Fiona Oakes is a fire fighter, marathon runner AND runs an animal sanctuary. We talk to her about her why she chose veganism and how that affects her performance
Despite a punishing schedule of races, elite athlete Fiona Oakes never misses an opportunity to talk about her ethical vegan diet. 2012 saw her face the challenge of the Marathon des Sables for the first time, shrugging off 50 degree heat to run 154 miles across the Sahara. The following year she turned her attention to the North Pole Marathon – she demolished the previous course record by 44 minutes and smashed three world records in the process.
Fiona was in training for the Great North Run when we met. The run, which takes place on 7th September, is a half marathon that begins in Newcastle and takes runners across the iconic Tyne Bridge, through Gateshead to the coastal town of South Shields. This year, a record 56,000 runners will take part. Selected elite runners are given a head start so they don’t get tangled up with the pack – and Fiona is one of only twenty-five of the best female marathon runners in the world to earn a place in the elite starting line-up. Running at the head of the race, she will be wearing a top that proclaims her veganism to the world. Few of the spectators will be aware that Fiona has a knee replacement, having lost a kneecap to a cancerous tumour when she was in her teens. To date, she has completed 25 marathons and has a personal best time of 2 hours 38 minutes.
When we chatted, Fiona had spent the past week in training and had covered more than 120 miles. But running doesn’t take up all her time and energy – Fiona has a job as a fire fighter and also runs an animal sanctuary. She is absolutely committed to looking after the 350 rescued animals in her care and rises at 3.30am to feed them and clean out their living spaces. The Tower Hill Stables Animal Sanctuary is home to horses, pigs, cows, sheep and goats, dogs and cats, and assorted chickens, ducks, geese and peacocks.
If the sanctuary treats the symptoms of animal abuse, Fiona’s latest venture, the Fiona Oakes Foundation, sets out to tackle the causes. Fiona’s stated objectives are to promote a cruelty-free vegan lifestyle through her running and also by attending vegetarian and vegan festivals to speak about her achievements. Look out for her at VegFest Olympia on Sunday 28th September, when she’ll be taking part in a ‘meet the experts’ session and giving a talk about her work.
Fiona, why are you vegan?
I am vegan to help the animals – pure and simple – and I have been since I was 6 years old. It was at that time I realised animals are our friends and you don’t hurt your friends. That was my logic at 6 years old. Later on it just became obvious to me that veganism is an ethical lifestyle which helps not only the animals but the planet and other humans who reside there. In recent years, I have realised it is a very ‘friendly’ diet too, spanning all religions and lifestyles – not to mention an extraordinarily healthy one too.
Is your diet modified to help you succeed as a marathon runner?
I don’t think my diet is in any way modified specifically for my sport. It is, in fact, a very basic diet consisting mainly of fruit, vegetables, nuts, pulses and grains. I don’t take any special supplements for my sport and get my B12 naturally through soya products and Marmite. It probably seems quite a cavalier attitude to take towards my own food but when you have so many other mouths to feed I guess your needs take a bit of a ‘back seat’!
Can you offer any tips for vegans who want to achieve top class athletic performance?
My advice to anyone wanting to achieve top class performance in anything is that you have to work very, very hard – whoever you are and whatever diet you follow. Obviously your diet is the fuel you put into your body which not only enables you to train but also to sustain that training and avoid injury or illness. Ultimately, the performance you are able to deliver on the day of an event is a testament to how much effort your mind and body has been able to endure in training.
What drove you to set up an animal sanctuary?
The animal sanctuary was started because we could see the need of so many animals who needed help. Not just the ‘usual’ ones such as cats, dogs and horses, but the farm animals who are often forgotten and labelled simply as ‘products’. In order to give sanctuary to these animals we had to have our own premises and land. It was a mighty goal to achieve and it took everything both we and my parents had – mentally, physically and financially – but we stuck at it and eventually got here and that is what matters.
You have excelled in so many ways – what achievement are you most proud of?
I guess I have to say the three World Records – for the animals. Being able to achieve such a feat and show the world in such a totally indisputable way that a vegan diet is in no way lacking or prohibitive to extreme endurance, fitness, longevity, versatility and health does mean an awful lot to me and I hope it will make a difference, not only to the animals, but also to other human beings who have been, or are, considering a vegan diet but are worried about the negative myths surrounding it.
What’s next for you?
‘Next’ in terms of races will be an Elite Start in the Great North Run – something which I am very proud of achieving. To be able to switch between Elite level road running and Ultra running is something which is very, very rare. There won’t be too many people on the Elite Start of any races who can boast such a high placing in the MdS, for instance. Ultimately, the results you achieve are down to how much you want them. I don’t want this for myself – I am not selfish enough to dedicate so much of my time to something just because I ‘like’ doing it. I don’t actually particularly like running as I am so busy with the Sanctuary sometimes it is difficult to fit my training in (recently I have adapted it to training in the middle of the night with a head torch) but I feel it is doing something really positive for those I care about most, the animals, and for that reason I will continue.
In November, Fiona is planning to run the Everest Trail race, a six-day race which ends at Everest base camp. Next February, she’ll be setting her sights even higher, as she hopes to be one of a handful of people attempting ‘the 777’ – that’s seven marathons in seven days on seven continents – an incredible challenge. Immediately after that, she’ll be going back to the Sahara to run the Marathon des Sables for the third time.
Fiona has literally taken her vegan message to every continent and her amazing achievements are an outstanding testimony to the health, energy and positivity that come with her vegan principles. Go, Fiona!
Keep up with Fiona on her Facebook page – www.facebook.com/fionaoakes