It’s amazing the power of a throwaway comment. One morning over breakfast, full-time adventurer Anna McNuff revealed her latest plan to her boyfriend: 50 marathons, across the UK, entirely barefoot – “Barefoot Britain” was the phrase that had been stuck in her head since her last challenge, cycling 5,500 miles through the Andes across 2016 and 2017.
Of course, given that her boyfriend is Jamie McDonald, who had just finished a coast-to-coast run across America dressed in a green superhero costume and calling himself “Adventureman”, she might have known he would say something like, “Yeah, but 100 marathons sounds better, doesn’t it.”
“Dammit, it does!” she agreed, and so the stakes were raised. A distance of 2,620 miles, beginning on 2 June in Skaw on the Shetland Islands, taking in the Isle of Man, Isle of Wight, Northern Ireland, Jersey and Guernsey and finishing on 10 November in London. No shoes allowed.
Furthermore, McNuff, an ambassador for UK Girl Guiding, has plotted her route to reach as many Guide units as possible, arriving in the evenings to give motivational talks and show them her disgusting feet. “I want to bring it to life for them, show them that I’m a real human being and I’m really doing it, and it’s hard and it’s awesome and all those things,” she says.
The 34-year-old daughter of Ian and Sue McNuff, who both rowed for Great Britain at the 1980 Olympics in Moscow, she was a Team GB rower herself between the ages 19 and 23 and won a bronze medal at the European Championships in 2007. An injury caused her to miss the Under-23 World Championships, she didn’t quite make the cut for the Beijing Olympics, and she quit, broken by coming so close to glory without fully tasting it. “I learned so much from rowing but it wasn’t my path,” she says today. “What I do now is so much more me – to be creative and write books and share.”
She started working in marketing and, conditioned by structured training programmes and organised competition, did an Ironman, some ultra runs and the Swedish swimrun race ÖTILLÖ. “But I realised what I really wanted to do was just GO,” she says. In 2013 she cycled across every state in the US and one Canadian province – 11,000 miles over seven months.
Like many of us, she read Christopher McDougall’s book Born to Run, took in its message about the benefits of minimal running, bought a pair of Fivefingers, “ran 10k and absolutely destroyed myself.” Getting ready to run this epic distance barefoot has been a much longer process. “I’ve essentially spent four and a half years transitioning down from trainers.”
She says she isn’t an evangelist for barefoot running – “You should run in whatever you’re comfortable in.” – but that was the element that changed the challenge from being tough but achievable into something genuinely scary. She had already run a similar distance, 1,911 miles along New Zealand’s Te Araroa trail, in trainers in 2015. “I know I could do this in shoes, so it’s bringing in the bare feet that makes me take a deep breath – that is next level,” she says. “There’s a fine line between terrified and excited. You have to be on that knife edge. I’ve got that ‘What have I done?’ feeling. I do think it’s possible, but there is so much that can go wrong. That’s how I know it’s the right adventure.”
In New Zealand she had a 14kg backpack and slept wild most of the time. This time she’s put the call out for hosts who can put her up and drive her stuff to the next stopping point, so that she can travel as minimally as possible. She’ll run generally five days a week, sometimes marathon distance, sometimes shorter, plotting a route that enables her to inspire in person as many of the UK’s almost half a million Girl Guides as possible. That means treading on sheep poo and thistles in all of the UK’s National Parks, but also chewing gum and kebab wrappers in plenty of cities.
McNuff rinsed Guiding for all it was worth as a child, passing through Rainbows, Brownies and Guides. She came back as an ambassador after reconnecting to present an award in 2016, impressed at the recent modernising overhaul of the badge programme. “They’re doing bushcraft, mindfulness, entrepreneurship, self-care – they’re creating the next wave of feminists, teaching girls how to campaign for things. These girls are gonna be a real pain in the butt!”
As the middle child between two brothers, and a keen footballer, she says she grew up less aware of inequality than many. “I didn’t see myself as any different. It’s only later in life I’ve realised it’s an issue for a lot of women,” she says. Now she wants to be an example. “The best way to help the younger generation of girls is to get out there and do adventures, so they don’t even question the fact that it’s a girl doing it.”
She’s been running completely barefoot for the past six months, including doing the London Marathon unshod, but it’s been a much longer process to get to this point. As she looks way back, she can see that she was destined to end up doing something like Barefoot Britain. “My mum was always telling me to put my shoes on or I’d get cold,” she says. “if you look at photos of me when I was a kid, I’m always naked. I was a bit of a feral child. That’s what barefoot running is to me – freedom! The shackles are off, you’re away.”
AND THIS LITTLE PIGGY RAN THE LENGTH OF BRITAIN – ANNA McNUFF’S THREE BAREFOOT RUNNING TIPS
Don’t try and do it overnight
I’d been running in Vivobarefoots for about three years, then mixing between them and these socks with a thick rubber bottom. Then I switched between the socks and running barefoot. I had some problems with my achilles, but eventually it piped down. Your body’s like the foundations of a building, just settling into place.
It’s okay to run just on the surfaces you want to run on
If you just want to run on grass, do that. If you like forests, fine. You don’t have to push yourself to do brutal stuff.
Have faith that your body will adapt
When I stood barefoot on the start line of the London Marathon this year, I thought, ‘Am I mad? Have I gone too far this time?’ It was absolutely fine. I was sore, but after all those runs I’d been doing, I had adjusted.