Fiona Oakes: The Queen of the Extreme

The fastest female to run a marathon on each continent and the North Pole, Fiona Oakes also holds four world marathon records. Her secret? A plant-based diet...

'I started running in places and terrains people would neither expect, nor even accept it was possible to run.'

As far as Fiona Oakes is aware she was the first vegan woman to complete the notoriously extreme Marathon des Sables. Fiona owns her own animal sanctuary and is an ambassador for The Vegan Society and a patron of the Captive Animals Protection Society. We discussed how she achieves such amazing physical feats, but we started by asking about her nickname…

I'm sometimes referred to as the ‘Queen of the Extreme’. I wonder if that’s because of the somewhat creative and unusual way I’ve utilised my running career and the way my choice of events has developed organically and in conjunction with a desire to use it as a vehicle to promote what I believe in. 

My initial goal was just to complete a marathon. After that came a focus on building an elite reputation within road running, whether it be placing as highly as I could in the world's major marathon events or winning and creating new course records in smaller races around the world.

I moved to the more exotic challenges when I’d achieved all I could on the road. I started running in places and terrains people would neither expect, nor even accept it was possible to run: the unrelenting heat of the Sahara Desert, the ice caps of the North Pole, the frozen tundra of Antarctica or the extreme altitude of the Volcanic Atacama to name but a few. All the while, I’ve been using my running as a positive showcase for a plant-based diet - whether it be hot, cold, fast or high from Marathon to ultra-stage and tarmac to tundra nothing was impossible - including winning!

'being vegan is not prohibitive or detrimental to health and wellbeing in any context, even to the point of completing the most extreme endurance events.'

I went vegan when I was 6 years old. At such an early age I cannot claim it was a 'decision' but more of a totally self-inspired '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 love 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. Knowing what a difference to so many lives - both human and non-human - my vegan lifestyle makes is motivation enough to keep moving forward and progressing. I am attempting to be the change I would love to see. 

Before social media we were all totally reliant on mainstream media to champion our causes. On the very rare occasions veganism hit the headlines it was, without exception, in a negative forum. I needed a platform to promote my message in a positive, proactive and peaceful way so I decided to try running. 

Paula Radcliffe was enjoying flamboyant global success. I saw that marathons are heralded as the most mentally and physically challenging, brutal and demanding of athletic disciplines. This showcased perfectly the message I was trying to convey: being vegan is not prohibitive or detrimental to health and wellbeing in any context, even to the point of completing the most extreme endurance events. 

Veganism has since risen to prominence, both in the mainstream and sport. The more top-tier, elite sports people who adopt the diet, the more accepted it becomes. When I started running two decades ago, this was definitely not the case. Within athletics, the idea of being vegan and succeeding was unheard of rendering the subject pretty much taboo. I found it impossible to engender interest from a coach who was willing to invest time in me as my diet was universally considered counterproductive to my ambitions within my event.

'opinions can be contested, arguments can be challenged, but facts and world records can’t be denied.'

The myth was that a vegan diet made athletes inferior in stature and strength. I was incensed to prove how wrong that notion was. For sure, opinions can be contested, arguments can be challenged, but facts and world records can’t be denied. 

The main appeal of running ultra marathons is the personal challenge. It’s the pure, raw, total symbiotic focus of mind, body and soul delivering an opportunity to become acquainted with myself and how I adapt and operate in territories and terrains many could never even imagine. It's just you against you out there trying to work with nature to survive. Pushing yourself to the absolute maximum of your physical and mental ability, taking yourself to dark places and navigating your way through them. Affording yourself the opportunity to be reminded of what really matters, throwing the gauntlet down to the extremes of nature and hoping you have the depth of character, physical strength and mental fortitude to come through it. 

Ultra-running rekindles that most primeval instinct of survival. If you allow yourself to absorb your experiences in these races, rather than just considering them a transient challenge with a medal and t-shirt at the end, they become not just another bucket list credit, but a life enhancing and all-enveloping experience delivering that most important and precious of gifts - self-knowledge.

'To see some of the world's most prominent sports people bearing testament to the positivity of veganism is creating huge swathes of interest and acceptance.'

When it comes to diet, my mantra is simple. I always aim to have a colourful platter, perhaps 10 different coloured vegetables each day and lots of natural herbs and spices. All people - whether athletes or not - can benefit from a vegan diet and all animals certainly do benefit if people adopt this lifestyle.

People are finally becoming more receptive to the concept of veganism not just as a life-enhancing dietary choice but as a lifestyle option that positively impacts not only themselves but the animals, the environment and other individuals around the world. Within sport the change has been both massive and monumental.

Any sporting career at the top level is always precarious and anything which causes a diminishment in performance is quickly addressed, corrected or dismissed. To see some of the world's most prominent sports people bearing testament to the positivity of veganism is creating huge swathes of interest and acceptance across all sports with the attitude shift transitioning from apathy to acceptance with remarkable speed and momentum.

'I’m constantly challenging myself and breaking down barriers in an attempt to discover the best version of me.'

If you want to go vegan, you must first know yourself and learn to listen to your own body. Become acquainted with yourself and why you’re making this choice. Ask yourself what your reasons, objectives, and expectations are. There are great resources out there from which invaluable information can be gleaned but the most important and invaluable information source comes from within yourself. It’s also important to remember that even a vegan diet can be unhealthy if it is full of processed foods and not balanced correctly.

Training around 100 miles a week and never incurring a running injury has to be testament to both my mental and physical health - created and maintained by plants. This is my own way of informing and educating people as to the viability of veganism not only in the short-term but encompassing a whole lifetime. What I do is ultimately all anyone can do - their very best. Not just within an athletics forum but in every facet of my being - I’m constantly challenging myself and breaking down barriers in an attempt to discover the best version of me.

Fiona's book Running for Good: The Fiona Oakes Story is available now. The accompanying documentary can be viewed on Amazon Prime. Check out Fiona's website for more about her running adventures and animal sanctuary.

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