fiona oakes

Who is Fiona Oakes?

Maria Slough meets the inspirational vegan runner and animal rescuer, Fiona Oakes

There will never be enough column inches to do real justice to the phenomenon that is Fiona Oakes - multiple world record holder; the first vegan woman to complete the gruelling Marathon de Sables; winner of the North Pole Marathon and recognised as the fastest woman to run a marathon on every continent.

But at the heart of these outstanding accomplishments is a strong and refreshingly honest woman who embraces vulnerability in her unfaltering vision for veganism.

\"I always say that becoming vegan at such a young age was not really a decision, it was more of a reaction against something which I couldn't comprehend. I started to ask questions about where food came from.

I wasn't familiar with the word 'vegan'; it was the principle of no harm and no evil. My mum's music teacher from the 1950s was vegan and she articulated to my mum what I was thinking and feeling.\"

There was no light bulb moment for Fiona, being plant-based was an emotional and physical need within her. Vegetarian by three years old and vegan by six, her path was set.

\"I cannot ever remember feeling any different about animals and have always viewed all creatures to be part of my extended family. My first real memory was being in my pushchair when I was two years old, and a dog came bounding over to us.

My older sister and mum were terrified but - according to my mum - I just put my hand out to the dog to make physical contact with it without any fear or hesitation.\"

\"I was so miserable as a child as I wanted to be near animals, so my mum, who to this day is my rock, and my grandparents, together bought me 'Mr Max' my first pony.

When I was poorly as a teenager and in hospital, my mum used to fetch him and walk him to the hospital, so he could sit outside. He was the naughtiest, most wonderful character. He was my everything… I had him for 31 years.\"

The pivotal moment

Fiona rescued many animals over the years, but it was a retired racehorse called Oscar that brought her to a life changing crossroads.

\"I was renting a field to keep Oscar and the other horses I had rescued safe. I used to work in London and travel to see them before and after work. Spooked by rabbit hunters, Oscar had collided with a fence causing him life threatening injuries, incurring a 13 week stay at the vets.

I had always dreamed of having a place with enough land to have the larger animals with me at all times and my family knew this was that pivotal moment in my life. The whole family put in on this one chance that we might buy somewhere with some land.

Even my Aunty, who had £1,000 in a sock for her funeral, gave it to me when she knew there was a glimmer of a chance, and together, we bought Tower Hill.

I believe the most effective change you can make is on your plate, but it went deeper, and I wanted to take the animals from the abhorrent industries and give them the life they deserve. Tower Hill is now home to some 500 rescued animals.\"

\"I wanted to take the animals from the abhorrent industries and give them the life they deserve\"

Going the distance

Fiona started running in 2001 aged 34. Up to that point, she had been thriving on a vegan diet juggling a job as a part time Fire Fighter whilst caring for the animals at the sanctuary.

\"I was beginning to realise that I needed to negate the need for sanctuaries to exist as they address the symptoms of a problem, not the cause.

I could physically only change and make better the lives of those in my care, but the billions of animals in the animal agriculture industry were destined to keep suffering, unless the global model of consumerism and commercialism were changed to one of compassion and coexistence.\"

After multiple orthopaedic surgeries on both her knees as a teenager Fiona was told she would never walk again properly, let alone run.

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\"I needed a platform to promote my vegan message in a positive, proactive and peaceful way,\" she explains, \"So, I decided to try running in marathon events with it being heralded as the most mentally and physically challenging, brutal and demanding of athletic disciplines.

A testament to my body's ability to recover on a day-to-day basis, is the amount of training I have always been able to sustain in order to achieve the highest of results on a world stage. In order to run a fast marathon at elite level, distances of around 100 miles a week must be not just achieved but sustained for a training block of around 10 to 12 weeks.

Asking your body to endure this, week in, week out, is pushing it to the very limit of its physical capacity, so recovery is of paramount importance and one which a plant-based diet is more than able to efficiently supply.\"

This was the perfect platform for the message Fiona was trying to convey - that being vegan is not prohibitive or detrimental to health and wellbeing in any context.

\"I was never actually able to find anyone who would train me, as the rationale of people within sport tended to be that there was no chance of a successful career without full investment in your craft. That meant hard training combined with a highly nutritious diet, which then no-one thought plants alone could provide.\"

Within a couple of years of taking up running, Fiona went from a total novice with a disability to qualifying for 'elite starts' in the world's major marathons standing shoulder to shoulder on the start lines of these races with the very best runners of the time.

\"At this level, sponsorships and advertisers are very protective of their rights as press and media coverage is up for grabs and any clothing competitors wear has to be that of an UKA affiliated running club, so in 2004, I co-founded Vegan Runners (veganrunners.org.uk).

By doing this we made it possible to wear a vest with the word 'Vegan' emblazoned on it and consequently carrying that word to a captive audience who, by association of the high placing being achieved, would associate the word vegan with everything that running from the elite start in a marathon encapsulates - strength, endurance, speed and excellence.\"

In 2013, Fiona broke the world record and gained Top 20 places in the worlds three major marathons at elite start level, but she felt utter despair as the press refused to engage in the vegan issue. Major broadcasters interviewed her, but asked her not to talk about being a plant-based athlete.

The fact that Fiona was achieving this on plants continued to be swept under the carpet until 2016, when strategically, it was allowed to come to the forefront.

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Putting away individual agendas

\"The Fiona Oakes Foundation (fionaoakesfoundation.co.uk) was a progression from my running and the profile and platform it had afforded me,\" Fiona says. \"Opportunity is of no worth if you are not willing to share it with others and that is what the Foundation hopes to do, encourage, support and inspire future generations.\"

\"I'm never very satisfied with what I am doing as I'm always acutely aware that billions of animals are still dying and being exploited and it never seems to be enough.

Surely, the best way to live is to live a clean, healthy life, to not need pharmaceutical intervention and by not harming the animals you are not harming yourself? We, as humans could learn so much from our animal friends if only, we could find the humility to listen to their message.

They are innocent and honest souls who take no more than they need and are not driven by the greed and the hidden agendas and vices humans often carry with them. Whether it be on land, in the sky or the depths of the oceans we have to work together as a global community to address all issues of welfare and put individual agendas aside for the good of all.\"

\"Whether it be on land, in the sky or the depths of the oceans we have to work together as a global community to address all issues of welfare\"

Is being vegan your favourite thing? \"Yes, I think it is my favourite thing, in terms of the fact of reconciling myself to myself. To be honest, I think veganism is something which chose me rather than me choosing it. I know that may sound something of a cliché but it is completely true.

I don't ever remember a time in my life when I didn't have this ethical ideal that basically all creatures, whether human or non-human, are equal and deserve to be afforded the same moral rights.

Animals are so accepting of each other, and I truly believe one of the most important mantras to carry forward, is that to be among them is a blessing, and you must do this on their terms.\"

As Fiona's closing words take their place I know that they will stay with me long after our time together and I feel incredibly lucky to have met this woman who is an absolute powerhouse in the most understated way.

Whatever the doubters have said historically is irrelevant. Fiona Oakes - rescuer of animals; firefighter; World Record elite start athlete and vegan, is a part of history. And she did it all on plants!

Follow Maria's photography journey at mariasloughphotography.com and Instagram @mariasloughphotography

VeganLife

The lifestyle magazine written by vegans for vegans.