Hurrah, Sarah Williams is on the blog! Founder of Tough Girl Challenges and host of the Tough Girl Podcast, Sarah has made it her mission for the last four years to raise the profile of women in sport and adventure, and inspire other women via her podcast interviews and her own personal challenges.
The latter includes finishing the multi-day Marathon des Sables desert ultra, speed-hiking the Appalachian Trail (2200 miles in 100 days) and cycling 4000km along the Pacific Coast Highway and Mexico’s Baja Divide. Sarah and I chatted via Skype way back at the beginning of the year when she was in Australia (she’s back in the UK now) covering everything from her Appalachian Trail highs and lows to her love of adventuring solo. Great to have you on, Sarah!
Your PCH and Baja Divide cycle finished at the end of 2018 – have you had the adventure blues since?
Definitely, but equally I’ve also been thrown in with the family – I’ve been staying with my brother and his wife and their two little children and I’ve been walking the dogs. There are quite a lot of Tough Girl Tribe members over in Melbourne, so I’ve actually been spoilt – I’ve been taken out for lunch, I’ve hosted a dinner party, I’ve gone on nice walks, all with these incredible women.
But I’ve definitely had days when I’m laid on the couch zombied out, just watching Netflix feeling really uninspired and unmotivated. I’m so used to these feelings but I don’t like going through it. Plus, because I pre-loaded all my content until December, suddenly I’ve got weekly podcasts to put out. I’ve got 100 days of vlog footage to start editing and I’ve got to get that from my go-pro to Dropbox then on to my computer. It’s definitely challenging.
Let’s talk about your Appalachian Trail hike in 2017. Only 20% of people who start it finish – why do you think that is?
I think it’s a massive combination of things. I made a short movie about the Appalachian Trail (AT) in 2017 and there were lots of comments on it saying, ‘You’re meant to be smiling and happy on the Appalachian Trail’ and ‘That’s not how hiking should be, you just look miserable’. I think, sometimes, people go and do adventures and what’s been shown on Instagram and social media is a highlight reel. It’s, ‘Hey, look at me, I’ve finished’; it’s happiness, it’s sunshine, it’s roses. I’ve done challenges before and they are tough, they are brutal and I’ve gone into dark places and it hasn’t been all sunshine and roses.
What was the reality of your AT thru-hike like?
There are days where you’re waking up putting on wet socks, wet shoes, you’ve got blisters, you’ve got to walk 20 miles, you feel like crap and then your period starts. But that’s where the mental resilience comes in, and that’s when people quit. With the AT, people have the idea of what the hike is like: this beautiful adventure; it’s going to be incredible weather, they’ll meet people all the time and it’s not going to be challenging on the body.
However, the reality can be very, very different when you’re carrying a heavy backpack. The Appalachian Trail is the equivalent of walking up Everest 16.5 times. The terrain is tough and it’s rooty. It can be wet, it can be miserable, it can be muddy. Don’t get me wrong, there’s also beautiful days where there’s incredible wildlife and you’re meeting amazing people and you are sat round the campfire singing and people are giving you trail magic and it just is absolutely incredible. But sometimes people don’t want to think about the dark things, and what’s going to happen if they don’t like it
There’s a point, I can’t remember how far along, called Neels Gap where there’s a tree with hundreds of shoes and boots hanging from it, thrown up there by people who have quit there.
Regarding the people saying you were miserable – were you?
I vlogged my Appalachian Trail experience and it’s interesting because I watched some of them and I had a little wobble at day 30 when I twisted my ankle and another at day 70, but before all that I was happy, I was on form, I was resilient and determined. So when people say the whole hike was miserable, it wasn’t at all. I have incredible memories of doing it. But, unfortunately, most people like seeing people in misery, so my most-watched vlogs are when I’m crying and alone, teary and emotional!
But doing this challenge every single day for 100 days – and the impact, physically, losing so much weight – it’s incredibly draining on your body and when fatigue sets in, you actually don’t really have that much control over your emotions and that’s what I struggled with. I was just crying, and I couldn’t stop. Sometimes, I’d be crying but asking myself, why am I crying? I’m out here living my dream; this is amazing. But it doesn’t take away from the fact that I was probably a bit naïve to think 2200 miles in 100 days would be fine.
What was a typical day like for you on the AT?
I’d wake-up when the sun came up – 6:45am was like my sweet spot. I’d already thought about my routine in advance so that I could be efficient in the mornings. I had one set of dry clothes, one set of wet ones – one set of sleeping clothes, one set of walking clothes. And if my clothes were wet from the day before, they were still going on – wet shoes, wet socks, whatever. Then I’d pack everything up. I didn’t have a stove, so while I was getting ready I’d be eating a bar, a Snickers bar, or whatever I had available. And then I’d start walking. I’d try for the first couple of hours to walk without music or podcasts so I could have some thinking time and reflection; what are my goals for the day? How far do I want to get? How am I doing? I’d be checking in with my water – am I hydrated enough? How much food have I consumed? How are my knees and my glutes? Is there anything I need to be aware of?
