Off the beaten track: Anna McNuff

With a string of sporting achievements and a number of daring exploits under her belt, adventurer Anna McNuff knows a thing or two about bold ambitions

People 26 Feb 2019

Anna McNuff has cycled all 50 US states, across the Andes and has run 2,000 miles across New Zealand. Illustration by Lisa Tegtmeier

The mountain is frozen solid and sprinkled with snow. The sky is a dull, flat grey and the howling wind an instrument of torture. Surely no one in their right mind would be out on this mountain in the middle of winter, allowing the harsh wind to burn their skin. But there’s Anna McNuff – the British adventurer selected by Condé Nast Traveller as one of the 50 most inspirational travellers of our time – dancing atop the mountain as though she’s raving in a sweaty inner-city club.

The caption to the Twitter video reads: ‘Live like you don’t care. Dance like nobody’s watching. Especially if you’re on a mountain.’ It’s not surprising that McNuff, as the daughter of two Olympians, has adventure in her blood. Brought up with two brothers, her childhood was spent racing around BMX tracks and playing football in the Primary Boys League. Then she played for AFC Wimbledon Ladies and rowed for Great Britain, winning a gold and bronze medal.

A career in sports might have seemed inevitable, but instead McNuff got a place on Sky TV’s marketing graduate scheme (‘I couldn’t believe I was one of six picked!’) and spent five years at the company. ‘At which point I realised that I didn’t care about being promoted. I didn’t have to be there. I had a choice. I could leave.’ She was worried about informing her parents that she was ditching her corporate job to become an adventurer, but they instantly understood, saying, ‘We always knew you were bonkers. You must do what makes you happy.’

With her parents’ blessing, McNuff decided to spend 2013 cycling solo through every US state. Was she always a keen cyclist? ‘No. When I finished my rowing career, I started cycling just as a way to keep fit.’ It wasn’t until she read one of Mark Beaumont’s hugely popular books about cycling that McNuff fully realised that ‘people cycled long distance and carried their gear with them. It opened a door to another world’.

Before she left, McNuff wrote down her fears. ‘It was much easier to see them in black and white. I was worried that I might be lonely and miserable, but in fact I never got lonely. Every time I stopped at a gas station, I attracted a crowd of people who were fascinated by my challenge to cycle across 50 states.’

People in the crowd were always quick to offer advice, but McNuff was already learning how to look after herself. Above all, she realised that fear kept her safe. When, for example, a Winnebago in Yellowstone National Park nearly pulled her under its back wheels as it whizzed past, she moved onto smaller roads and accepted that the journey would take longer.

Two years after successfully completing the 11,000 mile-journey, McNuff spent nearly six months running almost 2,000 miles along a rural trail in New Zealand and then wrote a bestselling book about it called The Pants of Perspective. In 2016, a year later, she cycled along the spine of the Andes, ascending 100,000 metres on her bike.

While she is resting and planning her next trip, McNuff gives animated motivational speeches to those of us who might never adventure beyond the gym, but who want to know that life is full of possibility. ‘I explain that doing something truly worthwhile might not feel comfortable. You are, at times, going to wonder what the hell you’re doing. But, if you want it badly enough, you will find a way to make it happen.’

And to make it happen, it’s imperative to push away that niggling voice of self-doubt with which we are all familiar. ‘You can’t control everything. Things don’t go to plan. Allow yourself to feel the fear. Whatever is on the other side of that feeling is amazing. It’s how you get what you want out of life.’