Anna McNuff: My kind of adventure

From football, to rowing, to cycling, to running in a dinosaur costume - Anna McNuff is a try-it-all adventurer - what type of adventurer are you?

13 January 2017

Anna McNuff was named by the Guardian as one of the most inspiring female adventurers of our time

So naturally she’s a former Rainbow, Brownie and Guide!

She’s tried sport after sport and been on adventure after adventure – she explains how it helped her discover new parts of herself.

First it was football

From my early years all I remember is doing sport.

I was following in my brothers’ footsteps mostly, so I started playing football when I was six, but I could only play in the boys’ leagues as there were no girls’ leagues at the time.

Memories of my household were Saturday and Sunday mornings, everyone up out of bed, going and playing football.

My parents both rowed in the Moscow 1980 Olympics – Dad has a bronze medal. I played football from 6 to 16, but you had to be really good and really serious about it. At 16 I was playing for Wimbledon Ladies, and I just thought, ‘I don’t actually love football that much – it’s not really for me.’

So I was looking for a new sport. I hated rowing until that point because it was all I ever heard at home! Then my parents just sort of softly suggested I should try it, and that was it.

It suited me because you have to train hard to get results, and I’m the kind of person who likes to put loads of energy in.

I really wanted to be an Olympian

It was my dream – although I didn’t actually tell my parents that. Through university I progressed up into the GB rowing squad, but it got to the point where my days consisted of getting out of bed, going and doing things like a 24km ergo – which takes you about two hours on the rowing machine – then two more sessions, falling into bed, and getting up and doing it again. And I just thought, ‘I’m not happy. I’m not enjoying my life – I’m not enjoying sport.’

There was one session where I was on the water with my coach and I just burst into tears. I literally couldn’t row another stroke.

I went home, chatted to my parents, and my mum said, ‘What would happen if you just gave up?’ And it was the best decision I ever made.

I gave up my dream, and I’m so glad I did because I wouldn’t be doing these adventures, and this is so much more me.

After graduating, I thought I’d better get a ‘normal’ job, so I got on to a graduate scheme in a big telecoms company and spent five years doing the corporate thing. But alongside that I was doing small adventures like a race down the coast of Sweden where you swim between 38 islands and run over the top of them.

And then one day I realised that the things that made me truly happy were all the things I was doing in my holidays.

My first big adventure

I wanted to ride around the world.But I didn’t have enough money, so I scaled it back to the 50 states of America.

I loved America – I’d been a few times as a child, and there was all this amazing stuff I wanted to see. So I saved up for a year and then took an eight-month sabbatical from my job.

As soon as I was out there on the open road, meeting new people every day, writing, taking pictures, I just thought, ‘This is me. This is who I want to be.’

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My favourite trip

This was rollerblading 100 miles around Amsterdam with a friend. It was a complete disaster in some ways, because neither of us really knew how to rollerblade and she broke her hand, but it was everything an adventure should be, condensed into four days.

I’ve run the length of Hadrian’s Wall dressed as a Roman soldier, and the Jurassic coast dressed as a dinosaur – I like things that make you seem like a kid.

I think that’s what adventure’s about: it shouldn’t always be serious, it’s about exploring and learning, and the way I always learn is if it’s fun.

My next challenge

We’re flying to La Paz in Bolivia and heading down Ushuaia at the southern tip of Argentina. But I don’t just want to be racing to the finish line – when you get there, you realise there’s nothing there that you don’t already have.

My friend and I both love mountains, so we’ve decided we’re going to cycle up as many of the Andes peaks and passes as we can. We’ve got about 60 of them plotted on the rout and it’s going to be over 90,000 metres of climbs – more than 10 times the height of Everest.

Thinking about going on an adventure?

Just start.

The New Zealand run was 2,000 miles, and I 99% thought I couldn’t do it. But there was that one per cent that thought maybe I could, so I just thought, ‘Why don’t I just start on the journey and see what happens?’

Sometimes you get freaked out about everything you think is going to happen, so just start small. So if you enjoy camping but you’re nervous about wild camping, camp in your back garden on your own, or go with friends to get used to it.

It’s just about taking the very first step and everything follows on from there. And then you get that feeling, and that feeling overrides fear.

To girls considering adventure...

I would say be confident, don’t panic when things don’t work out. Don’t be so hard on yourself, don’t listen to the little voices. When you’re on your own in the bush, the only people you have to listen to are the voices in your head, and a lot of them can be very self-critical! Life is to be enjoyed. Don’t listen to people who try to tell you that you can’t do things.

There’s a life only you can lead, and a change only you can make, so embrace it.

*This interview was originally published in guiding magazine