Welcome to the latest edition of ‘In the Pen‘ – the series of interviews with the runners that inspire the Lonely Goat community.
This edition, it’s the turn of Anna McNuff, adventurer, speaker, bestselling author and self-confessed mischief maker.
Once upon a time she represented Great Britain at rowing, but after ‘retiring’ in her mid-twenties, she began darting around the world on the hunt for new and exciting endurance challenges. These include cycling 11,000 miles across every state in the USA, running the length of New Zealand, and running more than 2,600 miles barefoot across Britain.
She has been named by the Guardian as one of the top female adventurers of our time and she is the UK ambassador for Girl Guiding.
Anna was kind enough to answer our questions.
Why do you run?
I run because it makes me feel free. I feel like a kid that has just got out of their house: They’ve got a pocket full of copper coins; they’re going down to the sweet shop; they’re not sure when they’re going to be back; but they’ll be back sometime before tea and are just going for it. That is how I feel when I run.
Not every run feels like that, granted, but every time I leave the house, I hope I’m going to have a run like that – where I feel free, I feel ageless, and I’m able to transcend to let my mind drift and my body just go for it and feel that amazing, euphoric high that only runners can ge. Sometimes I get it swimming, but it’s always running.
What motivates you?
I struggle with running motivation and I think that’s an important thing to admit because there can be this misconception that if you are someone that has done a lot of running, that you leap out of bed every morning and you fist bump the air, and you have no trouble going for a run. But I struggle quite often.
So the things that motivate me when I’m normally running, day to day, in a given week, are seeing new places, coffee shops, and running on trails I’ve never been on before. The other reason I would go out for a run is for escapism.
I need to have a reason to go running. I find it very difficult just to run around in circles on the same route for no particular reason. That is why I love to do running adventures because I’m going from A to B, I’m seeing new things and meeting new people, and hopefully eating delicious food along the way. I just happen to be running as part of that process and use running as a method of travel, rather than a chore or a necessity.
I don’t wear a watch as I’m not bothered about times and don’t care about that. I’m just out there for the experience of it. That’s what motivates me. I try and remember that every time I’m struggling to go running. I’ll pick an A to B route and then get the bus back, rather than running around in circles.
What are your top tips for beginner runners?
Don’t overthink it.
Set yourself a schedule and set yourself a target that almost feels a little bit under what you’re capable of, because there is nothing worse than repeatedly beating yourself up because you haven’t hit your weekly mileage, or the dogs got sick and you’ve got to take it to the vet, or the kids need more attention than you realised.
Start with something that is a base level schedule, but gives you something there to refer to and takes the decisions out of it. I find the most difficult thing when you’re starting to get out there and run is that indecision of having to repeatedly, every day, make a decision. Do I run? Where do I run? How far do I run?
Do all that planning up front. It’s like a meal plan, but it’s a run plan. Get your plan sorted, and then have some optional add-ons. So say you do three runs in a week, but then if you’re having a great week, and you’ve got loads of extra time, here’s another two runs that you could go and do. Or here’s some bonus cross training sessions, or something like that.
Set the bar at a manageable level, because that way, every time you go out and run, you can tick it off and you feel you’ve achieved something, rather than repeatedly beating yourself up.
My second top tip for beginners is to remember why you started running. Why do you want to run? Don’t look at other people’s times or look at what other people are doing. Who cares what they’re uploading to social media? Remember why you run, remember why you’re out there, and remember to enjoy it.
Running is fun, innit!
What is your favourite place to run?
Just out the front door of my flat is a beautiful place called Robin’s Wood Hill. It’s called a Country Park but that’s pretty much a grand name for a hill with some words on it. I’m sure there’s some badgers and squirrels and stuff in there, but not any really exciting animals.
During lockdown, as the weeks have gone by, there was a time when that was the only place I could go and run. It is a little pocket of paradise. It’s about four miles around, so you can go up and over the hill at the top. As the highest point in Gloucester, it gets the most amazing sunsets. There’s bluebells, wild garlic and elderflower in there. That is my little playground and it is my favourite special place to run.
But my favourite place I’ve ever run, around the world, hands down, has to be in New Zealand. There was a day when I was running along the Mount Rintoul ridgeline in New Zealand, and I’m 1700 metres high. There’s mountains upon mountains upon mountains around me. The sky is blue and clouds are just drifting by on the breeze. I’m running through on this trail that’s snaking through long grass that’s swaying backwards and forwards. Hands down, the best place to run: Mount Rintoul on New Zealand’s, South Island. A special place.
Where would you like to run that you haven’t?
I was watching a programme about Morocco and the Atlas Mountains. I love mountains and would love to go and run around in the Atlas Mountains. I know it’d be really hot and very difficult, but that is where I’d love to go and run.
