Meeting Anna McNuff online during her self confessed ‘huge personal experiment’ running the length of New Zealand made me double take. Solo with her heart on her sleeve, Anna was on a mission to inspire Kiwi kids to be more adventurous along the way.
The logistics of this endeavour alone was mind boggling, but adding the fact Anna was running on trails carrying her own kit…. and then meeting all sorts of people on route… what a task. This adventure is the type to make it onto ‘that ultimate bucket list’ and Anna was actually doing it.
Along with inspiring ‘little people’ at schools on her way, Anna also raised funds for Outward Bound that sends a UK or Kiwi kid on their own adventure. After several failed attempts to cross paths during Anna’s run, we finally caught up on her completion in Auckland. I hope you find this exclusive interview as inspiring and motivating as I do.
“Jees Louise, I am tired. And it occurred to me that in my barefoot running, sunset snapping, unicorn pant wearing daily shares – that might not necessarily come across. So I thought I owed you all a little shot glass full of honesty.
The reality of entering the final month of a 6 month journey is…messy. My mind is a tangled web of thoughts, feelings and emotions – enough to give my hormonal 15 year old self run for her money. The only difference being that I can’t trudge up the stairs in my Airwalks, play Skunkanasie at full volume and cry into my pillow.” – Anna McNuff.
So, what was this all about? What was the purpose of such a bodacious endeavour?
In honesty, this was about taking on a challenge that scared the living heck out of me – one that I wasn’t quite sure I’d be able to finish. I’d been inspired after reading Born to Run and wondered for some time about seeing a country on foot, and at running pace. I love running. I always have. There’s just something about the freedom and simplicity of it that makes you feel like a kid. But I’ve never been a ‘serious’ runner per se. So when I came across the Te Araroa trail, and the thought entered my mind to do a running journey I thought: ‘Nah. That’s not for me. I mean. I can’t do that. I get shin splints if I run more than 3 times a week…’ And then I caught myself. Surely the fact that I thought I couldn’t do it, was reason enough to give it a ruddy good crack? And the rest is history.
Without an element of giving back there’s a danger that adventures become a purely selfish endeavour – and purely selfish endeavours don’t serve anyone in the long run.
How long did it take you to run the amazing Te Araroa trail, and how many Kilometres did you cover?
I covered 3,075km over 5 and 1/2 months. It took around a week longer than I’d planned – largely because I found I had an amazing ability to get distracted en route, by anything and everything. Letting myself go with the flow like that, following the adventure wherever it led me was a really liberating experience.
You carried your own gear on your back for the whole run. Amazing. What was the average weight, and do you mind telling me what you carried? Also, what was the hardest part about wearing a pack day in day out?
Yes siree, I carried the lot! And the pack came in at an average of around 14kg. At it’s heaviest, with 7 days worth of food in there it was 20kg. I was in total denial when I left thinking that it was far lighter than that – I even refused to weigh it until I was 3 months in.
I carried all the essentials: tent, sleeping bag, mat, Jetboil stove, iPhone, safety tracker, Garmin GPS, beanie, duvet jacket, two changes of running gear, toiletries, food and water. But I also made the call to carry some non essential electrical items: A camera, a Kindle (eReader), a GoPro and an iPad mini. Sharing the journey as best I could along the way was hugely important to me, and to do that I needed to carry a few extras. I wouldn’t change anything I packed – it all got used, and mostly it all got wrecked.
The hardest part of wearing a pack that heavy is the every day the strain it puts on your body – it puts it in a constant state of tension, the upper back and neck especially. I’d have to stop at least once an hour, sometimes if only for 5 minutes, to throw off the pack and let my shoulder muscles relax. My knees and hips took a pounding too, especially on the sections that involved a lot of vertical ascent. Gravity is not your friend with a bag that big.
A big focus of this run was to connect with young people on route, so you visited 35 schools to talk to the kids and teachers. What was the purpose of these visits? What did you talk to them about? Were there any standout moments from talking to young people?
