Q&A with: Anna McNuff

Meet the adventure queen who ran the entire length of New Zealand with just her backpack in tow

St James Walkway

If you ever find yourself questioning your own capabilities – or perhaps why you even started running in the first place – a few words with Anna McNuff should reassure you.

Beaming with limitless ambition, positivity and enthusiasm, Anna possesses a seemingly unshakeable belief that you can achieve just about anything if you put your mind to it. And when she’s run 1,911 miles, unsupported, across the length of New Zealand, it’s fair to say she’s rather justified in having this viewpoint.

The 31-year-old cleared out the drawers of her nine-to-five desk job in January 2015, to set off on a five-and-a-half-month voyage across New Zealand, along the Te Araroa Trail. With just a backpack in tow, Anna ventured from the southern most point of the South Island to Cape Reigna in the very North, running between 15-20 miles a day, meeting, inspiring and raising money for thousands of school children along the way.

To some this may seem bonkers (and she agreed it was), but given Anna had cycled 11,000 miles through every state in the US in 2013, raising £11,000 for charity, it seems she has a knack for these sorts of things. A former Great British rower, her flair for endurance sport is evident, but she assures us that it was not the strength of her legs that carried her the length of New Zealand –  it was that of her mind. Scampering through forests, climbing mountains and traversing rivers, she tells us, was the easy bit; spending days in the bush – alone – with a sprained ankle – was when it got tough. We caught up with Anna to find out more.

Anna in Auckland 2. Credit Paul Petch

Photograph: Paul Petch

When did you first discover your thirst for adventure?

I was 28 years-old when I left my job. Before that, I had never been exposed to the adventure world. There is a whole community of people in London that row oceans and it all seemed bonkers to me at the time. But it was a combination of my background in sport, love of pushing my body and love of travel, and it took me a while to realise I could combine them. You know when you just find that thing that makes your heart sing? Well it just does it for me.

Was there anything/anyone in particular that inspired you to take on your first epic challenge, cycling the 50 US states?

The book that started it all and inspired my bike trip was Just A Little Run Around the World by Rosie Swale-Pope, who ran for five years around the world. She was in her 50s and her husband died from cancer, and she decided she had nothing to lose, so took off around the world.  The bravery she showed was incredible and blew me away. I thought, if a woman on her own is capable of that, bring it on!

My family are also very supportive. I have been brought up with the philosophy that, if I set my mind to it, I can do anything. I do have a boyfriend, too, it’s a bit of a nice love story actually. He was running across Canada as I was biking across the states, and we met just before I went on the run because I was an ambassador for his charity. He became my ‘phone a friend’ through the run, and he was so supportive the whole way because he’d been through it and we got really close. I got home and we are all loved up now!

What made you decide to run the length of New Zealand and how did you know your body would cope with the challenge?

The reason I went and did that running journey was purely because I didn’t know that I could do it. There are so many things in life that we don’t do or start because we don’t know whether we can finish them, and I just thought, that’s so stupid because you don’t find out! And what you think is normally wrong! The run was a huge experiment.

I’d run some ultras and stuff but I’d never run for more than three days in a row. I had read Born To Run about the running people that live in the Copper Canyon in Mexico. And I thought, this is something humans can do and I must be able to do it! But I had no idea and was absolutely petrified.

What sort of training did you put in and how did you manage to fit it in around a full-time job?

I ran 60-80 miles a week for about four months leading up to it and that was just to try and get to know my body a bit better and understand my niggles. It was bonkers! I was working Monday to Friday, nine till five, in an office in Paddington and I would get up at 4.30am, run my 15 miles to work and be done by 8am. I would pick my mum up half way through the run on the river towpath. She would meet me with a little headtorch and run with me for an hour and we’d have a good chat.

You were raising money for Outward Bound – a charity that gives children, who wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity, the chance to experience adventure. Why this charity?

