Fiona Oakes is a triple Guinness world record holder, including the fastest woman to run a marathon on every continent, and is currently training for the 4 Deserts Grand Slam – a weeklong ultra-stage race in 4 of the most hostile deserts in the world – the Namib, Gobi, Atacama and Antarctica. She has been vegan for over 40 years and says “The better runner I can be, the better I can speak out for the animals – this is the greatest motivator any athlete could ever want.” While running marathons, training 6 days a week and creating world records, she also manages to run the animal sanctuary Tower Hill stables in the UK, providing a home to 450 + animals for the past 20 years, including 72 horses, 101 pigs, 22 cows, 50 sheep and many others!
I went vegan at the age of 6 years old after being a self-inspired vegetarian since the age of 3. It’s not so much that it was a conscious decision to be vegan but more a natural reaction to the violence, cruelty and exploitation involved in animal agriculture. At 3 years old I knew it was wrong to harm those I loved – I loved animals so it was obvious that I did not want to eat their flesh. When I became older I became more inquisitive as to where other products such as eggs and milk came from and why the animals ‘chose’ to give these products to humans. As soon as it was explained to me they were not given but taken by processes which incur great suffering and pain, it was the natural thing to do to reject them also. It was not easy though, for both myself and my family – my mother in particular -as everyone from doctors, health professionals, teachers, family members, friends and just about everyone else I and my mother came into contact with, were people who constantly challenged my decision (and hers to ‘allow’ me) to follow this path.
Because I was so young and in the charge of my mother – who was not vegan – she was accused of child abuse, by not ‘making’ me eat what so many consider healthy. Her response was always that if any abuse were involved it was to lie to a child in order to manipulate and indoctrinate them into your way of thinking for no other reason than it is what you want. Even today, with the growing interest in veganism particularly among young people, we constantly meet parents who are worried about their children’s future growth and health if they follow a vegan diet. I remember once at a Marathon I was running, whilst I was out on the course, my Mum spent time with the Lady Mayoress who was presenting the prizes. She had a daughter who wanted to become vegetarian but the Lady Mayoress was concerned over the health implications in later years. After speaking to my mother who told my story about me winning the race and breaking the Course Record (a record which has stood for 12 years), when the Lady Mayoress presented me with my Trophy she was able to say that after witnessing my performance and my longevity as a vegan, she was more than happy for her daughter to follow her desired path. Stories like this are my real victories and proud moments because I can prove to the doubters and disbelievers and offer tangible evidence that their opinions and concerns are unfounded.
My first passion in life has always been animals, and the natural progression from not wanting to eat them was to care for them physically – to offer Sanctuary and love to those so often neglected and abused. Running a Sanctuary was always a dream but one I thought could never become a reality. Even today people ask me how to start a Sanctuary and what advice I would give, I struggle to know what to say. It’s tough, as everyone’s path and trigger to making this monumental decision is different. For me, I had been rescuing in a very small way all my adult life – horses at farms and livery yards, smaller animals in my home and juggling it all with an extremely arduous job with very long hours in the City of London. I used to go and feed the horses before setting off to cycle the 30 mile distance into London and then the same on the way home. One evening, I called my horses in their field and one – and elderly rescued thoroughbred called Oscar – did not come. He had succumbed to a terrible accident in his field due to the negligence of the owner of the yard. Poor Oscar nearly lost his life, spent 13 weeks at the Vet and this was the precipitator to us going all out to purchase somewhere where we could care for the animals on our terms rather than those who did not value their precious lives as highly and dearly as we did.
I still don’t really know how we managed it, but it was a massive challenge to even raise the deposit to buy the Sanctuary and an even bigger one to address the huge mortgage we required to facilitate the move here. That was over 20 years ago and now Tower Hill Stables has grown and grown to a place of love and dignity where we provide a forever home to around 450 rescued animals including 72 horses, 101 pigs, 22 cows and 50 sheep, as well as many dogs, cats, donkeys, goats, chickens, turkeys, geese, swans, peacocks, rabbits and cockerels. It’s a massive amount of work and worry and costs around £15,000 a month to run now as it has grown and grown over the years with us taking on more and more animals, which has required ever expanding facilities and acreage. We are always looking to move forward, help more animals and continue offering refuge to those whose life is in danger, but over the years I also realised that by having the Sanctuary we are only addressing the symptoms of the problem and not addressing the cause. This is where my running really fits in.
