Inspirational Vegans: Fiona Oakes – Record Breaking Athlete

The fastest woman to run a marathon on every continent.

Often referred to as “the greatest runner you’ve never heard of”, Fiona holds four World Records, including being the fastest woman to run a marathon on every continent. Fiona co-founded Vegan Runners in 2004 and her attempt at the 2017 Marathon des Sables was documented in the film, Running for Good.

We spoke to Fiona about her incredible career, what inspires her and found out more about her work at the Tower Hill Animal Sanctuary.

 

You have been Vegan since you were 6 – was this entirely your decision and what promoted it? Were there other Vegans and Vegetarians in the family?

I always say that me becoming vegan at such a young age was not really a decision, more of a reaction against something which I couldn’t comprehend i.e., the cruelty, consumption and exploitation of innocent creatures. I didn’t actually know the word vegan at the time but I did understand the principle and that is what really matters. As for other family members who were vegan or vegetarian – not one, I am afraid. However, I was so lucky as my Mum had a friend, an ex music teacher of hers, who was vegan and she managed to articulate to my Mum in adult rhetoric exactly what it meant to be vegan and how to go about living vegan back in a small town in Derbyshire in the 1970’s.

How do you balance the nutrition levels required for the life of an elite athlete and what dietary advice would you give to other very active Vegans?

I find it really easy to manage my diet in a way which not only supports my really physical and hectic life running the Sanctuary as well as training up to 100 miles a week for events. I am not a big ‘foodie’ person and don’t get too stressed about the miniscule details of my diet. In fact, I always joke and say that with this big family of animals to care for and feed, my own needs are always at the bottom of the list. I think the most important thing to remember with any diet is that balance is key and learning to listen to your own body and what it is telling you at any given time. I don’t buy any of the processed vegan foods which have flooded the supermarkets recently and tend to stick to locally sourced, seasonal, basic foods cooked from raw ingredients.

My Mum actually does all the cooking as she has always done and she uses lots of pulses, rice, pasta, nuts, seeds, fresh vegetables and fruits. She likes to prepare a colourful platter and tries very hard to have 10 different vegetables in each meal – can be a challenge at times but she does her best. If I am training really hard for an event I will just up the carbohydrate intake if I feel I am lacking energy but my diet actually stays pretty much the same all year round. People do find it quite strange that I only eat one meal a day – just something which I found suits my lifestyle and physical and mental needs.

One thing I think is very important about my diet is that I do feel very blessed that I have enough food on my plate for each meal and that I don’t have to worry where the next meal is coming from – a luxury which many of us take for granted. Also, my meal does not just literally consist of ‘peace on my plate’ but I am so lucky to have peace in my heart and my surroundings too – that is very important to me.

 “I have to say running the ‘toughest footrace on the planet’, Marathon des Sables,

in 2012 with 2 fractured toes was a challenge which nearly did get the better of me.”

You hold an incredible four world records for marathon running, what have been some of the highlights of your incredible career so far?

My running career has never been carefully constructed or engineered and if I am truthful it came about accidentally. I started running about 2 decades ago because I was so frustrated at the lack of positivity surrounding a vegan diet. Very rarely did you hear the word vegan in the mainstream media or press and, when you did, it almost always was a story with negative connotations implying lack of energy, wellbeing, physical strength and illness. I just wanted to prove that whole agenda wrong and picked the Marathon as it was, at the time, considered the toughest athletic event in the calendar requiring enormous physical and mental endurance, resilience, recovery and strength. I started out with the idea of competing in and completing a Marathon and things just went on from there. One of the highlights for me is always remembering how blessed I am to be able to have the strength and health to even consider competing in these events and to continue doing so. Having co-founded Vegan Runners back in 2004 in order to showcase the word Vegan on the Elite Start Lines of some of the World’s Major Marathon events is also a massive honour. Honestly, just being able to wear the Vegan Runner vest and stand on the top of Podiums for the animals has been amazing, the privilege of running across Deserts, up mountains and just about everywhere else on the planet for almost 2 decades and sharing the beauty, peace, viability and sustainability of veganism is all I have ever wanted to achieve through my running.

You have displayed amazing resilience. Despite losing a kneecap at the age of 17 due to a tumour, you have kept running. Where do you find your strength and determination?

It’s easy, it comes from the animals and trying to help them through being out there and speaking for them through my running in a positive way. They are my motivation and inspiration to train – the better and harder I run, the more credibility I give to the reason I am out there. This year I have 2 qualifications to represent England in both the 10km and half Marathon, I have qualified for the Elite Start of the London Marathon and am tipped to do well in Marathon des Sables. It’s all about being driven, determined and dedicated because I want to show the world the validity, versatility and viability of veganism in a nonconfrontational and non-deniable way, through my results and continued commitment.

You have run in some of the most extreme locations on the planet, from deserts to the North Pole. What have been some of the biggest challenges?

It has been really hard to fit in all the extensive training, week in week out, to be fit enough to take on these challenges. Honestly, when you get to the races the hard work has already been done. Especially I find in road running. If you have managed to sustain a long block – say 12 weeks – of really hard training, a successful taper and remain fit, well and healthy on the day – combined with the luck of the weather being in your favour – the race can almost be ‘enjoyable’ (but don’t quote me on that at 20 miles into a sub 2.40 Marathon!) I train in a pretty unusual way in that I don’t have a Coach (I tried to get one in the early days but no-one was willing to help me because they all said my veganism was counterproductive!), train alone, have to do all my speed work on a treadmill as my knee is so temperamental – it won’t allow me to run repetitive bends on a track, don’t use any ‘devices’ such as Garmin, pulse monitor, Strava etc. I quite literally just rely on myself but I do have the absolute will to achieve because I want, so badly, to do well for the animals.