Going into schools was absolutely a huge focus on the journey. Without an element of giving back there’s a danger that adventures become a purely selfish endeavour – and purely selfish endeavours don’t serve anyone in the long run. There’s always a way to pump some goodness into the planet, you just need to find something that fits. And for me that’s where the school talks came in.
The standout moments actually often came after the talks – when I got the chance to see the kind of impact my visit might have had on the life of a young kid. I had an email from a teenage girl that almost moved me to tears – explaining that she’d been struggling with her confidence recently and thanking me for giving her a little of it back. At the end of another talk one 7 year old ran right up to me and shouted: “Anna! Anna! I’ve decided I’m going to go and climb every mountain in New Zealand. Then walk to Greece. When I’m older, I mean.” This was followed closely by “Would you add me on Instagram?” Kids these days.
Every time I left a school I was totally buoyed. Kids just have no filter. They ask all the questions adults are afraid to (Like ‘where do you poop?) and don’t place any limitations on what they think is possible. Being around that kind of energy is totally rad, and infectious.
What an experience this must have been for you on so many levels. One aspect of the challenge that I imagine must be difficult is the isolation and spending so much time by yourself, indeed “with” yourself. How was this and how did you cope?
I’ll lay it on the line, I coped terribly. Well, I mean I coped, but it was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to face. I’m totally cool with solo journeys – I’ve done them before and I know my own demons well. But usually the journeys are over a shorter period of time, or I’m on a bike, on a road – and roads always lead to… somewhere. On a bush trail like the Te Araroa you can easily be a good two day run from the nearest human being.
I had three full days and nights in the bush where I didn’t see a soul. And then that would repeat for a couple of days – or I might see two people for ten minutes each. The payoff was that I was in the midst of some entirely unspoilt scenery, but after 3 months it really started to grind me down. Being completely alone is very different from taking some ‘alone time’ in a town. Without human contact you start to feel very detached from reality. When I made Wellington, and the start of the North Island, I was suffering from what I call the ‘South Island Hangover.’ I craved and clung to human contact. Even the sound of other people’s voices comforted me – the thought of going on into the hills again for long periods of time alone made me want to curl up in a little ball and sleep forever.
I wouldn’t change the isolation I experienced. I know now that too much time without human contact just isn’t for me. I thrive on the energy of others – it is absolutely my lifeblood. And I’d never have found that out without doing this journey.
You mentioned that you are inspired by, and friends with Jamie Mc Donald who is a fellow adventurer and ran across Canada dressed as Flash Gordon (as you do). Two months into your journey you had an interesting phone call with him, can you tell us about that and how it changed the direction of your own experience and focus of the run?
Yeah, Jamie was a great source of counsel through the trip – he sort of became my Yoda (minus the green skin and pointy ears). I have a huge amount of respect for him and what he’s achieved. Midway through the run he basically called me on my actions.
I’m a naturally positive person, and my social media posts tend to reflect that. But two months in he commented that I was making running a country look like I was just popping to the shops for milk. The truth was that in trying to be continually positive (my natural default), I’d forgotten that being authentic and real with your audience is the best and only way to truly help.
After a bit of coaxing I began to get more comfortable with sharing the lows as well as the highs. I hovered a number of times over the ‘publish’ button on blog posts and videos, but the response I had was phenomenal. I could see and feel people witness what I was going through and think. “Well if Anna’s doing that, and she’s petrified, but she’s doing it anyway, maybe I can go and do <that thing that’s scaring the crap out of me> too. ”
Physically, how did the body cope on such a long run?
Bodies are amazing things. I learnt that on the first long cycle tour I did. They resist at first, but if you guide them with a firm enough hand in one direction – they’ll adjust. We’re built to evolve – it’s what we do. My first experience of that was the fact that my feet grew half a size during my training, in the months leading up to the run! That freaked me out! But it was my body saying: ‘OK, I see what we’re doing here, let’s adapt a little to help you on your way.’
