When it comes to physical and mental limits, endurance adventurer Jenny Tough is pretty familiar with pushing beyond hers. Known for her challenging solo expeditions, the 29-year-old Canadian has covered thousands of miles under her own steam, both on foot and by bike, including running 861km across the Atlas Mountains unsupported in just 22 days.
Here, Jenny shares some of her endurance insights, her experience as a woman running alone in the Atlas Mountains, and how it feels to reach the very limits of your physical capabilities.
At what point did you discover you had the capacity for endurance sports? Were you sporty growing up?
I started running, extremely reluctantly, in high school, mainly as a punishment for eating. I hated it at first, but soon found an evening run with my dog to be the most peaceful and relaxing experience of my day. In university, I started running more in the mornings when I found it improved my focus and stress levels, and that quickly got out of hand as I ran further and further until I completed my first marathon in my final year. From there I was hooked, and started exploring the concept of combining my love for endurance challenges with my other passion, adventure travel.
You cycled 3000km from Calgary to the Yukon as your first cycling adventure. Were there many learning curves having never done anything like this?
I knew literally nothing about cycling when I decided to do this. The biggest ride I’d ever done was about 50km, and I did that only a few days before leaving on this big adventure. I was nearly a week in before I had my first day where I didn’t fall over trying to unclip. Basic mechanicals were a disaster.
In addition to the bike, which was a big steel mystery to me, I had to learn about multi-day endurance. I made huge mistakes with nutrition early on (not getting nearly enough), and my mental approach was all wrong and I had several emotional breakdowns over sheer frustration at the size of the task ahead of me and the intimidating remoteness of the Canadian north. Since then I’ve discovered and practiced a lot of mental coping strategies. Sometimes I look back on that 21-year-old version of myself and can’t believe how difficult she was making things!
Pretty much all your adventures have been solo and unsupported. What do you enjoy about solo travel and what do you find challenging?
Going solo or going in a pair/group comes with advantages and disadvantages, so I don’t think one is better than the other, but I tend to do mainly solo events. One thing I love about traveling solo is that you appear quite vulnerable and approachable, and so I tend to meet more locals that way. The challenge, and what I really love about going solo, is how much I learn about myself and challenge myself – when shit hits the fan, which it certainly will in numerous unforeseen ways, you are the only one who can help you. You have to fix your own problems, and be entirely self-sufficient.
In 2016 you were the first person ever to run 900km across Kyrgyzstan (it took Jenny 25 days with a 12kg backpack.) Physically and mentally, how did you find this ultra-running challenge?
I had gained a lot of experience between the time I cycled to the Yukon and when I finally landed in Kyrgyzstan, ready to take on this world-first. It was still by far the hardest thing I had ever taken on, but I was at least armed with some more knowledge that would help me be successful. I was in a really good place with my running at the time, so it helped that I felt strong, but with an adventure of this size and with such difficult logistics the game was mainly a mental one. I broke the run into 8 stages, each a manageable size, and would only focus on the stage I was running, never allowing myself to think about how much more I had ahead of me.
The Tien Shan Mountains are extremely isolated, and there were many days where I never spoke to anyone, so keeping myself focused was also a challenge. The mountains are, however, an extremely powerful place and I really fell in love with the region. When I got near the end I was incredibly sad that the run would be over, despite the nearly unbearable physical pain and exhaustion I was suffering by then!
Next, you ran nearly 1000km as the first person to traverse the Atlas Mountains. How did this compare to your Kyrgyzstan experience?
I made the grand mistake of thinking the Atlas would be easier. The mountains are smaller, and more populated, so I wouldn’t be dealing with the remote wilderness the same way as I was in Kyrgyzstan. Morocco is also a well-travelled destination, so I was able to find more resources for planning. I figured since I had done a run of this distance before, it wouldn’t be so bad to do it again. I was quite wrong. I started my run on the eastern edge of the Atlas where they rise from the Sahara. It was intensely hot and dry, and finding water sources became a very serious problem.
