Adventurer, life coach and motivational speaker Sarah Williams is coming to Shaftesbury. Her ‘Tough Girl’ podcast is in the 15% most listened to globally. Sarah seeks out women embarking on incredible physical challenges and puts them in the spotlight, sharing their stories.
Sarah isn’t an armchair interviewer. She has completed a diverse range of challenges herself – hiking The Appalachian Trail, climbing Kilimanjaro and running six back-to-back marathons across the Sahara.
Staff at The Grosvenor might find it difficult getting Sarah to stand still for her talk. “Not at all,” laughed Sarah. “I’m quite an extreme person. I can be lazy when I am not doing challenges. When I’m not training, I can binge watch hours of Netflix.”
Gold Hill is steep – Sarah’s biggest challenge will be finding the time to climb it. “It’s going to be a flying visit. I am heading off to Turkey to walk the Lycian Way two days afterwards. It’s a 500km coastal route,” said Sarah.
I tried to think of the toughest local physical test. My attempt to recruit Sarah for May’s Shaftesbury Food Festival Gold Hill cheese-carrying challenge failed. “It’ll be a good workout,” laughed Sarah, before she revealed that it’s too quick for her. “I like disappearing for three months at a time. I very rarely do the one-off events. I like long physical challenges.”
Sarah has always been driven. She says that the words ‘sporty’ and ‘competitive’ featured on her school report. “I used to find running a really good stress relief during exam times. I’d run a couple of laps by myself on the field.”
She got involved with the Duke of Edinburgh Awards. “It’s quite intimidating when you are 14, heading out for a 25-mile hike over two days. It is interesting to see how far I’ve come from where I started,” she said.
As Sarah has become older, her challenges have become bigger and today she is motivated when pushing herself towards a goal. She offered the 156-mile, six-day, Marathon des Sables across the Sahara as an example. “I have run marathons before, but I’ve never gone past 26.2 miles,” she said. “Psychologically, you have to think whether you can run multiple marathons back-to-back and also do a 52-mile day in the desert.”
It’s far removed from the eight years Sarah spent in banking in London. After graduating with a business degree from Durham University, progression to the city seemed logical. Sarah describes that period in her life as ‘grey’, adding that she even wore grey clothes and used fake tan to colour her complexion, pale from the long hours on the fifteenth floor of a Canary Wharf tower, with no fresh air or sunshine.
People thought she had everything. “They saw a nice lifestyle and for a long time I thought it was what I had dreamed of,” she confided. “Being a female in a very male-dominated world changed me in a way that I did not like. When you are one of the youngest female managers running a team and going into a meeting with generally white men in their 40s, you alter your demeanour. I felt I had to change how I acted and spoke to be taken seriously. I became a different version of myself. The environment was toxic with a lot of backstabbing. You do what you do to survive.”
The podcast is a world away from Canary Wharf. “Moving into a female-dominated space, it’s about collaboration, working together, encouraging and supporting one another. It’s a stark contrast.”
Sarah feels her podcast is important in sharing inspiring examples of female achievers who haven’t assumed that success means entering the corporate world. “I wish I’d known about these women when I was growing up. I was not aware that so many women were climbing mountains, sailing round the world, doing cycle adventures or ultra-endurance running challenges. Women need to know there are other things they can do than the 9-to-5. You can follow your passion,” said Sarah.
She’s open about the challenges she has faced since giving up a well-paid career. “Being 37 and moving back to my parents’ and having to build my business is not all sunshine and roses. But in terms of my definition of success and happiness, I am successful. That might not be how people view me but I’m living my best life and I couldn’t be more happy with the freedoms that I have and the choices I am able to make.”
Sarah has adapted her experience of corporate ‘key performance indicators’ to her adventure podcasting and blogging business. She tracks her progress methodically, monitoring the growth of her podcast downloads and her social media exposure. The banking environment has given her confidence which she can draw upon as a solo female traveller, too.
“I know that I do not need to be nice. Women are trained to be nice, to smile and be accommodating. Sometimes there are situations you need to take control of,” explained Sarah. “On the Appalachian Trail, there were a lot of solo women travellers sitting around the campfire. This guy brought up the topic of rape and murder on the trail. There was no point in him doing that. He wanted to make people feel scared. I just shut him down, but I know some women don’t have the confidence to do that.”
Sarah advises women to use their gut instinct about where they camp and who they talk with. She considers how her clothing and equipment sends signals. She would never wear a pink jacket because the colour is associated with women. Her backpack was a style that was popular with female adventurers and Sarah wouldn’t leave that outside her tent on display.
