As well as being an elite vegan athlete and holding three world records, Fiona Oakes, a former retained firefighter, runs her own sanctuary for rescue animals. She is passionate about sustainability and has been vegan since childhood. And she is the fastest woman on earth to run 7 marathons on all continents!
When did you become vegan and what motivated you to do this?
I became vegan when I was 6 years old, after being vegetarian since I was 3. It was a completely self-motivated lifestyle choice which some people find remarkable for one so young – my parents and the rest of my family being neither.
However, I would say that, for me, veganism was more of an ‘obvious reaction’ than a ‘calculated decision’. That reaction being a rejection of something I have always considered to be wrong – the exploitation of animals.
Basically, in simplistic terms, I loved all animals and did not want to be party to any action or industry which harmed them.
Vegan is fast becoming mainstream. What do you think is driving this trend?
I think social media has a lot to do with the increasing interest in veganism, especially among younger people. This is their domain and they know how to use it for both the promotion of what they believe and as an almost infinite and up-to-date source of knowledge and information.
I think that the concerns regarding climate change are also having a lot to do with this trend as people are starting to wake up to the devastating effects animal agriculture are having on the environment.
At one time, the mainstream media had a strangle-hold on what was, and was not, deemed to be newsworthy, and I have found veganism always a contentious subject to encourage them to address.
However, now there is such a growing interest in veganism for so many reasons on social media, the mainstream media cannot afford to ignore it any longer as this explosion of interest and growth is a newsworthy phenomena in itself.
As an endurance athlete, what are the essential foods you need to take on board?
For me, I tend to come at my diet from a slightly different angle than most athletes because I have 450 mouths to feed at the Sanctuary before I consider my own.
Funds are very tight and I have little to spare for anything ‘fancy’, so I eat very basic foods, cooked from scratch. Plenty of pasta, rice, seasonal vegetables, grains, pulses, nuts and fruit make up the bulk of my diet.
Intake varies dependent on what type of training I am doing and what sort of event I am targeting. I don’t take any supplements and rely on fortified foods such as marmite and soya milk for B12.
What is your biggest frustration as a vegan and what do you think needs to improve?
I find it frustrating that many people use the excuse – and even believe – that being a vegan is expensive. For sure, any diet can be but if you shop sensibly, buy fresh ingredients, seasonal vegetables and cook from scratch, it really isn’t.
I know a lot of the ‘fast food’ options are expensive but it really doesn’t have to be this way if you plan ahead with your food choices. I honestly believe that by creating your own meals, it’s not just a great way to learn about food, where it comes from, how it is produced and sourced but it also creates a greater awareness and respect for that food, too.
What inspired you to become a firefighter?
Being very active and always out running, I was stopped by a local firefighter who asked if I had ever considered joining the Fire Service. It seemed like an incredible challenge and a perfect opportunity to reiterate the fact that being vegan isn’t prohibitive to any lifestyle choice – even the most physically demanding.
At the time, I didn’t even realise there was a ‘retained’ option in the Fire Service but I went along to my local station, learned how it all worked and that I could fit it in around my very hectic life caring for the animals and training for marathons and decided to join from there.
When did you open your animal rescue sanctuary and what prompted you to do this?
Opening an animal sanctuary was always a dream which I never dare hope would become a reality! It was the obvious progression in my ‘vegan story’ but making that happen was a huge undertaking.
Having been vegan since such a young age and prompted by my love of animals, they were always at the forefront of my mind and my life. I had always kept animals such as cats, dogs, rabbits and other smaller animals in my house and horses at farms and livery yards as I had no land myself.
It was at one of these farms that one of the horses – Oscar, a retired thoroughbred – had a terrible accident due to the negligence of the proprietor. I was absolutely devastated; Oscar nearly lost his life and was ‘hospitalised’ for 13 weeks after the accident.
At this time my partner and I realised we could no longer continue to ‘rescue’ animals in this way, and if we intended to continue we had to find a way of being on site to care for them ourselves.
In other words, we had to buy a place with land which would enable us to accommodate not only the smaller animals but the horses, too. I still don’t know how we managed to do it but with help from family and an awful lot of hard work, worry and determination, we managed it. And two days before Oscar was given the ‘all clear’ to be released from the vets, we took ownership of the sanctuary.
How can people support you in your work?
There are so many ways to help. From a sanctuary point of view they can become a volunteer, take out a standing order for a regular donationwww.towerhillstables.com, fund raise and promote and share the sanctuary on social media.
If they are particularly interested in, or curious about, veganism, they can check out my Foundation – the Fiona Oakes Foundation, fionaoakesfoundation.co.uk – which aims to promote veganism in a positive, peaceful and proactive way by encouraging people to consider their lifestyle choices from not only an animal welfare point of view but an environmental one, too.
By learning of my running achievements, I hope people will be encouraged to believe that being vegan is not in any way prohibitive to even the most extreme activities or physical challenges.
How do you manage to juggle being a firefighter with running a sanctuary and training and competing in marathons?!
I have to confess that this did become a logistical nightmare: caring for around 300 animals at the time, running 100 miles a week and being available at the ‘drop of a hat’ to rush out and fight fires or tackle other emergencies.
I had to make the decision to take a break from the Fire Service in order to fulfil these other commitments. Perhaps when I retire from running I will return, though!
What is the one food you cannot live without?
I love dates – any sort of dates. They are my food of choice for energy in ultra long distance races and I never tire of them.
What is your next challenge?
The 4 Deserts Grand Slam – something only a tiny handful of people have ever completed: a series of 4-week long, self-sufficiency, ultra stage races held in some of the most brutal and unforgiving desert territories in the world.
From the heat and sand of the Namib Desert, to the barren expanses of the Mongolian Gobi Desert, the high altitude of the Atacama Desert and freezing tundra of Antarctica; it’s a very extreme physical, mental and logistical challenge but one that perfectly illustrates the adaptability, longevity, consistency, sustainability and ability of a long-term, plant based athlete.
I would also like to focus more of my attention on bringing the benefits of an ethical vegan lifestyle to a more mainstream and varied audience and hope that, with the release of the film, Running for Good runningforgoodfilm.com which is based on my life so far, it will enable me to do this.
So there is no slowing down and a personal feeling of inspiration and motivation based on the very significant vegan epiphany we are now currently experiencing far and wide.