THE Anna McNuff on adventuring and how to keep it interesting

If there is one person you’ll ever meet in the UK outdoor scene who has boundless energy and an infectuous positive outlook, it will be Anna McNuff. But who is this wonderwoman? (she was spotted running interstate in America in a Wonderwoman outfit recently after all) We sat down with her to find out more about what drives her to do things differently and keep life…well…interesting!

What would be your ‘elevator pitch’ for Anna McNuff?

In a nutshell, I’m an adventurer, but in order to make a living as an adventurer, you have to do more than just go on adventures. You have to work out how to help other people off the back of what you’ve learned from those adventures, and be able to tell your story well. So I am a motivational speaker, an influencer and an author. I switch the order around, depending on who I’m talking to. I’m originally from South West London, but I now live in Gloucester – largely because there are less people, more open space and easier access to muddy hilltops! My family are absolute sports nuts. Growing up, sport was the thing to be doing in our household – after school, at the weekends – the whole family would be scattered across South London playing football, basketball or out canoeing or rowing on the River Thames.

What is your sporting background?

I grew up doing just about every sport under the sun. I took up gymnastics at three years old, but gave it up by aged five because the training for the squad I was in was past my bedtime! I then moved on to playing football from aged six to sixteen – mostly in boys teams at first because back in the good ole 90’s there were no girls teams out there. Alongside football, I did all the other sports on offer at school – netball, hockey, athletics… I’m a big fan of netball. Ruddy good game when it’s played at a fast pace. I guess I spent a long time trying everything to see if I could find that one sport I really connected with. It wasn’t until aged 17 that I found that in rowing. It was all-consuming, hard work and I loved it. I rowed from ages 17 to 23, and ended up representing Great Britain for a few years. Rowing gave me a great base of endurance and also an appetite for putting myself through pain – but I wasn’t too keen on going up and down 1.2-mile (2-kilometer) long racing lakes in the end. My love of travel and adventure had started to bubble to the surface and I was curious about the big wide world – so I gave up my dream to be an Olympian and turned to a life of adventure instead.

The scariest thing that has ever happened to me when when I had to pull two people out of a car wreck during a flood in Colorado. There’d been a full blown natural disaster and I had tried to leave town too early on my bike.

I hear your parents are Olympians – how much has this inspired you to do what you do?

“They are indeed! It’s a funny thing having two Olympian parents because when you’re growing up, you just assume that your parents are ‘normal’. I mean, my dad’s Olympic bronze medal is just hanging on the living room wall… I didn’t really even register what that meant when I was a kid. It wasn’t until my later teens and early twenties that I started to appreciate just how much of an impact my folks had on on the decisions I was making in life. I learned a lot about eating right (thanks mum) and having the faith that if I trained well, I could push my body in new ways. I was also brought up to believe that trying and failing was much better than not trying at all.”

I never felt any pressure from my parents, of course I wanted to make them proud, but they always just encouraged me to do whatever made me happy. I think that they could see by my early twenties that I had a sense of wanderlust that just didn’t fit into an elite sport lifestyle. I will also just mention here the one thing my mum and I disagree on… sleep! After years of getting up early and running on very little sleep – I bloomin’ love sleep now. I love it so much I would marry sleep and have its babies if I could. My mum thinks sleep is for the weak and we disagree on this point, always!

How did you make the transition from rowing to running/adventures?

It’s funny — I look back now on my life as an elite athlete and I wonder how on earth I existed in a life which had so much structure to it. When I first gave up elite sport, all I knew was training plans. Setting goals and working towards them in an organized fashion. I went through a phase of entering lots of cycling sportives, and doing triathlons – like Ironman. Everything I did had structure. It wasn’t until five years after giving up elite sport that I realized you didn’t always need to be entered into a race to be able to push your body, and to use it to explore the world. That’s when I did my first bike ride through the 50 states of the US. In stark contrast to anything I’d done before, and because I was so consumed with the logistics of getting to the start line, I did absolutely zero training for the longest bike ride of my life (11,000 miles!). But I soon discovered that when the pressure to go fast is no longer there, your body will adapt. I still ended up bashing out 120-mile days, but I let my body build up to getting there. On that six-month journey, I also discovered that I liked having the time to see the places I was cycling through. That later extended to running and swimming too, and this is now my preferred way to adventure – a good level of physical suffering, but with lots of stops to meet the locals on the way.

Anna has plenty of hugs and smiles to share, for everyone!

What motivates you to go out and have those fantastic adventures? Where do the ideas come from?

Oh my gosh, I have a new idea for an adventure every single day. It’s a curse! I spend a lot of times looking at maps. I’ll read an article in a magazine, see something on komoot, or someone will mention a country, an island or a route and I’ll think… Ohhh where’s that?! I’ll be on Google in lightning speed and reading up about the place that’s just been mentioned. I explore absolutely everything that intrigues me, so I have a little book of adventure ideas as long as my arm. For an adventure to make it from that book and into the real world though, it has to tick a few key boxes. It has to be somewhere I want to explore (because of the landscape or culture), I have to be traveling in a way that will push my body (usually running or cycling), and I also have to have thought of some way to use the adventure as a force for good in the world. When I have an idea that ticks those three boxes and it sticks in my mind for a week or two – then I know I’m on to a winner.

