Book Review – What Running Across Mountains Taught Me About Life

SOLO: What Running Across Mountains Taught Me About Life, by Jenny Tough. Aster, 2022. Reviewed by trail runner Laura Clark. Laura is an avid mountain, trail and snowshoe runner who lives in Saratoga Springs, NY, where she is a children’s librarian..

You have to be really tough to imagine the page-turning adventure that Jenny Tough (her real name) tackled—running solo and unsupported across mountain ranges on six continents. No official start line or finish line, no cheering crowds, no FKT. In doing so she carved out a satisfying career for herself as an adventurer, writer, filmmaker and public speaker and more importantly, learned that she is capable of doing whatever it takes to push the expedition through to the end.

This idea was but half-formed in her mind when she tackled her first two ranges over Central Asia’s Tien Shan and Morocco’s Atlas Mountains. More a whim than a plan, Jenny’s agenda was completely unsponsored, meaning that her break-the-bank approach was just as scary as the actual mountains she summited. By the third go-around she had gained enough of a following to attract some gear sponsors. One of the recurrent themes is her intense need for a morning coffee and I would hope that future projects might attract the attention of Saratoga’s infamous Death Wish coffee, one of the world’s strongest coffee brands!

For Jenny, life is reduced to basic survival: locating enough water, food and a decent place to pitch her tent. We have all gotten lost on a trail, and granted, it is an unnerving experience, but all we need to do is locate a GPS signal, listen for the roar of peripheral motor vehicles, hunt for trail markers or simply flag down a passing hiker. Alone on a remote mountain range that is not going to happen. Whether suffering from HAPE (high altitude pulmonary edema), crippling blisters, or an infected gash on her thigh, there was no friendly race medical tent or EMTs eager to ply their craft. Makes even the trickiest trail race seem impossibly easy.

Photo: Jenny Tough.

A recurrent theme in SOLO, whether she was trekking on third world cliffs in the Atlas or Andes Mountains or tacking fairly “comfortable” spots like New Zealand’s Southern Alps or her hometown Canadian Rockies is the fact that the world is not seen as a safe place for women. So frequently was she cautioned by well-meaning (or otherwise) locals that she could not do what she knew she could, that she began to hide her true agenda. More bothersome, however, was how women were not only discouraged, but downright exploited by men. They could not feel totally safe as they went about their daily activities and were not permitted to achieve their full potential. So passionate is Jenny about these observations that I can see her taking on some of these causes in her future endeavors.

Sadly, despite being from a privileged Canadian/Scot background, where women are at least in theory viewed as equals, and having conquered six mountain ranges, Jenny still feels inadequate. She feels she doesn’t look like a “real” skinny athlete, that she is an imposter. I get it. I remember in my highly competitive Catholic high school years, never being able to feel satisfied with an A grade. I was always looking ahead to the next project to prove myself.

I felt sad as Jenny explained her goal for her final series of summits in the Transylvanian Alps: a light kit and a relentless schedule, all to prove she was indeed an athlete. I feel she missed the depth of experience she had during her other expeditions where she took the time to stay with families along the way and learn about their culture. Then, too, this entire project was delayed due to COVID shutdowns and at that point she just wanted to finish. Still, she felt that every one of her finishes was anti-climatic. The pizza she had dreamed of the last few days evaporated in favor of a warm bed. I have noticed the same phenomena happening after my longer events. The reward I had fixated upon for so long faded in importance to the achievement itself.

Not only does Jenny have the audacity to attempt such a monumental SOLO undertaking, but she also has the guts to reveal her innermost self to her readers. A skilled writer, honed in the art of selective word choice, she invites you to partake in her adventure honestly and with courage and to recognize yourself in her achievements.

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