Anna McNuff, long distance adventurer
Anna McNuff describes herself as a British born adventurer, speaker, writer and mischief maker. Last year she was voted by the Lord Mayor as one of the City of London’s 50 most inspirational people. The daughter of two Olympians, she used to represent Great Britain at rowing. After ‘retiring’ in her mid twenties, she began darting around the world on the hunt for new and exciting endurance challenges. She talks here to Responsible Travel about her ‘pants of perspective’ - a pair of special leggings which she dons on a dark day to get back to reality. She tells how she ran and became inspired by 93 year old Betty ‘The Hutch’ Hutchinson in the US and how she despises ‘dream dumpers’ – those people who like to destroy dreams with negativity.
Anna McNuff interviewWhere’s home?
Although I’m a London girl by birth, I wouldn’t consider that my ‘physical’ home. Home for me is always where the people I love are situated. My mum, dad and two brothers are in leafy greater London so I always tend to go back there for a while after adventures and I’ve so many fond memories of growing up there. But right now I’m living in Gloucester with my equally nomadic boyfriend. Call me a hopeless romantic, but home for us is wherever we find ourselves together. I am currently loving exploring the Wales, and the South West UK - it’s a freakin’ adventure playground!!
One day I think we’ll find a spot to call ‘home’ but there’s so much of the world to be explored in the meantime.
What’s your first ever travel memory?
I have lots of memories of visits to France for summer holidays when I was a kid, but sadly all of the lovely wild beaches and cheese and pickle baguettes (with sand in them) merge into one. The first most exciting thing which stands out in memory is when my parents booked us all a surprise trip to Paris. We thought we were getting in the car to drive somewhere and then they dropped the travel-bomb that we were going to PARIS!!! I must have been about eight years old and I’d never been on a plane before. Oddly enough I don’t remember much about the journey other than dad left his bum-bag with his wallet in it at the security check point. 1990’s family drama a go-go.
Describe yourself in three words?
Honest. Optimistic. Excitable.
What was your biggest break to get to where you are now?
Ooo tough one. I don’t think I’ve really had a ‘break’ - as such - impatient as I am to change the world in a day; the reality is that everything happens very gradually. Apparently it requires something called patience?! I’ve yet to find enough of that to stave off frustration…
The past three years have been a journey from sitting at my desk wondering if there was ‘more’ to life, to then really starting to connect with who I am and what truly makes me happy. And what makes me happy is travelling the world, but also being a force for good in it. That’s what gets me out of bed in the morning.
As a turning point - I do remember the first time I got the chance to deliver a talk to 1,000 people about adventure. I love a big stage and I love to tell stories. I just hadn’t quite realised how much until I started doing it. That was just over a year ago now, and the first moment I came off stage and went: “Wow. This is me; this is what I want to be doing with my life. Go on an adventure. Learn. Grow. Come home. Tell stories and repeat.” I knew after that day that there was no going back.
What’s been the biggest challenge you’ve faced along the way?
Breaking the ties of an ‘easy life’ will always be the greatest challenge. And it’s one to face every day. I’m a marketeer by trade, so I have a skill which will pay me well and provide a stable income if I wanted it to. But I choose an unstable life of adventure and exploration instead. Which to many seems bonkers.
Although a lot of people look at what adventurers do with envy and say: “I wish I could do that.” It’s the best frickin’ life in the world most of the time, but it’s not all sunshine and roses. There are constant rejections, sacrifices, self doubt and moments of ‘what the heck am I doing?’ You have to constantly be willing to hustle - to pick yourself up and fight to make your ideas and projects come to life. Every day you have to summon the energy to push things forwards - because if you don’t, funnily enough - nothing happens!
Sometimes I entertain the idea of returning to a more traditional life, but then I remember - I am so incredibly lucky to have found that thing in life that makes my heart sing. So many people don’t ever discover that - and so I think it’d be a crime to ignore it for the sake of an easy life. Life as an adventurer and speaker is like being on an adventure itself. It is filled with highs and lows, with not much in between. But I’ll take that kind of life any day.
Where’s the best place you’ve woken up?
Oh gosh - so many places! I’m going to split it into inside and out… inside would be the Mount Rintoul Hut in New Zealand’s Richmond ranges. It’s a basic backcountry hut up at 1,000m overlooking the Tasman Bay and just before an incredible climb to the Mount Rintoul ridge line at 1,700m. Beautifully peaceful and a good two day hike from any road.
Outside would be one of the sleep-outs in a bivvy bag I did around London in 2014. For 25 weeks I spent every Wednesday night camped out with some friends on a hilltop somewhere within an hour of the city. The sunrises on hills in Buckinghamshire, Bedfordshire and even… Essex (!) were the most beautiful purple-peachy hues. Those sleeps showed me you can find beauty absolutely everywhere - you don’t need to have much time or travel too far.
