Fiona Oakes is probably the most extraordinary athlete you’ve never heard of, and that’s not the half of it.
Losing a kneecap at 17 and told she would never walk again, she holds four world marathon records, has run seven marathons in seven consecutive days, stormed to victory in the desert, the Arctic, the Antarctic, on the rim of a volcano and, incidentally, is the fastest female to run a halfmarathon dressed as a cow. Not many people have done that.
Then there’s her day job, which is running, with only the help of her partner, a sanctuary in rural Essex for over 500 animals rescued from slaughter, which entails getting up at 3.30am and raising at least £5,000 a month to keep the place going. Any spare time is spent running around 100 miles a week in training or being called out as a retained fire fighter.
Perhaps the most astonishing thing about Oakes, who is the fastest female to complete a marathon on every continent, is that she doesn’t think she’s anything special. “I don’t love running and have no particular talent for it,” she says. “If I do have a talent it’s being able to motivate myself after 17 years of running, to do the very best I can.”
She even feels the need to apologise for that: “In the Antarctic ice marathon, 60 guys paid 12,000 Euros to enter and they were beaten by a small vegan woman carrying a teddy bear. You can understand why they weren’t too happy.”
Oakes runs to raise awareness. She is soft-spoken and friendly but her actions and accomplishments have a steely relentlessness that speaks louder than any activist with a megaphone. She took up running to prove that a vegan diet was not limiting but empowering.
When she found ultramarathons could be lucrative, she realised they could be a fundraiser for her animal sanctuary and her campaign against rearing animals for food. “It’s a terrible financial struggle to keep the sanctuary going. Even as a child I just knew I didn’t want to be party to harming beautiful creatures.”
Tower Hill Stables animal sanctuary, at Asheldham in Essex, is the forever home for 100 horses, 48 cows, 150 pigs, 85 sheep, 11 dogs and a variety of small animals and poultry. Since 1993, Oakes and her family and her partner Martin have weathered continual financial crises by keeping the sanctuary afloat with their own money.
“Things are getting increasingly difficult,” Oakes says. “But we would never even think about giving up.”
Oakes has been a vegetarian since she was three and became a vegan at six. Her parents accepted it although they found it initially hard to understand. “Money was tight and we were taught to be grateful for what we had,” she remembers.
“I’ve always been sports-mad. First it was cycling - I reached national level - but eventually I found it too time-consuming to be competitive. I couldn’t bear the thought of not doing anything so I started jogging and then running.”
Then came the blow which would have ended any normal mortal’s athletic career for good. A serious illness and a total of 17 operations on her knee resulted in the removal of her right kneecap and the diagnosis that she would never walk again.
But within months she was back in training against all medical advice. “Even today, doctors say that what I’m doing makes them cringe - they think that trying to run with my injury is absolutely crazy.
“Finding that I could run again coincided with the time Paula Radcliffe was doing well in the marathon and I thought that if I could compete at that level it would show that a lifelong vegan could do anything.
“From the start, my aim was to get attention for my vegan and animal sanctuary campaigns. It was a simple equation: run fast, win races and be a good ambassador for what you were promoting rather than be aggressive or negative.”
“From the start I have never had a coach and I train alone. When I started winning races I did look for a trainer and several were interested - so long as I stopped being a vegan. They said: ‘You’ll be wasting our time if you don’t eat meat and dairy products’.
“I went away and figured out what you had to do to run a decent race. Lots of trial and error features heavily in my training. I have no coach, no physio and have never had a massage. I try not to spend any money on my sport because I need it all for the animals.”
Her regime would make a Spartan look like a wimp. Working on the two farms that make up the sanctuary, she starts at 3.30am and seldom finishes before 8pm, mucking-out feeding and looking after her ever-growing number of charges. ”A doctor once described my lifestyle as suicidal,” Oakes remembers. “But it suits me.”
“I never know what I will be doing from one minute to the next so I only eat when I’m hungry, and that’s usually only in the evening. I’m truly grass-roots about my veganism. I take no supplements and never have. I only eat one meal a day and that’s usually from what’s growing in the garden, plus whole grains, nuts, pulses, rice, pasta and bread.
“I don’t do juices or smoothies -I don’t have the money or the time for that.”
From the start, the most gruelling races were the most attractive to Oakes. The first of the four times she has run the 250km Marathon des Sables, a six day trek across the Sahara, reckoned to be the hardest ultra-marathon of all - she completed the race with two broken toes. “I hobbled around with the bone sticking out of my toe.”
Warned that the Antarctic marathon could be too tough a challenge, she won it in record time and smashed three world records.
“I love these races because they are more than about running. They are about surviving and learning so much about yourself. You go to very dark places in these events but come out a stronger and better person.”
Oakes is no stranger to suffering, albeit largely self-imposed, and even welcomes it into her life. “Indeed, I do wonder if that is what drives me in the very extreme races I run - a need to experience and remember the feeling of pain, desperation and hardship.
“I know it’s only a race, but as someone who runs for the benefit of others and not myself, failure is not an option. To fail would be to let the animals down, to miss an opportunity to promote veganism in a positive way and show that anything is possible to achieve without harming others.”
A legendary figure in ultramarathon running, prizes and personal glory are of little account to Oakes, but one incident continues to give her pleasure.
“Once after I’d won a marathon and broken the course record, the person presenting the prizes told me she had advised her daughter against becoming a vegan because she feared it would be bad for a growing girl.
“But seeing what I had just done on a vegan diet had convinced her that it would be ok for her daughter. I guess that was the best prize I’ve ever won.”