Anna McNuff is a born adventurer. The daughter of two Olympians and with roots in competitive rowing, she chose to leave competitive sport behind to pursue a life in the outdoors. Exploring the world through her long human powered journeys, she spreads her passion to every person she meets through her infectious happiness and and excitable personality.
Over the last few years Anna has completed some absolutely amazing and ridiculous adventures. From cycling the Andes as part of a two woman team, to running across New Zealand on her own, she is the perfect example of what can happen when you say yes to life and believe in your own crazy schemes.
We caught up with Anna recently to talk motivation, training and more, and to pick her brain about how we can all start living our best, more exciting lives. Here's what the sunniest adventurer in the UK had to say...
What is your background Anna?
I grew up in a very sporty family, we weren't necessarily adventurous, but definitely sporty. My parents were Olympic rowers and we were always out doing sport when I was a kid, meaning I grew up doing lots of different sports and trying everything. From that, I ended up doing a lot of competitive sport and rowed for Great Britain until I was about 23.
I soon realised that the life of an elite athlete wasn't for me however, I had this great wanderlust and I wanted to see the world. I'd decided to be an athlete because that was a good way to travel, but in the end I was seeing the world in two kilometre racing lakes. I realised that I needed a bit more freedom, so let go of the athletic path I was on.
After leaving competitive rowing, how did you find your way towards becoming an adventurer?
I had to try and find something to do with my life with no real work experience and ended up working in an office for five years doing marketing. I thought it was what I wanted to do, but then around my nine to five I started having more and more adventures. Quickly, it became clear that I was cramming in the stuff that made me really happy around my work and what I was spending my life doing every day just wasn't fulfilling me. One day I realised that no one was making me be in that office and if I wasn't enjoying it, I could stop doing it.
I bought a pink bicycle and make a plan to pedal through every state of America. During that trip I quickly felt so happy and so like me. I was seeing new things, meeting new people. Getting back from the trip I thought 'right, I think this is what I need to spend the rest of my life doing.'
How do you decide on the different places for your adventures? Why did you choose the Andes for your cycling adventure and New Zealand for your long running adventure?
For me, the physicality of it, the running and the cycling, is just a vehicle and a method to explore a place that I really want to go to. If you took out the running and cycling, then it's just that I want to experience a country that excites me.
I'd always wanted to visit New Zealand and it gets mentioned so much as people's top one or two countries, so when I discovered that it had this trail, it just seemed too good to be true. The destination always comes first, then the method of transport comes second.
You've met so many different people through your adventures, are there any people that really stand out in your memories?
When I did the adventure around America, I used a website that is basically couchsurfing for cycle tourists. I stayed with people who had put themselves on this website, and then I was carried along by their friends, siblings, parents who live further down the route in the different towns. In the last third of the trip, I honestly only had 10 nights where I wasn't hosted by a complete stranger. From one dinner table to the next, meeting grannies, kissing babies, being taken out to pubs, it was amazing - exhausting - but amazing.
There are about ten to fifteen people from each adventure who really stick in my mind and who I know I will see again, somewhere down the line. It might be ten years down the line, but when you make those connections, you've really shared something and it's really special.
"I just trained to get to the point where my body was happy to be on its feet for that amount of time"
A lot of your adventuring is based around running, swimming and cycling. Do you have one sport out of these that allows you to feel the most free and natural above the others?
I'd love to do a swimming adventure! But it's always going be running. Cycling is technically a better way to travel, but if you were to say to me that you were going to take running out of my life, I would crawl up into a ball and cry forever.
There's something so free and simple, all you need is a pair of trainers or your bare feet and I love that. I love that you can get to places you couldn't take your bike, so you can really get off the beaten track and find beautiful wild camping spots. Running is just the ultimate freedom, it gets you back to being a wild woman.
You've spoken before about injury and pain while training, even before you did any long runs. How did you manage them to run those long distances?
I started just training with a different mindset. Instead of thinking of going out to run everyday, I started leaving the house with the mindset of just move on my feet for a certain amount of time, not walking, but often doing really slow runs. It took the impact off my body and the pressure off myself.
The other thing was to look at my body and accept that things were going to break down and I wasn't going to be able to prevent that. Instead I decided to start exploring and being curious about the pain, where exactly it was and did it move around.
In getting to know my body as best as I could the little niggles become more of a source of knowledge and intrigue than a pain in the butt. If you're trying to take your body to places its never been before, of course its going to hurt and of course it's going to moan.
It must take a lot of mental training to commit to a huge adventure, but how much is in the training beforehand? How do you train yourself to carry on past the point where most of us usually go home?
The battle is real. People think that because I do all this adventure stuff that I wake up and skip out the day thinking 'Yes! Going to do my training today!' But I play the same mind games with myself that we all play, telling myself I'm too tired that I need to eat first and all of those stories before I get out of the door. I run from A to B to make it easier, if I have an appointment to meet someone I cant stop cause I'll be late. It's just so demotivating for me to run around in circles.
I actually only trained for four months for New Zealand, so I got myself to the point where my body was happy to be on its feet for that amount of time. It's that tipping point where you're able to be running and not be in your body, your mind is somewhere else and you're just moving.
You haven't spoken too much about your experience in terms of gender within your writing. Have you ever felt the pressure of being a woman and an adventurer?
It's so interesting that you've commented on that, because you're right, I haven't. I think its because I grew up with two brothers that it never occurred to me that I wouldn't do what my brothers did. It was actually only in my late twenties that I started becoming aware that lots of women have these limiting beliefs about what they could and couldn't do, what was a man's thing and what was woman's thing.
Only in the last year and a half have I noticed that the people who follow me have started to nudge me to be more vocal about it, to encourage the women for who adventure and sport isn't so natural. This is why I started Adventure Queens, I realised that what comes naturally to me, doesn't to many women and thats something that needs to be addressed. I think that sometimes, because it doesn't stop me, I have to be careful to be aware that the battle hasn't been won. It does still stop a lot of other people and I have to work to make other people feel the way that I do.
Do you have a dream adventure in mind, to aim towards in the future?
I do have this one dream adventure, that I'd love to work with a TV production company to make. Imagine it's a version of Wish You Were Here and I'm Judith Charmers! I'd go to islands and explore their food, their culture, meet their locals, but then I'd actually swim to the next destination and the next episode. I think it sounds like so much fun! I like to be in control of my adventures right now and that would take more of a collaboration of efforts, but maybe one day in the future!
What exciting adventure do you have coming up next?
My next adventure I'm keeping under wraps till January, but it's very exciting, it's another running adventure. What I can say, is that I'm really challenging myself and it's very exciting.