 

Fiona finished 1st in the North Pole marathon, more than 1 hour ahead of the next runner.

 

I know my own pace and capabilities very, very well and this makes it easy for me to adjust to external factors such as running in temperatures ranging from minus 40 degrees in the Arctic to plus 50 degrees in Deserts. I have to say running the ‘toughest footrace on the planet’, Marathon des Sables, in 2012 with 2 fractured toes was a challenge which nearly did get the better of me. The event is tough enough itself being a week of total self-sufficiency, with a huge backpack to carry, – made even heavier by the then lack of any lightweight vegan nutrition or accessories such as sleeping bags and clothing – 250km to run, scorching heat of over 50 degrees to cope with as well as all other manner of problems and challenges to overcome -I actually laugh and say that with so much going on, if it hadn’t been for the excruciating pain, having the fractured toes was just one problem diluted by the countless others to contend with!

You are an ambassador for the Vegan Society, what does that involve?

Being an Ambassador of the Vegan Society is basically being an Ambassador for Veganism in itself drawing attention to the positivity and benefits of veganism, not only through the diet but also through the ethical and environmental benefits of this lifestyle.

You founded the ultra-marathon Running For Good Ultra. Can you tell us about this and why you set it up?

I wanted to do something positive for people during the pandemic and give them a chance to experience some of the monumental experiences I had through my athletics so I decided to try and create my own event – Running for Good Ultra – along with Mohamad Ahansal, multi Marathon des Sables Champion.

Held over one week and covering 365km in the deep Moroccan Sahara it attempts to highlight many issues and problems facing present and future generations such as global warming, desertification, our need to be frugal and prudent with all the world’s diminishing resources and how we must not only recycle but reduce intake globally by learning to consider the impact of our actions on others and their environments as well as that of our own. It also aims to illustrate how much extra personal potential, momentum and fulfilment can be engendered when an individual’s actions and energies are directed towards helping others rather than just focussing on self-gratification.

How has the Covid 19 pandemic affected your life as an athlete?

The day before the first lockdown in March 2020 I was due to represent England in a half Marathon and then go onto the Marathon des Sables the following month. It was a blow to have both these events cancelled and I actually chose to run the entire distance of the Marathon des Sables on the week it should have been held as I had been focussing on it for so long I just felt I needed to get the distance done and out of my system. It was surreal as, although it was April, the weather was glorious, the trails and roads were deserted, not a chemtrail in the sky and a single person to be seen. It was pretty much all I had been seeking in actually going to MdS itself.

From then on I just decided to train and use my time out running for contemplation and self-acquaintance. I am incredibly lucky in that I live very rurally and have the sea wall to run on which is usually very peaceful and deserted – just the lapping waves, wildlife, nature and my thoughts with me for company. It has proven very therapeutic and beneficial both physically and mentally and, although we still don’t know what races will or won’t go ahead, the benefits of these efforts are still rewarded.

What advice would you give to a young person wanting to pursue a career in athletics?

With determination, dedication, discipline, denial and self-belief you can achieve your goals but be prepared for it to be a very tough but challenging path.

You are in the Guinness Book of Records for being the fastest woman to run a half-marathon in an animal costume. Can you tell us a bit about that?

I actually decided to do this as I wanted to highlight the plight of the often ‘forgotten’ and concealed misery of the dairy industry. There are so many misconceptions surrounding this, in that people often believe it not to be cruel as they don’t fully understand what it entails. In fact, when filming Running for Good, Keegan Kuhn shared with me his experiences of making Cowspiracy. He said that going to the dairy unit was the most disturbing and upsetting thing he experienced as the abject misery, despondency and hopelessness of the cows and their calves was absolutely incomprehensible.

I had some downtime and thought it would be good to go and try to do something through my running to get people talking about this issue and make them more aware that dairy, quite literally, is scary, so I donned my cow suit and went off and broke a World Record!

Talking of animals, you founded the Tower Hill Stables animal sanctuary. Can you tell us about your work there and why it is so important to you?

Fiona Oakes at Tower Hill Stables | Watson & Wolfe
Fiona’s passion and love for animals saw her open Tower Hill Stables Animals Sanctuary in 1996.

I founded the Sanctuary in 1996 as a place to give Sanctuary to the animals I had already rescued – smaller animals and horses – and it has just grown and grown since then. It wasn’t possible to give sanctuary to ex farm animals up until that point as I had nowhere to keep them but it had always been my dream to be able to take animals such as pigs, cows and sheep out of the cruel and exploitative situations they were born into and give them a life of hope, love, peace and dignity among their own kind.

This is very important to me, the idea that the animals can live as natural a life as is possible with me there to supervise and provide for them on their terms with as much freedom as I can feasibly and possibly afford them. It is wonderful to see the way the old and young interact with each other and very important for their stability and mental well-being that they are surrounded by not only their own kind but different generations too as it would be for herd animals in the wild. The older animals offer knowledge and stability to the younger ones and the younger ones, quite literally offering stimulation and vigour to the older members of the group.

What’s for supper tonight?

I do believe I have homemade soup, fresh baked bread and mushroom risotto according to Chef Mum – with the possibility of some date cake to round off if I am not fit to burst by the time it comes to pudding!

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