Extreme Running: Jenny Tough’s Path of the Mountains

Jenny Tough

We love a good extreme running adventure at Run247 and Jenny Tough has certainly had some of those. Jenny is a runner, adventurer and world traveller, who lives in Scotland. In 2016 Jenny set out be the first person to run, solo and unsupported, across the Tien Shan mountains and the entire country of Kyrgyzstan. She faced many challenges along the way, not least the fact that no up-to-date maps of the region existed! Jenny answered some questions about her adventure.

Growing up, did you always know you were going to end up doing adventures like this?

Absolutely not! I thought I would go to university and that would lead to a “real job” and that would be that. Not very exciting, but it was what I had always been told life was about. Travel and the outdoors were always my biggest passions, but I thought they would just be something that I would squeeze in on the sides. I never knew that I would end up needing to do big adventures like this – I didn’t even know such a world existed.

Kyrgyzstan
Wide open spaces of Kyrgyzstan await

Kyrgyzstan isn’t exactly your typical holiday destination. For people unfamiliar with the country, can you tell us a little a bit about the country and what you learnt about it and the people during your time there?

I have to admit, even when I landed in the capital of Bishkek I still wasn’t sure if I was pronouncing Kyrgyzstan correctly! It’s an elusive little nation, still baring the scars of the Soviet era (they were celebrating 25 years of independence when I was there). In addition to the incredible mountains that cover the entire country, one thing that really drew me to Kyrgyzstan was that nomads still live in the traditional way in the mountains, dwelling in yurts with their small flocks of goats, sheep, and horses. Getting to know the nomads and seeing their way of life was a true highlight.

How do you physically and mentally prepare for an expedition like this? Can you truly prepare for something like what you experienced?

I think being quite experienced in endurance sport helped the most – the hardest thing, mentally, about endurance is the long, slogging hours on your own. Being quite good at handling that helped a lot. I’m also quite experienced in traveling off the beaten path, so while I had no idea what Kyrgyzstan or Central Asia would be like, I at least already knew that I could adapt to a strange environment.

Experience helps, but it’s really impossible to be completely prepared. Besides, it’s not an adventure unless it’s outside of your comfort zone.

Jenny Tough kit
Jenny’s kit for the trip

How much did you have to improvise when it came to your route? Was it a case of having a plan for each day of the expedition? Or just taking it day-by-day?

Because no maps of the interior existed, the route that I had plotted in my GPS was really just a hopeful guess created through endless zooming on satellite images. I had no idea if my routes would work out, and many times they didn’t. I could often find nomads to give me advice, but they would usually only know their small territory, so it really was a case of planning day to day and being really flexible. My original ‘route’ that I plotted in my GPS did not match very closely to the track that I did in reality!

It’s fair to say you went through a lot during your time there. What were the toughest moments? Do you ever look back and wonder how you managed it?

I still can’t believe I got away with it… So many difficult moments and situations unfolded, and I really don’t know how I managed. I started the adventure by succumbing to altitude sickness that plagued me for nearly a week (and resulted in a host of poor decision-making), got lost on several occasions, ran out of water on even more occasions, had a pretty severe near-death experience, and got bad food poisoning at the very end which took me days to recover from. Things got pretty real out there!

Difficult terrain
Some of the difficult terrain Jenny encountered

You’re an incredibly driven person, so to read about how close you were to quitting throughout the journey really hits home. How did you keep yourself going?

There’s an old adage that says, “when you think about quitting, remind yourself why you started”. I went to Kyrgyzstan to have a real adventure and to push the limits of what I was capable of. The breakdowns along the way were like validations that I was truly pushing myself hard. And when that motivation fails, there was always the reality that if I didn’t keep going, I would be stuck out in the mountains and would never get home. You have to keep moving!

In contrast to the lows, what were the highlights? Can you look back and enjoy these more now?

I had highlights every day that I’ll never forget. I enjoyed perfect mountain sunsets, stunning alpine lakes, and enjoyed true alpine wilderness – my favourite natural environment. But my highlight has to be the time I spent with the Kyrgyz nomads – they showed me so much incredible kindness and hospitality along the way and taught me a lot about mountain culture.

How did you celebrate finishing the run?

I told myself that I would celebrate – I’m pretty sure I looked forward to a nice hotel and a big pizza the whole 23 days – but when I got there, it was kind of anti-climactic. I had been running for so long that it was just part of who I was, and when I got up the first morning after finishing I didn’t really know what to do with myself, and I really missed my tent and the mountains. The truth is, I still haven’t really celebrated what was to this day one of my favourite achievements.

Jenny Tough tent
Simple tent life

What advice would you give to people inspired by your path and the adventures you’ve embarked on?

Go for it. You have to go for it! If you are dreaming of an adventure, it’s important to you, and you need to make it happen. If it doesn’t seem possible, make a list of all of the things that stand in between you and your big adventure. Perhaps it’s your job, health, money, skills, etc. Make a list and figure out how you can change all of those things, so you can make your adventure happen. Trust me, you’re capable of so much more than you think.

What’s next for you?

Crossing the Tien Shan was the first in my long-term project to run across a mountain range on every continent. In October I completed Africa with the High Atlas. Next up will be in Bolivia! The project is part around running across mountains, solo and unsupported, and part about exploring isolated mountain cultures and the commonalities. The nomads in Kyrgyzstan showed me so much mountain culture that it really inspired me, and the Berbers in the Atlas confirmed my hunch that mountain people are indeed incredible. 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.

Click here to read more about Jenny’s journey across the Tien Shan mountains.