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Crossing the Sahara on Foot

Tough Girl Sarah Williams has just completed the Marathon Des Sables, a multi stage endurance race across the Sahara! 

'Please tell us a little bit about yourself and your most recent challenge?'

Hello, my name is Sarah Williams, I’m the host of the Tough Girl Podcast and I run Tough Girl Challenges which is all about motivating and inspiring women and girls. 

I have just come back from running the 31st Marathon des Sables, the toughest footrace on earth! This is a multi stage ultra endurance race which takes place across the Sahara desert in Morocco! It involves running six marathons in six days, while carrying everything you need to be self sufficient on your back! 


How did you go about training for such a huge event as the Marathon Des Sables? 

I broke my training down into three phases. The first phase was all about strength and conditioning. My goal was to build muscle mass, increase my strength and get as lean as possible. I was working with a personal trainer who I trained with once a week and I did two weight sessions on my own. By Christmas I did a PB doing the trap bar deadlift and did 100kg, my body fat was 14%. I was strongest I’d ever been. 

Phase 2 was all about building up endurance and getting “time on feet” which is so important for an event like this. As the event is held in Morocco, I headed out to Australia to train in the heat for three months before the race. I was training five times a week and it was a mixture between long timed runs, distance run, speed work and long endurance walks. I also started to train with a backpack and would gradually increase the weight each week as the distances were getting longer and longer. 

Phase 3 was the rest and recovery phase before the race. One of the biggest problems you have to deal with is not being overtrained and it’s a very difficult balance to get right! You want to ensure you have put in all the training and done the miles, but about two weeks before the race there’s no real point in doing extra miles, its not going to help at all. So tapering and resting was very important! 

What were the biggest challenges? 

There’s a lot of preparation you need to do for this race, you need to do your research; you need to get the right equipment, you need to ensure your hydration and nutrition is spot on and you need to prepare your body especially your feet. 

I also focused on my mental preparation as well, and did visualisation and thought through all the problems I could face. E.g. how would I cope if X happened etc. 

Do you ever find it hard to get motivated, what do you do to overcome this?

I’m actually struggling with this at the moment. I don’t have a challenge, I don’t have a physical goal to aim toward and this is affecting my motivation.

To get motivated you need a goal, you need to have something to aim towards, whether this is related to fitness, or your own personal goals. You have to have a vision of what you want to do and what you want to achieve. 

When I was training for the Marathon des Sables, that was my big challenge, and I would think about it every single day. I knew what I was working towards, I knew why it was important to do the training, to eat right, to keep hydrated etc. 

Motivation can ebb and flow, and you can’t maintain that level of focus all the time. So one thing I did, was to have smaller challenges which I could focus on, during my training. For example trying to reach my goal of a 100kg deadlift, or reaching 20 miles in training. That helped to keep me focused during the long training months. 

How important is nutrition to your training? 

Nutrition is so important when training. I can’t emphasise this enough.

You have to give your body the right fuel to perform. When you’re putting your body under stress, you need to ensure you’re providing it with everything you need to recover and to get stronger. 

This is not about counting calories, this is not about being on a diet, its about eating good food that’s going to help you accomplish your goal. 

A lot of women overlook strength/weight training, worrying it will make them bulky, what is your opinion on this? 

To be honest I felt the same, I was very scared and apprehensive about weight training. It just looked scary; the cage, the bars, the weights. Not knowing what I was doing and never really being around women who lifted. When I was growing up it was all about toning and cardio. Women weren’t encouraged to be strong, they were encouraged to be skinny but not fit. 

Now I know better. I can not say this enough or loud enough. Women will not get bulky weight training. It’s very difficult for women to pack on huge amounts of muscle. Trust me I’ve been trying! 

I had what I’d call a runners body - I was slim but had no body tone, no muscle and no real shape. It was a ‘saggy’ look. Weight lighting has changed all of this. I am now so much stronger. I have muscle definition and I have lost inches all over my body. I have also dropped dress seizes. I was a size 12 on my bottom half and now I’m a size 8.

When you first start, you won’t see changes happening overnight. It does take time, but trust me, if you put in the effort, you’ll get there. 

In my opinion every single women should be lifting weights. 

Tough Girl Challenge 

What inspired you to create the Tough Girl Podcast, please tell us a little bit about it and how it all works?

I was doing a lot of motivational speaking at local schools, talking about challenge and change and I became very aware of how few female role models were in the media. How when you think of adventurers or explorers you think of men with beards and biceps.

Sports women in this country don’t get the recognition, sponsorship or media exposure they deserve. I could talk about the reasons behind this, I could complain about it not being fair, and why it’s still happening even though it’s 2016. But that’s not going to help the situation or change the situation.

