It’s Good To Dream And Think Big
An Interview with Anna McNuff
Anna McNuff is an adventurer, writer and marketer based in Richmond, UK. Once upon a time she rowed for Great Britain, but after retiring at the tender age of 23 she began darting around the world on the hunt for new and exciting endurance challenges. The daughter of two Olympians, Anna was fortunate enough to grow up in a family passionate about sport and the great outdoors. Anna is now on a mission to give a little of that back. To help children gain access to the same sporting opportunities that she had as a youngster, and use her adventures as a platform to inspire kids to get outside, and get exploring. Most recently she wheeled her way, solo and unassisted, 11,000 miles through each and every state of the USA. She is shortly to embark on an epic run where she will be running the length of New Zealand.
Reading your site it is fair to say you were brought up in a fairly sporting family!
Yeh crazily sporty [laughs]
Did you feel pressure to emulate them, or were you inspired by them? Or a bit of both do you think?
No do you know what is really really weird. I didn’t realise until I was 16/17 that my upbringing wasn’t “normal” in the sense that every Saturday morning we would all be out by 8AM. I’ve got two brothers so we were always up and out playing football, watching football and my parents would be doing their own training and I would be off to whatever a club that I was into at that time. Even late nights my Dad would run home from his work, stash his suit in the bush on the way home, pick me up who was a baby and then run off to training. But no, there was no pressure at all, especially when it came to rowing. Obviously they rowed at the Olympics but I hated rowing until I was about 15. I did everything else like football, judo, trampolining and then when you hit 16 you kind of think well either I go really serious or I give them up. And so I was just looking for a new sport so they softly went [Anna puts on a silly, high pitched voice] “What about rowing…” and so I was like “er, alright then.” So no there has never been any pressure at all really. My mum especially was very much of the opinion just do what you want, do what makes you happy. And that’s the way I have grown up – just packing my life with things that make me happy.
So you get on with your Mum and Dad? The more interviews I am doing the clearer it becomes that anyone can do remarkable things but if you’ve got a supportive family then it does make it that bit easier.
Oh yes absolutely. We’re incredibly close as a family. And I think that is right – I probably could do the things I have done but would I have done them without their support and encouragement? Probably not. By having people who support you in what it is you do then you’re more likely to get off your bum and actually do it, because they can really help drive you. Obviously you need the will to do it yourself but if you know someone believes in you, or they encourage you in some way then obviously these types of things become easier to achieve. So my mum and I go running together often and just have a chat. We have a family holiday each year to this place in Lanzerote. I don’t think I realised until I was a bit older that what I have with my family is a very special thing. I just previously assumed that everyone had our type of relationship, our type of friendship. But as you grow up you realise that actually we’re quite unique, and I do feel very lucky.
And that’s the way I have grown up – just packing my life with things that make me happy.
So you didn’t take up rowing properly until you were 15/16 which is obviously quite late. I recently spoke to Alex Gregory [The British Gold Rowing Olympian] who also took it up late – at about 17/18 years of age. Is rowing a sport do you think you can become very good at in later years verses say football which you have to be great at in your young teens for you to stand a chance of getting to a good level and playing professionally?
So yeh I think that’s about right. It’s an all consuming sport, so there is no where to hide once you’re in it and it requires a ridiculous level of commitment. But I do think it is something you can pick up when you are a little older. We haven’t got a lot of people in our squad who are in their late 40s but we have got people who are in their 30s and picked it up in their 20s. And I think it’s a sport that you requires a certain level of dedication, and if you have that in you then you’d have a fair chance of being ok at it. Especially if you combine that with just a great sense of all round fitness – so if you come from a swimming/cycling or running environment and you are able to really dedicate yourself then yes you could probably have a good chance at succeeding. You also need a real maturity, it’s not a sport you can dip in and out and expect to be good.
So it’s an all or nothing sport?
Yep, totally all or nothing and it is so so competitive. We’ve obviously got one of the best teams in the world so if you can make the British team then you are doing well. But it is a sport you can definitely pick up later.
I saw you rowed for Britain until aged 23. And then I read, and I am not sure if this is the right word, but I read that you ‘retired’ from rowing at 23?
[Laughs] I dunno can I say I retired at 23? I dunno if that’s actually a thing!
But yes I hung up my oars.
Was that because the commitment, which is vast, didn’t end up warrant the results you were getting out? In other words had you had enough of slogging your guts out for not much in the way of huge reward [Olympic Medal]?
Yeh [Pause]. It was a really hard thing to do. I wanted to go to the Olympics. That was my dream. So that was one of the most difficult decisions I have ever had to make – giving up a sport that I had loved and one that meant so much. I had grown up with it since competing from about 16, gone through Uni with it. But I just got to the point, and this is probably more the way my personality is, where I just wasn’t happy any more. I wasn’t enjoying going out everyday to row and to me that was really sad and a bad place to be. Because of my height I had to do an extra half hour doing exercises because all I had was technique, I didn’t have the same power. So even though the dream I had, which was great, but because I was little bit smaller than the other girls, I didn’t have as much natural power, I’d always do an extra half hour of exercises – because my strength was in my technique. Even though the dream I had was great, it just didn’t merit me being unhappy for large spells of my life. I mean I got injured and ill a lot which didn’t help. And yeh I just thought, this isn’t making me happy any more. What I want from it is a great dream but day to day I wasn’t happy. So yes you’ve hit the nail on the head. The sacrifices you make in rowing are absolutely enormous so if there’s a piece of you that just doesn’t quite want it enough then you will get found out. You have 3 weeks off a year, and are training 3 times a day, 2 hours a session so it is a big commitment. And for someone who has a bit of wanderlust, who wants to see the world and meet as many people in it as I can then rowing was probably not quite the right fit for me in the end.
So are you type of the person who almost thinks life is too short, and that we should be having fun? And if you’re not having fun then you just won’t do it, and you’ll make a change? Would that be fair do you think?
That’s very fair to say. And I am getting more and more like that which is dangerous. I run around like a five year old and say “oh I like that, I like that, what about this.” Rowing was good in the sense it gave me so much like focus and determination but my personality is more outward facing. I love meeting people, and understanding what they are like. I just want to immerse myself in as much as possible and have the richest experience I can.
So would you recommend, obviously not knowing what other people’s situations are, but that if someone is not very happy at work to make a change?
Oh yeh fuck it. You’re here to live, not to exist. That is a huge, huge, realisation for me. After I gave up rowing I spent a couple of years doing smaller events, little endurance things which I was fitting all around work. Then when I came to do the big America trip, and this is going to sound so cheesey, but that everything you do is a choice. I am here by choice. You start telling yourself “well I’ve got to do this because I need to pay my rent.” But hang on you don’t have to live in London. That’s a choice you make. I think realising that you have a choice is so liberating. It’s so easy to just go through your life sitting at your desk and not really doing anything. Don’t get me wrong – to pay for these adventures I do, I sit at a desk for six months and save money but people just seem to accept that if they don’t like their job then that is it, there’s nothing they can do. If they’re unhappy then that’s just tough. But it’s bullshit.
Couldn’t agree more! Difference is I’m not as brave as you I don’t think.
I don’t think you need to be brave. You just need to really decide what it is you want, and then go and do that.
I can see me booking some ridiculous trip after this call now!
[Laughs] You just touched upon your America trip, which was ridiculous by the way [Anna cycled all 50 states of America], how did you first come up with the idea and then what did you do to make it a reality?
So I first made the decision I was going to go and do something, something big, and that I was going to go somewhere. Bit of an odd way round to do it. But I knew I wanted an adventure of some sort, and I knew I wanted to see the world. Then I honestly got a world map out, put it on my living room floor and stared at it for about an hour. It’s really weird, it’s like going shopping when you’ve actually got money. You know you can go to one of these places it’s just a case of picking one! And I didn’t even know I was going to go by bike, but I knew I wanted it to be human powered because that’s the best way to see a country I think, and I would go nuts if I didn’t do exercise. So my criteria was if I died tomorrow would I really regret having not been to this country. And there were a lot of places like that but America had so many places in it – beaches, mountains, national parks and the cool vibe of the south and stuff that I thought it would be perfect. So to me it was like visiting loads of little countries in one, and it was somewhere I’d always wanted to go.
I love America. My last year at Uni my mates and I drove from New York to Las Vegas in an RV. It was AWESOME! Like you say there’s so many different parts to it and it’s a really beautiful country. I can imagine cycling it to just be mind blowing.
It makes me realise how much American culture is prevalent in our lives as well. From movies to food – we have borrowed so much from them. I had a real deep love for America. Doing a trip like that makes it hard not to have a really strong feeling for the place you’ve just spent a large part of your life but I really did love it. It was the people. They were so wonderful, so kind. I love America’s diversity in both culture and scenery. The people there are all, generally, very politically vocal which I think is so refreshing. The religion is fascinating – the amount of it and the strength of it but it’s interesting I actually think American’s live a hard life. I think it is a very hard country to live in. For example they couldn’t understand how I was able to travel. They either thought I was homeless or very very rich. The concept of me just taking a large amount of time off from my job was completely alien to them. It wasn’t a thing for them, they just work so hard. You must have found this as well, but they get ten days holiday and if they don’t work their balls off then someone else takes their job and that’s the way it is.
Yeh I’d agree with a lot of that. Like you say it’s so rich in diversity and I love how politically vocal they are compared to the UK where we’d take it or leave it. But yes they do work incredibly hard for very little time off. So I imagine “doing something you love” is an even bigger issue for them because they spend so much time at work.
