“I always look for new ways and challenges to help the animals”: Fiona Oaks, World Record Breaking Vegan Marathoner
After living with crutches for years and losing her kneecap at an early age, Fiona Oakes took up biking and running to do something for the animals. Today, she runs a Sanctuary and cares for over 200 rescued victims of the agriculture industry and continues to relentlessly break world records to create awareness about animal agriculture and strengthen her message of co-existence.
You went vegan for animals at an early age of 6 years. You have dedicated your life towards them. Was it love at first sight with you and animals?
Going vegan at such an early age was not so much as a ‘decision’ as a ‘reaction’ to my abhorrence and horror at the exploitation, injustice and cruelty being served upon my animal friends by my fellow humans. Just as I loved my human family, I love my animal family and wish no harm to either. When I say ‘my family’ I don’t just mean my relatives–I refer to my global family–whatever the species. Being part of a system which encourages and endorses the exploitation of any living creature is wrong.
When you turned vegan in the 1970s, not as many vegan alternatives were available. How did you manage? Also, how did your parents respond to your decision?
Honestly, it would not have been as easy a path as I found it to be, had my mother not been fully supportive of my choice. She considers herself very lucky in that she herself had a role model to turn to for advice–that being her old music teacher who was vegan back in the 1940s and an associate of Donald Watson who started the Vegan Society. She was able to articulate to my mother in adult terms what I was thinking and feeling as a child. She was able to explain that although there were no products being marketed as vegan there were lots of things I could eat and these are still my food of choice. I don’t really buy the mass produced, processed products and very expensive foods which have exploded onto the scene in recent years. I enjoy fresh vegetables, fruit, nuts, pulses etc, all cooked from basic ingredients–prepared with love and consumed with it too!
What does veganism mean for you?
Many things, but mostly justice, equality and respect for all life.
When did you start running for the first time and how did you realize it is something you want to do for rest of your life?
So I started running around 2 decades ago. Up to that point I had been thriving on a vegan diet and juggling a job as a part time fire-fighter whilst caring for the hundreds of animals at my sanctuary. I was beginning to realize that I needed to negate the need for sanctuaries to exist, as I could physically change and make better the lives of those in my care. But the billions and 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. I won’t say there was great negativity towards veganism at the time because no-one was really aware of what it meant and entailed. When mentioned, it was always in a negative context with the implication being that if you were living on fruit, nuts, pulses and vegetables you would be weak and unhealthy as these foods did not give you the nutrients to exists. I knew this to be untrue–I wasn’t just surviving, I was thriving. I simply wanted to find a way of promoting this message to a mainstream audience with the idea that if more people validity, viability and vitality a vegan diet provided, less animals would suffer and need rescue.
In 2017, you struggled from an illness which eventually lead to losing your kneecap. Can you share what happened exactly and how did you overcome it?
My knee surgeries were actually done in my teenage years, during the 1980s–this was a very hard time for me. I was in and out of hospital and on crutches for many years. As a child who loved being outside, playing sport and being close to nature, finding myself confined indoors and largely rendered immobile was a very difficult time for me. Eventually, the disorder I had was rectified by removing my knee cap but my multiple hospitalizations caused many problems–including health professionals aligning my veganism to an eating disorder and accusing my mother of child abuse for allowing me to follow this path. After my knee cap was removed, I was told I would not be able to walk again properly–let alone run–and the rehabilitation process was slow and very laborious and painful–both mentally and physically.
Despite the illness and losing your kneecap, you still managed to conquer world records. How has the vegan diet helped you?
I guess it is quite strange, given the above, that I tried to run at all. I should explain that my running is just a form of activism to me–literally, being active for the animals. After my surgeries, I moved to Oxford to study and took up cycling and racing pushbikes as this was something I found I could do relatively well. It involved none of the actions which aggravated my knee in terms of impact and instability. However, for those who know anything about cycling, it is quite a time consuming sport in terms of training, and costly in terms of equipment. When I moved to the Sanctuary, in 1996, I found I had little of either of these resources (time or money) as the animals were my main focus.
