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How Anna McNuff powered through 3,700K in five months–in bare feet

Only once did McNuff allow herself to describe a feeling of extreme exhaustion on social media

On Sunday, Anna McNuff wrapped up her #BarefootBritain quest, the equivalent of 90 marathons, running the length of Britain in bare feet, giving inspirational talks to 70 groups of Girl Guides in towns, cities and villages along the way. Her journey began in June in the upper reaches of Scotland (the Shetland Isles, to be specific) and ended in London in unicorn tights. Along the way, McNuff depended on the kindness of inspired strangers to cook her dinner, put her up for the night and transport her bag from one location to the next.

RELATED: Barefoot runner Anna McNuff completes 3,700K #BarefootBritain journey

McNuff, 30, whose parents are both Olympian rowers, has a mass of hot pink curls and a personality to match–zany, good-natured and tough as nails. But in an interview, she revealed how difficult the run was, how relieved she is to have it done, and the desire to now relax with her partner, Jamie McDonald (who ran across Canada in 2013-2014). McNuff’s next goal has nothing to do with running and everything to do with starting a new generation of adventurers.

CR: Anna! How are you feeling, overall?


AM: I don’t know yet. I’m just relieved, that’s the main feeling, I can relax. It’s been five and a half months of psyching myself up to run every day, playing mind games, and I don’t have to push any more. I can relax a bit. A bit like a giant dream, as well. You do sort of think, what just happened?

CR: Where did you end your run, and why did you finish early? What was your final mileage?  

AM: I finished early in terms of distance, running 90 marathons instead of 100. I had to have such a tight schedule because of the Girl Guiding talks–I was doing three a week. So while I had the foot infection, I carried on along the scheduled route, just not running. When I was able to, I started running again. I did the route but for a 200-mile block (or the rough equivalent of 10 out of the scheduled 100 marathons), I didn’t run. We had a mega spreadsheet with all the talks and logistics on it.

CR: How did you train to run barefoot?

 AM: With my past projects, I’ve figured, I’ll just work it out on the road, but with this one I thought, I need to take it a bit more seriously, because it’s going to be tough for my body… I had already spent about three years in really minimalist running shoes. Then I spent a year and a half transitioning down with six months in minimalist shoes, then six months in Skinners socks, then six months in bare feet. It was very gradual.

RELATED: Olympians’ daughter running the length of Britain, barefoot

I had no issues or injuries during this time, but every time I went for a run I wanted to come back with the evidence that you can do this, and I always came back feeling OK but knowing it was going to be really tough, and how am I going to do it? I had no idea how I was going to make it. Whenever I would encounter gravel, it became really difficult. With something like this, you’re not going to know what’s coming. Some surfaces will inevitably cause pain and discomfort. Plus I wasn’t training for 20 miles plus for days at a time, so I couldn’t and didn’t want to replicate what I was going be doing during the run. I was as prepared as I could be, but it was still very nerve-wracking.

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Cheeky wee tester run for #BarefootBritain done this evening, and I’m mostly feeling like THIS! Cripes.🇬🇧🏃🏼‍♀️ . Thanks to @zerosixzeromap you can watch the Mini-Me-McNuff start moving from the most northerly town in Britain tomorrow. I’ll be setting off from Skaw at 11am. Click the link in my @annamcnuff bio, and bookmark that badboy for the next few months. . I’ve got a good reason to get to the end of the first wee run tomorrow, because a) Jane who I’m staying with makes a MEAN strawberry shortcake 👌🏻😋 🍓 and b) I’ll be running straight into speaking to some Brownie Guides in Baltasound, Unst. 🙌🏻💕 . @girlguiding #InspireGirls . . Barefoot Britain is supported by @theaa_careers #ReadyForANYTHING.

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I’m proud, but it was really tough. Three were days that were fantastic, but a lot of days that were just pure grit and just slogging it out and thinking” I just need to get through this day,” and that does grind you down after a few months. But runners would run with me, and it became about more than just the run and more about the experience.

CR: Did you plan your route specifically in places you could run barefoot (i.e. roads)?

AM: I did at the start, but I thought I would be on more trails. That turned out to be a whole world of unknowns–I would get to the trail and it would have gravel, and it wasn’t a nice spongy pine forest or whatever. About a month in, I changed my plans slightly to follow back-country roads, like British Cycle Networks routes, where traffic is light or minimal and there are paved surfaces you can run along. There were a few places where I found myself on sandy beaches, and ended up doing a few detours, one in Scotland and one in England to run down stretches of sandy beach.