During the actual run, I kept a close eye on what I was feeling. I only took 6 anti-inflammatory tablets in the entire 5.5 months. I wanted to listen to my body, I wanted to hear what it was telling me and react. I had a lot of pain, but generally it would move around. The first 2 weeks were the worst – I went out super hard and smashed myself to bits. I arrived in Wanaka and swore and cried my way through the most painful Sports massage I’ve ever had.
The first 2 weeks were the worst – I went out super hard and smashed myself to bits. I arrived in Wanaka and swore and cried my way through the most painful Sports massage I’ve ever had.
After then, I had a rule that if pain in a certain area stayed for 4 days, and continued to worsen after that – then I really needed to address it. And by address it I mean take a few days of rest. I don’t know why I picked 4 days! It just seemed to fit! Anything less than that, I just ran through it. It wasn’t always fun but I got used to being in pain and learnt ways to cope, and shift my focus to other things.
The only time my body really began to fell apart was in the final few weeks. And that’s because I knew I was near the end. Once you know you’re ‘hanging on’ – you begin to give yourself permission to listen to the pain.
Looking back on the whole experience, is there anything that you would have done differently?
Jeeez. That’s a toughie! I’m a firm believer that all experiences make you who you are, and I’m not one for dwelling what might have gone differently. But I would have like to have started the whole trip a month earlier. If only to avoid the 3 weeks of torrential rain in the North island which just made things a bit less fun through the middle section. And knowing what I know now about the New Zealand bush I’d probably have also taken myself on a backcountry skills course. Just to make crossing rivers on my own that little bit less scary.
“…but… why don’t you just walk it then?” I’d tell them “Because I like running. I just like running.”
Everything else, the hardships, the backpack, the isolation – I wouldn’t change it for the world. It’s a bloody great story to tell my grandkids, and that’s what life’s about.
The South and North Islands are stunning, and so different in so many ways. Can you explain how they were different for you?
Absolutely – they’re like two entirely different countries! The South island is all about wide open spaces, mountains, untapped wilderness and what can only be described as ‘big scenery’.
The North island is all about the people and the beaches. I was overwhelmed with kindness and ran on some of the most spectacular stretches of sand I’ve ever come across.
People ask me to pick a favourite between the two, but I just can’t. It’s like choosing a favourite child. You have to travel through both to truly understand the history and culture of the country.
What aspect of the experience was the most challenging?
New Zealand has some weather! And I mean serious weather – it can change the most stunning and enjoyable day into an absolute nightmare, and a dangerous one at that. It became quite a challenge when I was preparing to enter areas where I wouldn’t have any phone signal for a week or so. I had to go in, informed about the storms headed my way the best you could, and hope that I was near enough to shelter if things turned nasty. I remember the week after I finished – watching the weather report on the TV and thinking “I don’t have to care anymore. I can just stay inside and watch the rain batter the window panes from next to the fire.” That was a sweet relief.
Do you have a real highlight for the run that you will never forget?
Definitely. My most memorable day was up on the Mount Rintoul ridge-line. I was absolutely prettified for most of it. The trail began with a steep ascent from a backcountry hut that overlooks the Tasman bay. I’d stayed at the hut with two people I’d been bumping into on the trail for some time. We all got up in the dark and they left an hour or so ahead of me.
The trail around Mount Rintoul is knarley. On a clear day it’s beyond stunning, but it’s also a technically difficult section. Lots of scree slopes, scrambling along narrow ridges, following feint ground trails and spotting cairns (rock piles) to allow you to find your way to the next hut.
I spent the day fritting between being absolutely petrified, and completely elated. It was exhausting. I caught up my two friends, and we stopped for lunch together to take in the views. It was amazing to be able to share some of that day with those friends, and to wind up at the same hut as them that night to reminisce.
That day was everything a true adventure should be. It was life at it’s absolute richest. If I could live out each day feeling even a tenth of the emotion I felt on that day, I’ll die a very happy girl.
What about a really challenging point of the adventure that you will never forget?
