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