But then, as the years passed, I realized that by saving individual animal’s lives I was only addressing the symptoms of the abuse, not the cause. I needed to find a way to promote veganism and the only way I could fathom was through sport. But what sport? The only sport– particularly for women–with positivity surrounding it at the time was marathon running because the British athlete, Paula Radcliffe, was doing so well in it. The media and press were calling it ‘the toughest event in the athletic calendar’ and this is precisely the message I wanted to promote for veganism–endurance and excellence. I simply thought if I could compete in, and hopefully complete, a marathon, then this illustrated emphatically that being vegan was in no way prohibitive to even the most extreme physical challenges. Since I have always been vegan I cannot speak of a ‘before and after’ result data base, but all I can say is that in sport there are many things which are overlooked–one of those being mental wellbeing. Everyone knows you have to be in your physical peak shape to perform well but you also have to be mentally prepared too. For me, standing on any Start Line knowing no others have suffered for the performance I was about to give has an enormous impact on my ability to perform and is the reason I am out there competing at all.
You have plethora of world records and we can see that you are not going to stop. But as of now, which of your achievements are the most precious to you?
For me, my running is done for the animals–I tend to not dwell on results themselves, only in what they have enabled in terms of benefiting the animals. Indeed, when Keegan came to the Sanctuary to film he asked where all my trophies and medals were kept. I didn’t actually know as I don’t have them on display. They are not the reason I am running and not the things I value as rewards from my endeavors. I am not a person who has a desire to be flattered or have an ego which needs massaging and feeding. I am never particularly satisfied with anything I do because despite all my efforts, animals are still suffering and largely because of this, people are too. Having said this, I am very proud of the fact I co-founded the Vegan Runners–now one of the largest running clubs in the UK–back in 2004. It was because I had reached Elite status myself and another runner, Peter Simpson, realized that it was the perfect opportunity to affiliate a new vegan running club, which would allow me to showcase the world ‘vegan’ on my vest in any race. Since my status was going to be at the front of races, alongside the best runners in the world, the imagery of a vegan athlete being among them was enormously impactful and important at the time. I was pretty much the only vegan runner at the time but now the Club has grown enormously with members all over the world, sharing the message which is so important to us all and possibly impacting many other individuals in the positive way I had hoped for. That makes me very proud as it is most precious to me.
In 2018, you broke the fourth Guinness World Record by becoming the fastest female to run a half marathon in an animal costume (dressed as a cow) in Tromso Norway.
I simply wanted to raise awareness of the suffering involved in the dairy industry. I had been entering–and even winning–races prior to this, dressed as a cow. I realized it was garnering attention so I thought it was an opportunity I could not miss as I had a bit of ‘spare time’ in between expanding the Sanctuary and training for ultra-stage events. A lot of people are under the misconception that dairy is not cruel because animals are not killed, but this is totally untrue. It is one of the most exploitative, murderous and callous forms of animal agriculture. Dairy cows forced to give birth, year in and year out. Their calves stolen from them immediately–very often being killed, fattened for meat or the females reared to go back into this monstrous and torturous existence. It is literally using the cow’s body as a machine, very often being manipulated so the milk quota each cow delivers is maximized by inhuman practices.
You even won the ‘Charity Champion’ category of the 2019 Brave Britons Amplifon Awards. Can you tell us more about it?
I was very honored to be presented with this Award in London–the selection process being very rigorous. Honestly, when I arrived at the Award Ceremony, I did not expect to win as all the other people in my category had done things which impacted more directly human lives. Since my life is wholly based towards animals, I did not imagine they would see beyond this to the fact that helping the animals is actually helping all non-human animals and the environment too.
In 2019, you qualified to represent England Masters in 2020 for both the Fleet half marathon and Bristol 10KM races. But following the onset of the pandemic, it has been postponed to 2021. How will you manage your training for it during the global lockdown?
It was tough initially as I had hoped to win the half Marathon event and hence become a National Champion in my age group. Three weeks after that was Marathon des Sables where I hoped to do equally well in that event. It would have been a massive opportunity to showcase the versatility of a long-term vegan diet as one race is 13.1 miles and one is over 250km. The half Marathon was cancelled the night before the event which was very disappointing, but I picked myself up and during the week of Marathon des Sables and ran the entire distance of that event around the trails and roads near my home. As I said, my motivation for running has never been the actual events themselves; it’s the reason I am running and unless the world does heed the warnings Covid-19 has brought, the need for promoting veganism will still be there in 2021, as will my motivation to train and do well for the animals.
Already, you have broken records; you have created a lot of awareness to go vegan and even now you’re on a mission. What keeps you motivated and stay focused?
