Tough as Nails
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Jenny Tough walked through the doors of Kyrgyzstan’s mountaineering office in a bright purple shirt and even brighter teal running shorts, blond hair pulled back in a ponytail. Tough, a then 27 -year-old Canadian, was excited to finally start her meticulously planned adventure. When the man working the mountaineering office asked her what her holiday plans were, she happily told him.
“I’m going to run across the country! It’s going to be amazing!”
“No, you’re not,” he replied immediately. “That’s not possible.”
So began Tough’s mission to run solo and unsupported through a mountain range on every populated continent. She was in Kyrgyzstan to run the Tien Shan mountain range from one end of the country to the other—just over 900 kilometres (560 miles)—and if she succeeded, it would be a world first.
Months of planning had gone into Tough’s journey. She had been scrimping and saving for this expedition, forgoing nights out at bars or restaurants in order to be able to afford it.
“Unfortunately for him I had nothing to do that day,” Jenny laughs over the phone. “I literally was just hanging out, adjusting to the elevation.” With nothing better to fill her time, Tough proceeded to trace her entire route out for the man in painful detail.
Since there are no trails that run continuously through the Tien Shan mountains, she had spent months plotting her route with old maps, connecting the dots between resupply towns and water sources, eyeballing contour lines to distinguish the doable inclines from impossible ones. She knew these mountains as well as any one person could without actually having walked through their rocky heart.
Ever since she graduated James Cook University at 21, sold all her stuff on eBay and started a 3,000-kilometer (1864 mile) bike trip across Canada, from Calgary to the Yukon, Tough has often found herself in similar situations: excitedly describing her planned route to someone in total disbelief.
Tough grew up a mountain child in Banff, spending weekends skiing or hiking in Banff with her family. “We’re also avid sailors and the adventure seed was no doubt planted in me when we spent 18 months living on our 37ft sailboat, roaming the Caribbean,” Tough says.
Despite her sense for adventure, Tough didn’t excel at sports growing up, especially when it came to running. “I only started running as a punishment for eating, and had a really hard time with my weight and body image as a teenager,” Tough says. It wasn’t until she was in college that she started to see it as a source of stress relief and exploration.
She didn’t have any adventuring role models, she simply had a desire to go. When Tough graduated in 2011, Canada was in a recession and jobs weren’t easy to come by. “I decided to have “one last adventure” before knuckling down to adulthood, bought a bike and decided to ride north to the Yukon, one part of Canada that I had never been to,” Tough said.
Since then she’s continued to bike tour (across Mediterranean Europe in 2012 and 4000 km around the Baltic Sea in 2015) and gotten into trail running. She’s already knocked two populated continents off her fastpacking bucket list—the Kyrgyzstani mountains in Asia and Morocco’s Atlas Mountains in Africa—and soon she will knock off number three, the Bolivian mountains in South America. “In Bolivia I will be running through remote, high altitude Quechua communities where I will no doubt need their assistance as I struggle to run in the very thin air! Simply cannot wait,” Tough writes in an email.
“I kept coming back to adventures, although I did try to get a real job and all that normal stuff,” Tough writes. “Adventures are thrilling and exciting but also incredibly simple—it’s all about living with very minimal belongings and keeping one foot in front of the other day in, day out, and living mostly outside. I’m not sure if I can completely explain it, but I feel most like myself when I’m on an adventure challenge.”
Although Tough had run marathons and trail races before, Kyrgyzstan was her first ever multi-day run. “It was a major case of jumping in at the deep end!” she writes. But, since Tough has always been motivated to run by her need for exploration, this actually wasn’t as crazy as it sounds. She found that while routine runs felt like work, she always ran stronger and faster when exploring new ground. The Kyrgyzstani mountains were beautiful enough to capture her imagination and still untouched enough to offer an adventure in the truest since of the word.
“Ok, I guess it’s possible,” the man behind the counter finally conceded, “but not you.”
Tough heard two types of “No” every time she went into a town to resupply. The first “No” was the, “No, it’s never been done before, and therefore can’t be done” sort.
“If someone’s never seen evidence of something, they don’t tend to believe it’s possible. And that would upset me, because you know, you’ve got to be a bit more of a dreamer than that, don’t you,” Tough says. To these people she would whip out her map and provide the evidence.
Sometimes, however, it was not the route people found impossible, but the young female runner pursuing it. “But you’re a woman,” they would protest. One suggested she should be having children instead.
With these people, Tough says, “You’re up against a different set of barriers and fears. They don’t think that you as a person, or you as a gender or you as a demographic, can do it. And you’ve got to pick your battles, and also manage your own mental state.” She knew that if she got sucked into an argument with someone while she was already mentally and physically exhausted, that they might say things that would haunt her when she was alone in the mountains later.
“So sometimes I would fly my feminist flag and tell them that they’re wrong, and sometimes I would just get really shy about it and know that I didn’t have the mental energy to do it today. When someone would ask me how far I was running, I would just say the next village.” With her inquirers and doubts temporarily placated, Tough would run on.
However, the comments did make her aware of the fact that in attempting this expedition, she was representing women, whether she wanted to or not, and this made Tough more eager to square her shoulders and find her way across.
“I feel quite proud of how many girls and women saw a woman doing sport, because I think that’s quite important,” Tough said of her 25-day trek in Kyrgyzstan. Despite the language barrier, she got the impression that the Kyrgyzstani women liked seeing her take on her expedition, particularly alone.