There’s also a trail in Western Australia, on the southwest corner of Australia. I would love to go and run that trail. I’ve worked out it will probably take about 10 days to run it, but it just looks so wild and just awesome, exposed in nature. I would love to go and do that.
I just want to run in loads of places, but they’re definitely top of my list: Atlas Mountains in Morocco and southwest Australia. Hopefully I won’t get bit by bugs.
Do you have any funny running stories?
I love to run in fancy-dress. I think life in fancy dress is fun, then you add running to it and it’s like ‘fun squared’. There’s just so much fun going on. You can’t take yourself seriously when you’re in fancy-dress – and I don’t think you should take yourself seriously when you’re running.
I have had a history of doing long runs, so I ran Hadrian’s Wall dressed up as a Roman soldier with my friend who’s a history teacher. We ran that over four days, which was beautiful, and every time we crested the hill, you could see there we were, just two girls with our capes flapping in the wind.
What followed on from that is I decided I would try and run the Jurassic Coast Trail on UK’s South Coast. Obviously, I did it with my friends dressed as a dinosaur. I learned that even though it was December, and we were running in onesies, it’s really hot to run in a onesie so we had to cut the arms and legs off our dinosaurs.
Also, the dinosaur tails caked themselves in mud because the South West Coastal Path is just covered in mud. We were always falling over, so the tails or our dinosaurs were getting thicker and thicker and thicker, swinging behind us and dragging us backwards.
Before lockdown, I was all set to go and run part of the Monarch’s Way, which is this cool, long route through South and South West Britain. I was going to run on it with my friend, dressed as the Queen. We were going to have pearls, the wig, a little soft corgi and everything. Unfortunately we couldn’t do that because of lockdown, but it’s still on the list.
Do you have any favourite running books?
Yes. Just a Little Run Around the World is one of my fave, fave, fave books of all time, by Rosie Swale-Pope. She is the reason I do what I do. She was my source of inspiration.
She was in her mid-50s when her husband passed away from cancer and she took off to run around the world for 20,000 miles – absolutely ridiculous – by herself. Amazing.
The other running books that I love are Adharanand Finn‘s books (The Way of the Runner, Running with the Kenyans, and Rise of the Ultrarunners), because he does everything that I don’t do in my books. My books are very slapdash. He goes into detail and does loads of research. He’s very factually accurate, so I enjoy saving myself the trouble of reading a hundred other books by reading one of Adharanand Finn’s books.
What did you used to do that you don’t do now?
I worried about times. I know a lot of people are very into time – that’s their thing. They love times and they like to measure themselves. On the other end of the spectrum, I don’t enjoy looking at times.
I think it’s because I’ve got a background as an elite rower and used to row for Great Britain. I spent so much of my life staring at a little dial trying to get it to flick up or down so that I knew I was going fast enough and hard enough or analysing split times. I realised when I started running for fun in my late-20s, after giving up rowing, that’s not what running is about for me.
Also, I probably used to run up more hills. I need to get back into hill running, but sometimes I take the easy option. Now, with the hill opposite my flat, I could go round it, or up it. Quite often, I just go round the hill, because I like the idea that I can keep going and don’t have to think. Whereas, if I’m going up a hill, I’m generally thinking “Oh my god, I’m gonna die before I make the top!”
What result are you most proud of?
There are two things. They’re a bit mega.
The first one is running the length of New Zealand, the Te Araroa Trail. 2,000 miles took me six months, with all my stuff on my back. I was proud of that achievement because before I started, I believed I wasn’t a runner. I told myself I wasn’t a runner.
Runners were the people on the front of magazines that wore the skinny shorts that flashed a bit of bum cheek when the wind blew.
I did that trail because I questioned the story I was telling myself of “I like to run. Maybe that means I am a runner?”
I got to the end of that trail, after 2,000 miles, and there’s a lighthouse at the Northern tip of New Zealand where you stand and watch the Pacific Ocean and the Tasman Sea collide in a wave. I stood there and I felt so proud of myself that I had done it and hadn’t let myself be discouraged from believing that an adventure and challenge like that was for other people that weren’t like me.
That was a huge, huge, huge achievement.
And then recently, I went and ran from the Shetland Islands to London, 2,352 miles, with no shoes on. I finished that in November last year, and I’m still processing the enormity of that challenge. I was pretty proud of that one as well, because that was the hardest thing I’ve ever, ever, ever done in my life.
I don’t think I want to do anything that hard ever again, but it was also amazing. I had loads of Lonely Goats come out and run with me. I got to know the running community of Great Britain as well as I did the soles of my own feet – which were pretty battered, but really strong by the end, like panther paws. Definitely a cool achievement.
Who inspires you?
