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Squeals, Bleats And Cackles: Fiona Oakes

If you follow runners in the vegan community there is no excuse to not know Fiona Oakes. She holds Guinness World Records, course records and multiple first place finishes at some of the world’s toughest ultra-marathons. She was recently the subject of the film, Running For Good, produced by the team that brought you Cowspiracy and What The Health.

She is one of the most humble running icons. Running is her activism and she uses her talents to push the limits of vegan athleticism. When she is not breaking records, racing or training for races, she is taking care of animals at the sanctuary her husband and herself run, Tower Hill Stables. It’s my pleasure yo have had the opportunity to have Fiona answer some questions for us here at VCG and I hope you enjoy her responses as much as I did.

VCG: Without rehashing (too much) what every interview online has already answered, give us a glimpse into what drives you to run? When did you start?

FIONA: Honestly, I am driven by the suffering and pain of others. It’s something I abhor and always have. When did it start, before I can really remember. I guess at age 3 when I went vegetarian I was making the association of death with the suffering of animals. That’s why I decided I didn’t want to eat them any more. My life has just been one long progression and expression of this. Vegan at 6, animal sanctuary then the overt activism through my running and now moving into the next phase which is the public speaking.

VCG: You claim to not be a “talented” runner yet you have a resume that us true novices can only dream of. What has been your biggest achievement to date?

FIONA: The biggest achievement for me with my running is the platform and reach it has given me to speak out for animals and the promotion of veganism in a positive, proactive and peaceful way. I don’t really look at individual results as I am honestly not in it for them. It’s the whole package from the road Marathons, World Records and ultra runs and the longevity, continuity and versatility that pleases me most as it illustrates better than any words the total viability and validity of an ethical vegan lifestyle choice.

VCG: You’ve inspired many not only with your running but your drive to care for animals. You’ve been vegan since a really early age. What was the catalyst for that change?

FIONA: As I said above, I went vegetarian age 3 as a natural reaction to avoid something which disgusted me. I can’t say it was a decision because I was too young to be really making active decisions. A couple of years later, lots of questions to my parents and the avoidance of any product which was taken from my animal friends was the obvious path to take for me.

VCG: One of your dreams as a child was to be a part of a sanctuary. You now run Tower Hill Stables with your husband. When did that dream come to fruition and tell me a bit about an average day at the sanctuary?

FIONA: It all happened in 1996. I had been rescuing animals on a small-scale all my life – cats, dogs, rabbits, hamsters etc. and horses which I kept at farms or livery yards. When I met Martin we started to do a little more rescue and managed to adopt 8 horses into our family. Unfortunately, one had a terrible accident at the Farm we were keeping them at and it was due to the negligence of the person in charge (he let people into the field where they were grazing to shoot rabbits!). We nearly lost our beautiful boy, Oscar, a retired racehorse I had spent 3 years rehabilitating. Oscar was rushed to the Vet where he remained for 13 weeks. At that point we knew things had to change and that was the cataclysmic event which made us go into overdrive to make it happen. It’s like we had been standing on the edge of a cliff up to then, not daring to jump, but this event made us. How we managed it I still can hardly believe. My Mum was absolutely pivotal – she sold everything she owned to raise funds – engagement ring, piano, car – it all went and we finally came to a place where we could afford a deposit and mortgage on the Sanctuary site. From there it has grown out of all proportion with the ongoing requests to help more and more animals and my drive to do so. A typical day starts at 03.30 a.m. for me and ends when the work is done. In that day, I do everything for the animals from mucking out, feeding, barn clearing, unloading lorries, tractor driving, supervising Vet and Farrier visits and anything else which comes part and parcel of caring for this huge a family. Running has to be squeezed in between the animal jobs and never comes before them. It’s tough as I usually run 100 miles a week but if you really want to make something happen, you will find a way.

VCG: “Running For Good” is a documentary about you and your efforts to attempt and race the Marathon Des Sables. It was produced by Keegan Kuhn of “Cowspiracy” and “What The Health”. Were you aware of his films and how did you both start talking?

