Female SOLOists: meet Anna McNuff – the endurance athlete who runs barefoot

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One evening in 2012, Anna McNuff came home from her desk job in marketing and lay a map of the world on her living room floor in south London. “I was 28 and living for my weekends which were all about travel and adventure,” she says. “I’d been cycling in Mallorca and wild swimming in Croatia, but I was craving more. I looked down at a map and thought ‘OK, I’m going somewhere, where’s it going to be?’”

Her first idea was to cycle around the world. “I thought that’d probably give my mum a heart attack,” she tells me. So, she narrowed it down and settled on the 50 states of America. After six months of working seven-days-a-week and saving, Anna, who is a former rower for Great Britain and European medalist, took a work sabbatical and cycled solo from Alaska to Hawaii, peddling through every state, plus one province in Canada.

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With her pink quiff, it’s hard to miss Anna

That US adventure would light the touchpaper for her to eventually quit her job and become a full-time adventurer and author – running, riding and rollerblading all over the world. “When you travel solo, you have to really tune in to yourself and what it is you want,” says Anna. “It leads to the best things and gives you this really beautiful confidence.”

With her distinctive fuchsia quiff, matching pink bike and her “pants of perspective” – a pair of brightly-coloured leggings, printed with unicorns and robots – it’s hard to miss Anna on one of her expeditions. “I remember when I bought my bike the guys in the shop told me most long-distance cyclists opt for green or black so they can blend in. I thought ‘Screw that!’ and got the bright pink one.”

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Cycling America was all about big open spaces

Anna’s trusty two-wheeler, Boudica, took her 11,000 miles across the US. “The west of America was all about big open spaces and cycling for 300 miles and then turning left, Mustangs cruising alongside me,” she recalls. 

“The east was all about the people. I remember staying in New Hampshire and meeting a woman called Betty ‘The Hutch’ Hutchinson. She was 93 at the time. Every year she broke the record for the local 5k running race for her age group. She was such an inspiration.”

Cycling across America might have been challenging but coming home proved even harder. “After a trip like that, it’s impossible to fold yourself back into the shape of the person you were,” she says. “Normal life felt very narrow and I had the post-adventure blues.”

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Running New Zealand solo, she slipped on a rock and sprained her ankle

The cure? Another trip. This time running the length of New Zealand alone. “I’d never been to a place where you don’t see another soul for days,” she says. “Within a month, I realised I was in way over my head. There were so many situations where the only person I had to rely on was myself.”

Anna faced real jeopardy when she slipped on a rock and sprained her ankle in the middle of a remote valley in the West Coast region of New Zealand. “I had no phone signal, the nearest town was two days behind me or it was a four-day hike through the bush to get where I was going,” she says. “I didn’t know what to do but after a good sleep, I woke up, put my leggings on and decided to keep going. I strapped my ankle, using ice from the lakes to get the swelling down. I took it day by day and kept moving forward, albeit slowly,” she says.

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Her next adventure took her across Europe, directed by social media

She was rewarded a few weeks later by her best ever travel moment. “In the South Island, there’s an area known as the Richmond Ranges. I was running along a ridge line on Mount Rintoul, surrounded by peaks and the sun was shining,” she says. “I felt so free, alive and in love with life, I screamed out loud.”

Anna’s next trips were just as ambitious. Her “Beyond My Back Gate” adventure took her walking and cycling across Europe, directed entirely by her social media followers. “I’m a planner, so that was really out of my comfort zone,” she says. “Every day, I posted on Instagram ‘Left? Right? Straight on?’ I ended up going in a wiggly line from my flat in Brixton, through Switzerland, down to the Mediterranean.”

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She cycled the Andes from La Paz in Bolivia to Ushuaia in Argentina

Anna got her trusty bike Boudica out again in 2016 to cycle across the Andes, from La Paz in Bolivia to Ushuaia on the southern tip of Argentina. Over the course of the trip, she cycled over 89,000 metres of ascent, 10 times the height of Everest.

However, Anna, now 37 and based in Gloucester, is keen to point out that adventure doesn’t always have to mean an epic odyssey. “Some of my favourite trips have been only a few days, like the time a friend and I tried to rollerblade 100 miles around Amsterdam or when I decided to run the length of Hadrian’s Wall dressed as a Roman soldier,” she says. “Anywhere that’s new or different fuels that fire for me.”

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Running the length of Britain barefoot was equivalent to 90 marathons

In 2019, Anna ran the length of Britain, covering a total of 2,352 miles – the distance of 90 marathons. That would be impressive enough, but Anna decided to do it barefoot. “I’d been giving these talks to Girl Guides about doing things that push you out of your comfort zone and I just thought ‘If I do a long run in trainers, I’m not really pushing myself’. Then a crazy voice popped into my head saying ‘Why not do it in bare feet?’” 

She trained for a year and a half to get her soles tough enough the many surfaces were still difficult. “I can talk to you for hours about different types of tarmac,” she jokes. Five months of barefoot running later and her feet were like “panther paws,” she says. “You could see all the tendons; they were so strong and beautiful. Then, after a hot bath all the hard skin came off in one go like a snake.”

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Becoming a mother hasn’t stopped Anna having adventures

As you might expect, Anna didn’t exactly put her (bare) feet up in lockdown. Despite giving birth to her daughter Storm in November 2020, Anna hasn’t stopped having adventures. She’s just got back from a bike ride around France which she did with Storm sitting on the back of Boudica. And, she’s about to take her family on a cruise around the Norwegian fjords. 

“Of all the things I’ve done, having a kid is the hardest,” she laughs. “At least on a solo trip I can have a 10-hour sleep and a cup of coffee in peace.”

Anna McNuff spoke to Kate Wills, author of A Trip of One’s Own, for Female SOLOists – a new monthly column for SOLO on women exploring the world their own way.

Catch up on the first interviews with Jessica Nabongo and Leilani McGonagle now.

Images: Anthony Behrens, Peter Race & National Running Show 

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