I chose Outward Bound because I had the most amazing outdoorsy, sporty upbringing. The Outward Bound moto is: ‘There is more in you.’ It’s showing to kids that you are capable of more than you know, and that was what my run was all about. So, whenever I go off on an adventure, I always go into schools along the way and talk to kids (which is a bit of a logistical nightmare when you’re in the bush for up to a week at a time!). Outward Bound have a programme for kids of a low socio-economic level and my trip funded them to go on one of its courses.

How did you navigate – particularly given the diverse landscape?

The trail was quite a logistical mission, actually. It’s not a fully-formed trail, so sometimes it’s nothing more than a little sheep track. And in the first weeks I’d lost the trail, so had to go back to the last place I’d seen a marker, couldn’t find it, looked all around and had that horrible feeling that everything looked the same! I then realised I needed a proper GPS. Because the trail goes through lots of rivers, it involved lots of river crossings, which is quite scary as you have to know if the river is safe enough to cross. So the course changes as the river changes. Running was the easy bit! The scenery changed quite often, so one day I’d be up on a ridge line up on the clouds and it might be snowing and, another day, I’d be in dense forest where I couldn’t see anything and there’d be loads of streams! In the North Island there’s loads of long sandy beaches so I’d run along them barefoot.

Peeking out of a tent in New Zealand

Did you get lonely?

Sometimes there’d be up to a week between towns, when I’d be in the bush, so there were lots of lonely points. It’s really remote. There’s only a million-0dd people that live in the South Island and most of them are in towns. At one point, I had three full days and nights where I didn’t see a soul and that was quite a lot for me. When I got to the towns, though, the Kiwis were so kind, I would get hosted by friends of friends of friends. Honestly the whole of the country just opened their arms to me and they would just feed me and take me in. Some people came and ran with me – I was run out of Wellington by about 20 people!

What was the biggest challenge?

There was one day I had to cross a river 30 times and I tripped on this rock and I sprained my ankle. It was a day from hell. I was on my own, I hadn’t seen anyone for about two days, and it took me about four hours to find a place that was flat enough to pitch my tent. It was literally the lowest point in the whole trip, because I was tired, I was exhausted, and I was lonely because there was no phone signal and I couldn’t speak to anyone. But I had food, I had water, I had shelter and I suddenly got overwhelmed with this complete feeling of calm. I had a cry and then thought, you know what? This is fine. This is what I asked for. I’ve come in search of my limits and this is my limit, it’s been brought to me. You have to go to that place where you are so low you think you might fall apart and you get there and think, I’m not going to fall apart, I’ve got this.

What was your most memorable moment?

There was a day at the very north of the South Island, and there was this range of mountains called the Richmond Ranges. I was up on a ridge at about 1,700 metres, and I’d been dreading this part as everyone said it was hardest bit of the whole trail. The day I got there, there were two other people just ahead of me on the trail, so I knew other people were around. The sun was shining and I was way up above the clouds. Everything around me was mountains. I could see the Tasman Bay, and I was running along the ridgeline with the wind blowing in my hair and thought, this is life at its absolutely best.

What advice would you give to aspiring adventurers?

Just start. Take those first few baby steps. Sometimes that is just telling three of your closets friends that you want to do it. Second thing, anyone that tells you can’t do things, and stay safe and comfortable and easy, ignore them. Don’t listen. Find out what the first step is, whether it is putting £20 a month away to start saving towards it, or putting a big poster on your wall of the place you want to go, or race you want to run. Take the first step and, from there, it will unfold and you will inspire yourself and you will get there.

So what’s your next adventure? You must have something lined up…

On February 15th I am doing a little social experiment. I am leaving my back garden and the people of social media are going to direct me across Europe for a month. Because I like to plan, and I’ve decided I need to get out of my comfort zone and stop planning, and I haven’t really seen Europe!

Would you like to hear more from Anna? Anna will be appearing at the Telegraph Outdoor and Adventure Travel Show, which takes place at ExCel London from 11th – 14th February. For more and to book tickets, see www.telegraphoutdoorshow.co.uk

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