Urgh, yes!! There was without doubt ‘the day from hell’ which stands out as a turning point in the trip. I’d waited out some pretty nasty rain for a few days, and the next section involved crossing a river around 30 times. I was nervous about river crossings at the best of times, but I’d spent the night up a mountain pass in a hut on my own and was feeling a little creeped out when I started to descend the river. I’d psych myself up repeatedly to cross, clipping my safety tracker to my bra in case I lost my pack in a fall. I was tired and frustrated when I stepped off a rock and went over on my ankle with a loud crack. I knew it was pretty bad but I was still a few hours from a place flat enough to pitch my tent.
The next few hours were painfully slow, and involved going through a flood track which was completely destroyed on account of the recent bad weather. And then, oh yep, a wasp stung me on my hand. Seriously?!
In the grand scheme of a big brand, there is the danger that your journey becomes throwaway. And no one’s journey should ever become that.
I crawled into my tent that evening, exhausted, with no phone signal, a swollen thumb from the sting and a rapidly ballooning ankle. To be alone that night and have to make the decision whether I pushed on or went back was something I’ll never forget. I’d hit rock bottom.
That day showed me that you should never underestimate your own mental strength. When you’re actually at rock bottom – you realise that things could actually be a whole lot worse, and that brings about a deep sense of calm. In the end I pushed on slowly and kept the ankle strapped up for the next 6 weeks until it was strong enough to cope.
I started following you (Paul) on Twitter sometime ago because you really stood out from everyone else running for a “long ass time” due to your humility and sense of purpose. You run because you love it. Minimum brand saturation, nice and simple. How do you feel about adventures that are governed by sponsors and brands?
Aye me. How long have you got on this?! My approach to sponsorship in general is that if the brand fits with me, and I fit with them – and we dig each other with no amount of compromise, then happy days. If I have to start compromising what I feel is important – i.e doing some good, helping, spreading the love, then it just doesn’t sit right. When I’m old and grey I want to look back on my one short life and know I did the most with it I could. I won’t remember that I got a free pair of trainers or that <insert global brand> tweeted about me. In the grand scheme of a big brand, there is the danger that your journey becomes throwaway. And no one’s journey should ever become that.
Don’t get me wrong. I want to make waves. To me the definition of success is to leave this world just that little bit better than you found it, and sometimes it’s best to do that from the ground up. One human connection at a time, making a lasting impression with a handful of people, rather than a fleeting one with the masses.
I also think there’s a sense of responsibility here – especially if people are looking to you for advice. When followers go to my site and look at my gear list, I want them to know it’s an honest list. It’s what I thought was the best on the market for the task at hand, not what I happened to be able to score for free. Although I was given my tent for free as part of another project I worked on… But I’ve openly stated that, and noted that it is, in fact, a great tent!!
The saddest part about the impact of big brands, is that it leaves the impression that every journey has to be the hardest, the most arduous, and the fastest.
Do you think that the input and needs of brands in our running culture can change the focus such adventures? Or the experience of the person running it?
Absolutely. All too often the truly important aspects of an adventure can get lost when big brands get involved. They tend to want things that’ll grab media attention, and that can lead to over-exaggeration. The response to the run was a classic example if it. Mostly I’d get asked how ‘fast’ I was running it. And what World record I was aiming to break. One girl even asked if I could register for a world record to be the first female to run it unsupported, just so that she could say she knew someone who’d broken a world record.
When people clocked that you could actually thru hike the trail in less time, they became confused. “but… why don’t you just walk it then?” I’d tell them “Because I like running. I just like running.”
The saddest part about the impact of big brands, is that it leaves the impression that every journey has to be the hardest, the most arduous, and the fastest. And that trickles through to the grassroots – I know so many people who won’t go running because they feel inadequate. They feel too slow, like they’re not achieving anything significant. I want to scream at them: “Who cares?! Go running because it makes your heart beat fast and your legs scream in protest! Grab your shoes and get outside. Run in an old t-shirt with no concept of times or distance. Run naked if you like, just get out there!”
One question you got time and time again by people en route was about losing weight and how this got you thinking. You mentioned that you are writing a blog post about how running the length of NZ did not make you look like Kate Moss. You are still YOU. It got us talking about perception of runners in our culture, and let’s be honest, there is a problem with body image. The media and running mags are full of skinny models wearing the latest kit, and when searching for ‘runner’ images online it’s just not good for the soul. What do you feel about media focus on the ‘ideal’ body image for runners?
