Perseverance, Positivity and Podcasts with
Posted at 12:00 - 15th July - Sarah Booth
One of the first things that Sarah Williams said to me was, "if you can't see it, you can't be it" and this powerful statement succinctly sums up the mission to which Sarah has dedicated the last 5 years of her life. As founder of the award winning Podcast 'Tough Girl Challenges' Sarah has turned the spotlight on women adventurers across the globe to show just what's possible when women follow their dreams and goals. We chatted to Sarah whilst she was in Australia recovering from her latest personal challenge of cycling down the Pacific Coast Highway and Baja Divide.
"I was going into all-girls’ schools talking about motivation and resilience and was met by female aspirations of wanting to become a footballer’s wife!"
So Sarah, let’s start at the beginning of your journey – what was it that inspired you to switch from working in private banking to launching what is now an award winning brand and inspiration to women across the globe?
I left my job in March 2013 feeling fed-up and disillusioned with the banking world and took 18 months out! I climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, did a ski season in Switzerland, and spent time exploring South America.
It was in South America that I began pondering what I wanted to do. I was journaling ideas and had lots of thinking time as I sat on 24-hour bus journeys! I knew I loved travel, challenges and adventure but was also excited by the thought of empowering other women to reach their goals. I had witnessed a lot of sexism in the banking world and wanted to do something that would turn the spotlight on what women are capable of.
My idea for Tough Girl Challenges started in 2014 but I was very scared about putting myself out there and took another year to officially go live. During that year I was going into all-girls’ schools talking about motivation and resilience and was met by female aspirations of wanting to become a footballer’s wife! This was motivation enough for me to know that I needed to start telling women’s adventure stories and get stronger role models out there.
I started by blogging about my own adventures in the hope of inspiring other women, but it was a total disaster and I got no traction. Luckily I am part of a women’s adventure mastermind group and someone suggested that I start a Podcast as an alternative way of getting my message out. I started off absolutely clueless, made loads of cringe worthy mistakes but stayed consistent by posting weekly Podcasts of women who were all doing incredible things.
Over time, people started taking notice and the Tough Girl following grew. It’s been a journey of perseverance but last year was a real turning point when I was awarded the Women’s Sports Trust #BeAGameChanger National Award for Media Initiative of the Year 2018. Tough Girl is now listened to in 174 countries and has reached 700,000 downloads.
"Luckily for me there are loads of incredible women out there who keep pushing the boundaries, which means I can keep delivering Podcasts that will resonate with everyone no matter who they are or what their aspirations."
You have interviewed hundreds of women over the years through your Podcast, is there anyone in particular that has stood out for you?
It’s a tricky question to answer because all the women I’ve spoken to are inspirational in different ways. On a personal note though, speaking to Roz Savage really resonated with me. Roz was 38 when she quit her corporate career and became the first woman to row across 3 oceans. She is now an international speaker and has been awarded an OBE. It made me think, ‘wow she achieved all that starting at 38…I can do the same!’
Jessica Hepburn’s interview was very raw and honest. She spoke openly about her 10-year journey with IVF, which ended in her 40s, and her debate about whether you can find fulfillment in life without family.
Hannah Cox was great to listen to as she focused on the financial side of adventuring and how she got herself out of £20,000 of debt, and saved £15,000 to go traveling.
As I mentioned before, there are so many amazing stories to share and I try to be as diverse as possible. There is always room for improvement and I am consciously trying to include more women from ethnic minority groups, women of colour, older women, single women, women with children, divorced women. Luckily for me there are loads of incredible women out there who keep pushing the boundaries, which means I can keep delivering Podcasts that will resonate with everyone no matter who they are or what their aspirations.
"The podcasts are examples of how women have overcome barriers – financial, time restriction, equality in the home, self-belief and self-confidence – to achieve their dreams."
Many of the women you have spoken to are trailblazers in their field of adventure. In an environment that has historically been seen as a ‘man’s domain’ what barriers do you feel women still need to overcome?
There are a lot of barriers in adventuring and I think many people need to start by acknowledging their privileges. I am lucky enough to be able to live with my parents rent free, whilst I work on my business. When I travel to Australia I am privileged to live with my brother rent-free. Before I left my job I was lucky enough to be a high earner who was able to build up savings. Adventures can be expensive, for example an expedition up Everest can cost £60,000. I self fund my adventures through Tough Girl patronage but I also work 2 part time jobs. After I won my media award last year, I was back in the kitchen washing pots and pans! Not everyone talks about this part of being an adventurer!
There are also a lot of adventurers who are white, male, privately educated, with big biceps and beards – essentially an old boys club, which can be hard to break into. Traditionally it’s been these men that attract media attention and sponsorship, something that is a much bigger challenge for women and therefore no one knows that they are out there absolutely smashing it.
Thankfully this is where social media comes in and where women can start using modern technology to fight back. There are also a lot more women adventurer-focused publications like She Adventures, Intrepid Magazine and other female focussed Podcasts such as Dirt In Your Skirt and She Explores.
Personally, I don’t want to sit and complain about things because it doesn’t change anything. What does change things is interviewing another lady and putting her story out there to let other women know what’s possible. The podcasts are examples of how women have overcome barriers – financial, time restriction, equality in the home, self-belief and self-confidence – to achieve their dreams. At the end of the day, people are just out there doing their best and all we can do it try and support them at whatever level they’re at. Hopefully one word or phrase will ignite that spark and help women think – yes I can do this!
