Her long blond hair, fair complexion and sweet smile belies the warrior that is Heather Williams.
In a split second, Williams can transform from an ultra-feminine angelic Meryl Streep-lookalike to a modern day Joan of Arc. Williams, 36, competes in obstacle races — climbing walls, crawling in mud pits, jumping through tires and over cars, scrunching under barbed wire, leaping over fire, swimming over logs.
Like Williams, many women today are strengthening their bodies and minds to compete in events that have historically been dominated by men.
“I do find that more women are getting involved,” Williams says. “Strong is the new skinny. Being muscular and lean is seen as positive now, whereas previously, women were told that lifting weights was bad for them.”
Williams’ strong body and sharp mind landed her a prestigious position on the Chattanooga Police Department S.W.A.T. team. She is the lone female on the team and the second female in the history of the Chattanooga Police Department to hold the position. It was her tactical training for the police force that perfected her skills as an athlete.
“Tactical training mentally — sometimes physically — can be very stressful. You have to be in the right mindset all the time and you have to be able to control your emotions and heart rate. You have to learn to stay calm when everything else is chaos,” says William, who stands 5-feet-5 and weighs 132 pounds.
The same holds true for the obstacle-course competitions, she says.
“Through obstacle racing, you might get the urge to panic if you can’t complete an obstacle. This is the time where you want to slow down, stay calm and think about your next course of action and how to accomplish the goal. Obstacle racing can help you to think better on your feet.”
In the past couple of years, obstacle races have grown in popularity and numbers. According to Outside magazine, about 1 million people competed in such races in 2011. Tough Mudder, Muddy Buddy, Warrior Dash, Spartan Race and England’s Tough Guy are among the better known.
And women have dived into the competition with such enthusiasm, mudguide.com lists more than 50 women-only obstacle races in the U.S. between April and the end of the year.
Tough Mudder has co-ed races in the U.S., Australia and Europe and has 55 races scheduled this year. Former Chattanoogan Lindsay Riddell, who now lives in San Francisco, has competed in two Tough Mudder events in Lake Tahoe and Diablo, Calif. Her third competition will be the Tahoe Tough Mudder in August.
“People always ask me about (Tough Mudder) and they always say, “Isn’t that the race where you get shocked or run though fire?’” Riddell says.
“There usually are one or two obstacles (“Electric Eel” and “Electroshock Therapy”) where there are live wires that shock you when you run through or pass underneath,” says the 36-year-old Riddell. “I’ve been shocked and it stings but it wasn’t as bad as people think.
“Plus – it’s called Tough Mudder. That’s your chance to prove you’re tough.”
Since Tough Mudder is an obstacle course with no recorded times, it has a “more friendly feel” than races like triathlon or marathons, says Riddell who, along with her husband, John O’Rourke, is also an amateur triathlete. “Since it’s not a competition, you can skip obstacles if you’re not comfortable doing them.”
Riddell, who is 5-feet-6 and weighs about 145 pounds, compares the entire competition to that of an adult playground.
“It’s fun. It’s muddy. You get to act like a kid. And then there’s beer at the end,” she says. “It’s probably my very favorite way to spend a day.”
Clarissa Seales of Chattanooga competed in her first obstacle race in Washington, Ga., in 2011. With a background in running road and trail races and competing in duathlons and triathlons, she figured it “would be the next step towards a great physical and mental challenge.” Her first race gave her all of that.
“It was one of the coldest days of the season and I loved it,” she says, noting that her next Tough Mudder event will be in October in North Carolina. “I’m there to have fun, make new friends and experience a challenge.
“The challenges are so much fun. You finish with a smile all over your face. You’re getting high fives and hugs from people you don’t know, and I enjoy the camaraderie. I like knowing that when I am finished, I am excited and ready for more.”
Seales, who is 5-feet-8 and weighs 145 pounds, is a fitness instructor, a personal trainer and motivator. She says she works out teaching six to seven days each week, as well as doing her own daily workouts. She played softball and basketball in high school but is now attracted to more aggressive and competitive sports.
“I want to compete in a challenge that builds character, strength and enhances me mentally and spiritually. I want to do know I can do tough.”
Williams says her love of sports was sparked in elementary school.
“When I was in kindergarten, I was diagnosed with (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) and had to take medication. When the medication began to wear off, the teachers would allow me to run around the gym or baseball field. When I started the sixth grade, my parents told me that I could stop taking the medication if I could behave and maintain good grades. I hated taking the medication and the side effects were terrible, so this was enough motivation for me to behave in school and keep my grades up.”
Her parents further supported her efforts by enrolling her in multiple sports.
“I loved to run,” she says. “In high school I played volleyball and ran cross country in the fall, basketball in the winter, and track and field in the spring. Once in college, I played volleyball in the fall for the first two years, indoor track and field for four years, and outdoor track and field for four years.”
Two years ago, she gave into the urge to participate in obstacle racing and was hooked.
Williams is married to Mike Williams, who is retired from the Chattanooga Police Department and was also S.W.A.T. commander and director of training. Like his wife, he’s athletic and just completed his first Spartan Sprint in Atlanta, Ga.
“I am very proud of him,” she says. “It was awesome watching him cross the finish line.”
The feeling is mutual, her husband says.
“I am constantly amazed at her physical prowess, her mental toughness, determination and will,” he says. “She is one of the most focused, competitive people I have ever been around. I am also proud of her humility and character. She has a soft, feminine side, too.”
Williams says people who meet her for the first time are surprised to learn about her competitive edge.
“I don’t share that part of me that often,” she says. “I usually keep my accomplishments personal and to myself. However, my husband is my biggest fan and loves to share them with everyone.”
Contact Karen Nazor Hill at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6396.
Feature writer Karen Nazor Hill covers fashion, design, home and gardening, pets, entertainment, human interest features and more. She also is an occasional news reporter and the Town Talk columnist. She previously worked for the Catholic newspaper Tennessee Register and was a reporter at the Chattanooga Free Press from 1985 to 1999, when the newspaper merged with the Chattanooga Times. She won a Society of Professional Journalists Golden Press third-place award in feature writing for ...