Yep. Contrary to expectation, running the length of New Zealand did not result in me looking like Kate Moss! Amazing isn’t it? I’m 5ft 10 and I’d say a strong looking kind of girl. I started the run weighing 74kgs and finished it at 72kgs. Heck, you could lose more than that by not drinking wine for a few weeks. I did lose more weight than that at one point, but it would happen when I wasn’t eating properly and as I result I became weak. My body just isn’t built that way. I’m more of a pack horse than a gazelle – and although I lost about 1cm off my thighs, I gained that in calf girth. My calfs got massive and I love that! I’m flexing my big calfs all over the show now – they’re like a trophy, a reminder of what I went through.
I didn’t really think about it too much along the way, but whenever someone would ask me a question about losing weight, usually a high school girl, or one of their female teachers – I’d be honest with them. I’d tell them that no I hadn’t lost much. That our bodies are all wonderfully unique and mine was sticking to it’s guns.
The running magazines do make me laugh. I think it’s why I quickly tell people that I’m not a ‘runner’. Because I pick up these magazines and I don’t see myself in these people at all. I know the girl on the front cover with the perfect abs and hair flowing behind her (who runs with their hair down?!) – she’s probably never got muddy in her life. Our magazines are in in danger of becoming a paper version of the Truman Show. Where are all the real people?!
Social media; It’s such a great way to connect to people and particularly during such amazing adventures, but it can also be totally consuming for athletes and celebrities. How do you feel about using social media as a tool to inspire others to get involved with running?
I love Social Media. I really and truly do!! I use it in all my adventures as a way to connect and take people on the journey with me. It is a powerful tool, and I think there’s a responsibility there to keep it as real as possible. It’s designed to be a window into your real life / your journey. It shouldn’t be over engineered, false, or hide any real issues. That only feeds the problem – the obsession we have with perfection and the perception that others are ‘better than us’.
There are times when it can become a bit of a chore, especially when I was only in a town for a day and all I wanted to do was eat and sleep, but I had to remember – this is my tribe. The people on Facebook are my adventure army. I want them to share in what I’m doing in the hope that they go in search of a passionate life themselves. And I’ll be honest – I needed them. My audience became my virtual family on the road, giving me the boost I needed when times got tough.
I think we need to remember that we don’t create change as an individual. What sets the human race apart from other animals is our ability to cooperate on mass, to move things in a new direction. You’re never going to change the world without others at your side.
When you get back to the UK you are heading back to work part time and writing a book, which will tell the story of your run and the people you met en route. Can you share a few of these moments with us?
Oh man, there were so many! People just rock. I will always maintain that we are, as a race, inherently kind. And this trip reinforced that belief. I picked up a few guardians on the route – one of these was a guy I came to call ‘Coach Ron’. He became a father figure on the trail. He was 65 and had sold his house in Canada to begin traveling the world as a nomad. We’d cross paths every now and then, and he’d leave me notes, food even, and send me messages about the state of the trail ahead. He also hiked with a carbon fibre guitar in his backpack – so if i managed to wind up in the same hut as him that night, I’d get treated to some Johnny Cash country tunes!
The other couple that made real impression two people from Wanaka. One of them was a brother of my friend from back home. I’d never met them before when I rocked up at their house after a few weeks of running. Shortly after I left them I got stuck in a storm and had to hunker down in a hut for a few days. They watched my tracker online and saw that it’d stopped moving. Unbeknown to me they also fielded a call from my worried Mum! When I ran out of the storm and hit the first section of road – there they were! They’d driven over the mountains and brought coffee and chicken sandwiches in case I was low on food, which I was! It was such a great example of human kindness and that you can never know how the day will unfold on an adventure.
Where can we find you online?
I can be found every day at these hangouts. And I love it when people say hello, ask questions, or tell me how they’re smashing life themselves:
Anna’s written extensively about the adventure over on her blog.