Following in the footsteps of Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli across New Zealand’s stunning natural landscape, the Tarawera Ultramarathon has to be one of the best ways to immerse yourself in Tolkien’s myth-building fantasy “The Lord of the Rings”.
One of the most famous trail runs of all time has been watched by millions of spectators – and yet the participants rarely saw any sign of life beside the trail and were very much left to fend for themselves. The names of these competitors? Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli – the three companions who crossed Middle Earth in a mighty feat of endurance at the end of Part 1 and beginning of Part 2 of “The Lord of the Rings” film trilogy. They tracked for days across steppes, rocky hillsides and the endless grass-covered plains of Rohan in a quest to catch up with their two hobbit friends, Merry and Pippin, and rescue them from the clutches of the evil Uruk-hai. Just reading Tolkien’s famous fantasy tale is enough to leave you feeling thoroughly worn out by the end of this breathless cross-country adventure. In the film version, you suffer along with man, elf and dwarf as they hurry through the wilderness without rest, pushing the limits of their endurance. New Zealand’s raw, unspoiled natural scenery first came to the attention of the general public in 2001 as the backdrop and shooting location for Peter Jackson’s world-famous films, turning the country into a dream destination for travelers.
The hype generated by director Peter Jackson’s “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy – starting with the release of “The Fellowship of the Ring” in 2001 – generated a boom in tourism to New Zealand that continues to this day. So it’s perhaps not surprising that the Tarawera Ultramarathon has become one of the most popular running events in the world. After all, here you can battle your way through the scenery of Tolkien and Jackson’s Middle Earth as you follow in the Fellowship’s footsteps. The trail begins in the tranquil village of Matamata, one of the backdrops for the charmingly bucolic Shire. But however comfortable and sedate the life of Shire hobbits may appear in both book and film, the real-life ultramarathon is a truly strenuous venture. Since 2009, the competition has been held over three distances: 20, 50 and 102 kilometers. And many first-timers return for more punishment, unable to resist the race’s magnetic pull. Recently, the organizers added another distance: the 100 Mile Endurance Run (160 kilometers) with a 36-hour time limit – although they let it be known in advance that the winning runner in this hardcore discipline would probably finish in 14 hours or less. The 160-kilometer trail takes the runners once around Lake Tarawera, one of the largest and commonly deemed most beautiful lakes in the country. Over meadows and pastures, through craggy stretches of forest and scrubland, up and down steep slopes (with a total elevation gain of 4,800 meters), Aragorn’s cross-country exploit has plenty of challenges to offer.
Oceania’s comparatively young trail ultra-run is high on many ultrarunners’ to-do lists. After all, anyone who loves ultrarunning also loves nature – whether desert or primeval forest, alpine or Scandinavian, the spectacle is what draws runners to these events. And because New Zealand’s flora and fauna are among the most extraordinary on the planet, the number of competitors from around the world continues to grow, year after year. “The level of international interest this year was truly phenomenal,” says a delighted Paul Charteris, who organized the most recent event. “With 40 percent of the field made up of runners from abroad, this was an incredible outcome for New Zealand. It’s taken a good eight years to get to this stage, but now our event is bigger than ever before and known to huge numbers of ultramarathon runners worldwide.” In the meantime, trail runners from around forty countries regularly tackle this ultra-run.
They aren’t actually following in the footsteps of elves, hobbits or dwarves, of course – in reality, they’re more likely to meet up with the true natives of New Zealand, the Maori. At various points along the trail, competitors will encounter Maori groups as they sing traditional songs, perform the haka (an ancient war dance) or encourage the runners on their way by dancing variations of the poi – an artistic performance by Maori women. The next competition is slated for February 2019 – and it makes sense to register early, because each race only has a limited number of starting places and they’re usually booked up well before the event. What’s more, the Tarawera Ultra is part of the Ultra Trail World Tour (UTWT), an international championship ranking of ultra-runs more than 100 kilometers long. Tarawera is one of the 10 races listed in the top “Pro” category, so if you’re running the Tarawera, you’re not just running in Middle Earth – you’re also running in the Champions League!