FIONA: I first heard about Keegan when he was looking to raise funds to make Cowspiracy. I thought it was a tremendous project and really positive for the promotion of all I believe. I contacted him and asked if I could help in any way. He wrote back and said after searching me out on the internet he felt it was him who should be helping me! When he found he had a bit of downtime after making WTH he wrote and said – hey, now I would like to fulfil that promise!

VCG: How do you prepare for something like Marathon Des Sables? Living in England the climate isn’t exactly conducive to training, or is it?

FIONA: The only thing you can do to prepare for MdS unless you intend to up sticks and move to the Sahara – is to be as fit as you can, 100% mentally focused and prepared for every and any eventuality and hope you can hang on!

VCG: Does your friend Percy train with you, or is he just a companion during races? tell me about Percy and what he means to you?

FIONA: So Percy is my best friend but some say he is my cheeky little alter ego! He does some training but he likes to focus more of his attention on taste testing sweets, cakes and crisps. He goes to all my races and people just love him – he has the biggest, cutest, cheekiest grin and takes all the attention away from me. Which suits me down to the ground but also, he does do a great job when I am running – especially in the ultra endurance races – as I spend most of my time worrying about him and if he is safe and hasn’t fallen out of my pack, I tend to forget the distance and conditions I am enduring!

VCG: What do you have planned in the future as far as running is concerned? Do you have any more big races coming up on the horizon?

FIONA: Actually, I am going back to MdS in April. Reason being I have actually done the race 3 times. The first time I broke 2 toes the week before the race and still went out there to complete it. I did finish mid field but it was so hard – by the long stage my feet were in such a state you could see the bone sticking out of the broken little toe. Because I helped another competitor during the race who eventually had to pull out, I was offered another chance to go back the following year in 2013 without broken toes. However, in the meantime I had been invited to run at the North Pole and that’s when the World Records started. In 2014 I went back to MdS in the shape of my life and was lying in 6th place overall but one of my tent mates needed me more than I needed a high placing. He had cancer and was on chemotherapy and was trying to encourage and inspire others to know that they don’t have to be beaten by the disease – if he can complete MdS with it they should know they too can do anything. But he was suffering and knew he couldn’t complete the ‘long’ stage alone – around 100km. I offered to mentor him through it if he still wanted to continue on by day 4. He did so I threw my race away to help him. Compassion over competition is what it’s all about after all. 2017 my shoes collapsed so this year I am trying to do the race without broken toes, broken tent mate or broken shoes. Then Berlin Marathon in the Autumn and sub 3 is my goal – in my cow suit!

VCG: How can someone, if they felt so inclined, help out Tower Hill and what you guys are doing for animals? Is there a site they can donate or, if in England, do you take volunteers?

FIONA: Yes we take volunteers and there are loads of ways to help us from the obvious ones like taking out a Standing Order or making a financial donation to getting involved with fundraising, making purchases from the Amazon Wish List, putting your name down for the ‘bread run’ to raising our profile on Social Media. You can find out all about us at www.towerhillstables.org from the Social Media to what we are all about – it’s all on there. Any help we receive goes directly to the animals. We take nothing from the Sanctuary ourselves and continue to put our own funds into it.

VCG: Leave us with a little Fiona wisdom… Say I started running today, as a vegan, what should I do right away to achieve even a minimal amount of success?

FIONA: Success is all relative. Just being able to run is a big win, join Vegan Runners – the Club I am proud to have been part of starting back in 2004. No better way to make a statement at a race than turning up in the Vegan Runner vest. I always say I have no talent as a runner – and, believe me, when you have run in the illustrious company I have, you soon know that to be true. If I do have any talent it is to be able to drive myself very, very hard and to that end, with my running my ability has always been driven by the reason I am out there. Trying to give a voice to the voiceless. The harder and better I run the louder that voice!

