Meet the adventurer: Jenny Tough on the solo expeditions that changed her life

We caught up with the globetrotting endurance athlete — currently on a solo mission to run across a mountain range on every continent — who spoke to us about positive thinking, her most challenging moment and the lessons that helped her survive lockdown.

By Angela Locatelli
Published 23 May 2020, 08:00 BST, Updated 11 Oct 2021, 10:09 BST
Jenny Tough

Jenny Tough is making her way around the globe, running across a mountain range on every continent. In 2016 she ran across the Tien Shan of Kyrgyzstan; in 2017, she ran across the Atlas of Morocco; and in 2018, she ran across the Bolivian Andes — her greatest challenge to date.

Photograph by Lucas Canino

As a solo adventurer specialising in remote regions, you’re no stranger to social distancing. Did your expeditions prepare you for life in lockdown?
My expeditions taught me a lot of lessons, but I never could have predicted they’d give me tools for something like a lockdown. Solo expeditions teach you how to be alone with your own brain, how to cope with fear and uncertainty, and how to keep going when the trail ahead seems far too long. But I think the biggest lesson I've learnt, and one that definitely applies to everyone, is that you're tougher than you think. It may seem impossible, but you'll surprise yourself.

Tell us about your first adventure.
I’d just finished university and went back to Canada, where I’m originally from, and I got it in my head that I really wanted to go north to the Yukon. I wanted to go by human power — that was important to me — so I decided I’d cycle there. I’d never cycled anywhere; I didn’t know anything about it. I bought a bicycle, watched YouTube videos on how to change a tyre and then cycled up the Rocky Mountains. It was about 1,245 miles, took me around a month and totally changed my life. It was really empowering.

What does adventure mean to you?
It’s a state of mind. You can’t really define it by the distance that you cover, the place that you go to and how long the journey takes. It’s the attitude that you take to what you’re doing — that you’re open to new experiences, learning things and just seeing things in a different way.

What was your most challenging moment?
When I was running across Kyrgyzstan, I made a massive navigational error, went down the wrong valley and set off a few landslides. Ahead was a cliff edge leading into a pretty gnarly whitewater river; the only other way forward was to climb a mountain. I was thinking: “all directions would definitely kill me if I got it wrong.” I decided to go with the climb, and it was a like a prolonged near-death experience. I decided that as soon as I got out of that valley, I was going to leave and go home.

When I got to the top, after what felt like hours, I just collapsed and had a little cry. And then as soon as I was done crying, I fixed my ponytail, got up, kept on running and just went back to business. It was a mistake that could have cost me everything.

Pictured here on the Isle of Skye, in July 2020 Jenny hopes to attempt her fifth mountain range, the Albertan Rockies, near where she grew up, having had to postpone plans to run the Caucasus this year due to Covid-19. 

Photograph by Johny Cook

If you were able to change one thing in the world of travel, what would it be?
I’d make it so that everyone has the opportunity to travel. Freedom of movement is a huge luxury that only few of us actually have.

Tell us about the most interesting person you’ve met on the road.
I was running across Kyrgyzstan and about halfway through the expedition I had a really hard day. Then I met these Kyrgyz nomads. I was running past this cluster of yurts and the man who owned them waved me in, wrapped me up and gave me some tea and bread. I spent the evening with that family, cooking with them, playing with the kids and somehow chatting quite a lot despite the fact that I don’t speak the language.

His nomadic life was obviously so different from mine, but what was really interesting was that he’d chosen to live that traditional way rather than go to the city. We slept on the floor of his yurt, me and his entire family. That was a couple of years ago but it always stayed with me: I’ll always remember the way I felt around that family.

What is your favourite meal to eat after a running expedition?
I always think I’m going to have pizza and red wine, but I end up really getting into whatever the locals were eating. Whatever the local food was, that tends to be what I still eat when I get home.

What’s the best bit of advice you’ve ever been given?
Right before I left on that first adventure to the Yukon, I started thinking I’d made a very bad decision. My dad just said, “You know what, I think you’re going to have a wonderful time. And even if you don’t, you’ll learn something.” I think that’s a really good way to go into things that are outside your comfort zone.

Running solo and unsupported comes with obvious logistical as well as physical challenges.

Photograph by Kelvin Trautman

What is the most extreme place you’ve visited?
I ran across the Bolivian Andes — which was a world first — and it was more extreme than I even knew it was going to be. Some sections were incredibly remote; then there was the altitude and the weather. And obviously Bolivia is a fairly difficult country for a woman to travel solo in. That leg is still that one that I think, “Oh my God, I can’t believe I survived that.”

How do you go about planning an adventure?
It starts with a lot of daydreaming. I think one of my best time-wasting hobbies is staring at maps. And then you start to wonder, what is it actually like there? Is it possible to get around? What vehicle would I use? Could I do it on foot or do I need skis? You just start filling in all those little details until you have a complete route in front of you that you want to attempt.

What’s your approach to packing?
Go as light as possible. Besides the camera, everything I’m taking has to be integral to my survival. And then, obviously, it’s got to be equipment that’s completely reliable — or at least reparable with duct tape.

What inspires new adventures for you?
A desire to see what’s around the next corner. I want to see every part of the planet and I want to meet the people on it. But also, within myself, I want to know what challenges I can actually accomplish and how much further I’m able to push myself. It’s all about wanting to know more, to know what else is out there.

Interview by Angela Locatelli

Jenny Tough is an adventure athlete currently involved in a project to run solo and unsupported across a mountain range on every continent. She also competes in ultra endurance races, and was the first woman to win the Silk Road Mountain Race and Atlas Mountain Race. In July 2020, Jenny hopes to attempt her fifth mountain range, the Albertan Rockies, near where she grew up, having had to postpone plans to run the Caucasus this year due to Covid-19. She is also an ambassador for British outdoor brand Montane.

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