Is there one person you’ve met on your journeys who you feel you were so lucky to connect with?
My favourite was a woman called Betty ‘The Hutch’ Hutchinson. I met her in New Hampshire, USA when I was staying with her son in an awesome house in the woods. She was 93 years old and every year she enters the Manchester New Hampshire 5km race in a bid to break the record for the 90-99 years old age group. And she runs the race surrounded by her 19 grandchildren and great grandchildren. Every morning she goes on a two mile training run to her mailbox at the end of the drive, and back. I got to join her on a morning’s run and I left so inspired. Here’s a woman at 93 still in search of being the absolute best she can be. What a rockin’ bird. When I grow up, I want to be Betty ‘The Hutch’ Hutchinson.
Has anyone ever told you that you won’t make it?
Haha, yes - lots. But you get used to that. Now I just separate what are my own doubts, from the doubts of others. When someone says to you: “You’ll never make it.” What they are actually saying is: “I don’t think I could make it.” And that’s okay. That’s their beliefs and fears projected onto you. I take a deep breath, stand back and remind myself of what I know to be true. I want to do this. I can do this, or at worst I can try to do this. And if it goes wrong? Who care’s it’ll be one heck of a ride along the way.
Sometimes it’s actually a benefit - years ago I had a fellow cyclist I passed on the road in Wyoming insist that I would never make it through the 50 states of America, with winter on its way. He just kept repeating “You’ll never make it.” I had 115 miles to cycle that day and I rode it all on pure rage fumes! I wrote a blog post about him, and called it ‘dream dumpers’ - I couldn’t understand why he felt he needed to take a gigantic dump on my dream?! Now I see that it wasn’t about me, it was about him.
As the great modern philosophers Chipmunk and Chris Brown say in my fave song ‘Champion’: “Opinions ain't facts take 'em in an' let 'em go.”
Tell us about a time when you felt like walking away from an adventure?
On big adventures I’ve never actually felt like I was going to quit - which makes keeping going a lot easier. The closest I have ever come to stopping was on a recent adventure, which I called ‘Beyond My Back Gate’. I left my flat in London with a backpack and a bivvy and began to let the people of social media direct me across Europe for a month. The only trouble was that two days in, and after 47 miles of walking down ugly roads I wasn’t enjoying the adventure at all. At first I felt trapped - I thought “Oh crikey, I’ve got a whole month of this, I’m really a bit miserable and that means I’m going to be miserable for a whole month!’ Then I remembered I had choices. Hallelujah for choices in life! And I thought about what those choices were at that point.
The thing that was getting to me the most was the pace of the journey - it was too slow and I craved more speed. So I thought about getting on my bike and that thought made me so happy! I then realised that this was my adventure, and I could swap to a bike if I wanted to. So I took a deep breath and told everyone that I had changed my mind. Actually most people were delighted as I then got to drag them further through Europe on a virtual adventure. It turned out to be a brilliant month through The Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland and France - where I met some fantastic people and ate a lot of pastries. The moral of that entire event for me was, if you don't like something - change it.
What keeps you going if you ever feel like giving up?
When I’m on an adventure, two things keep me going. One is that everything will feel different in a mile / an hour / a day. So long as I can see out the rough patch - I know I’ll find my mojo again. Even when I sprained my ankle in the middle of the NZ bush. I was alone and frightened, but I knew if I could just make it through the next 48 hours, things would look up. I applied that philosophy to the whole NZ run actually. I broke every day down into one hour chunks. I only focused on that hour, nothing beyond it. When we feel like giving up, it’s because we’re overwhelmed - we think the task at hand is bigger or stronger than us. When you break the task down into small chunks, and take a reality check on what is actually happening vs. what you’re brain is telling you could happen - then you realise how much stronger you are than it. And that’s when you find the strength to kick some serious ass.
As a reminder, I always pack a pair of my ‘pants of perspective’. These are a ridiculously bright pair of leggings with a unicorn, robot and a rainbow on. When I get into a dark day / tough time - I pull on the leggings to bring me back to reality, and to remember how lucky I am, that I’m here out of choice and not everyone gets that chance.
The second thing for me is the visits I make to schools to talk to kids about adventure. When I’m on an adventure and I feel like giving up I think: “How can I stand in front of these kids and tell them to step out of their comfort zones if I’m giving up on stepping out of mine?” That spurs me on.
What are you most proud of?
