Fiona Oakes is a dedicated vegan athlete, extreme marathon runner and sanctuary owner. We caught up with her to talk about veganism and exercise and why there is a common misconception that athletes struggle on a vegan diet.
How long have you been a vegan and what made you switch to a plant based diet in the first place?
I have been vegan since I was 6 years old - over 40 years - and before that I was vegetarian. None of my family were either at the time. My vegetarianism was borne of a pure and innocent childlike mentality that if you love something you do not harm it. In other words, "why would I eat the flesh of those I love?" As I became older and my logic more sophisticated- I began to ask where other animal products came from and why the animals who were providing them did not need them. For instance the question "why does the cow not need her milk for her own baby?" When the answer was given, my decision - or reaction - was made and has been since that day.
What do you eat on a typical day to support your physical activity?
I am quite lucky in that food is not the centre of my universe and I actually only view it as a fuel, which allows me to fulfil my goals. My intake of calories is very much an equation in that I eat what I require to complete a given task or set of tasks. If I am undergoing a heavy training period or stage race I will take on board more 'fuel' than if I am just completing the day-to-day work at the sanctuary and a maintenance fitness level. My food tends to be pretty basic as funds are extremely limited when there are 400 mouths to feed other than your own! Consequently, I tend to eat food prepared from scratch and rely heavily on pulses, fresh fruit, seasonal vegetables sourced from the allotment, nuts, grains and home cooking. I am very fortunate that my mother lives with us and is a whizz in the kitchen and loves to cook - she even bakes our bread. My main requirements are that my diet is balanced and varied and, over the years, I have learned to not only listen to what my body is telling me but I also understand how to interpret it and what to do in order to address it. As an athlete, this is particularly important and I always say I don't have a coach or use any technological training aides, why would I when I possess the most sophisticated computer known to man - my brain. It's just a matter of learning how to access and use it!
What is a normal day like for you in terms of exercise?
Every day is pretty physically based for me and starts around 3.30 a.m. as I always have the 400 rescues to care for and all that comes with that - the mucking out, unloading, lifting, pushing, pulling and other tasks required to care for many large animals such as 61 horses! Training wise, when I am targeting a specific event I run around 80 miles a week, including three speed sessions. Even if I am training for a longer distance event I like to do as much speed work as I can whilst managing to increase the mileage accordingly. That can be difficult for many reasons - the main one being lack of time. It's hard to keep pounding your legs with hard speed and road sessions so I add in off road running where I can, which has far less impact but is more time consuming. I also do some X training as I think you have to vary your training not only for physical longevity but mental stamina and sanity!
You own a sanctuary with your husband so can you tell us a little hit more about this?
I have run Towerhill Stables Animal Sanctuary, which is in east Essex, for 20 years with Martin's help at the weekends and during his holiday periods. It is forever home to around 400 rescued animals. Since starting the sanctuary, the emphasis has developed much more from smaller animals, such as cats, rabbits and dogs, to the ex-farmed animals and equines. Consequently, this has called for us to expand in size considerably and we now have four satellite sites for grazing as well as the main Sanctuary. We are a not for profit organisation and both Martin and I put all our spare salaries after our living expenses into the sanctuary and nothing is taken in wages or expenses. It has always been my main desire that every single penny donated to the sanctuary goes directly to where it was intended to go - the animals.
Why do you think there is an assumption that athletes are at a disadvantage if on a vegan diet?
I believe this is down to many factors. Lack of role models, lack of education, lack of exposure, lack of willingness to change and lack of documented evidence to prove otherwise. Also, the continual bombardment of media, press and advertising of products which people are continually being told and perceive as being healthy or providing optimum health benefits - such as dairy, fish, chicken, lean meat etc.
Of all the marathons you've completed, which one has stuck with you the most?
