The Anatomy of a Scratch
‘Never scratch at night’ is a mantra many ultra-endurance athletes live by and often suffering is simply seen as part of the experience – or even romanticised. Jenny Tough gives us an insight into the mindset of an ultra-endurance athlete and how to know when to push on and when to scratch.
I’ve reached a rather freeing point in my adult life where, most likely no matter what is happening, I can probably truthfully declare that I’ve been through worse. Having survived so many catastrophes – almost entirely of my own making – I know I can get myself through the rest that are still to come – again, most likely entirely of my own making.
There was the time I was trying to be the first person to run the length of the Atlas Mountains and fell off a trail in the dark, plummeting down the eight-foot drop onto hard rocks below. I sliced open my hip, causing permanent scarring – not to mention severe pain, swelling and infection throughout the duration of the expedition. I reasoned that while I probably could do with medical assistance, it was several days away, and this was my one shot to accomplish this dream expedition that I’d been working towards for so long. I decided that, while I had good reason to scratch, I would not.
I finished that world-first expedition, despite limping heavily, and now every single day I have to see the shark-bite of a scar on my side and know that I probably could have prevented it, but decided in the moment that the expedition was more valuable. I don’t regret that yet.
There was the time my left shifter got broken in two, but I was 400km from my finish in Rotterdam, and I reasoned that no self-respecting rider needs to move her front chainring in the Netherlands. Braking needed some advance notice, but I managed.
Then there was the time that a navigation error and some landslides nearly cost me my life in the Tien Shan, and I swore that if I survived, I would go home immediately. I finished that expedition, too, just a little more cautiously.
There was the time I got diagnosed with HAPE. The time I had nine punctures in one frigid morning, so cold my hands bled from every knuckle. The time I collapsed from exhaustion. The time I found out my grandmother had died. The time I broke a wheel in road bike wilderness (aka Kosovo). Food poisoning. Men with cars. Heat exhaustion. Swollen ankle. Men with guns. Broken GPS. Broken body. Broken heart.
Like I said, by now, I’ve probably been through worse.
I have a saying that I’ve held onto for years: “if I don’t cry or bleed at some point (preferably not at the same time), it’s not an adventure”. I’ve come home from multi-day trips and realised, with genuine disappointment, that I’ve only been for a bike tour – nothing happened. And while nothing going wrong (hopefully) indicates experience and preparedness, it’s just a holiday.
Another saying that I carry with me on all adventures is: “fix your problems”. When these catastrophes arise, treat them as a test, and find a way to beat them. Find a way to get back on the trail. Find a way to your finish line.
But it doesn’t always happen. It can’t always be your day. As much as I’ll put everything I’ve got into making it my day, it simply won’t always be. Shit happens. While on one hand, an adventurer needs to apply all the grit and creativity and determination in the world to get through the adversity, she also needs to make a smart call every now and then. Realise that she can’t clear this hurdle. Realise that she can, but she shouldn’t. One more saying: “live to fight another day”.
TCRno7, Day 8, 01:30 Alarm
I’m curled up on someone’s driveway in a small mountain village in Austria. I think. I’m in a ball because, for the first time in a week, I’m quite cold. I’m on a driveway because these innocent people left their garage door open, and I needed to charge my devices for an hour (which is how long it’s been since I set my alarm).
I try to uncurl from my ball – bad. Very bad. The knee inflammation that I’ve noticed, and even been mildly medicating for a few days, has seized the joint completely. I’m stuck. I don’t want to make any noise, but I need to scream. Knuckle in mouth, I finally manage to straighten my leg and begin crawling out of my sleeping bag.
I know what this means. There are many types of pain, and I’m experienced enough to know them all pretty well. Pain when you’re riding is something to manage with your mind. Pain when you wake up… well, that’s not great news.
In my mind, I scratched at that moment.
But I was still on someone’s driveway in a small mountain village in Austria. You can’t quit here, you have to go somewhere. So I pack up and start riding. Up the pass I began a few hours ago. Small, annoying gravel detour where the road has been taken out by a landslide. Sunrise and hallucinations at the top of the pass. Freezing descent to Italy.
As a rule, the first thing I do when I enter Italy is get a decent coffee. At the first opportunity, about 3km after the border, I pull in for coffee and as much breakfast as I can get on a tray. I’m a bit disoriented, having accepted my fate hours ago. I look at my phone for something to do. There’s a text from my dad.
Just over a year ago, we got the news that every family fears and dreads. The news that so many families live with. The Diagnosis. We don’t talk about it a lot. As a matter of fact, while I’m merely trying to cross little old 4,000km Europe, he’s midway through cycling all the way across Canada. Just because that was what he fancied doing for his 60th summer. This is not a man who is ill. That’s what I tell myself all the time. How can he be?
But the word is in his text. I read and re-read it. I pull my sunglasses down to hide the tears that are streaming.
You’re expecting I’m going to say I powered through the TCR because my dad has cancer, and if I can conquer the TCR we can conquer cancer. But that isn’t what happened, and that isn’t what I felt. Instead, I got a message from my amazing dad that made me realise something incredible: I don’t have to do anything, and I’ll still have a family that loves me. This is just a bike ride. I love riding my bike, a passion I learned from and share with my dad. But it won’t change our reality. And it also won’t change his love for me. It was probably the most empowering text I ever received during a big challenge, even if that was clearly not its intention.
So I got back on my bike, more as a matter of default than anything inspirational or courageous. I just needed to pedal that out. I made a commitment on that spot to keep riding my bike as long as it was the right thing to do, and if the scale tipped then I would stop. The decision was simple.
I rode around 1,650km between that decision and the moment when I messaged the race organisers and turned off my tracker. In that – albeit much slower than the rest of my body wanted – 1,650km, I decided to be grateful for every single kilometre I won. I enjoyed my time on the bike, savouring every moment knowing it could be my last on that ride – but absolutely focused on it not being my last, ever.
There may be some things in life you decide are worth long-term or even permanent injury. I decided in that cafe that this, for me, was not one of them. I could handle discomfort and pain. I decided I didn’t want to handle months of rehabilitation. I didn’t want to handle saying goodbye to riding.
I’ve been through worse. Much worse. And those experiences have accumulated to give me the confidence to make the right call on whether to scratch, but it’s never an easy one. I regret some of the times I walked away, and I regret some of the times I didn’t walk away. It’s never that straightforward. It’s a decision that is both physical and emotional. It’s a decision that will stay with you for a long time to come. And it’s a decision that no one else can make for you.
The hardest part is not making that decision. The hardest part is forgiving yourself afterwards.
But, there will always be another day.