In my experience, ambitious people don’t tend to stop much to reflect, so this is a really important point! My proudest moments are when I get an email or message from someone who says they’ve been inspired in some way by an adventure I’ve been on. Sometimes it’s not even related to them going on an adventure themselves, just a difficult period in their life where they needed to find some personal strength, and I did something or said something on social media, or within a talk that triggered it within them. Those messages make my chest swell so much. And equally when I get an excitable note from a kid whose school I’ve been in to - it’ll say something like: “I’m going to climb every mountain in the world, then rollerblade to Greece!!!!” I see that as mission accomplished!
What’s your happiest travel memory?
Spending four days on a sailing boat down the coast of Belize with 15 other people. I actually had swine flu at the time (very handy when on a sailing boat). So I was sick as a dog and mostly slept, vomited and slept some more. But every time I came around one of the crew or fellow travellers were hell bent on making me smile. We slept on tiny islands at night - one was literally a few hundred metres long. It was an amazing experience and I can’t wait to go back one day. As you’d expect, the people in Belize have a lovely laid back Caribbean spirit running through their veins.
What’s always in your bag – no matter what adventure you’re on?
A sense of humour, my ‘Pants of perspective’ and a buff / headband. My curly fro knows no bounds when the wind gets hold of it. Those buffs are priceless for keeping your hair out of your face, covering your eyes when sleeping and even wiping grease off of your bike rims if needed.
What do you still dream of doing that you haven’t yet done?
Oh my goodness - so much: walk the length of Israel, kayak around the Caribbean, swim around the Greek islands, fat bike across Morocco, run the West Highland Way, rollerblade through Europe, walk the Dragon’s Back Trail in South Korea, cycle the Karakoram Highway, travel through India and eat everything in sight… I could go on and on… I have pages and pages in a notebook filled with ideas that just sit there until one day they make it to the top of the list. Some days I have to close the notebook and just breathe - for fear I might get so over-excited about the opportunities out there that I explode.
Where would you like to be right now?
Swimming through kilometres of open ocean between some beautifully unspoilt Greek Islands - with the sun on my back and all my friends and family in the support boat (cooking up some fried cheese for lunch). How do we make this happen… anyone?
What’s your guilty pleasure?
Chocolate. Chocolate. Chocolate. Does that even count as a guilty pleasure? I don't feel guilty when I eat it any more. I see it as one of life's true joys. I often carried 2kgs of chocolate on my NZ run. I didn’t expect New Zealand to have great chocolate, but Whittaker's do at least 17 different flavours which just beg to be devoured.
Although recently my second guilty pleasure is having lie-ins. I am in love with sleep all over again and the world is just a better place after a great snooze.
In the last 12 months, where’s the most memorable place you’ve been and why?
Definitely the Mount Rintoul Ridge line in the Richmond Ranges in New Zealand. That day was a mixture of sheer terror at scrambling along tiny ledges, and sheer joy at the sections I could run along the tops - surrounded by mountains upon mountains peeking through the cloud, the wind blowing my hair to and fro. Now that’s livin’!
In your lifetime, where’s the most memorable place you’ve been and why?
I once spent a night camped 100 metres from the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. At 5am I was sat on a bench in my superman pyjamas looking out as the sun rose over the canyon. The camping spot had cost me $6, and there wasn’t a soul around. If you get a chance to visit the North Rim instead of the very touristy South Rim - do it. It is rugged and beautiful and a sight to behold.
When was the last time you cried?
Honestly? Yesterday! I’m a woman - my body is full of hormones and I cry. It's a fact. Mostly I cry when I get frustrated - it’s just my way of me dealing with the situation. Quite often I just carry on with whatever I’m doing, while crying - especially in an adventure. My tears don't say ‘I’m giving up’ - they say: “I’m hurting, but I’m dammed if I’m giving up.”
I remember with the US ride I had this image of myself throwing my bike down at the side of the road in despair and flopping next to it to sob. In reality the only thing that would make me stop crying would be to get to the end of the horrific 130 mile day where I was cycling into a headwind. So if I stopped and flopped that wouldn't help. So I just cried and carried on cycling instead.
There's no shame in tears. Tears show that you care. Tears are born of passion and an indication that you’re pushing yourself. A life without tears is a life without passion.
Which character are you most like from a film or TV series and why?
I have a lot of love and respect for Éowyn in Lord of the Rings. In The Return of the King Aragon and the boys were all going off to kick some serious orc-ass and after being repeatedly told to stay at home, Eowyn just suited up and got out there on the battlefield anyway. Plus - she killed the witch-king, even with a broken arm. As a girl with two brothers, who suffered three broken wrists whilst playing football with them - this was basically my childhood. Only with more plaster casts and less orcs.
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