Although Morocco is a tourism destination, there was really only one small area of the Atlas that had tourism industry, and for the most part I was running through remote Berber communities that didn’t have paved roads, so a foreigner was a truly exciting event and I got a lot of attention – both good and bad. Just to make things that little bit more challenging, I even injured my hip with a pretty bad fall early on in the run, and it was incredibly swollen and looking a bit infected for the rest of the journey. Looking on the bright side (an essential coping technique in endurance challenges), that pain distracted me from the pain in my feet and from my shoulder straps.
In your film about your run, Tamazight, we see men follow you even in the remotest parts of your journey. Did you ever feel concerned about your safety?
North Africa is a challenging place to be a woman, and I both witnessed and experienced first-hand a bit of that culture. I was running through communities where what I was trying to do had never been seen or heard of before, let alone by a solo woman, and a lot of local men felt it was their duty to chase me into the hills to try and stop me or persuade me to use the desert roads. It was really hard to tell which men were chasing me for that purpose or for more sinister reasons, and I usually didn’t want to hang around and find out. I did have a couple of scary encounters, but for the most part it was just genuinely concerned, if not quite patronising, men who didn’t understand the purpose of running in the mountains – I was frequently asked “Why go up there? You won’t find any shops or hotels!”
Were you running similar distances in training or was it mind over matter?
I’m a consistent runner year-round, so the daily distances only scare me a little (you’ve got to set targets that are scary, right?), but it’s getting up the next morning and doing it again that is really hard to train for. No matter what, the exhaustion will eventually set in and then everything becomes really difficult.
The biggest challenge, I think, is the backpack. Suddenly loading 10-12kg onto your body really changes the load on the legs, as well as your form, as the backpack forces a different posture. When I started running with the pack I awakened a lot of core muscles that I hadn’t thought of before! It’s also really tough on the feet, bearing that extra weight and pounding the trail day after day.
Towards the end of your mountain run you mention this is when your legs are like jelly and you survive on sugar to energise you – what mental strategies do you employ to ensure you keep going?
I can recall an incident in the Atlas where I noticed, looking down at my feet, that I was no longer moving. I had to literally tell myself out-loud to pick up my feet – right, left, right, left. I ran a few steps and then stopped again – I had hit a level of exhaustion that I just couldn’t make myself move. It was an almost out-of-body experience, like I had no control over my legs anymore. I have a mini arsenal of techniques for this stage, including music, podcasts, and shouting at myself, but it’s critical to make sure I’m taking care of my body’s needs. Getting enough sleep and enough calories is probably the main factor, and quick-burn ingestions of sugar throughout the final days of the Atlas was the best I could find in those remote areas.
When all else fails, there is always one big motivation: you have to get home. If you stop running, you will be stuck in the wilderness forever. You have to keep moving or you’ll never get home!
You’ve pushed your body with some incredible endurance challenges. Have you found its limits yet?
I constantly find my limit, but that line is fluid. The more I reach my limit, the more I push that line back. During parts of the year when I’m resting, that line will regress a bit, and that’s okay. I think we discover a lot about ourselves and our bodies when we hit our limits, and it’s really the part I love most about endurance challenges.
I hear you have a cheesy playlist for running. Do you find this is a good distraction when things get tough?
I will never disclose the full playlist, but yeah, it’s pretty awful and it really helps! I think music can really impact your mood, so I have a few genres that I turn to depending on my needs. Classical music can help calm me down when I’m feeling frightened or stressed, and cheesy pop can make me feel like moving when I’d rather lie down. Podcasts are another good distraction, for the days when I feel like I’ve been doing the same movement for hours on end and I’m feeling bored or distracted from my goal.
Is there such a thing as a typical week of training for you?
It definitely depends on the time of year and when my next challenge is, but a lot of my training is focused on injury prevention or recovery. I do a lot of yoga, and also some strength training to build mountain-climbing muscles that I tend to lose over the course of a long run. I run several times a week, but it’s not usually training-specific, I just go absolutely crazy if I don’t get out for a run!
You had to end your Transcontinental bike race (one of the world’s toughest ultra endurance cycling events) 8 days in due to ill health. That must have been a big blow?