I believe if you want to change something, you have to get involved and have to take action. 

I knew I could change this. I knew I could get more women’s stories out there, I knew I could make a difference. 

Podcasts are a great way to learn new information and to fill dead time e.g. when you’re commuting, running, walking, cleaning etc. You can be filling your head with motivation and inspiration. 

This is what the Tough Girl Podcast does. I interview women from around the world, from all backgrounds, cultures, and ages. Women who’ve faced challenges in their lives, from dealing with toxic relationships or going from the couch to running the London Marathon, women who are battling to be accepted for their size, women who wanted to swim the English channel, climb mountains and row across oceans. 

These women have fantastic stories to share. I get to ask them the important questions; the question of why they do what they do, the how, the motivation, the failures they’ve overcome, what drives them, what keeps them going, how they over came the fear, the pain, the negative attitudes of other people. They share it all, and these stories are personal. You listen to them as they talk and its like they’re talking only to you. This is the power of podcasting and if you haven’t listening to a podcast. Listen! Give it a go!

You have interviewed many amazing adventurers and sports people, who has inspired you the most? 

This is an incredibly difficult question to answer and it depends on my frame of mine. I’ve felt a connection with every women I’ve spoken to. Some I’m able to draw parallels too. 

Roz Savage an Ocean Rower, was a management consultant until she was in her thirties and decided to quit her job and change direction. I could see I was on a similar journey to her. I left my job in banking in 2013; to travel the world, to do challenges and to start my own company. I can see what a success she has become, by not following the traditional route of what’s expected of you.

One of the running themes that inspires me, is how these women have overcome their own personal fears to go on to achieve great things. 

Fear is something that every person deals with, it stops people going after their dreams, its stops them from living the lives they want to be living and it can paralyse people. 

Everyone has fears, it’s learning how you can overcome them, and all of these women have done that and you can learn from them. 

You are also very passionate about encouraging more women into sport, what is your advice for someone just starting to get into exercise?

I think as women, we can get very scared about what other people think of us and there’s this underlying fear of looking stupid, or failing, or not doing it right. Which can put women off having a go. 

The hardest step is always the first one, so the key is knowing why you want to do it. Do you want to get fit? Do you want to lose weight? Do you want to be able to play with the kids and not be out of breath? Do you want to live longer? Do you want to feel confident? Do you want to prove people wrong? 

Know your why and know why it’s important to you and then write it down. This will help you when you need motivation, when you can’t be bothered. When you don’t want to get out of bed. When you don’t want to put your gym gear on. 

You’ll also be able to look at your goal and understand why you’re doing this again. 

I also think its important to find something you enjoy - there are so many options available; running, swimming, zumba, ballet, walking, weight lifting, yoga, netball. 

You have to try different things out and find out which one you enjoy doing. Its then just a question of committing to it and doing it on a regular basis. The key thing is just to start!! 

How do you think society should tackle girls giving up sport in their teens and why do you think this happens? 

I think schools, parents, the media, television and corporations all have a part to play. There’s no one right answer, and no one way to fix this problem. There are so many moving parts and so many reasons behind this and unfortunately there’s no quick fix. 

To tackle the issue of girls and sport. Girls need to see women playing sports, at the moment they don’t. Pick up any paper and turn to the back pages, the sports pages and you will struggle to find more than one article about women playing sports. I can pretty much guarantee there won’t be one. Unless the tennis or the Olympics are on and then Jessica Ennis will be rolled out as she’s the only female athlete they seem to cover in any great detail.

In this country we have women playing sport at the highest level, rugby, football, cricket, rowing, the list goes on, but they don’t get the same coverage, they don’t get the same financial support. Girls don’t get to see these role models, they don’t get to hear about these incredible women. 

They don’t hear about Amy Hughes who ran 53 marathons in 53 days, they don’t hear about Tori James the youngest welsh woman to climb Mount Everest, they don’t hear about polar explorers Ann Daniels or Felicity Aston. They don’t hear about Roz Savage, Sally Kettle or Elin Haf-Davies, who’ve rowed across oceans. 

They don’t hear about Mimi Anderson, Susie Chan, Millie Young, who are incredible ultra runners. They don’t hear about Lisa Williams who swam the English Channel. They don’t hear about Arry Berresford-Webb who ran around the perimeter of Wales. 

How can girls become something they can not see? 

This problem has been happening for years and it will take both men and women working together to fix it. It’s not just the girls who are suffering, but also the boys, the young men who are growing up thinking women are objects, to be used, a commodity to be bought and played with. They see women in support roles not leadership roles and this needs to change. We all need to change it.