You have done many adventures yourself from completing the Marathon des Sables, the Appalachian Trail in 100 days and most recently the cycling the Pacific Coast Highway and the Baja Divide. What is your motivation for setting up these personal challenges and has there been one that has taught you the most about yourself?
I entered the Marathon des Sables because I wanted to launch Tough Girl with a scary challenge that would push me out of my comfort zone. I had run the London Marathon 5 times before, so the MDS seemed like the perfect step up and would also be something that would enable me to empathise with what the other women I would be interviewing were going through. I wanted to get the feeling of butterflies in my stomach, questioning if I could do it, having to really think about my kit, food, training plans etc.
I was actually meant to be running MDS in April 2015 but quickly learnt my first lesson in adventuring as I had massively over trained and ended up destroying myself. Instead of doing the Marathon I was bed ridden. My periods had stopped, I had terrible acne, my hair was falling out and I was losing sight in one of my eyes! I ended up launching Tough Girl from my bed and after taking 6 months out to recover, completed the Marathon des Sables in 2016.
All of a sudden that was done and I was looking for my next event, which I wanted to be longer and not so expensive! I’d heard of the Appalachian Trail, but the average time to complete the trail was 5-6 months and I couldn’t afford to take that amount of time away from work. Whilst researching it in more detail I heard about a guy who had done it in 100 days and thought – I can do that!
I wanted a challenge that would test me both physically and mentally and the Appalachian Trail didn’t disappoint! I was hiking around 20 miles a day, in total summited the height of Everest 16 ½ times and had to do this for 100 days whether I was wet, dry, cold, hot, tired or hungry. It opened up new awareness in me, because when you are so tired, controlling your emotions is really hard. I would be walking along feeling positive and happy when suddenly I would hit a deep low and just sob uncontrollably. People always post positive, uplifting, dreamy images on social media, but the reality can very different. Some days were absolutely brutal, I was walking with wet clothes, with a risk of bears and many times when I wanted to quit. It was very raw, but also one of the best experiences I’ve ever had and it taught me a lot about resilience, determination and courage.
Again the physicality of the Appalachian Trail meant I lost a lot of weight and was so fatigued, it took me 6 months to recover. I’d certainly had my fill of hiking so my next challenge needed to be big but different, and along came the decision to cycle the Pacific Highway and Baja Divide. I was again to learn another important lesson in adventuring – that of flexibility.
After successfully completing the Pacific Highway section and four days into the Baja Divide - the off road section of my trip - my bike rack got broken. I abandoned the trail to take my bike to a shop, where the mechanics soon informed me that it wasn’t set up properly to deal with the rough off-road surfaces. I needed to make a change and ride the highways down. It was still great and I witnessed some spectacular views. I also learnt that failure isn’t necessarily a bad thing to go through, it teaches you lessons about how to deal with disappointment and the importance of flexibility in adventuring.
"People always post positive, uplifting, dreamy images on social media, but the reality can very different. Some days were absolutely brutal, I was walking with wet clothes, bumping into bears and had many times when I wanted to quit!"
When your adventures are completed, what do you do to chill out and wind down?!
I love my bed! It’s my comfort zone and happy place – I love my M&S sheets and Netflix! I can be incredibly lazy and sometimes don’t want to do anything at all. I love bubble baths, drinking good wine, eating good food and meeting up with women from the Tough Girl Tribe.
Finally Sarah, based on your own experience and what you have learnt from interviewing countless other women, what advice would you give to women who are just starting out on their adventures?
One of the things that I noticed when I lived in London was that I spent more time planning my holiday then I spent planning my life. The problem we have nowadays is that people are just existing rather than really living or thinking meaningfully about their lives. Amongst all of the mundane, routine stuff, we need to stop and think ‘what do I want to do?’ Is it challenges, travel, city breaks, going to certain restaurants? My advice would be to write it all down and then think, ‘how can I turn this into a reality?’ Perhaps start by picking the top three things on your list and then getting on Google to find out HOW. Start to understand WHAT you need to do.
Once you’ve written it down, tell those special people in your life who will support you and point you in the right direction. The next thing is figuring out a date and working back from that e.g. buy your flights, organise your insurance, book your accommodation, transport, figure out your costs etc. Once you have these things set in stone then everything else falls into place.
I would also suggest setting monthly goals then breaking them down into weekly and daily targets. For example if you want to run a marathon, don’t think too much about bigger picture, just think about the small things that you can do each day and build momentum.
Another thing that really helped me when I was doing the Appalachian Trail was making a ‘What If List’. Every time someone said to me ‘what if this happens, what if that happens’, I would write it down and then think of an answer. Obviously you can’t plan for everything but it does mean that you’ve thought things through and don’t feel so panicked about the ‘what-ifs’.
Once you’ve achieved your goal, you’ll think yes it was hard, I learnt a lot but I did it! Or if for any reason you didn’t do it then you’ll have learnt from it.
In the end though, I fully believe that the only way you can build your confidence is to go out there and do it. Get out of your comfort zone and build that internal confidence. Don’t compare yourself to anyone else – it’s all about you and being excited about your goal. If it excites you and gets you out of bed every morning then that’s fantastic. Just stay focused on what you can achieve, and be the best possible version of yourself.
To find out more about Sarah and to listen in to her incredible Podcasts please visit www.toughgirlchallenges.com