I have a new idea for an adventure every single day. It’s a curse! I spend a lot of times looking at maps. I’ll read an article in a magazine, see something on komoot, or someone will mention a country, an island or a route and I’ll think… Ohhh where’s that?!

What gives you the most satisfaction with respect to what you do?

“I get the most satisfaction from new experiences. Sometimes it’s seeing a new place for the first time – rounding a bend and looking down an amazing lush green valley surrounded by snow capped peaks, for example. Other times it might be learning about a new culture – spending time with the grandma of a family learning how to cook traditional food.

The addiction with new experiences also extends to pushing my body too. I loved going to altitude for the first time in the Andes Mountains to see how my body reacted when it was up there above 5,000 metres high for weeks on end. I loved trying out swimming in water below 4C this winter in the UK, just to see what it felt like. I enjoyed running further than ever had in a day in New Zealand and seeing whether my body would give out.

That’s the best thing about adventure – you never know what you’re going to see or what you’re going to feel from one day to the next, and that’s addictive. It’s what makes readjusting to home life so tough afterwards.”

If running in a dinosaur costume is what you need to do to keep it interesting…then…why not?

What do you look for in an adventure buddy?

Whoever they are, they have to be laid back! I’ve got some friends who like things to be just so, perfect and planned to the letter. I love them to bits, but I know that I could never adventure with them. Much as I’m a planner to an extent, on adventures you have to accept that there are so many things beyond your control, and to be able to roll with when things go wrong. Beyond that, all my adventure buddies have a heart of gold, and are physically reasonably strong. They have life in perspective – and they agree that we are lucky to be able to travel in the first place and that every day on an adventure is a privilege. They are willing to laugh through the bad times, and grit their teeth and get on with it through the tough times. AND – most importantly – they share their chocolate rations with me. That’s a true friend.

Much as I’m a planner to an extent, on adventures you have to accept that there are so many things beyond your control, and to be able to roll with when things go wrong

Tell us a bit about the Adventure Queens? What is your role there?

“Adventure Queens is an online community of 6,000 women who love to get outdoors in every form possible. Last year I became aware that women seemed to need a bit more support and direction on how to reconnect with their wild selves – so I co-founded a community with my friend Emma in a bid to help.

It’s grown massively in the first year – we’re non-profit but we have 45 volunteers helping us run things. We offer tips and advice, online groups for the women to chat and run events. Really it’s just about removing any barriers that are preventing the women from getting outdoors when they want to. We celebrate not knowing how to put your tent up, and we LOVE stories of women heading off on their first big adventure.

My role in Adventure Queens is making sure that as many women as possible know that it exists for them as a resource. I shout about it as often as I can!”

What was the scariest thing that has ever happened to you on one of your adventures? What was the funniest thing?

“The scariest thing that has ever happened to me when when I had to pull two people out of a car wreck during a flood in Colorado. There’d been a full blown natural disaster and I had tried to leave town too early on my bike. I thought the flood was over, but it was still in full swing. I came across a place where the road had collapsed into a river. It was dark and a car ended up driving down what was left of the road, not seeing that it had crumbled away and the car flew off into the river. I had to pull out the couple inside and get them to safety. They were just beat up, but not badly hurt. It was a hairy situation and one that makes me shudder to this day.

In contrast….

The funniest thing happened on a beach at the very north of New Zealand. I had been running alone for days and not seen a soul. I needed a wee, so innocently got myself into position on the beach, crouched with my pants down, I heard a noise and looked to my left just in time to see a bus load of japanese tourists go past me. I had forgotten that the beach opened up to ‘traffic’ at low tide. I tried to disguise what I was doing but they all knew! I’m not sure what the tour guide in the bus on the microphone would have said as they passed about the ‘sight’ out of their right window. They were smiling and waving at least.”

If there was one ‘Big Adventure’ you would like to do, what would it be? 

“I have plans for a big running adventure next year, which I could show you on Komoot – but I’m not telling anyone about it yet, so that’ll have to stay top secret until the new year! For now, I’d say it’s riding the Pamir highway – through through Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. The Pamir Mountains look amazing – I love altitude and I love mountains so being amongst them on my bike would be amazing. Over the next few months I’m enjoying being at home in Gloucester for a rare few weeks, so I’ll be out an about on my local trails in the west country. Soaking up the wind and rain of early autumn! I’ve got a quick jaunt to the canary islands, then I’m headed over the the USA  to run for a few weeks through southern Texas and Louisiana, before taking a trip to New Zealand to run some trails there over the UK winter.”

Name one feature on komoot that you really like and how you use it.

“The highlights feature is my fave! I love leaving little nuggets of information about a local coffee house with great cake, or a stunning view I’ve discovered. That’s what it’s all about after all, helping people discover places they wouldn’t usually see. I really like the idea that I can go on a run or ride, and leave a little note behind for someone else too. It feels like paying it forward. Second to that, it would be the ability to adjust my route, mid-ride as I’m going along, I love that flexibility on the phone app so I can roll with the adventure and change my route if I like.”

What was one of your favorite outings this year? 

“A trip to Spain with my mother. We had such an awesome time together, I want to do this every year with her.”