Q&A: Anna McNuff

Photo by Peter Race

What made you choose the Te Araroa trail?

My ideas for adventure always start with an intention to explore somewhere on my ‘peg it’ list. It’s a list of five countries that I think I just have to see before I die. New Zealand was way up on that list, so when I found that there was a trail that went the whole length of the country, I thought: “That’s it - that’s the one I’m going to run!” From the outset The Te Araroa it seemed to have everything I wanted in a long distance trail - varied terrain, history the chance to pass through small towns. The fact that it’s not yet a well-trodden path added extra appeal. 

Where did you stay along the way? How did you handle the run unsupported?

I carried a small one (wo)man tent with me, so on a lot of occasions I’d just wild camp wherever I managed to find flat ground and a water source. Its odd how a small tent can feel like home after a while - I started to call it my pop up palace. And water was never an issue, especially in the South island where there are beautiful glacial streams everywhere. 

New Zealand also has a fantastic backcountry hut tradition. Dotted throughout the south island, and in some of the North Island are huts originally intended for shepherds, forestry workers, miners or just outdoor enthusiasts from years gone by. Some of the huts would date back to the 1800’s and come complete with mice and rats. But others, like those in the national parks are much more modern. I bought a 6-month hut pass and that meant I was free to stay in any of the huts I came across. They were an awesome place to meet other trampers on the trail, you never knew who or what you’d find inside when you flipped that latch on the door. 

Running the trail unsupported was blummin’ tough at times, especially when I was carrying up to seven days worth of food through the bush between towns, but I love the freedom and added challenge that being self supported brings to a journey. 

There’s a vast amount of different terrains on the trail. How did you adapt your kit to cope with them?

Oh yes, this trail has everything! Which is one of the reasons why I loved it so much. From scree, to swamps, flood plains, muddy forests, gravel roads and big stretches of sandy beach. The biggest consideration for kit was really a trainer to cope with all of that. I chose to run in men’s Brooks Adrenaline ASRs. They’re really supportive shoes, and even though I’ve got skinny feet - running in men’s shoes gave my feet space to breathe. I went through five pairs over the course of the trail because of the rough terrain, but they served me well. 

And as far as coping with the trail mentally, I loved the varied terrain, although it’s unpredictability would drive me nuts at times. In the South island I’d set out for a 20-mile day on the trail not knowing if it was going to take me four hours or 10! Still, being able to run barefoot along a 50 mile stretch of beach at the end was incredible - where else in the world do you get the chance to do that?!

How did you prepare for the challenge?

I ran 60-80 miles a week for the four months leading up to getting on the plane to New Zealand. It was a bit of a zero to hero training story. When I called up a coach to ask him to help me six months before leaving he asked me how much running I was doing at the moment. My answer was none! I hadn’t run in months, but I was determined to prepare myself the best I could. In the end the training wasn't about getting fit necessarily, it became about understanding my body. About learning what niggles I tended to pick up. In a run that long I knew there were bound to be injuries, so it was more about understanding the fine line between an injury and niggle, and how to manage both when they arose. 

I also had a lot of help from a strength and conditioning coach at Gloucester’s Athlete Academy. He packaged me up some exercises to do every day to keep my body as mobile as possible. It’s amazing how quickly parts would seize up. If I’m honest I only did them for the first three months of the run, which is why I picked up so many injuries in the second half…! Typical athlete. 

How did you fuel along the way?

Chocolate. Chocolate. Chocolate. Okay I’m joking. But seriously - chocolate. If I ran out of the good stuff on any given day it was a bad day. The irony being that it would be because I’d eaten my own chocolate ration the day before. Other than that it was just whatever food I could pick up in town. Mostly porridge, nuts, Haribo, cheese, noodles and tuna. Oddly I never got bored of the nightly noodle surprise, not in five and a half months of running, I still always looked forwards to it. And I think I actually ate less on the trail than I would in a normal day sat around at home. Anything I was going to eat I had to carry, and so I really tried to get the balance right - there was nothing more annoying than arriving into town with a load of spare food (and extra weight) in your pack. 

What was the most rewarding part of the run? Why?