Seeing an end to animal suffering and with that a more compassionate and empathetic planet is all that I focus on. If I can assist, or even accelerate, that in any way this is my dream, my motivation and my inspiration. It always has been and always will be. I genuinely want to encourage people to see that veganism is not in some way culpable to denial–it is liberation for the mind, body and soul of each individual and with it, brings the same liberation to the animals. It is freedom from the shackles of advertising and commercialism. It is your chance to take control of your own destiny and health. So many people say to me when they are eating animal-based products, “Oh, you can’t have that, can you Fiona?”. My retort is always the same in that it is my choice to not indulge in the cruelty which is invested in these products. If you consume fear, terror, torture and pain, then surely this is what will be manifested in your own body, mind and soul?
Along with representing England Masters in 2020, what are your future plans?
Hopefully, Marathon des Sables may go ahead in September–it has been postponed to this date. If not, and inter-country travel is not permitted, then I have also qualified for a place on the Elite Start in the London Marathon which is postponed to October, so I do have running options there. If not, then we will wait together until 2021 and I shall focus on the promotion of veganism by way of my results and experience so far and expand the Sanctuary whenever and wherever I can.
Can you tell us about the documentary film made on you ‘Running For Good’ film by Keegan Kuhn, which was about your run in the 2017 Marathon Des Sables.
Keegan approached me to make the documentary in 2016 as, in his words, I answered all the questions veganism threw up. I had been vegan practically my entire life, I had grown my muscle mass and body on plants, I had a wealth of physical experience as I cared for the animals I was so passionate about and I had achieved an Elite status in a sport I had been told I would never be able to even compete in because of the surgeries I had rendering me with a disability. In his words–the total package of positivity and promotion of veganism. He asked if I would consider letting him film me in a race and we wanted to use one which summed up the brutality of my regime at the Sanctuary and the hardship of my life. Marathon des Sables seemed to fit this bill so we went for it. It was actually the third time I had completed it. In 2012, I became the first vegan woman to complete the race despite having broken 2 toes the week before the event. In 2014, I went back with a high ranking in my sites but fate took me in another direction and I ended up relinquishing my high finish to help another competitor–a tent mate who was struggling badly as he had leukemia and was on chemotherapy. I mentored him through the long stage as noone else would–ironic that it was the vegan woman who offered to do this despite the charge often being labelled at vegans as being people who do not care about their fellow humans. For me, my running is ultimately about compassion over competition so this was an obvious choice and action to make.
You have been vegan for decades. How would you compare yourself before and after going vegan?
Before is hard because I can’t remember. After is easy because I am fit, healthy and very focused. My recovery rate is spectacularly fast, I have a resting pulse of 38 beats a minute; I have never had a running injury. I wake up at 3.30 in the morning and am able to work through the whole day conducting some of the most physically demanding and exhausting jobs and I do this every single day. My vitality, motivation and zest for life never falters because I have belief and faith in the knowledge that what I do is right. I didn’t set out with this exact plan in mind–it has grown organically with me and I am looking for new ways and challenges to help the animals.
What role does the Vegan diet play to support your athlete journey and creating world records?
I see food as a fuel which enables the body to perform its daily activities–the better the fuel the better the performance. Winning Marathons at the North Pole, Antarctica, desserts and on the road whilst caring for my beloved family of over 600 animals says everything about my veganism without me uttering a word.
What are the health benefits for normal people and athletes on going vegan?
All people–whether athletes or not–can benefit from a vegan diet and all animals certainly do benefit if people adopt this lifestyle. I am always keen to say that certainly from my perspective it is important to remember that even a vegan diet can be unhealthy of it is full of processed foods and not balanced correctly.
Do you use supplements and what are your thoughts on that?
I personally do not use any supplements. I am very lucky–my lifestyle dictates that I am outside most of the time and benefit from the positives this brings in terms of exposure to the sun for Vitamin D, plenty of fresh air, physical exercise and endless motivation to be there as I am caring for the animals. I always say that each individual has to do what is right for their own unique set of circumstances–I have no objection to people taking supplements, it’s just that I have never found I need them. This may be, in some part due to the fact I have been vegan for so long my body has developed in a different way to someone who might suddenly decide to change their diet.
Let’s know something fun! What is your favorite cheat meal? 😀
Chips and fennel with pesto on top and a large glass of sparkling apple juice!
Tell us more about your foundation and how it works?
The Foundation is only small, but I would like it to grow in order to support people around the world who want to follow a vegan path and hopefully promote it to a greater audience. I try to raise money through my public speaking, the proceeds of the film, my running and other means such as my book to support projects which will bring veganism to a wider audience and potentially to one which might not have been exposed to it previously. I do a lot of work in Russia to this end–supporting groups who actively speak in schools and centers of education to young people who need to know the benefits of a vegan ethic, not only from the perspective of their own health and wellbeing but to the future of our planet also.