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🇬🇧WEEK ONE #BarefootBritain ROUND UP☝🏻If there’s one thing I set out to do on this Barefoot malarkey, it was not only to try to run the 2,600 odd miles, but it was also to be as honest as I can about what’s going down in adventure town. 💫 🏕 So I’m going to level with you all, human to human and say… DANG. This first week has been tough. . Day one up at the tippy top of The Shetlands was SO exciting! 🙌🏻 All of that pent up nervous energy could come exploding out of me at last. 💥 The 82 miles covered since running away from Skaw beach have been a roller coaster. . I always forget how adventures like this reduce me to behaving like a toddler. 👶🏻 One moment I am on top of the world, laughing out loud as I weave between cockle shells strewn across grassy cliff tops. Running through a sea of lilac wild flowers only in bloom for those two weeks. Scampering across white sandy beaches and around jagged headlands as the sea slams mercilessly into the grey rocks below 🌊 . I pass the day spying on sea otters and seals, and listening to the squawk of orange-beaked oyster catchers as fresh sea air batters my cheeks. 🌬 In those moments, with the warm earth beneath my feet and blue sky above my head – I am wild and free – there is nowhere else I’d rather be. . And then there are the days when I think ‘WHAT THE HECK AM I DOING?’ usually those are on tarmac. But not just any kind of tarmac. This is chunky, quartz-laden, spikey, razor blade kind of tarmac that seems to be on a lot of roads up here. Of course it’s been laid for cars and not fools who want to run with bare feet 🤦🏼‍♀️ but it is a special breed nonetheless. Henceforth it shall be known as Naughty Tarmac. 😈 I always think I can run on it… just for a mile or two, but soon my feet feel like they’re on fire 🔥 and I am desperately looking for somewhere else, anywhere else to put my soles… (Post 1 of 2) . . @theaa_careers #ReadyForANYTHING . . @girlguiding

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CR: Are your feet completely trashed? 

AM: They’re alright! I was expecting they would be more beat up, but the skin heals very quickly. On the bottom of the feet, the skin regenerates 10 times faster than anywhere else on the body. Everything healed up, and in the latter stages my feet just looked strong and much leaner than they did at the start. Like the skin on a tiger’s paw–soft but thick.

CR: Tell us about the tattoo on your foot.

AM: I got it after an Ironman triathlon. About a year before that I’d gone through a messy breakup, and wanted to put myself back in a “proud of myself” position, marking a point in my life. I got the art deco swirls and five stars, representing the five people in my close family.

CR: Did the accommodation thing just work itself out each night, or how did that work? Were you ever without a place to lay your head?

 AM: No, but I would normally start getting worried a few days out… I was overwhelmed, I put the route up on social media about six months before, and I had a logistics person, Abby, who helped me, working part-time. She filled the spreadsheet with 170 nights, and we got 110 filled within the first two weeks, and then she had extras. I had the confidence to do that based on my previous adventures. I was blown away in a world where you watch the news and… everyone was just clamouring to help me out and look after me. There were a few nights where I was without a place to stay, and I would just book myself into a hotel or a B&B for the night.

CR: Was it stressful, staying with someone different every night, sometimes complete strangers?

AM: Normally I would finish my run as the talk was taking place, and then I would be taken to someone’s home. Yes, it was stressful. Sometimes it was amazing, and sometimes it was just exhausting. But I don’t take myself too seriously, so I tried not to let the stressful situations bother me.

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🦶🏻TOESTON, WE HAVE A PROBLEM🦶🏻I am sitting in the A&E department on the outskirts of Stockport…. . A few days earlier, I’d picked up a teeny cut in my right foot. It was no bigger than anything I’d already had on the run and it looked to be healing nicely… but last night it started to throb. And man how it throbbed. I have a suspicion that it’s infected, but I‘m still hopeful that I can ‘run it off’. . I’m stoked to have made it 1,070 miles without any show stopping cuts, but today is quite possibly the worst day to be injured… . Over the next 48 hours I’ve got three talks booked in, a load of runners from @theaa_careers waiting to join me and a visit to a @girlguiding #WelliesAndWristbands festival in Clitheroe. This is not a time to be out of action. . But here I am at the local hospital. I’ve seen two nurses already and managed to keep my story vague enough, so as not to admit that I’m on a 6 month barefoot run. I can’t deal with the looks of disbelief. 🤦🏼‍♀️ I’m feeling embarrassed to even be here. . After four hours, I’m ushered into a 3rd room with a doctor. She takes a good look at my foot, gives it a prod and I hit the roof! . ‘Are you from around here?’ she asks. . ‘Errr… no, I’m from down south. I’m just passing through.’ I say, trying to stay vague on the details. . ‘How long will you be in the area?’ . ‘Ummm… Maybe a few more days.’ I reply. . There’s a long pause as the doctor looks at my grubby feet again. She notes that I don’t have a shoe on the other foot either, and then looks upwards, surveying my sweat-encrusted clothing and up to my weathered face and the bags under my eyes. She lowers her voice. . ‘Are you homeless?’ she asks. . ‘Umm… no… I…’ The game is up, I need to confess. ‘I’m on a running adventure.’ . ‘Oh, right. I just have to ask you know….’ she replies. . ‘Sure… I’m running through the UK…. in my bare feet.’ . ‘Of course you are.’ she smiles, her expression changing from confusion to one of disbelief. . ‘I know it’s a bit mad.’ I say. . ‘Well… your foot is definitely infected. I’ve put a dressing on. It should start to get better in 3 days, but if it doesn’t – come back here…’ . To be continued… . #ReadyForANYTHING

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CR: What was the longest period you went without running?