*images used by permission of Fiona

Squeals, Bleats & Cackles: Jess Ryle from Vegan Outdoor Adventures

I’m excited to share this chat I had with Jess Ryle from Vegan Outdoor Adventures. I’ve known Jess for a very short time but I can tell you she is extremely dedicated to the values she holds and lives the life she says she does; with pride, kindness and compassion. She is one of the most welcoming people I’ve met in the vegan community and I think you would also agree if you ever have the opportunity to meet her. So, without further ado, let’s get to it.

logo-small2VCG: Say hello to my friend and vegan running cohort, Jess Ryle! I greatly appreciate you taking time to answer some questions and chat. A good amount of the vegan outdoor community know who you are, but for those still in the dark tell us a bit about you.

J @ VOA: I’m Jess, born and raised in Upstate New York. I absolutely love the mountains, so living here is perfect for me. I live with my boyfriend Andrew, along with our dog and five cats. I get outside as much as I can, hiking year round, running and camping. And I work at a vegan-friendly Mexican restaurant. People eating at the restaurant are always surprised to hear that I’m vegan and assume I won’t eat anything there. But I live on rice, beans & avocado! What else do you need in life?

I went vegetarian in 2003 after working at a seafood restaurant and being upset by the lobsters being steamed alive. I didn’t know any vegans and didn’t have the online community that I do now, so I didn’t really know how to go vegan. Finally in 2009 I went for it and have never looked back. I always say that my veganism is my favorite thing about myself.

Vegan Outdoor Adventures is an awesome site. I’ve used it a few times prepping for races, hikes, etc. When did you start it? What were your hopes for it when you started and are you seeing those hopes/ goals coming to light?

J @ VOA: I started VOA at the beginning of 2014. It came about from a combination of looking for a passion project to work on and trying to find new hiking boots that were completely, for-sure, 100% vegan. It was a way more frustrating task than I had ever imagined. My boyfriend Andrew and I were talking about it and the idea for VOA was born.

Initially it was going to be just something to keep me occupied and matched my morals; a resource to help other people with the same hiking boot dilemma. I never imagined that I could make money through it or that it would grow to what it is today.

My original hopes were to get the word ‘vegan’ on the radar of major outdoor gear companies and to build a community of like-minded outdoor enthusiasts. I’m happy to say that both of these have happened. Some companies were already vegan-friendly, but others didn’t know that there was a need for vegan gear. And I’ve also met (both online and in person) so many wonderful people through the site.

VCG: Speaking of VOA, you just started doing seasonal boxes packed with all sorts of goodies. How did the first one go? What has the reaction been like? What made you think about doing these?

J @ VOA: The first Seasonal Sample Box was great! It was definitely a learning experience because I’ve never done anything like this before, but I’m really happy with the way it came out and it was received really positively by subscribers. It was so exciting seeing people post photos on social media when they received theirs!
The Seasonal Sample Boxes came about while I was trying to think of a way to share my favorite items with people. It’s one thing to write a review or post a photo on social media, but actually getting products that I use and love into the hands of readers was really important to me. And subscription boxes are a huge hit right now. There are outdoor boxes and vegan boxes, but I hadn’t yet seen a vegan outdoor box so I think there’s definitely demand for it.

It’s been a really fun process, deciding what to include and promoting brands that I really connect with. We’re working on the winter box now and plan to release it in January.

VCG: Having grown up in the Adirondacks, how much of the range have you hiked/climbed or run?

jess2J @ VOA: Yes, I grew up in Upstate New York, just south of the Adirondack Park. I love it so much here. It’s beautiful and there are so many opportunities to get outside and enjoy nature. I’ve hiked many of the mountains surrounding Lake George, many times each. They’re very close to my house and the views of the lake and surrounding mountains are gorgeous.

The High Peaks near Lake Placid are my favorites though. They’re the highest mountains in New York State and it’s a different world when you’re on top of them. I’ve hiked 12/46 so far, many of them multiple times. Gotta get in gear and hit the rest of them to earn my 46er badge!

VCG: Besides VOA what are some of your other passions?

J @ VOA: Mountains are definitely one of my passions. I absolutely adore the mountains. I feel so peaceful and at home when I’m hiking in the mountains. I also love cats; I’m a total cat mama. Well, I love all animals really. And I’m also a gigantic fan of A Song of Ice and Fire, the Game of Thrones book series. I’m currently re-reading them all.