By 12 O’clock I’d have a really good estimate of how far I was going to walk that day. I didn’t stop for lunch or for breaks, only to filter my water, and generally I’d walk until it was dark. I’d get my tent set-up as quickly as possible or stay in a shelter if there was space. By 8:30pm I would have eaten a shedload of food, drank a load of water and I’d be starting my rest and recovery – massaging my feet, sticking my legs in the air. I could be jotting a few notes down of my distances, having a look to see how far I need to get, do more planning, and then I’d just fall asleep!
Were you physically exhausted?
Yes. It’s so, so difficult to try and explain. After 50-odd days, it’s difficult to describe the mental fatigue; not being able to concentrate, not being able to think. Friends would send me text messages [asking how I was] and it was the most frustrating thing ever; I was getting angry because I didn’t have the mental capacity to reply to them. I only had the mental capacity to do a Facebook post or to upload some vlog footage. Even going around a supermarket [was tough] thinking, how much food do I need to get? Where am I going? Being a solo female travelling through the woods as well: who am I coming across? Where am I staying? Who’s around me? Do I feel safe? What vibes am I getting given? There’s a lot of instinct I’m having to use.
I was just fatigued and once your body gets past a certain level it becomes more mental. I could have kept on walking, but I was starting to break down massively; my nose was starting to bleed towards the end. My hip bones were sticking out by an inch and a half because of the weight I’d lost. Towards the end, I almost didn’t want to stop [overnight] because I knew that as soon as I did my body would crash. It was done, it needed rest, it needed hydration, it needed fruit and vegetables [laughs].
What kind of training did you do to prepare?
You basically can’t prepare for a hike of 2200 miles, so my focus was kept very short. The only thing I was concerned about was the first two weeks. Training was very much strength and conditioning based. I worked with a personal trainer, building up my leg strength: there was a lot of single leg squats, single leg work, lots of lunges, deadlifts, just trying to build power in my legs. But also [as I would be] carrying a heavy backpack, we wanted to make sure I had a strong core and shoulders.
I was also just going out walking. I built up: 5 miles, 7 miles, 10 miles and then one day I did 20 miles back-to-back, 20 miles on the Saturday and 20 miles the following day. I was in so much pain my mum actually came and met me. That pretty much destroyed me, and that was still in my training. That was the worrying part thinking, if I’m struggling now what’s it going to be like when I have to do more? I was very conscious of not overtraining because I didn’t want to get injured, I just wanted to be strong and healthy. I also packed on a lot of weight, about a stone, before I went. I got to my normal weight about day 40 or something. Then I lost another stone.
Do you often work with a personal trainer for your challenges?
The reason I work with a personal trainer is that I have no ability to understand whether my training is too much or not because I have no stop button. I would over-train massively, which is what I did for Marathon des Sables. Someone telling me what to do and just following it to the letter takes away a lot of stresses that I have. Because I do struggle thinking the more classes the better, the more miles the better, and the more workouts the better. And actually it’s not – it’s quality over quantity. But I think I’m quite an extreme person so I need somebody else to manage that for me.
All your challenges have been solo – do you prefer being alone or is that just how it’s worked out?
It’s just how it’s worked out. The great thing when you do challenges by yourself is that you always meet people on these trips, so you do sections with them or you might team up with a buddy for a couple of days and cycle or walk with them. I think one of the things I’ve realised, more from a business perspective, is that I end up being very focused – I’ve got to make my business a success. So actually I’m working on my business [during a challenge], so if that means pulling out my laptop as soon as I wake-up and doing my editing, my social media posts and writing, that’s what I need to do.
Going to the Appalachian Trail I had no problem being by myself – I love my own company. When you travel for a few weeks with people, it’s super-super fun, so I’m definitely interested in doing more challenges with other people. But you obviously can’t be selfish, and I am selfish. At the end of the day, I get a lot of satisfaction from doing these challenges and also being able to share them.
During your Baja Divide cycle two people you’d been travelling with left without you…
Doing challenges with other people doesn’t mean that everything is going to be OK. The back rack of my bike ended up breaking when I was doing this section of the desert with two other guys. They basically left me and made it seem like it was my own fault. At the end of the day, you’ve got to rely on yourself 100%. And I think that’s a key part of it; knowing in those situations that you will be fine.
Even thinking back to the Appalachian Trail and situations where things had been tough – doing all this walking – that resilience really paid off because when I was in the desert, yes I had to push my bike, yes it was heavy, yes the panier on my shoulder was cutting into my flesh and the wheels were scraping the back of my leg, but you know what, I’ve walked before. I can walk myself out of this whether it’s 12 miles, 20 miles, or 30 miles. I’ve got food, I’ve got water, I’m OK.
What would your advice be to women who haven’t travelled or adventured solo before?
I want to encourage more women to go and do it but I understand that not everyone has the confidence or experience to put themselves in those situations. Then it’s a case of thinking, how can I find more women who want to do this? The power of information now is that you can connect with women all over the world who have similar interests to you, or men as well. I wouldn’t want women to not do things because they don’t have anyone else to do it with. Even if you start with something like going to the cinema – if there’s a movie that you want to see but you don’t have any friends who want to see it, go and see the movie! You don’t want to end up not living your life fully because there aren’t other people who share your interest and hobbies around you. If there’s something you want to do and nobody else can do it, bite the bullet and go and do it.