I’m inspired by people who see the status quo and take a different direction, even when there is no reassurance that the thing they are going for can be done.
For example, there’s a woman who was 86 and a gymnast. She’s doing all the flips and stuff on the beam and I’m looking at that thinking “She hasn’t got a role model for that. There’s no one else that does that. She’s the only person that does it. And yet, she believes that she can defy what society says she shouldn’t be doing as an 86 year old and go and do that.”
And I’m inspired by Diana Nyad, who was the first person, male or female, to swim from Havana, Cuba to Key West, Florida. She attempted that swim three times over the space of 30 years. It took an awful lot of effort each time, a lot of heartache, and a lot of people saying “You can’t do it. It’s impossible”.
Eventually when she was 64, she made that swim. It took her 53 hours and she got jellyfish stings all over her face. Her book that she wrote about it is called Find a Way.
I love people like that, who when the rules of the world say “You can’t do that”, they say “Watch me!” It might end up being a complete disaster, but I love those people. I find them really, really inspiring. The underdogs.
Are you a parkrunner?
I love parkrun, but no, I’m not a parkrunner. I’m really sorry. Do you know why? I love sleep. I don’t have any children yet, and I cannot get my arse out of bed for nine o’clock on a Saturday morning. It’s not gonna happen. I’m normally waking up at nine o’clock on a Saturday morning, so trying to be on a start line somewhere isn’t happening. I’ve tried it.
I do most of my exercise in the evening as I find that I like to run in the evening when the day’s work is done and I can process it.
That’s not to say I haven’t done lots of parkruns – I think parkrun is absolutely amazing and I’ve dragged myself there on a few occasions and it is a cool thing to do if you’re in a new city or new place around the world – but I’ve got to be honest: I can’t get myself out of bed that early on a Saturday. Sorry.
Music or silence when running?
Neither! Well, I have to say, it’s got to be silence or audiobooks and podcasts.
I don’t actually listen to much music. If I’m having a really rough, tough day on an adventure, and I need lifting up, then I will crack out the music. It’s like the secret, last resort weapon.
Most of the time, I like the idea that I’m learning something while I’m running – it’s like a double whammy. Although, I did try to learn Spanish while I was swimming once because I had an mp3 player, but that didn’t work because I stopped breathing.
I like to learn something while I’m running. So that’s normally podcasts about books and independent publishing, because I’m a geek like that. Or, I listen to audiobooks about running, or a lot of psychology and self help books. I love those books.
If I’m having a day where I really can’t concentrate, and I’ve got something on my mind, or I’ve got a problem to solve, then I will go for silence – but first and foremost I listen to podcasts and audiobooks because they take you away from the trail.
What do you like about running on your own?
Everything! I’m such a Lonely Goat!
I like that I can go as fast as I like, as slow as I like and that there’s no pressure. You never know how you’re going to feel when you go running, so if you’re having a rough day, it doesn’t matter and you can back off and ease the pace.
I like the freedom that it brings me and the ability to not worry about anything or anyone else except myself. It’s selfish, and it’s wonderful.
What is your next challenge?
Nothing’s set in stone yet. The big challenge is that we want to start a family. That is going to be a whole host of other adventures. I’m a bit terrified about that, to be honest, but I’m super excited.
It’s time for me and my other half to start the new chapter. Our big running adventures have been done. There’ll definitely be running adventures in the future, but they’re going to be with a twist and hopefully with a family of some sort.
How can people follow you online?
Thank you Anna! Keep an eye out for the next edition of ‘In the Pen’, coming soon…
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LIVE WEEKLY STORYTELLING starts this Thursday at 7.30pm GMT – gerrit in your diaries and hit my @annamcnuff profile pic then to join the live. . Those of you who tuned in to last week’s Instagram live ? will remember I floated the idea of sharing adventuresome bedtime stories while we’re going through this Corona madness. ? ? Because all I can think of to give the community is a bit of connection to one another and those stories. . So once a week, on a Thursday night I’ll be going live to read a story I’ve recently written. It might be a chapter from a new book (which hasn’t been published yet), a short story about rollerblading around Amsterdam ?? a mini-yarn about sleeping on a hilltop in Wales ??????? or a tale from adventure racing across New Zealand. . Whatever it is, it’ll be a pre-bedtime treat to send you off to the land of nod ? ? dreaming of adventures anew. KIDS WELCOME – I’ll make sure it’s child friendly. . And excuse the old picture… no I haven’t lost my pink hair – which, fyi is going to be a nightmare to maintain now ??♀️?? – but this was the only snap I have of me with the @girlguiding storyteller badge. . I said it when we cooked up the badge together and I’ll say it again – stories are what connect us to one another. ??? . See you here, Thursday at 7.30pm (GMT). Bring hot chocolate and be in your Jim Jams.