Jenny Tough: "I had a big cry – then I kept going" | Women's Running

Jenny Tough: “I had a big cry – then I kept going”

Read Time:   |  March 6, 2020

Tough by name and nature, Jenny Tough is a runner and an adventurer on a mission to run over a mountain range in each of the world’s continents – often in gruelling conditions and always alone

Nominative determinism is the hypothesis that people tend to gravitate towards areas of work that fit their names. For example, the cook at my kids’ school is called Mrs Ovens (no, really), the guy who authorised my speeding violation (ahem) was called Mr Rush.

So you won’t be surprised to hear that our January issue Warrior, Jenny Tough, has taken her running to unparalleled heights and tested her body to extremes in the process. And that’s not hyperbole on our part. She’s an adventurer with a particular fondness for running the world’s most unforgiving mountain ranges – and she does it alone. Lots of people assume her name is some kind of fabricated insta-tag. But Tough is her name. And Tough is most definitely her nature.

Mountain highs

Jenny’s passion for running took a while to show up. Although she loved the marathons she did during her uni years, it was only when she combined her love of running with her love of the mountains that, well, she found her Shangri-La.

She grew up in the Canadian Rockies and now lives in Scotland, so the mountain thing is in the DNA. “I’ve travelled a lot and lived away from home and never really been homesick,” She says. “But I do miss the mountains when I’m away. I don’t know why, but I do always feel a calm when I’m in the mountains.” But let’s wind the clock back a bit.

Jenny’s initial journey into running as a teen had not been a positive one. “I started when I was a teenager because I didn’t like my body and found that really difficult. I saw running as a punishment that would make me thin. So I’d go out in a pair of skater shoes and just run around the suburb with my golden retriever. The reason for running came from such a negative place and I really resented it.”

Nonetheless, Jenny continued with her running, setting herself race and distance challenges along the way. But it wasn’t until later that she realised that the days when she ran were good days. “If I started my day with a run, I could study better, I was more creative, and I felt much better about myself.”

Exploration

She then moved abroad and running became a way for her to explore her new home. This was another psychological step-change for Jenny: “I stopped thinking about calories in and calories out, and miles under the belt, and started enjoying exploring my new neighbourhood instead. I started to wonder, ‘What’s over there? What’s down that trail?’ And gradually my relationship with running transformed into something very positive.”

Swapping road running for something more organic was transformative for Jenny. “I was always into hiking, but every time I went I would end up running,” she smiles. “I decided to go on a five-day hike and ended up running for most of it, even with a massive backpack. At the time, I didn’t even know that expedition running existed and that there were separate shoes for it – I mean that just sounds ridiculous now but it’s true! Trail shoes for me were my old ugly shoes I didn’t mind getting mud on!”

World domination

That first hike trip was in Patagonia and to say it changed the course of Jenny’s life would be an understatement. It was this experience that made her decide to embark on Run The World’s Mountains, a major project to run solo and unsupported across a mountain range on every continent.

It sounds like quite a leap from a five-day hike. It sounds, well, tough. How did she pick that first location? “I decided I would run across Kyrgyzstan and when I came across the Tien Shan out for. They didn’t understand what I was doing, of course, but there was a concern for me.”

It sounds idyllic, but of course there were hard moments and miserable lows. “In an endurance challenge, I always think that halfway is the hardest part, the time you’re most likely to quit. I think it’s because you’ve come so far but you’ve still got so much to do. At around this stage in Kyrgyzstan, I made a massive navigational mistake and it meant I had to do a terrifying rock climb without ropes. I really thought I was going to die.”

Jenny describes it as a prolonged near-death experience, because she ended up climbing for ages knowing that if she messed up at any point she’d fall and that would be that. “It was really intense,” she admits. “I swore that if I survived, I would quit. I’d go to the nearest road (a mere three days away!) and just go home. Enough was enough.

“But when I got to the top and realised I was safe, all the adrenalin disappeared and I just had the most massive cry – and then I stood up and kept going. Some nomads invited me in so I hung out with them that night, cooked with them and slept with them, and the next morning everything had changed.”

A different focus

Jenny says how she’d taken on the expedition in the first place because she wanted to smash a world first and, as she rightly says, there aren’t many opportunities left to do that. But after her terrifying experience the day before, she found she woke up with a new motivation. “Our culture – in general life and certainly in the adventure world – is obsessed with being the first or the fastest. But I began to think to myself: a thousand people could do this and come back with a thousand different stories, so why don’t I just get on with it, finish it, and not focus on the glory.