Everyone has to start somewhere, you just had to take that first step. The only way to build that self-confidence is to do– to take action and put yourself out there. Small steps and the more steps you take, the more ground you cover, the more you learn the more you develop, the more confidence you have and the more you end up doing.
Have you ever worked with a mental performance coach ahead of your challenges?
I’ve never worked with a mental preparation coach, but I think I’ve learnt a lot, mentally, about how I am just from different experiences. There’s stuff that I do automatically in my life – vision boards, visualising myself crossing the finish line, writing down all the reasons why I want to do something.
One of the best practical pieces of advice I got was from Alison Mahoney from ithinksport, and it’s called ‘What if?’. You have a piece of paper and on the left-hand side you write down every single scenario and every single thing a family member is going to say to you. ‘Why do you want to do this?’ ‘What if you get lost?’ ‘What if I run out of water?’ What if my tent gets a hole in it’, etc. Then on the right-hand side, when you’re in a comfortable, safe environment, you work through every situation. ‘If I do run out of water, I keep walking until I find the next water source or I can ask somebody on the trail, or I can drink my own pee.’ Mentally, you’re not going to be able to go through every situation, but you can think through a huge variety of situations so that when something does happen, you’ve already thought it through.
What do you find works for you when things get tough during a challenge?
One thing that I found really powerful is remaining calm and taking deep breaths. On the White Mountain on the AT the fog was coming down, it was very, very late at night and I was starting to lose sight of the white blaze [markers]. It was actually a very scary situation to be in. I remember saying to myself, ‘This is where you need to keep calm; to control your breathing. Stop, take two or three deep breaths and rebalance yourself.’ Panicking does nothing.
When things got tough on the AT, every time I passed a tree with a blaze on I had to say one thing I was grateful for: ‘I could be in a corporate job but here I am walking in nature’. You can always find something to be grateful for. Even during the Marathon des Sables when I was having a sense of humour failure – and when you’re running in 40-degree heat that can happen – I made myself laugh thinking, you’re running in the desert, this is what you love. This is why you spent 3 months in Australia. This is what you trained for. This is amazing; enjoy and appreciate the moment!
What is it you enjoy about endurance-based challenges?
I enjoy pushing myself physically and mentally. I like proving people wrong. Being a very feminine girly-girl who likes painting my toenails pink, I like people misjudging me when they meet me, forming an opinion of me and then finding out some of the stuff I’ve done. I like that shock value. I do get a lot of personal satisfaction from doing endurance challenges – I want to push myself and see how far I can go. I want to see how bad it can get and how strong I can mentally be to get through, just to see what my limits are.
Have you found your limits yet?
No. And the problem is, the more challenges you do, the more you enjoy that type-two fun, the further you want to go and the longer you want to go and the harder you want to push it. There are differences in endurance challenges, obviously – I know I’m not going to be running the AT in 40-odd days and breaking the women’s record; I’m never going to be an Olympian, I’m just very normal and focused. I know what my physical limits are but I also know how to push them. I like stretching myself with reasonable targets.
Does chatting with amazing women on the podcast spark new challenge ideas?
Oh, 100 percent. Every time I hear about something, I’m like, ‘I need to do that!’ l’d love to climb Denali, I’d love to do some more big hikes, I’d love to hike the Triple Crown in America (hiking America’s major trails), I’d love to do the Te Araroa Trail in New Zealand. I’d love to do some challenges in Europe, I’d love to sail around the world… I’d love to bike around the world [laughs]. I try and think big picture: what could life be like in ten years’ time? I could have hiked the Triple Crown, I could have done the Camino Trail, I could have climbed Mount Elbrus, Denali… I could have checked a lot of challenges off my list. Chatting to women in their 40s, 50s and 60s who are still doing these challenges has also really inspired me. Age is just a number.
What have you got planned for the rest of the year?
I’m looking at smaller challenges this year – maybe some hikes in the UK or cycling coast-to-coast. The Dingle Way in Ireland or Cape Wrath, or the West Highland Way. It might be a case of going out for 2 weeks and doing these challenges with other people. I don’t particularly want to be in the UK over winter!
I want to do more Tough Girl extra podcasts, which is where I speak with previous guests. So for example, I’ve caught up with Jessica Dixie Mills who, when I’d last spoken to her, had done the Appalachian Trail, but has since gone on to do the Triple Crown of hiking. I’ve caught up with Anna Blackwell who kayaked 4000km to the Black Sea. I was busy with my Masters last year but now I want to get back to basics – and share the stories of women.
You can follow Sarah via her social media handles: www.facebook.com/toughgirlchallenges, www.instagram.com/toughgirlchallenges and www.twitter.com/_TOUGH_GIRL . Visit www.toughgirlchallenges.com to listen to Sarah’s Tough Girl Podcast.