Despite that one-off encounter with a creepy oddball, Sarah considers The Appalachian Trail her greatest experience so far. “It’s 2,200 miles, the equivalent of walking up Mount Everest sixteen times. You walk through fourteen states, from Georgia to Maine. It was physically, mentally and emotionally brutal. It took over three months and I had just two rest days. I look back on it and think, ‘How did I do that?’ It was a phenomenal experience, being out in nature, the woods and being able to process my thoughts and have quality ‘me time’. I realised it wasn’t about finishing it,” she confided. “It was about enjoying every day.”
There are many more challenges that Sarah wants to undertake. “The list gets longer. I’d love to sail around the world on the Clipper Yacht Race. There’s the Pacific Crest Trail, the Caminos, cycling across America, down Africa. I wish I had more time,” she said. Some of those challenges take many months. We joke that if this is Sarah’s bucket list, she’s going to have to live until she is 220.
Sarah tries to balance her blog posts detailing her exciting adventures with an insight into her everyday life. There’s a lot of administration required in preparing articles, website posts and in producing the weekly podcast. This work needs to be done even when she’s in the woods on a long challenge. Her hours are just as long as when she was a banker, but her days are no longer grey.
Sarah enjoys talking in schools. But she was dispirited when visiting a classroom near Liverpool. Some of the pupils in the girls’ school said their ambition was to be ‘wags’, the wives and girlfriends of footballers. Sarah doesn’t criticise that but hopes that some of those young women hear the words of over 200 female adventurers Sarah has interviewed in her podcast.
“It’s difficult to help women see that they can be fit, active and they can do these challenges when they can’t see women like them,” says Sarah. She’s critical of the mainstream media and says there are still few women’s sports stories on the back pages.
But Sarah chose not to complain about this lack of representation. She decided to make a difference herself and the ‘Tough Girl’ podcast was born. “I have access to a laptop. I can speak to people. There is no middleman when it comes to the internet. I can share the stories,” she said.
The podcast has been a massive success. “It has been listened to in 124 countries and it will have racked up 1 million downloads by the end of the year. I’ve had no marketing budget. It’s just me tweeting and doing social media,” said Sarah.
She gets a buzz receiving messages from women who have embarked on their own adventures after hearing Sarah’s guests. She’s proud that her listeners have signed up for a triathlon or a 10k race because of the podcasts. “When women do that, their friends and families see them doing it and they then become a positive role model for others. Other women will say, ‘She’s just like me maybe I can give that a go’. I believe in putting out positive stories of women who are ‘smashing it’,” said Sarah.
With a waiting list of 100 women to interview and a weekly podcast, there might be quite a wait to hear many of the inspiring women Sarah wants to interview. Fans will be patient. They are so passionate about the podcast’s positive messages, many of them have signed up as sponsors using a system called Patreon. “250 individuals are supporting it with $2, $5 or $20 a month. That has been a game changer. It means I have a regular source of income coming in and I can pay my mobile bill.”
When Sarah asked her listeners what they wanted to hear, some respondents said that they felt inadequate hearing about super-fit achievers, so Sarah decided to ‘recruit’ seven regular listeners who agreed to share their personal challenge stories. It was compelling, engaging and honest.
Gemma had hired a personal trainer as she prepared to climb the Matterhorn and Eiger. She arrived in Switzerland to weather so poor she couldn’t take the challenge. Sarah feels it is important that listeners understand the reality of adventure. Laura was trying to raise £25,000 to row around Britain. The podcast listeners gained a sense of her sleepless nights as Laura rose at 4am each day to email companies for sponsorship support. Laura was £4,000 ‘off the mark’ three weeks before setting off. These are some of the real-life adventure stories Sarah will share in Shaftesbury.
She expects her Grosvenor Arms Hotel talk audience will be predominantly female and broadly divided into two groups. “People who are active, weekend warriors or they’ve been doing marathons. There are other people who know that’s not possible for them, but they get a huge sense of enjoyment from following, supporting and feeling a part of it. Everybody will be able to learn something,” said Sarah.
She’s also happy to answer questions. “The one I get asked the most is, ‘How do you make money?’ I’ll happily chat about periods on the trail – whatever you want me to talk about.”
You can follow Sarah online at ToughGirlChallenges.com. Sarah talks at the Grosvenor Arms Hotel at 7pm on Thursday, 7th November. Tickets are £10. You can buy them at GrosvenorArms.co.uk.