They are all very different and have been run under different circumstances, for different reasons and at different times of my life. Perhaps the one which will always stand out the most is the North Pole Marathon purely because of the ethereal beauty of the scenery, the uniqueness of the location and the long term impact it has made on awareness, interest and understanding of global warming and the fragility of the global ecosystem we are abusing so heavily as humans. One of the most humbling and disturbing scenes I have ever witnessed is a Polar Bear emerging from an ice pool very close to the actual North Pole. It was explained to me in no uncertain terms by a Russian scientist at the scene that, in as little as 20 years, it is highly likely the geographic North Pole will no longer be ice covered.
As a teenager, you lost a kneecap, so how did you find the strength not to let it hold you back?
There is no doubt that losing the knee cap has held me back physically, anyone who has seen me run can observe I have a very uneven style leaning heavily towards one side. Even recently, when I was experiencing some problems with my knee, I went to a sports doctor who was recommended to me. When I presented as a new patient he refused to believe I did not have a knee cap - a pivotal fulcrum - as, in his words, running at the level I do was simply not possible without one. Indeed, when I initially had the surgery I was told walking normally would not be possible and running would be impossible. So undeniably shocked by the revelation he insisted on doing a free ultra sound scan there and then to satisfy his doubts. However, I have always explained I feel I have no talent for running and that my greatest ability is that of my strength of mind, not body. I don't run for myself, quick times, trophies, personal prestige or medals - I run for the animals and to offer positive proof to those who voice doubt or disbelief that a long term, plant based diet is in no way prohibitive to sporting excellence and achievement. When I run, and especially when I am struggling with doubt, fear, pain or exhaustion, I remember why I am out there in the first place, to make a difference - even if it's only a tiny one - in some way for the animals. I am so passionately trying to help by encouraging others to follow a cruelty free path.
In your lifetime you have seen a dramatic shift in attitudes towards veganism- so how does that make you feel?
There has been an enormous shift towards plant based living in recent years and I find this very uplifting, inspirational and motivational in itself. The most encouraging thing is that this shift appears to be global rather than regional and I have particularly noticed this in my extensive travels with my running. From the most northern part of the planet in Longyearbyen to the most southerly locations in Punta Arenas or even Antarctica, people acknowledge and understand what veganism is and cater for it. This was unheard of even a few years ago and the trend appears to be developing fast. It is like a magnificent phoenix rising from a fire to take its rightful place in civilised society, being recognised for the beauty it symbolises both physically and ethically. For so long veganism has been all too often viewed with ridicule and suspicion at best and berated and belittled as downright wrong and unhealthy at worst, to witness this finally beginning to change on a large scale is so wonderful and incredible.
What is next for you?
As usual, I am extremely busy - perhaps busier than ever in fact. With my running- I have the Marathon des Sables next year where we hope to take a film crew to film me during the whole race. We believe this to be of particular importance as it will show the strength of a vegan athlete in terms of endurance and ability to cope with the 'toughest footrace on the planet'. We also hope it will illustrate exactly how little food and water is required by an individual in order to complete such a gruelling event and consequently how much is wasted and unnecessarily consumed by many, particularly those living in the Western world, combining the 3 important elements of veganism. The benefits to individual health, global sustainability and, of course, the lack of cruelty to animals involved. I also hope to break two of my own World Records by running a fast road Marathon combined with the filming of a year in my life and how I combine everything successfully in order to benefit the animals in some way. Public speaking engagements and interviews are now becoming much more of a feature in my everyday life and it is heartening how many requests I receive for this, particularly from non-vegan and vegetarian publications, press and media. They are not only interested in my sporting achievements but how I combine the rigours of the training with my day-to-day care of the animals, the understanding of the subject matter this brings and my longevity of not only sporting career but life as a vegan. Growing the sanctuary and helping more animals in a physical way and on a day-to-day basis has always been and will always be my main aim in life as I am sure that, in my lifetime at least, the need for sanctuary, security and safety will always sadly be required by many.
Find Fiona at- http://www.towerhillstables.com
Fiona Oakes will be speaking at the upcoming Vegfest- for more info go to: