Serious Sisu: Anna McNuff
Anna McNuff is a British adventurer, expert in ‘human-powered journeys’ and a motivational speaker and author. She was recently named by Condé Nast Traveller as one of the 50 most influential travellers of our time, and by the Guardian as one of the top modern female adventurers. In 2015, Anna ran from the northern to the southern tip of New Zealand, drawing on some unusual tactics to get her through the tough times. When not running up mountains or sleeping in the wild, Anna encourages others to grab hold of life. As a former elite rower and the daughter of two Olympians, Anna has a fascination for exploring the limit of human potential. Anna’s brand new book, The Pants of Perspective – one woman’s 3000 kilometre running adventure through the wilds of New Zealand, is available through Amazon in paperback or Kindle version, in 12 countries worldwide.
What influences shaped you growing up?
As a child, I had two brothers, so it never occurred to me that I wouldn’t go out and do exactly what they were doing. My mum tells me that she grew up reasonably confident, but in the course of secondary school, she had it battered out of her. When she gave birth to a girl, she vowed to give me all the confidence she never had. She has just constantly told me that I can do anything. Of course I have self-doubt, as everyone does, but my mum’s mission worked. She gets really happy and emotional when she sees the things I’m doing now; it’s everything she once wished to do.
If you could go back and give some advice to your 15-year-old-self, what would you say?
When I was 15, I was absolutely miserable. Despite being very confident, I really struggled to fit in for a couple of years at school, because you’re at that age when friends might be experimenting with drink and drugs and staying out late. I was heavily into sport, and training hard for rowing. If I could go back and talk to my fifteen-year-old or sixteen-year-old self, I would say, it’s ok to be different, that’s what makes you ‘you’. Don’t just try and blend in, keep hold of the things that make you different, because in the end, that what’s going to lead you to find a happy path in life.
How have you dealt with failure?
The biggest turning point in my life was actually a huge failure, in the traditional sense. I was rowing for Great Britain and had a dream to go to the Olympics like my parents (Ian and Sue). That was all I had ever wanted since I was a kid. It came to a point when I was 23, and it had been quite a hard year. I was on the outskirts of the squad, and I kept getting ill and injured all the time. It was during one training that I realised, I just couldn’t do it anymore. I was completely broken. This massive dream I had to go to the Olympics didn’t look like I thought it would. I’d completely fallen out of love with sport as a whole, which was so sad for me. I didn’t get there, I didn’t make my dream, and in my eyes, I’d failed. But, I don’t regret it, and now I see that that’s what led me on to the adventure path.
What was your first adventure?
I was going to Birmingham to see a guy I was dating when I noticed that there was a canal path that went all the way – 137 miles – from West London to his door. I thought, why just sit on a train when I can cycle this? So the alarm went off at about 3am and I packed myself some sandwiches, got my bike and a puncture repair kit, and I just set off up this canal path.
How does one become a professional adventurer?
I was originally in marketing, working with a fantastic company. It was really exciting at first, but I felt a lack of freedom, and it wasn’t ticking the creativity boxes and actually doing something in the world that mattered. So I went home and planned my first big bike trip through the 50 states of the USA.
I blogged about the experience, and people would send me messages saying ‘thank you for taking us with you on this journey’. When I returned, I realised I had the ability to create a movement. All people needed was a nudge in the right direction. It wasn’t that they didn’t know how to have an adventure, they just needed someone to say ‘yes you can’.
What holds people back?
Thoughts like: I’m not going to make it, or everyone’s going to think I’m a fraud, or they’re going to laugh at me—all those kinds of fears are not tangible, so people struggle to deal with them. I’ve learned that there’s nothing you can’t do, but it comes down to a choice: The path will be tough, but if you want to get to your goal, there’s always a way. I think people often look at the trips that I do and they think I’m different in some way, but I’m not. The fact is we’re all the same.
You say that you are not a runner, and yet you ran the length of New Zealand, carrying a pack!
I still don’t think I’m a runner, but I suppose I should. I never run with a watch, and I don’t wear little shorts, I’ve not got a six-pack, so I think I’m not one of those runners! I’m a different kind of runner, the kind we can all be.
What made you decide to write about the experience?
The New Zealand trip was definitely the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It pushed me so far to the edge of everything. Physically it was pretty tough, because I was running with this huge backpack. Mentally I found it so difficult because in New Zealand, there’s literally no one there in certain places. I would go for 3 days without seeing a soul, and that really started to get to me; facing so much alone. But in a way, there was no option to stop. I wrote the book because I want to share the emotional rollercoaster that it was – a kind of five-month journey in my mind.
Where did the pants of perspective come in?
The pants are a brightly coloured pair of running tights, which feature a unicorn having a fight with a robot, under a rainbow. I put them in my bag for New Zealand because I thought, I’m going to have some pretty horrific days.
When I was about four days from anywhere in the middle of the bush, I sprained my ankle really badly. I was there completely on my own, isolated, terrified. I felt so out of my depth. I woke up in the morning and put on these ridiculous leggings and I just laughed. I realised actually, it’s fine: I’ve got shelter, I’ve got food, I’ve got water. It was the only time in the whole run where I walked—I strapped up my ankle and pushed on. My pants of perspective were a mechanism to snap me back to reality: There are people who don’t have a choice in the world as to how they live their lives, but I do, I’m very lucky.
You spoke to school students along the way, what was that like?
My favourite group to speak to would be a room full of 15-year-old girls. We’d talk about everything: what they were afraid of, or what they would love to do with their lives. It showed me how fragile they are at that age. The lack of confidence was starting to creep in, and worry about what their peers think of them … you can just sense the fear. I think if you can catch those girls at that point, and say to them: no, hold steady, it’s cool, be who you want to be, that makes a massive difference.
What do you think those raising and teaching young kids can do to support them?
I think it’s that idea of holding someone loosely. Rather than wrap a kid in cotton wool, give them the freedom to bounce around and make their own mistakes. Realise that you are raising a young adult, and their interests and their passions are going to be different to yours, so let them do their thing, and reassure them wherever you possibly can.
How do you define success?
My favourite definition of success is that you leave the world a little bit better than you found it. As human beings, our capacity for personal growth is incredible. I just say every year and every day I’m trying to find new ways to be a better human being.
Who do you think has serious Sisu?
There’s a woman called Rosie Swale-Pope, and she wrote a book called Just a Little Run Around the World, and her bravery inspired me to start my trips. The other person is Sarah Outon, who has rowed loads of oceans. When I read her accounts of being strapped in her boat and being tossed around in a hurricane, I don’t know how she does it. They’re some serious SisuGirls.