke…All day the track of their enemies led straight on, going north-west without a break or turn…At dusk they halted again… Now twice twelve leagues they had passed over the plains of Rohan.

Twice 12 leagues puts us at 96 miles. Looks like another 50 miler for the trio in a matter of 12 hours. They now have run around 153 miles with nothing but lemba bread. If I ran that much I would be asleep for a long time. But not so when you are tracking the Uruk-Hai. They were up again at dawn on day 4 (5am) when Legolas was first afoot.

‘It is a red dawn. Strange things await us by the eaves of the forest’…The others sprang up, and almost at once they set off again. The sun was sinking when at last they drew near to the end of the line of downs…They were going slowly now and Gimli’s back was bent…The sunk sank and the shadows of the evening fell like a curtain..’Three suns already have risen on our chase and brought no counsel’, said Gimli.

Riders of Rohan

Another 50 miles in 12 hours before they had to crash for the night and they now have been running close to 200 miles since they left Parth Galen. They were pretty close to Entwash when they meet the Riders of Rohan when we finally learn how far, according to Tolkien, they have come. Let’s see if our estimate is even close.

Wide wonder came into Éomer’s eyes. ‘Strider is too poor a name, son of Arathorn,’ he said. ‘Wingfoot I name you. This deed of the three friends should be sung in many a hall. Forty leagues and five you have measured ere the fourth day is ended! Hardy is the race of Elendil!

There you have it, forty leagues and five, which I’m guessing is Tolkien-talk for 45 leagues. Times three puts us at 135 miles in 4 days. Looks like we were off a little, unless Éomer thought that it was from the start of the Land of Rohan (not counting the trek up down Emyn Muil). The ‘Gimli’s back was bent‘ should have given us a clue that their pace, even on the flat plains of Rohan, was slowing down. This by far was the coolest ultra marathon run on the middle earth, don’t you think?


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