Scratching from the TCR is the lowest I can ever remember feeling. I had never quit anything before, and while I can tell myself that it was out of my hands, that I had simply fallen quite ill at a wildly inconvenient time, it’s still really hard not to look back on it like ‘quitting’. That’s a horrible word. Ultimately, I knew that I was being incredibly unsafe riding in my condition – I was confused and disoriented, swerving into traffic and even collapsed once (I have a nifty scar down my leg to remind me that it really happened), and struggling to breathe.
I tried everything I could to get healthy, but we had already lost a rider, Frank, early in the race, and I knew that if I saw another competitor riding the way I was that I would want them to stop and not risk another tragedy. After I went home I was ill for quite some time, and felt really depressed and quite angry at my body that had done so much for me but totally failed me when I needed it to perform.
What has been your favourite adventure, experience or challenge to date?
So hard to say! They’ve all had their great lessons and great moments, so it’s really hard to give one the top spot, but I would probably go with my run across Kyrgyzstan. It was a really pivotal moment for me in discovering how much more I’m really capable of, and has armed me with the confidence to keep pushing bigger limits.
What’s been your toughest challenge?
It’s important to me that every challenge is harder than the last one – that’s how I know I’m progressing and pushing myself. Every challenge I plan needs to scare me!
Would you say that by living adventurously you’ve learned a lot about yourself?
Definitely. It’s in pushing the limits of our comfort zones that we are confronted and challenged, and there are plenty of ways to do that but I’ve mainly done it through adventure. All of my big challenges have come with big life lessons, and they always seem to come at a time that my life needed it.
Do you ever get scared on challenges and how do you manage your fear so it doesn’t consume you, especially when exhausted?
Absolutely – all the time. I think fear is really important. Fear is our brain telling us that something isn’t right and we need to be cautious – like standing too close to a ledge, for example. What’s important is to only allow logical fear, and fear that serves you. When I get illogical fear – for example, a rustle in the bush outside my tent that I’m convinced is some horrific killer – I have to be able to tell myself that it isn’t real and shut that fear out. But when I get logical fear, like I’m on a dangerous trail where I could easily slip and fall down the mountain, I can acknowledge that as being a valid fear, but I have to control it otherwise it doesn’t serve me. If I get too scared in that situation, my legs will tremble and I won’t be able to run safely – hence I will end up falling off the mountain anyway.
I don’t believe in being ‘fearless’. I think that’s the totally wrong approach to fear. Acknowledge your fear, determine if it’s logical, and control it so it serves you.
What are your packing essentials for cycling and running expeditions?
It’s all about being a ruthless minimalist, which adds a lot of beautiful simplicity to life – even if by the end I smell bad and my only t-shirt has a million holes in it. My exact kit list will change based on the region and challenge, but here are the base items:
- Tent or bivvy with sleeping bag – your sleep system will tend to be the bulk of the weight, and essential to how well you sleep/keep your stuff dry, so if you’re going to invest in anything, invest here.
- Small JetBoil camp stove – morning coffee in the wilderness is the best pleasure in life. Fact.
- Merino wool layers – best natural fabric to wear for so many reasons. I wear Findra
- Good socks – the most important clothing to get right.
- Waterproof jacket – also a piece worth investing in, if you can.
- Tuque (Canadian word for ‘bobble hat’) – always my desert-island luxury item!
- Camera – capturing the landscapes and moments has made me more mindful and aware of the incredible places my adventures take me, and bring me a lot of joy to look back on.
Do you have personal sponsors?
Some adventures have been sponsored financially, but often I self-fund, which is actually easier. I get asked all of the time how to get adventures paid for, and honestly, finding sponsorship can be a lot of work and most adventurers are better off using that time to save up their own money and then not be tied to a company and media plan while they’re out on their big challenge. I’m fortunate now that I get a lot of support through kit, and that makes things a lot easier.
What’s next on your adventure list – have you got any plans for 2018?
I’ll be on the bike a lot this year, starting with a couple of big races. I also hope to complete the next mountain range… watch this space!