“I realised I wanted to stand on the mountain tops and look around me, talk to people for longer when I met them and just really enjoy the adventure. It was a real turning point for me.”

So now Jenny’s mission is to explore the world and that’s enough for her. It’s about the adventure, and having integrity in the adventure, doing it in a safe and responsible way and in a way that honours the country she’s going through.

“People seem to want to do something really gnarly just to get a lot of likes on Facebook. But not me. I think, just go outside and have fun!”

Atlas shrugged

Jenny’s next challenge was to run across Morocco’s Atlas Mountains. With all the experience from Kyrgyzstan, she embarked upon the second expedition in a completely different mental state. She knew what she was doing; she felt really confident about her kit and how to manage herself day-to-day. Plus she was in a country that had maps and guidebooks written about it. Add in the fact the Atlas Mountains are a lot lower than the Tien Shan, so they should, in theory, be easier to cross. Jenny was good to go.

“I got heavily punished for that confidence!” she laughs. “It was really hard in ways I didn’t see coming. I knew water would be an issue – my northern body is not made for desert – but it was worse than I thought. One day I had to go 50K without water, which is something I never want to do again. Also, North Africa is one of the hardest places in the world to be a woman. I can’t soft soap the fact I had a lot of rough experiences on that trip and some occasions when I felt in danger. At no point did I think I couldn’t take care of myself, but I was quite aware I would probably have to do so at some point.”

Another thing that made the Atlas Mountains more challenging was an injury she picked up en route. “I fell off a trail and dropped seven feet onto piles of rocks, cutting my hip open really badly.

“The thing is, the expeditions take such a lot of planning and I knew this was probably my only chance to do that one, so, although there was a lot of blood and I thought I probably needed some stitches, I knew it would cost me the trip if I went for help. I made the decision to slap some duct tape on the wound and get on with it.” We told you she was tough.

There will be blood

There was a lot of blood, she says, but getting to a nurse would have taken her three days off course. And anyway, she rationalises, she had poles, so she was able to take the weight off the hip a bit…

Going solo

Did she find it hard to make that decision? How did she know that taping it up and cracking on would work out okay? Well, of course she didn’t know it would. But thanks to the experience she already had, Jenny was – and is – very happy to be self-sufficient.

“I have to make 100 per cent of the decisions and that means I have to live with 100 per cent of them too. When I first started doing expedition running, I was in my 20s, and I think it was really good for me to be in the driving seat; you’re in control, you show yourself you’re capable and you gain a lot of confidence from those experiences.”

And besides, a big part of Jenny’s trips is meeting the indigenous people in the areas in which she runs. “When you’re alone, you may be more vulnerable but you’re also way more approachable. I’m pretty sure I meet a lot more locals by going solo on my trips.”

“I’m quite an introvert, so I’m completely comfortable with being alone for long periods of time. Sure, I’ve had lonely moments, and they go both ways. If things are going terribly, I sometimes wish there was someone there to talk it through with, or to give me a hug. But equally, when things are really magical, I sometime feel a loss at not being able to share them with someone else. I’ve seen some of the best sunsets of my whole life on these expeditions and, while it’s cool to have a show from nature all to yourself, it’s also nice to have it validated by someone else sometimes.”

Bringing the fun

Jenny’s eye is now on continuing her assault on the world’s mountains with her European leg in the Caucasus Mountains, and on developing her fledgling race director venture.

This August saw her very first Type 2 Fun Run take place in Braemar, Scotland. It’s a mini version of the expeditions Jenny does by herself and is a way for her to push others into running. Runners who sign up are all out and about for 30 hours in total but can do as much or as little distance as they want in that time, while bagging as many checkpoints as they can. “Part of my commitment is facilitating more people to get outside; to learn how to navigate, be self-sufficient and to look at running as an adventure and something that’s fun.”

The best kind of fun

Before we go our separate ways, we’re curious about why she called it the Type 2 Fun Run. “Type one fun is the kind of activity that’s fun all the time, like maybe skiing or something when you’ve got a grin permanently on your face. Type two fun is different – it’s the kind of fun which can be very miserable at the time but literally the moment you stop it, you love it and want to do it again.”

Having just done the hilliest, muddiest, hardest run yesterday, we think we get where she’s coming from. Long live type two fun!

Written by Rachel Ifans.

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