VCG: I know running is one of those passions because you are one of my awesome teammates from Strong Hearts Vegan Power! How did you find out about SHVP?

J @ VOA: Yes, I love running! And I actually got more serious about running after finding about SHVP and wanting to join the team at Ragnar ADK last year.

I found out about the team through some of my Facebook friends who were on the team. I would see them posting photos and updates from Ragnar races. Then after Ragnar Cape Cod ’15, there was a Strongest Hearts episode about the team and I just knew I had to join.

VCG: SHVP’s last Ragnar was in the ADK and a bunch of us got to hang at your place for the night. How amazing were those homemade vegan Big Macs eh?

J @ VOA: They were so good! I had never had a Big Mac before so I wasn’t sure what to expect. They were definitely amazing.

jess-3VCG: What are your thoughts on activism within the vegan community? I know there are all forms, heck even this interview can be considered activism as it brings your story about veganism to light. What do you do as your form of activism?

J @ VOA: My main form of activism is living my life as a vegan. Everyone I know knows I’m vegan. And a runner. I just do me and live positively and in a way that reflects my morals. I’m friendly and approachable and I think that goes a longer way than pushing people toward a certain lifestyle. Many people have asked me questions throughout the years and I’ve had a few people tell me I was a big help in their own journey toward veganism.
I think all forms of activism are important though. I’ve always said that having people working at all angles is important. From lobbying to protesting to liberation. We’re all working to help animals.

VCG: If you could change one thing about the vegan community and it’s message what would it be?

J @ VOA: I would love for the vegan community as a whole to work together and be more welcoming.

VCG: I want to thank you for taking the time, Jess, to answer all of these questions. I can’t wait for readers to get to know you better and understand just how awesome you are as well as your work with VOA and for animals.

J @ VOA: Thank you for including me, Nate! Good luck with everything on VeganCableGuy.com and I hope to see you soon!

Make sure to check out Vegan Outdoor Adventures at http://veganoutdooradventures.com/

Squeals, Bleats & Cackles: Peter Nussbaum of Tamerlaine Farm Animal Sanctuary

Tamerlaine_Farm_Logo_111014I’m still putting together stories from the various experiences I had at this past years Ragnar Relay here on Cape Cod. There are many things left unspoken, especially those moments in the van at 3am… But, that’s another story; or not! One thing is for certain, this story is one I am excited to share. I recently had a lil e-mail talk with Peter Nussbaum, one of the founders/ owners of Tamerlaine Animal Sanctuary

Usually I’d give an intro about the person I’m interviewing, but that’s where all the questions come in. Although I did meet Peter at the race, our encounter was brief. We met at one of the stops in the relay. Anyone who has done a Ragnar knows some of these stops are “in and out” types of stops. But, having seen the shirts the team was wearing, over and over and over again, I had to ask. First, I asked where I could get one, but was told it’s secret squirrel shit so… But, Peter did mentioned some of the other team was “over there” (and he pointed) so I went to chat with them as well. Anyway, onto why you came here… Read more

Brief Interview with Junyong Pak…

I recently had the opportunity to have a brief conversation, via Facebook, with one of the few men to consistently give Hobie Call a run for his money at various Spartan events. Rather than be a one trick pony though, Junyong Pak races without discrimination or favoritism toward any specific company or obstacle race. The proof was in the  (mud) pudding, so to speak, at this years Worlds Toughest Mudder, where Junyong dominated and took the title back home to our beloved state of Massachusetts.

Give us a brief run down on how you got started living an active lifestyle.
I’d have to say that it actually started early, as in way back in elementary school where as kids, my friends and I would spend a LOT of time outdoors exploring the woods, playing tag and other games that involved lots of running. I definitely feel the times have changed even over these last couple of decades; I just don’t see a lot of kids doing much of that anymore. (On a side note, it would be pretty cool to see obstacle racing make its way into a school curriculum (i.e. make running fun). Maybe it could be the thing to kick start healthy living into a lot of young lives.) Officially though, my competitive edge was whetted when I got to Junior High and my friend inspired me to join the XC team.

