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.
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.
BEST OF ALL I’ve been able to share adventure stories with over 1,700 @Girlguiding youngsters.
If even one of them finds it within themselves to take on a new challenge or adventure because a lady with pink hair once told them it was possible, then it’ll be mission accomplished pic.twitter.com/NDIC5ZbFiv
— Anna McNuff (@AnnaMcNuff) November 17, 2019
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.