Once she had the condition under control, Sydney Williams, 34, founded a nonprofit to help others heal through hiking.

By Emily Shiffer
April 30, 2020
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Sydney Williams is always seeking her next big adventure. In college at the University of Kansas she was on the rowing team, then became a competitive skydiver, participating in national competitions.

“Initially, I enjoyed skydiving because it gave me a break from my stressful career in corporate communications," Williams, 34, tells Health. "I didn’t have to be worried about client deadlines, responding to emails, or back-to-back meetings at the office. All I had to do was be present, focus on the task at hand, remember to breathe, and land safely.”

After she and her husband, Barry (who was her skydiving instructor first) moved to San Diego from Chicago in 2011, Williams saw it as another adventure. She began paddleboarding and took advantage of the nature around her to offset the stress and of her work.

“Physical activity really helped me manage my emotions,” she says.

In December 2016, she and Barry booked a trip to hike the Trans-Catalina Trail on Santa Catalina Island in Southern California, a rugged and difficult 38.5 mile hike. Things in her life had been compounding—she was worn down from her job and had gained weight, and she experienced personal tragedy when close friends in the skydiving world died. She saw the hike as a challenge to help her process her feelings. “I had no training, but I was armed with delusional confidence,” recalls Williams.

But soon after she completed the grueling hike and returned to San Diego, her body began signaling that something was wrong.

“I was overweight and tired all the time,” she says. “I figured my exhaustion was from eating and drinking my feelings, the lack of sleep that occurs when you’re stuck in a grief cycle, and workaholism. I never suspected physical disease. I just knew I was fat, burned out, and tired.”

By September 2017, things hit a catalyst. She and Barry spent the day paddleboarding, and she felt dehydrated and sick. She thought she had heatstroke or heat exhaustion. But when she still wasn’t feeling well two weeks later, she suspected something was seriously wrong.

“I was super thirsty and had intestinal distress,” she remembers. “It felt like I was wearing a corset and it was cinching down on my internal organs. It was the most pain I could handle.”

She went to an urgent care facility on September 18, where a full blood panel came back showing that she had high blood glucose levels. After a few more days of tests, she was given a diagnosis: Williams had type 2 diabetes.

“I started crying,” she says. “One of the first things I remember asking the doctor was, ‘So I can’t have bread anymore?’ I had heard of diabetes, but I didn’t know what was happening to my body. I had so many questions for my doctor. Would I have to be on medicine the rest of my life? Can I reverse it? Is it genetic? What’s the deal?”

She immediately went into learning mode, figuring out what she would need to do to get healthy. She was prescribed Metformin, moved to a plant-based diet, and stopped drinking. She also began experimenting with different foods to find out which ones helped her maintain her blood sugar. "As I found foods that worked, those became staples in my nutrition plan,” Williams says.

Part of her diabetes recovery plan was to lose weight and reduce stress. Her doctor suggested she get at least 30-45 minutes of exercise each day. Hiking was the perfect solution. “After my diabetes diagnosis, I swapped unhealthy habits for hiking,” she says. “And hiking helped me calm my brain. I was left alone with my thoughts and I couldn’t run away from them.”

She also made the difficult decision to leave her stable, six-figure salary job in marketing and took a position helping a friend’s startup. But she continued to struggle physically.

“My body was sounding the alarm. It had been trying to get my attention," she says. “Spiritually, emotionally, and energetically, I knew I needed a reset button. I was working 16-hour days and was living in a pressure cooker.”

Williams left the startup and began training for another go at the Trans-Catalina Trail. By then, she was 60 pounds lighter than she was when she was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, and she was 70 pounds lighter than the first time she hiked the trail. She completed the hike in June 2018.

“When I hiked across Catalina again, it was like an emotional excavation. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done emotionally,” she says.

Physically, she felt so much better, too. She was inspired to reach out to the Catalina Island Conservancy, hoping to become a trail ambassador and share with others how the trail had changed her life. That led to a short speaking tour with REI stores, and then the creation of Hiking My Feelings. This is Williams' non-profit organization, which encourages people to get out on the trails to experience the healing power of nature. “I want to help others change their lives with whatever they’re dealing with,” she says.

In November 2019, she published her memoir, Hiking My Feelings: Stepping Into the Healing Power of Nature. She and Barry launched a book tour, traveling across America in a van to give speeches and lead 69 group hikes.

To raise money for a retreat center the group plans to build and open, Williams is kicking off a major fundraising initiative in May: the Hiking My Feelings Virtual Campfire. "We're hosting a 'virtual campfire' on Zoom to hold space, build community, and bring inspiration in these uncertain times," she explains. "It's a combination of a virtual book tour, campfire chats with special guests, live performances, and guided self-discovery exercises."

“I want to create a place where we can share our stories and lift each other up, so we can each thrive,” she says.

As of February 2019, her diabetes has been in remission. “I made dramatic (and sustainable) lifestyle changes right out of the gate, and I made managing this disease my number one priority,” she says. “In my current condition, my pancreas produces enough insulin to manage my blood sugar without the assistance of medications or injectable insulin.”

Hiking has continued to be the biggest factor keeping her in remission and feeling healthy, and she's passionate about her nonprofit and helping other people navigate their health journeys.

“To keep my diabetes at bay, I now hike as much as I can to get my heart rate up, clear my mind, and connect with something bigger than myself." she says.

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