AM: The two weeks during the foot infection. There were 10 days with no running whatsoever, and I had to psyche myself up to move at all, it was excruciating. Apart from that, the most days I took off in a row was three. My usual routine was to run for five days and take one day off.

CR: What was the longest you ran in a day?

AM: The marathon distance. I never went more than 26 miles. I hoped I might, but the difference with barefoot running was that, previously, I’d been able to build up mileage, but with this one I just found it took too much out of me with the level of concentration and unknowns and my feet… once I went over 26 miles, I really felt it the next day, plus with all the talks and the logistics, I was going to be wiped out.

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I’M EXHAUSTED. 🤤 I’ve been doing my best to keep you all updated on the continued barefoot shenanigans over the past week, but in scrolling back through the posts I realised that I’d left out one rather crucial insight. And that’s the fact that I am absolutely, clinging-on-by-the-skin-of-my-feet exhausted. . A few days ago I went to order a jacket potato 🥔 😋 in a cafe at lunchtime, only – I couldn’t remember the words for ‘jacket potato’. Although I’ve had a HUGE amount of help from #BarefootBritain logistics Queen @abbypopps – the constant organising of @girlguiding talks, public running stages, route planning and the daily run grind over 5 months has ground the cogs in my brain to a halt 🧠 ⚠️ It is lost in a deep fog. I am tired of making decisions. Tired of thinking anything at all, in fact. I would quite like to just sit still and stare into space and think of nothing. . To add a lil summin summin extra – all this wet weather has made the soles of my feet softer than they were last month. And the cold means that they’re more sensitive. 🥶 Which makes barefootin’ harder than it was a few weeks back. Not ideal when you’ve got mush for brains and little energy in reserve to override new challenges. . Usually, on a rest day from running, I will be sat at my laptop for hours – catching up on run admin & planning ahead. On this week’s day off I… drifted in and out of sleep on the sofa at the home of @adventurequeenmother .I watched 4 Disney movies, ate cheese on toast and didn’t leave the house. 😴 Needless to say, I crashed. Big time. Only Aladdin & Mary Poppins could save me. . As is the case with any challenge, I know these are the hard yards. I accept that. 🙏🏻💕 I’m game for the fight, but I’m weary. I can now see the finish and with that comes a maelstrom of emotion. I can imagine how I’ll feel when I can FINALLY stop running. 🥳 I can imagine what it’ll be like to run in SHOES. 😁 I can *almost* feel those things already. But I’m not there yet. . Two weeks to go… just two little weeks. . #ReadyForANYTHING @theaa_careers

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CR: How do you stay so cheerful all the time?

 AM: I tried to remind myself to share that it’s not always fun, because a lot of young girls are following this. I have self-doubt, pain and trouble, and thinking what am I doing, have I got myself too deep this time? But I used mental tricks to keep going. I tried to make it relatable. I do have an ability to run longer, and I was keen for that to get across.

CR: What’s next?

AM: I plan to spend some time with my lovely Jamie. We moved into a new flat, and are going to do some nesting for a while. I haven’t been at home in the UK for four Christmases! So I’ll enjoy that. We plan to start a family. If it doesn’t work out, I’ll share that struggle as well. That’s life!

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DATE NIGHT with @adventureman IN EDINBURGH! 🏴󠁧󠁢󠁳󠁣󠁴󠁿💕 We might be scruffy adventurers, and I might be attempting to run a few thousand miles in my bare feet🦶🏻 , but there’s always time for a date night. Especially after six weeks apart. I put a dress on and everything. And Jamie… changed his t-shirt. 🥰 It must be love. . I’ve had three glorious days of rest & recooop in this beautiful city. Tomorrow I’ll be running out, heading south into the borders – bound for England 🏴󠁧󠁢󠁥󠁮󠁧󠁿🙀 . I’ll not lie that it’s be tough to get moving again, and in this heat especially 🥵 ☀️ – but rumour has it that I’ll have a hoard of locals ready to join me and make the #BarefootBritain miles fly by. . @theaa_careers #ReadyForANYTHING

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Jamie came and visited me about five times on the run. He only did a couple of runs, because he was still recovering from his treadmill run, also whenever he came to visit I was relaxed, and then it was difficult to get going again, so we tried to minimize it as a result.

We live in Gloucester, in western England, a city of about 120,000 people.