To give some background as to my running and achievements – I have a Personal Best in the Marathon discipline of 2 hrs 38 minutes and have achieved top 20 places in 2 of the World’s Major Marathon Series – London and Berlin – as well as many top 10’s in IAAF Gold Label Marathon events along with many, many Marathon wins – including both the North Pole and Antarctic Ice Marathon in the same year. I am also a triple Guinness World Record holder being the fastest woman to run a Marathon on every Continent and the North Pole in both running time and days elapsed. I am also the fastest woman in running time to run a Marathon on every Continent.
As well as road Marathon running I also do Ultra running and have completed the ‘toughest footrace on the planet,’ the notorious Marathon des Sables. I have also competed in the Triple 7 Quest (7 Marathon on 7 Continents on 7 consecutive days) with a slight twist as I did this in full cow costume to raise awareness of the plight of cattle in the dairy industry – something which is very often overlooked and under estimated. I am currently in the middle of training for the 4 Deserts Grand Slam – a week long Ultra stage race in 4 of the most hostile Deserts in the world – the Namib, Gobi, Atacama and Antarctica – hoping to become one of only a tiny handful of women to complete this.
The animals are my only motivators and helping them is my only motivation. Displaying veganism in all its beauty, glory and the benefits to all from following a plant-based diet. It’s just such a win, win, win scenario from benefits to the planet, other humans and the individual but most of all, to the animals!
Although I am a triple World Record holder and Elite Marathon runner I only run to promote veganism and animal welfare issues. I didn’t even set out to become a runner and certainly not an elite one at that. I still don’t actually really consider myself an ‘athlete,’ as the sole purpose I run is to help animals. During my teenage years I had multiple surgeries on my knees leaving me unable to walk properly and told I would never achieve that goal, let alone be able to run. I have no kneecap and hence no pivotal fulcrum in my right leg making my cadence strange and rather unstable. How I have achieved all I have I honestly don’t know but I can only say it has come from an inner desire, strength and belief that every step I take is helping others. This is, for me, a far greater motivation or inspiration than just aiming for a quick time or win and when I am in a phase of extreme fatigue, in the very dark places some of the races I have done take you to or simply suffering with all the ‘usual’ pains endurance running inevitably brings – I simply remember the reason I am out there, and this has always brought me through whatever challenge I am facing.
Truthfully, how I got into running was just by ‘accident’. When we moved to the Sanctuary I was pretty much full time invested in caring for the animals here and had no time – or money – for my first sport of cycling. However, I did want to keep fit so I thought jogging might be an option. Even though I had been told after my surgeries this would be difficult, I thought if I kept it ‘low key’ it could/would be possible as I knew my legs were strong after years of road and track racing on bikes. The reason I identified running as a possibility was that it was easy, economical on time and money, and was something you could pretty much do at any time of the day – or night – if necessary. Being competitive though it wasn’t long before I wanted to challenge myself and this is when I started entering a couple of ‘local’ races 10kms and half Marathons. After winning them and breaking course records I had to make a decision as to if – and how – I could move my performances on further and whether it would be worth the huge investment of time and effort this would require. One of the main deciding factors was the free publicity and advertising my athletic performances would bring to the Sanctuary. I never imagined it would bring all it has – from the inception of the Vegan Runners Club, to the World Records, elite starts in the biggest Marathons in the world, to running across deserts. All done for the animals and this is the only reason I am ‘proud’ of my performances.
Putting on the Vegan Runner vest and being out there, positively advocating for something that I know to be right. The training is hard and when I commit to doing something I really throw myself in 100% and expect the very best from myself. I usually train 9 times a week, which includes 6 days training with 3 days having double sessions. I split my sessions between speed work, hills, longer tempo runs, and recovery runs. If I am training for Ultra events I adapt my training accordingly adding off roadwork coupled with carrying a backpack. It’s hard fitting it all in with the care of the animals – it takes a great deal of determination, dedication, denial and discipline.
So, to sum me up, being vegan touches every part of my life. If I don’t think I can use whatever it is I am doing – whether that be running, the Sanctuary, the public speaking etc. – I won’t do it. My philosophy behind my running has always been simple: ‘the better runner I can be, the better I can speak out for the animals’ – this is the greatest motivator any athlete could ever want. Far more than winning the race or trophy for myself, I have always wanted it for the animals in order to impress and illustrate how healthy, fit and strong you can be on a plant-based diet. I believe my veganism gives me the focus and discipline I need in life to keep doing what I do. Sometimes I say I don’t know how I have done things but I always know why I have done them!
Please support the sanctuary that Fiona runs:
A film is currently being created about Fiona, called ‘Running For Good’ which is directed by Keegan Kuhn, director of Cowspiracy and What The Health. You can find more information about this film here: https://runningforgoodfilm.com/
Jasper Wilkins: http://instagram.com/jasperwilkins