Jenny Tough: The Mountain Runner

The Mountain Runner

Having challenged herself to run across a mountain range in every human-inhabited continent of the world, Jenny Tough knows a thing or two about motivation, risk management, and fear.

"I ran across the Tien Shan in Kyrgyzstan, which had never been done before."

Jenny Tough’s desire to push her limits has led her to numerous corners of the world. Currently working on a global challenge to run – solo and unsupported – across a mountain range on every continent, she's completed four world-first expeditions so far, taking between 17-25 days each, all in remote and wild mountains.

Jenny has also competed in long-distance bike-packing races, including becoming the first woman to finish the inaugural Silk Road Mountain Race – one of the world’s toughest off-road bike races – as well as its follow-up edition, the Atlas Mountain Race.

Why did you decide to run across a mountain range on every continent?

It’s a challenge I designed for myself - it’s definitely not a thing! In 2016, I ran across the Tien Shan in Kyrgyzstan, which had never been done before. I went there for the mountains and the running challenge, but what I discovered there was a deep connection to the people that live in the mountains. In Kyrgyzstan, that’s the nomads who live in yurts. I decided to repeat the expedition in completely different places around the world – every continent seemed ideal – to learn more about mountain cultures.

What have you learned on this challenge so far?

I’ve completed four continents now, and the common thread I’ve seen is that the people who live in the most hostile environments are also the most hospitable. I’ve been invited into so many different types of homes and shared meals with so many different types of families, but they all have one thing in common; they look out for fellow humans in the mountains. It’s been a massively uplifting project in that regard.

©Kelvin Trautman
"If you can’t see it, you think you can’t be it."

A lot of your messaging is aimed specifically at women. What inspires that?

If you can’t see it, you think you can’t be it. The older I get, the more aware I am that people follow in the footsteps of role models they can relate to. I think it’s important for girls and women to see female role models, telling them that they can be whatever they dream of. Maybe it shouldn’t be the case, but from my experience it simply is more effective.

Ultimately, every industry is better off with diversity, and the adventure industry is currently very heavy on one demographic. If I can help address that imbalance, that’s a good use of my time here.

What motivates you in times of adversity?

I believe that your comfort zone is a fluid line - every time you meet that line, you push it back a little and expand what you’re capable of. When I hit that line, of course it’s uncomfortable, but I know that continuing to push through will ultimately increase what I’m capable of, and therefore what incredible stuff I’ll be able to do in the future with my bigger comfort zone.

©Kelvin Trautman
"Risk sounds like something best avoided... But without risk, we can’t achieve the extraordinary."

How do you manage risk?

You can’t have adventure without risk. Fact. Of course, risk sounds like something best avoided, and all natural instinct will guide you towards mitigating risk. But without risk, we can’t achieve the extraordinary. So, I have a very comfortable relationship with risk - but that doesn’t mean I’m reckless.

On an expedition, I will inspect every risk imaginable and mitigate against it. I would never take a senseless risk on purpose. The more things I manage, such as my personal safety or my wellbeing, the more room I have to cope with the unknown risks when they inevitably pop up.

What about fear?

The concept of ‘fearlessness’ really bothers me - I don’t think it’s legitimate, and I definitely don’t think it’s responsible. I do get afraid, and that’s totally fine with me. The difference is how I manage it when it arrives.

If I’m fearing something, that’s an issue I need to fix in order to proceed. I have to decide how to address it. The first thing is to understand if the risk is rational or irrational. If it’s irrational, I just need to find a way to calm myself down. But if it’s rational, that means there is a real threat that I need to mitigate against. It’s really important to listen to that kind of fear, and I have no shame about the fact that I feel it sometimes!

How do you train for spending 20-25 days running across mountains?

I run pretty consistently throughout the year, but that’s not the most important part of being ready for an expedition where I’m going to run all day, every day. I spend most of my training just putting on as much muscle as I can, as well as incorporating a lot of yoga and cross-training (mostly cycling) to try and make myself as injury-proof as possible.

Talking about fears, my biggest one is not being able to complete this challenge due to a preventable injury!

Jenny's Endurance Achievements (so far...)

Silk Road Mountain Race

In 2018, Jenny became the first woman to complete the world's toughest unsupported bikepacking race in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan.

  • Distance: 1,721km

  • Ascent: 35,100m

Atlas Mountain Race

This fixed route, unsupported, single-stage packcycling race started in Marrakesh and crossed the Moroccan Atlas and Anti-Atlas before finishing in Agadir.

  • Distance: 1,145km

  • Ascent: 20,000km

Mountain Running World Record

Jenny is attempting to become the first person to run across a mountain range on every populated continent. So far, Jenny has completed...

2016: The Tien Shan, Asia (1000km) 2017: The High Atlas, Africa (860km) 2018: The Cordillera Oriental, South America (600km) 2019: The Southern Alps, Oceania (500km)