While running across the High Atlas Mountains (860 km, 543 miles) in Morocco in 2017, a year after Kyrgyzstan, women would chase her down and invite her into their house, feeding her more than she could possibly eat. “They just wanted to make sure I was well taken care of,” Tough said.
While the women in Morocco followed Jenny just long enough to pull her into their homes for lunch, the men had a different approach.
One desert night early in her Moroccan trip, Tough was awoken by ten men with guns standing outside her tent. They told her she couldn’t camp there, and that she needed to get in their van. “And I don’t know where this came from, but I just told them, ‘No I’m not getting in your van, I don’t want to.’” They claimed to be the police, but since they weren’t wearing uniforms, Tough took a gamble and stood her ground. Even though she guessed wrong—these men were the local police—she was allowed to stay for the night.
In the morning, they were back.
“They kind of felt it was their responsibility to watch me at all times,” Tough said. They had at least one man follow her on her journey for the next ten days, sometimes in a car or motorcycle, sometimes trying to keep up on foot, tracking her in an exhausted, wavering path.
She was completely alone, yet being constantly monitored by men with guns, who she worried would not react well if she disrobed to her sports bra and shorts to cope with the heat. On the days the police travelled on foot it was easier to lose them and Tough would hide behind rocky outcroppings or quickly change route to evade her shadow. A video of her trip shows her looking back and laughing bitterly as a silhouette meanders the wrong way on the horizon.
Logically, she understood. She was travelling through a patriarchal society and they wanted to ensure her safety. Plus, after they found out she had a website (jennytough.com, where she documents all her adventures,) the policemen became convinced they would lose their jobs if Tough died in the rugged red mountains.
Mentally and emotionally, though, she couldn’t handle it. “They just didn’t understand at all why I would want to be left alone at any point in the day,” she said. “It got to be too much sometimes. It came from a good place, I didn’t think they were bad people, I didn’t think they were trying to ruin my expedition at all. We just had a huge culture clash.”
“Every day we would interact, and I would say ‘please, just leave me alone, I’m good, I’m a skilled runner and a skilled mountain person, I know what I’m doing. You don’t need to follow me, go spend your time somewhere else.’”
“But why are you doing this, this makes no sense?” they would ask. “There are no shops up there, there are no hotels up there, there’s no phone reception, why on earth would you go to the mountains?” Tough would think to herself, that’s exactly why I want to go up there!
The police asked Tough to run on the roads instead. They reasoned that on the flat roads through the valleys, she would be safe and easy to keep an eye on. The request, made with imposing, burnt-orange Moroccan peaks rearing in the background, drove Tough crazy. How could you not run in mountains like those?
In Kyrgyzstan, on the other hand, there was a shared appreciation for nature. While Kyrgyzstani cities still housed skeptics like the man at the office of mountaineering, the nomads were thrilled that Tough appreciated their home in the mountains as much as they did. “I never heard one of them say, don’t go up there, it’s too high or there’s no phone signal. There was just total appreciation for the mountains and awe for the mountains,” Tough said.
The adventures for her are about more than pushing her physical limits. “If I wanted to just run 1000k through the mountains, I could have gone to Colorado,” she says. Instead, she wants to appreciate a mountain range and the culture it shelters, with a thoroughness you can only achieve on foot.
When the Going Gets Tough
Despite her bravery and unwillingness to take no for an answer, fear and doubt are still part of Tough’s experience. “There were definitely bad moments,” Tough said, “but there were only good days.” When she wanted to stop, she would force herself forward with practicality. “If you stop, what are you going to do?” she’d ask herself. The only way out was forward.
Tough had a good idea of where to go based on her map, navigation plan and GPS, but she still occasionally ran up against problems (beyond men with guns following her,) that she couldn’t have anticipated: rocky and impassable slopes, dry riverbeds where she was counting on water and bridges shown on the map that were either half-finished or non-existent.
In Kyrgyzstan, one incident is still so traumatic almost two years later she hesitates to talk about it.
In an effort to push quickly to the next location, Tough “made a navigational error” and wound up in a canyon. On one side, there was a slope of unstable rocks prone to landslides, “and not the type that would twist your ankle, the type that would break your femur.” On the other side, a river with such high water, it was unquestionably unpassable.
Cursing herself for her hasty navigational decision, Jenny now had no choice but to ascend the steep slope of loose shale on her hands and knees, the rocks so unstable that every step forward she would slide back a few inches. Stopping to rest wasn’t an option, so Tough forged on, 600 meters up, losing all sense of time in her laser-focused climb. Eventually, the ascent turned from rock scrambling to genuine rock climbing—and Tough is not a rock climber.
“I literally dangled from a ledge at one point,” Tough said. “I think that’s the moment that will always stick with me, knowing that there was one moment where I was just barely clenching on with my fingertips. In that moment there was no fear… because fear isn’t going to serve you in that kind of scenario, fear isn’t going to make me hold on any tighter, it’s going to make me perform worse.”
When it was finally over, she sat at the top and let tears roll down her face. “This isn’t really fun right now, I just want to get somewhere safe and call my mom,” she tells her phone camera in her self-made documentary as she wipes her eyes.
“I just cried for pretty much the rest of the day.” Tough said. “And when I finally stopped, I told myself: All right. Let’s go run.”
For more information on Jenny Tough’s adventures, visit discoverinteresting.com/the-path/of-the-mountains/