Do you have different training regiments throughout the year? As in, do you have an “off season” and an “on season” schedule?
I ran in high school and regrettably didn’t continue into college but I became competitive again when I moved to Boston in 2006 and joined the Greater Boston Track Club. Over the years with the club I’ve participated in whatever was going on at the time, which generally transitioned from track in the winter and spring, to road racing into the summer and fall, to cross country through to the early winter… and put on repeat. So there was never much of an off season per se but the change in seasons would keep things fresh and interesting. I ran everything from the mile to the marathon—roads, trails, and everything in between. This mix would ultimately help me in obstacle racing. In the past year however, I have shifted my focus towards obstacle racing and will be strategizing to time my fitness peaks to coincide with important races.

Do you have a trainer, or have you ever used one? If not, how did you come up with your training program?
When I was running with my club I was joining them in the city for weekly workouts, but between the distance and straying off on my own unpopular direction with obstacle racing, I’ve sort of become the black sheep of the bunch. So I’m my own coach, trainer, doctor, and athlete. It can be really good that way as the feedback loop is very small and continuous, but it certainly is extremely difficult sometimes and I can fully appreciate the benefits of having a coach or trainer type figure, or even training partners to keep motivated. However I’ve never been in shortage of self-discipline and that’s 90% of it right there; just having the mental strength to get out there and go to work, whatever that may be. There is no special recipe for success that bypasses the work aspect. It’s seems obvious but it needs to be said: Some people have talent that can easily carry them above everyone else, but even the talented will only bring them so far before they have to bridge the gap with effort to reach their own full potential. I train by feel, and being my own coach and athlete it’s easier to execute successfully. But basically when I’m ramping up for something big, I try to go right to the edge of breaking down then back off a half-step. This has just as much to do with training the mind as it does the body because when the mind is well-conditioned, the body will obey and follow naturally. Come race day when the two are playing in harmony, it will become a symphony and you’ll be ready for your opus.

What drove you to start obstacle racing, etc?
I had always envisioned myself doing obstacle races but until recently they didn’t exist. I knew my odds of being decent at it were good because none of my fast running friends were very strong above the belt and everyone who had enough strength could never run very fast. Welcome to my world of being a jack-of-all-trades, and a master of none.

I wasn’t going to touch this question, feel free to “no comment” me on it. There seems to be a rivalry of sorts between some of the obstacle racing organizations, mud runs, etc. At times, it seem to get kind of trivial, and to me it seems to lose sight of the goal many of them started with. They’ve always talked about inspiring folks to get fit, to have fun and just be active. Do you think it’s just friendly competition betwee them? Thoughts?
I don’t follow it much but I’ve definitely sensed and witnessed the bitterness of the rivalry first-hand. Regardless of what anyone says their motives are, it seems obvious to me that it’s a matter of finances (and as business endeavors, at no fault to them). But with the sport as young as it is it, there’s no limit on the foreseeable horizon to indicate they wouldn’t be better off working in harmony with each other to grow the sport for the long haul and prosper simultaneously. Taking early profits can only lead to the demise of growth, and possibly even a phasing out.

Back to the real stuff here… What did you do to prepare for the WTM? How long did you train?
This answer could have been an insanely long one, I should have realized that when I asked it. So, Junyong is referring us to http://tinyurl.com/JP2011WTM for the answer. You will find an extensive training schedule, nutrition and supplement info and more than you might need to understand what the beast went through.

Do you follow a particular diet? You get this guy talking paleo, that one talking vegan, this guy talking carb loading before races. Where do you stand on nutrition?
Again, my take on this exact topic can be found in the link above.

Finally, a huge congrats to you for the win at the WTM. Where are we going to see you this year? You going to continue to race right? Thanks for taking time here, Junyong!
I got off to a delayed start and I’m presently cramming like crazy to prepare for the Boston Marathon next month. Then I intend to carry some of that fitness over to Tough Mudder New England and the Death Race in the months following. I’ll also be at the Spartan Sprint in Amesbury, Spartan Beast in Vermont, World’s Toughest Mudder (wherever that is). I’m sure I’ll jump in some other races as well when the time comes.