As a vegan athlete what are your strengths?
Definitely, my biggest strengths are my mental capacity to endure pain, to push myself very hard, to self-motivate and my dedication, determination and discipline. Physically, I don’t have any great ability–in fact, I have a disability with my knee injury–but I think this makes me stronger as it becomes easier for me to embrace the ethic of work knowing I have little to no talent!
What do you see in the eyes of the animals kept for slaughtering whenever you visit any slaughterhouse?
I see pain, suffering, confusion, fear and innocence.
According to you, how important is it for anyone to go vegan?
In my opinion, if the world does not wake up to the viability and validity of a vegan diet being the only way forward for our planet very, very soon it will be too late–if it isn’t already. I am, both, shocked and saddened that, even with the current pandemic supposedly being traced to a Wet Market in China people still are not acknowledging the only way to prevent further incidence is to end non-human to human contact via the food chain. There are so many zoonotic diseases ranging from the far deadlier, such as Ebola, Nipah, SARS, MERS, Avian Flu and Swine Flu. There is no doubt that the climate is suffering as a direct effect of animal agriculture and I am not saying ending it would be the answer to ending the world’s problems but it is the most obvious immediate thing we can do as a global community in order for us to find time and sustainable answers for the future to questions such as fossil fuel use, industrial damage and the individual’s carbon footprint.
There is a myth that vegans are not fit. But what is your take on this myth?
I think that people are quite ignorant to the term ‘vegan’ and they possibly imagine that all vegans survive on eating lettuce and carrots! They simply do not understand what it means to be vegan and because of this the myth has developed and has possibly been perpetuated by those in business and industry who have no vested interest financially in promoting it. After all, a nation of healthy, fit, ethical, compassionate and resourceful people somewhat flies in the face of the current trend and desire for instant gratification being promoted through materialism. It is this myth that vegans are in some way inferior in stature and strength that drove me to proving it wrong. For sure, opinions can be contested, arguments can be challenged but facts and world records cannot be denied!
Can you share your normal dietary regimen and the one which you are following during the current Covid-19 Lockdown situation?
My diet during this current pandemic has not changed at all. I eat only one meal a day–in the evenings. It is the only time I actually sit down. My meal is always quite humble and surprises people–I grow a lot of my own vegetables or buy locally sourced and seasonal foods supplemented with basic rice, pulses, pasta and whole grains. I love nuts and dried fruits such as dates and raisins which I add to my food when available. When I eat, I always try to remember those–both human and non-human–who are not blessed to have even enough food to eat or have to worry where their next meal will come from. I respect my food and am thankful of it. My mother actually lives with and prepares my meals as she always has, so I say my food is prepared with love received gratefully with that love too. That love extends that none of our friends, the animals, have suffered in order for me to eat. My one mantra–always a colorful platter, perhaps 10 different coloured vegetables each day.
Please elaborate on your workout regimen–before and during the lockdown?
I rise at 03.30 am every day. This is something I have been doing for decades and is the only way I have found I can actually get through all the work and duties my day demands. I have not only 600 animals to physically care for but all that it entails in making sure they have everything they need on a daily basis. Huge quantities of feed, forage and bedding are required on a weekly basis. As well as this there is the maintenance of the Sanctuary buildings, the legislator paperwork to keep on top of, (run around 100 miles a week and have an awful lot of work to do on the computer too. The Sanctuary is divided into six sites where the animals are housed and each of these has to be checked many times a day. There are regular, and irregular, vet visits to attend to and the farrier is here twice a week to tend to the horse’s feet. Here, I have 160 pigs, 106 horses, 66 cows, 140 sheep and many smaller animals such as chickens, geese, goats, ducks, peacocks, dogs and cats to name a few.
To sum up, do you have any message to your followers in India and also to both our readers, who are vegans and non-vegans.
My message to all my fellow humans whether vegan or not, is that compassion is the key and finding it is the way to unlock the door to a happy, peaceful and contented life. These things cannot be bought; they have to be found. I have learned many lessons along my path in life and noone knows how long their life’s journey will be. For me, I have always believed that knowledge is power and my thirst for this is always driven by the fact that I realize I know very little but always have the potential to learn more. Relinquish selfish ways and replace them with a selflessness which will deliver rewards greater than anything money, fame or power can provide.