Yep absolutely. It’s a brilliant place and since coming back I don’t moan about how much work I have on.
I read that on your travels you visited schools and spoke to pupils as you went?
Yep, it’s my absolutely favourite thing to do.
So what do you do? Do you go into school and tell them about the adventure you’re doing, or the life you lived before? Or both?
So I went into schools from the UK first and spoke about bike safety. And I shared pictures of what it was I was doing. And then when I went to the US yes it was showing them where I had been, telling them stories and trying to arouse an interest in adventure and curiosity in them. I’d always speak to the teacher beforehand to see what they wanted me to focus on. One time I’d focus on bike safety as they’d just changed the laws about bike safety in that area. Another one would be biological and nutrional focused. If they were really young they’d just ask the most amazing questions. They’re so funny. “Miss, if you don’t wear a helmet and you fall do you just die.”
They just have no filter do they? It’s great!
That’s it! I love that! And we lose that. I guess for me what was cool was I was able to bring certain stuff to life for them. Geography, history etc – via my trip I was able to bring it to life. We’ve got some amazing teachers out there, but we’ve also got some bad ones and I think the ones who are really able to bring a subject to life are those that are the best. The more you encourage curiosity, and ensure it doesn’t get lost as they get older, then the better it is for the world. You’ll be more likely to understand different cultures and reduce ignorance.
The motivation behind the American trip then was 1. To have a really fun adventure. 2. To test yourself and 3. To try and educate kids in different ways, and inspire them in some way.
Yes definitely. It’s hard to say I wanted to inspire kids as it sounds a bit egotistical but if they are inspired then great. But yes, I wanted to let them know that they do have choices and if they want to do things then they can do them. When I got back home I got loads of letters from the kids and they’d say things like “I am going to walk to Greece…I am going to roller skate through Scotland.” And no doubt a lot of this won’t happen but I am proud that I have planted a little seed that says it’s good to dream, and think big.
I am proud that I have planted a little seed that says it’s good to dream, and think big.
Exactly! Were you parents supportive of this challenge, and your move away from rowing?
Oh yeh, big time. I am overwhelmed by how supportive they are. It was my mum who actually said if you are not happy then stop and do something else. My mum was petrified that I was going to get hurt in someway, and my Dad was as well – despite playing it more cool. But I got them signed up to Twitter etc so that they could follow my journey and my mum would be on Google dropping the pin to see what the different places were like and she’d be like “oo, that looks lovely there..” so all in all it worked very well.
Yes I am not sure my mum would’ve let me go for fear of what would happen to me!
A mum’s job is to worry!
So true! So were there parts of the trip that really tested you?
Yes, there was lot’s of nothing. I went through America’s loneliest road which was about 450 miles long and has up to 84 miles of nothing in places – no services, no nothing. I knew about that and prepared myself for it but then I didn’t think about the rest of the country and didn’t realise that a lot of the country would be just as isolating, and as quiet. I ended up in the northern part of South Dakota and there is literally nothing there. But everywhere seemed to have lovely people. What actually tested me the most though was probably the weather. In the UK we talk about the weather a lot but we don’t really have proper weather but in the US I hit floods, blizzards, it dropped to -22 when I was in Arkansas.
You’re quite a gregarious person. Cycling on your own must be quite isolating, and make you feel quite lonely? Did you suffer from loneliness whilst you were gone?
Do you know what’s interesting. I didn’t get nearly as lonely as what I thought I might. I did get really lonely in the last six weeks and that was honestly about it. Loneliness in my opinion happens when you don’t feel like you have a purpose in life and no one understands what you are doing and what you’re trying to achieve. I did have a purpose, and people did get it and I felt I was pumping a little bit of good into the world so any feelings of loneliness were generally replaced with excitement and pride. I honestly have never felt as happy as I did on that trip.
If I pushed you for a favourite state, is there one that rolls off the tongue or is too hard a question?
Oooo. I will answer but there has to be a caveat!
You have to take Alaska and Hawaii out as they are just both ridiculous, and amazing. So I am going to go for Utah!
Utah! Very cool! Zion National Park if I remember correctly is down there?
Isn’t it just a ridiculously beautiful, and brilliant, place!
It really is! So beautiful!
If you love Zion National Park then you are in for a big treat when you go to New Zealand [Anna is going to be running the entire length of New Zealand in 2015].
Really?! YES! SO excited!
Yep, it’s like a gigantic national park! I went for the Rugby World Cup and it’s honestly the most beautiful country.
Wow. Oh man I am so excited!
I’ll send you a mail with some of the places you have to go.
That would be awesome!
What made you pick New Zealand then? Because it’s so beautiful?
So yes I was going to be walking the length of Israel but it became quite unsafe so New Zealand was just somewhere I have always, always, wanted to go and they have just completed a really nice trail, which is perfect length so I thought I just had to do it.
And why run?
Erm. Because I love running anyway and I am intrigued by the logistics of running unsupported and I just think it’s the ultimate method of human travel. I’m not a runner but I love the idea of going back to this primal state where and see how my body reacts.
That’s fascinating! Have you got in your mind how long you will do a day?
So yes around 15-20 miles a today. World records and speed don’t really matter to me. The kicks I get out of this whole things is meeting the people and seeing the places. And the thing that frustrated me about America was that I’d always have to cycle on and get going just as I met a nice family, or saw a beautiful spot. I just did not have the time. So this trip I’m trying to mix how hard the actual challenge is and the fun. If I just run 10 miles one day then I can do 30 miles the next day – it just gives me flexibility.
30 miles is still more than a marathon! I love how casually you just said that! I honestly think I would die running 30 miles!
Your body adapts! It’ll be fine! I hope!
Cycling America, running New Zealand are obviously massive massive challenges. Do you think they have to big and bold, or are you able to do things that are tiny on scale and still get a real kick out of them?
Yeh I think a lot of adventurers struggle with this. Why are you doing it? Some might think well that will look good in the paper but actually I always come back to this. If no one else was watching, if no one else knew I was doing it, would I be doing this? And if the answer is no then just don’t do it.
That’s so funny – you’ve almost quoted James Ketchell word for word there. I did an interview with him and he said pretty much exactly the same thing!
[Laughs] Probably why we get along!
The thing that has a positive effect on the world is if you are passionate about something. People should follow their passions. So when I go into schools, if I am not passionate about what it is I am doing how can I expect other people to get passionate about it? Therefore I don’t think challenges need to be big at all. I just think they need to be what you are interested in. If you indulge your passion then you will naturally make yourself different to a lot of other people in the world, rather than just trying to be different for different’s sake. I have done loads of small adventures as well.
Some think they don’t have enough time but you can totally have an amazing adventure in 3 days! For example a friend and I rollerbladed a 100 miles around Amsterdam. She broke her hand and we slept in bushes! It was so much fun though. It didn’t cost us more than £150 but it was a real adventure.
I don’t think challenges need to be big at all. I just think they need to be what you are interested in.
So your message is that there is always exciting, fun, things people can be doing and it doesn’t always have to be this mammoth adventure.
Exactly. I came back from the US and realised I didn’t know Britain at all so I went and ran Hadrian’s Wall dressed as a Roman. I learnt it at school but I’d never actually been and it’s not far away from me. It was ridiculous I had never been. It was a little ridiculous that I dressed as a Roman but this is what I mean adventure is everywhere. Too many people just sit and wait but I really hope that through your site, and through people’s stories that people can realise that we have choice and that we can start having fun right now.
Amazing! So do you see your life being like this forever now? Are you going to be an adventurer – is that your job from now on in?
I don’t think so. I quite like dipping in and out. I see full time adventurers like Sean Conway and Ketch and they’re great but I quite like the half and half balance. Where I will work for 6 months, save up and then go away. I do like some stability, and I do like a vague plan so that’s kind of why I hope to do both.
I get the sense from some of these adventurers I speak to that as much as they love it they do still crave some normality – being a husband, being a wife or a father or a mother. And I wonder if your world allows that? I mean would you like a family, and do you think in this adventure world you can have both?
Oh no I want to get married and have babies. That’s so important to me, probably because I’ve got such a close knit family and I want that for myself. But at the same time I think it is a misconception that you can’t travel and do these things and have kids. In the adventure community I know so many people who have taken their kids away and done these really fun things. Do you know the Meeks?
No I don’t no.
They’ve got two young girls – 5 and 8 – and they’ve just taken the decision to take them out of school for a year. And go round the UK in a caravan and do school on the move basically. So everyday they have a lesson for example they recently did an entrepreneurial lesson and they went up the Penine Way and made signs and sold coffee for the people doing the walk up there. And worked out their profit, costs etc.
They want them to be curious about their environment and I think that’s great. I definitely think you can have both. Your adventures would obviously be more about family but I do think you can have an element of both.
So have you got many more challenges up your sleeve?
Oh so many! I want to roller blade across Australia. I would love to do that Israel one and would love a proper kayaking trip some day. So I’ll get this one done and then just see where it all takes me.
That’s so cool!
One final question. How can our readers get involved? Are you raising money for a charity or get involved in some way.
So I am not fundraising on this one but personally what would be really great is if decided to do a tiny adventure and then tell me about it, which I can then share with school children along my way. And obviously any tips on New Zealand – where to go, what to do and any schools I should definitely visit would be amazing.
Anna it’s been a real pleasure to talk to you today! It’s been so much fun!
No it’s been brilliant, really enjoyed it!!