Jenny Tough Will Always Show Up
Despite being an accomplished mountain athlete, she struggled with her body image. But by imagining how younger girls would see her story, she found the strength to accept herself.
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Jenny Tough told her story to producer Cat Jaffee for an episode of The Daily Rally podcast. It has been edited for length and clarity.
I suddenly saw my body in a completely different way, and all I could see was my belly and the fact that it wasn’t concave but actually full. I remember going through my head, What are the ways that I could maybe cancel this? Of course, I couldn’t cancel it. This guy was coming all the way up to meet me in the wilderness and I had to do it. And I was so upset about it because I thought I didn’t look like an ultra runner.
I’m a writer and adventurer. My bag is in human-powered, long-distance adventures, typically in mountain environments, sometimes on foot or bike. I just really love to explore the outdoors while also pushing my body as hard as I can.
The combination of being outside in nature as well as me physically moving has always been a really healing space, and that’s something that actually came about because of a hard time, but not on purpose.
When I was younger, I always felt really self-conscious about my weight, and didn’t really know what to do about it. So I started running as a way to just burn calories and punish my body for being bigger. But as that grew, I discovered long-distance running. I lived in the Canadian Rockies, so I also discovered trail running, and just being out and big outdoors and doing big epic things with my legs. So what started as a negative way to fix a problem actually became this really positive way to heal the way that I looked at my body. I can’t say I’ve nailed it. I mean, this is a story that started nearly 20 years ago, and is still very much ongoing. I haven’t totally healed my relationship with my body, but every time I do something active in the outdoors, it does leave my thoughts.
One time I can remember really well, I was running across the Southern Alps in New Zealand, on my project to run across a mountain range on every continent. I was, I think, more than three quarters of the way through, so maybe 600 kilometers that I’d run unsupported. So, carrying all the equipment that I need to survive in the backcountry of New Zealand. My sponsor had arranged for a photographer to meet me on the trail, and I would spend a day with him. The night before, I went to resupply, so I got to stay in a hotel for the first time in ages, which meant I saw a mirror for the first time in ages. I remember getting dressed that morning in the only clothes that I had, because I was obviously living out of a backpack, and being kind of conscious of the fact that the photographer was going to see me today. So it wasn’t just the mountains who were going to look at me, but someone who’s going to permanently record something. And I was horrified.
I thought I didn’t look like an ultra runner, and he was going to take these photos and a piece was going to come out in a magazine calling me an ultra runner and an athlete. And then the image wasn’t going to match up with the words, and that was all I could think about.
I keep going back to that morning in my mind and just thinking it’s so sad that I’d accomplished all these things at that point in my life—not just that I’d run that far, but also that I was at a point in my career where a photographer cared that I’d run that far and it was going to be in a magazine—and the only thing I could think about was the shape of my belly.
When I was in that place, the self-talk at first was that really nasty voice that always says, You don’t belong here and You’re not good enough. And, You obviously didn’t try hard enough because you’ve got this belly that you should have fixed by now. That’s never going to get you anywhere. You have to show up, because the only thing that we can do as people and all of our hard times is keep on marching forward. We have to find a way to keep showing up.
I have to turn that narrative around. I’ve got this adventure mantra of mine, fix your problems. It’s usually got something to do with things like if your chain is squeaking on your bicycle, you have to stop and fix that. But it can also be, what are the voices inside your head? And there’s nothing I could do about my belly that morning. There’s no amount of crunches that are going to get me ready for a photoshoot that fast. So I had to accept that problem wasn’t going to get fixed. But the problem of what was going on in my mind, it could be fixed. So I look at my legs instead and say, These legs have so far carried me over the Southern Alps for as long as they have. I’d been on the trail more than two weeks at that point.
Probably the most important thing is that other girls are going to see this belly in the magazine and they’re going to say, “Wow I have a belly like you too, and I’ve always wanted to be an athlete, but I can’t because of my belly.” And now they’re going to see that and go, “Yeah, but she did it.” That’s valuable.
One of the most important things to me is that the generation of girls coming behind me don’t get stuck with this narrative that my generation has been slammed with. So that was what I just kept saying in my head was, This is important. Show up.
There’s one thing that I always like to say to people, and it’s really cheesy because it abuses my last name, but I really, really believe this and I really need you to hear it. It’s that you’re tougher than you think. You can do so much more than you think that you can. So show up and go for it, and you’re going to find out just how tough you really are.
Jenny Tough is the author of Solo: What Running Across Mountains Taught Me About Life. She has completed solo runs of mountain ranges on six continents. When she’s not exploring the world, she lives in Scotland. You can reach her at jennytough.com.