Vegan hero

Vegan marathon runner Fiona Oakes is, quite simply, incredible. Sara Niven Smith caught up with Fiona – who holds five marathon course records – to find out why she pushes herself through the toughest terrain on the planet.

Vegan hero

Vegan marathon runner Fiona Oakes is, quite simply, incredible. Sara Niven Smith caught up with Fiona – who holds five marathon course records – to find out why she pushes herself through the toughest terrain on the planet.

The phrase 'a true inspiration' is often used, but it would be hard to meet anyone it applies to more than Fiona Oakes.

This vegan amateur athlete, who as a teenager suffered a severe knee injury and was told she could struggle to walk again, let alone run, has gone on to complete numerous marathons, many in the most extreme conditions imaginable. From braving below –28C in the North Pole to above 52C in the Sahara desert, she has competed in no less than 26 to date, set records along the way and been the first woman to finish in many instances. Oh, and then there's the animal sanctuary she runs and the fact she is also a retained fire fighter...

'I don't actually like running, it's something I do for my animals and to raise the profile of the Vegan Society.'

Fiona Oakes

We caught up with this wonder woman at the end of a week where she'd flown to Australia, ran a marathon less than 24 hours after the plane touched down, came third in the women's race and then flew straight back again.

'I don't think Australian customs officials get many people coming in from the UK for such short stays, and they were pretty taken aback when they found out what I planned to do,' Fiona recalls. 'They suggested a healthy amount of recovery time might be a day for every time zone passed – in my case nine.'

Helping others

Fiona's partner Martin, who works full time in finance, wasn't there to offer support. In fact, he has never seen her cross a finishing line. When she is away he takes holiday from work to hold the fort at Fiona's Essex-based animal sanctuary. It is here her 400-plus rescued animals are housed and the reason she has to get back as soon as possible.

Her marathon motivation, she explains, comes from her beloved animals and a passion for promoting veganism. It must be strong, because fitting in training alongside caring for the animals means often getting by on four hours sleep – and a typical day begins at 3.30am. Her running often has to be done at night, when she dons a head torch. Yet Fiona has a startling admission.

'I don't actually like running,' she says. 'It's something I do for my animals and to raise the profile of the Vegan Society – an organisation I am proud to be Honorary Patron of – and veganism generally. If people see that someone can do this on a vegan diet, they can't dismiss us as tree huggers or see it as something that puts us at a physical disadvantage.'

A vegan from the age of six, Fiona has never veered from her beliefs. 'I told my mum I didn't want to eat anything that meant taking something from an animal,' she recalls. 'She didn't try to dissuade me and was always supportive, though my family did wonder if it was a passing fad.'

It wasn't. This same single-mindedness she showed back then has got her through some incredible feats of endurance as an adult. There are no expensive supplements, special shakes or energy gels involved when Fiona runs a marathon, and her diet is very basic – baked potatoes and beans often make a typical dinner.

'A lot of mental strength is involved when you are doing something physically very tough and mine comes from a genuine belief that by doing this I am helping others,' she explains. 'For me, these "others" are the many animals who suffer in silence behind the closed doors of the food chain and factory farms.'

Feats of endurance

This April, Fiona took part in the North Pole marathon, finishing an amazing third overall and winning the women's marathon in 4 hours and 53 minutes. She admits it was harder than she could have imagined. 'Absolutely everything froze – even the water in my eyes. I took some boiled sweets for an energy boost but I hadn't realised they'd just freeze and become dust.'

Something else that froze in her pocket was Percy Bear, her animal sanctuary's globetrotting mascot. Fiona admits she thought twice about taking a stuffed toy to the North Pole, but 'he's been to all my marathons so I felt I couldn't leave him'.

'A lot of mental strength is involved when you are doing something physically very tough and mine comes from a genuine belief that by doing this I am helping others.'

Fiona Oakes

It is hard to decide which of her many achievements could be considered the most awe-inspiring. A year prior to her North Pole triumph she became one of a tiny number of women to complete what has been described as the toughest race on earth. The Marathon de Sables involves running the equivalent of seven marathons in six days – a total of 154 miles – across the Sahara Desert. Competitors carry their own supplies for the week with only temporary shelter and water provided.

To make matters worse, just days before setting off, one of Fiona's elderly horses trod on her foot. Her decision to run with two fractured toes on top of her long-standing knee injury (she is missing a kneecap and is in constant pain when she runs) could have been considered foolhardy, to say the least. This is a race where the entry fee covers the cost of flying your body back and the risks are made clear.

'It wasn't a particularly pleasant experience,' she says, in what has to be a considerable understatement. 'I did think, "remind me again what I'm doing here", but got so many messages of support that I'd have crawled to that finish if I'd had to.'

Fiona had another personal triumph during the race – one of her fellow competitors converted to veganism after being inspired by her example, although she is keen to point out she doesn't believe in preaching to others.

'I'm a realist. Even if meat-eaters adopted Meat Free Mondays and gave up meat one day a week, I'd see that as a positive.'

Promoting veganism

Fiona's current aim is to break the female world record for the fastest time taken to run a marathon on every continent plus the polar ice cap – the current record is 324 days and she hopes to do it in 226.

During November that means tackling the Volcano Marathon in the Atacama Desert. The following week she takes on the Antarctic Ice Marathon. She has put her work as a retained fire fighter temporarily on hold as a result, but it is not uncommon for her to be jumping into the car in her nightie to deal with a fire or other emergency situation.

The cost for competing in each race is considerable, running into thousands of pounds in most instances. Fiona has received funding for some from supporters and her parents recently remortgaged their home to help. It would be easy to question whether the costs don't outweigh any fundraising benefits, but with TV appearances and numerous magazine features resulting from her triumphs Fiona points out that the positive publicity is one money cannot buy.

So will the day come when she will hang up her running shoes? 'For me, running is about promoting veganism in a positive light – nothing more, nothing less. When I think I am no longer achieving this goal I'll look at doing something else.'

Whatever that involves, Fiona is unlikely to do it by halves.

Seeking sanctuary

Fiona set up the Tower Hill Stables Animal Sanctuary in 1996. At the last count, she had 55 horses, 18 cats, 25 sheep, 26 dogs, 86 pigs, three cows, goats, chickens, turkeys, ducks, geese and more. Yet she knows all her animals individually and can recall the often harrowing story of how they came into her care.

There's Bess the abandoned pig who was so emaciated there were fears she might not survive the rescue, but thrived at the sanctuary and became a house pig. Then there's Horace, the blind and deaf elderly little terrier, thrown into a lake in a bag tied with string. Thankfully he was found by a fisherman and taken to Fiona. Despite the serious cases of neglect and cruelty she has seen first hand, she's keen to stress the positives of the work she does, commenting, 'it can be very doom and gloom and gruesome otherwise'.

The commitment means many personal sacrifices. In the past 17 years, Fiona and Martin haven't had a holiday together, a meal out or trip to the cinema – one of them is always at the sanctuary.
'It takes months to rebuild the lives of many of the animals after the trauma they have suffered and it would be impossible to introduce someone else on a very temporary basis,' she explains. 'Running a sanctuary for this many, and varied animals is all about trust, understanding and security. I try to focus on providing the care, dignity and love each of these animals deserves.'
www.towerhillstables.com

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