Ignore your fitness tracker and walk to Mordor instead

  • February 13, 2024

In mid-November, my nagging calf strain became a full-blown injury. Techtember and Techtober kicked my butt. My grandma died. Also, my lease was running out and I had about two weeks to find somewhere to live. These are the perfect conditions for a fitness slump.

Slumps happen to everyone. But I still beat myself up pretty hard. I review wearables and fitness tech for a living, but that doesn’t make me immune to the toxic aspects of fitness culture. Didn’t my failure to perform, even during difficult times, make me a fraud? With each run, I found myself chasing a past version of myself who was thinner, faster, and stronger. Logically, I knew better, but it was depressing. On Christmas, I was cleaning out my old apartment by myself, eating day-old gas-station chicken fingers and berating myself for being too tired to do my long run. That’s when my best friend sent me a TikTok. “You need this,” her text read.

The TikTok was of a group of friends at a holiday party. Everyone else was in a food coma, and the person recording was poking fun at a friend on the couch obsessing over some fitness app. I can’t find the video, but the couch friend said something along the lines of, “You think I’m going to let Frodo beat me?”

As it turns out, that person was looking at their Fantasy Hike data. The app uses your health data to track a quest to Mount Fire — a copyright-friendly version of Mount Doom in Mordor. They were competing with another halfling named Mr. Underhill, aka Frodo Baggins’ traveling alias.

I snorted. That’s cute, I thought. I briefly wondered how long it would take me to walk the 1,779 miles to Mount Fire. Then I finished my stale chicken fingers and went back to packing up my life.

Two days later, after another bad workout, I downloaded the app.

So nice of Mr. Underhill to snooze at Riverdale with Archie so I can catch up a bit.
Screenshot: Victoria Song / The Verge

Fantasy Hike is not the most complicated app. It runs in the background and integrates with Apple Health to track your walking and running data. (Sadly, it doesn’t seem like there’s an Android version.) You can see your little avatar traversing through not-Middle Earth. (The app changes most of the names, but since I haven’t finished my quest yet it’s hard to say if it’s all of the names.) Every so often, ghostly wights pop up behind you. You get achievements when you’ve crossed from one region to the next — Hillside End to Halfing Country, and so on. You also get notifications when you hit a momentous plot event — like when Old Tom (Bombadil) rescues you. Aside from Mr. Underhill, you can compete against other copyright-friendly fantasy heroes. There’s Jon Snowflake (he knows nothing), Alice Wonderfoot, and Hairyfoot Potter. And unlike Mr. Underhill, who’s a speedy bugger, the other heroes go at different paces.

It sounds silly, but it works. In the roughly 1.5 months I’ve been using it, I’ve noticed a change in my mindset. I’m dwelling less on how much speed I’ve lost. Instead of griping how tired I am, I’ll get off a stop earlier on the bus so I can shorten the pathetic 337-mile lead Mr. Underhill currently resting in Riverdale has over me. Even if I’m ploddingly slow on a 4.25-mile long run, even if my long runs used to be 10 miles, that’s still 4.25 extra miles I can use to close the gap between me and Alice Wonderfoot.

It’s funny because this is what my myriad fitness trackers were supposed to do. Most of the ones I test come with gamification or competitive elements that are meant to motivate me to get those 10,000 steps in every day. It’s why my Apple Watch pings me at 8PM on a rest day, urging me to take a brisk 27-minute walk so I don’t lose a streak. It’s why more fitness-oriented trackers like Garmin have training scores. These are great when you’re doing well. When you’re not, it’s like getting a report card back full of Bs and Cs when you used to get straight As.

But you know what doesn’t come with that kind of baggage? Low-stakes fun. I’m not really going to Mordor-but-not-Mordor. No one’s asking me to drop my Oura Ring into the fires of Mount Fire to save the world. But even bad days when I do something gets me closer to where I’m going. I’m still, overall, headed in the right direction. I don’t really care that Mr. Underhill is so far ahead of me because he’s not real. What is real is I’m making the most progress in months — and remembering why I enjoy running in the process.

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