That has to be the times I found myself up on a ridgeline at 1,700 metres - surrounded by other mountains peeking through a blanket of clouds. I’d spend those days petrified and elated all at once. I’d run along windswept ridges thinking: “Now this is living!!!” If I could live every day of my life feeling like I did on those days, I’d be a very happy girl. 

What was the lowest moment you had? How did you cope?

My toughest moment was on the Deception River near Arthurs Pass in the South Island. There are only one million people living in the South Island, and most of them live in the cities - so I would run for days through the bush without seeing a soul. On this particular day I’d had to cross a fast flowing river 30 times, and with each crossing I became increasingly frightened. I knew that if I tripped, or fell I could wind up in some serious trouble. And unfortunately that’s exactly what happened - I stepped off a rock and my ankle gave way with a loud crack.

I thought I’d broken it at first, but luckily it was just badly sprained. It took me four hours to hobble to a spot flat enough to set up camp, and there I was faced with a decision - did I push on four days to the next town, or did I go two days back to where I come from? Making that decision alone, with no source of counsel was tough. But after a while I was overcome with a deep sense of calm. And when I woke in the morning I felt far stronger than I had the night before. I decided to strap up the ankle and pushed on into the bush. I’ll always maintain that it’s in our darkest moments that we learn the most about ourselves. These are the times when we grow, and discover an inner strength we never knew existed.

Did you struggle with any injuries on the route?

Other than the sprained ankle, which I kept strapped for six weeks afterwards, I had a range of injuries - but my rule was as long as the pain moved around - I was okay! I’d have a pain in my hip and then my neck would start hurting, which was great as I stopped thinking about the hip. Worked a charm. I had a nasty fall in a forest, which snapped my shoulder back quite hard so that gave me some jip, and still does now. 

I really started to suffer in the final few weeks because I gave up on doing any sort of stretching. I just wanted to make the finish and so I stopped looking after myself so well.  I developed a real hotspot on my left shin, which I had to ice three times a day. But by that point, I was a woman possessed. Pain is a fascinating thing, I wasn’t scared of the pain anymore, the only concern was doing something to my body, which was irreparable. Luckily six months on and my body is just about recovered and ready to rock again. 

How much did you raise in the end? Where’s it all going to?

By the end of the run I’d raised £7,000 for The Outward Bound Trust. The money is split between New Zealand and the UK and will go towards paying for disadvantaged children to be able to go on Outward Bound courses. The fundraising was great, but I placed equal importance on the school visits during the run - showing kids how awesome their country is, and planting the idea that big challenges aren’t necessarily crazy was a huge aim of the journey. 

How did you celebrate when you finished?

Ha, now that’s a funny one because I didn’t really celebrate. When you finish a journey like that, it’s not elation at the finish line, more a feeling contentment and extreme relief. I couldn’t quite believe I’d done it, and more than that I couldn't believe it was all over. I was at the very tip of the country so after getting some tourists to take a picture of me, I hitched a ride in a car to the nearest town south. I made some Skype calls to friends and family who were just waking up to the news that I’d finished a day ahead of schedule (because I’d decided to run 32 miles on the last day!) Then I walked out, got a takeaway curry and sat in a hostel watching Tom Hanks in The Terminal. The backpacker sat next to me asked me what I’d been doing in New Zealand, and I just smiled and said: “Oh you know, just travelling around.”

What’s next for you?

Next up is a journey with a twist. On Feb 15th I’ll be leaving my back garden in London, with a backpack and a bivvy and letting the people on my Facebook page direct me across Europe for a month. On March 13th, wherever I am - I’ll catch a flight home. 

I’ll be walking the whole time, and it’s a journey designed to show people that adventures don’t need to be heavily planned - you can literally just leave your back garden for a month with the intention to go exploring. It’s stepping out of my comfort zone in an entirely different way to the NZ run - I’ll get to live each day as it comes, and hopefully the good people of social media won’t send me to Scandinavia - it’s cold up there in February!


Anna McNuff will be speaking at the Outdoor Adventure & Travel Show at London ExCeL, which takes place from February 11-14 2016.