As one of the media partners of VegFestUK London, taking place at London Olympia on September 27th and 28th, we are doing one special series of interviews with celebrities and special guests that will be speaking or performing during the event and also brands that will be exposing their vegan products there.
In the last few years many of my friends – specially the vegan ones – have got into running. It is great to see sports and veganism connected and every time I get to know about a vegan athlete I feel excited because when I went vegan, back in 1997, I didn’t know about any and it wasn’t that easy to find information about vegans around the world too.
Born in Chesterfield, Fiona Oakes has got the attention of local and international media recently for being recognized by the Guinness World Records Organisation as the fastest woman ever to run a marathon on every continent. Besides running, training, speaking in many events, she looks after hundreds of rescued animals at Tower Hill Stables Animal Sanctuary.
You have been vegan for 40 years, right? What have inspired you to go vegan?
I can only speak from personal experience as everyone’s path to finding a vegan lifestyle is different. Personally, mine was borne out of a pure and simple love of animals. I have to add, it was a very instinctive, simplistic and almost naive decision made by me when I was just a small child. In a way, this made it easier for me as I wasn’t aware of any of the ethics, politics, cruelty or procedures behind the commercial use and abuse of animals. It really was just a decision, or instinct, derived from love. If you love something you don’t harm it!
You have been dedicating your life and actions – including running – to the animals. Do you consider yourself an activist?
Yes, I do consider myself to be an activist but it depends on how you define the word ‘activist’. My definition and, in particular, what applies to me personally, is someone who chooses to do positive, physical and ‘hands on’ things for the animals allowing my actions to speak louder than my words. I realised a long time ago that, with no real platform from which to speak, no-one was actually going to listen to my words, so it became my intention to prove my point by my actions. Whether those actions are to create a safe haven for the animals in my care to reside or to go out and break World Records with my Marathon running. These are facts which cannot be ignored, disputed or challenged. This is my form of ‘activism’ for the animals – quite simply to be active on their behalf in whatever I do, making the best of any opportunity I am presented with on their behalf and with their best interests at heart.
You will be speaking about “Running for the animals” at VegFestUK in a few weeks. Can you tell our readers one unforgettable moment in your adventures on running?
Obviously, I have been to many amazing places and done some of the most incredible things – for which I am aware I am most privileged and proud to have had the opportunity of doing. However, if you want the absolute truth as to what my most memorable moment was in my running at this particular time what springs to mind might surprise people. It actually came in the London Marathon in 2006 – so not the most glamorous of locations or races – but I was running down onto the Embankment knowing I was in around 20th place but really suffering badly with my knee as the weather had been really bad that day and my knee really wasn’t co-operating. I did truly think I might have to pull up or, at the very least, slow down to a walk but just as I was about to make my decision as to what to do I glanced up and, over one of the foot bridges above me, some people who I have never actually found the identity of had made a banner saying words to the effect of ‘Fiona, the animals are so proud of you and from them we say THANK YOU’. It moved me so much I nearly did have to pull up but not from the pain in my knee but from the emotions it stirred in me and the reasons I was putting myself through what I was. It fired me on to finish the race in my best ever position and, to this day, I believe it was one of those moments which could never be organised or recreated – it was just ‘meant to be’.
What are the best aspects of speaking on veggie/vegan festivals such as VegFestUK?
There are so many ‘best aspects’ of having the opportunity to speak at such wonderful events as VegFestUK. Obviously, having a platform to speak to, and meet, so many like-minded individuals is great but it is also wonderful to meet people who are there just visiting or curious of what it is all about. Being able to help and encourage others who have not been lucky enough to have such a simplistic road into veganism is always a great joy to me. I do realise that for many people, due to multiple reasons, veganism may seem daunting or bewildering or perhaps just not seem possible for them. They may be worried about health issues, whether it is a sustainable diet, whether it would be detrimental to their sporting performance or whether it is affordable. It is just a joy to say ‘hey, I have been vegan since I was a child, grown all my muscle mass on a vegan diet and, as to whether it is affordable, my father worked in the mining industry and was forced into a striking situation on many occasions and our family was left with only the wage of my Mum – a music teacher – and yet it has always been affordable to me!’ After those initial questions are answered and fears allayed it is then just so fantastic to be able to point out all the benefits and positives to being vegan. The environmental issues, the impact on poorer communities around the world and, it goes without saying – the benefit to our animal friends. I also find veganism a very non-confrontational lifestyle choice in that – barring allergies – it crosses all barriers of faith and beliefs. It is, in my mind and I can only, of course, speak for myself a very peaceful state of mind. Another most joyous and uplifting thing for me about this type of Festival is seeing how they are growing from year to year and the variety and abundance of products becoming available. It is a true indicator that veganism is becoming more and more mainstream in society and it is fantastic to see all the ‘vegan friendly’ options now being produced, knowing that if there is a vegan option available, many may choose to take it. This is a very comforting and inspirational thought to hold.
In the last years we hear about more and more athletes, especially runners, becoming or being vegan. Which advice would you give to a runner considering going vegan and to a vegan thinking about start running?
It is hard to give specific advice as I do believe that everyone is different. However, I would have to say that to a runner who is considering becoming a vegan my words would be ‘go for it’! Usually athletes are very conscious about what they eat so I would assume they would know and understand the first rule of any diet is that it has to be balanced. If you make the transition in a sensible way there is absolutely no reason it won’t just enable to match your performance but I seriously believe it may well enhance it. For me personally I know this to be the case because, as an athlete, you have to be in a ‘good’ place not only physically but mentally too. For me, I could not possibly function properly knowing others had suffered in order that I might benefit. Consequently, my head is in the right place and the body just follows suit! As for any vegan who is thinking about taking up running I would say ‘contact Peter Simpson of Vegan Runners!’. Sorry Peter, but that is actually what I would say if you aren’t surrounded by other runners. Go to the Vegan Runner FB page and look at the Forums etc. They are such a friendly bunch any questions get answered by so many people who give many perspectives on a subject. I find this really helpful as you can always find someone with the same problem as yourself, but is in a similar situation, or has similar restrictions, to dealing with it too. For instance, if anyone asks me about speed work they are always surprised to find I do all mine on a treadmill as I can’t run on a track because of my knee. It’s not conventional but it works for me so it might work for them. With regard to their diet, I would just say ‘listen to your body’ as to what it requires. Start off gently with the running and adapt your calorie or nutrient intake according to how you feel as you progress. Here again, everyone is different so it really is about learning to listen to your body, understanding what it is telling you and having the experience to act on that information in the most positive and beneficial way.
In February you’ll be facing your biggest challenge yet, the Triple 7 Quest (seven marathons on seven continents in just seven days). How the idea of this adventure was born? What’s it main goal?
My main goal for 777 Quest is to highlight the vegan diet – and all that comes with it – to as wider audience as possible in as positive a way as I know how. The idea was formulated by a running friend of mine who specialises in endurance events. We initially met on the long stage of the Marathon des Sables in 2012 where we spent time chatting as the miles slowly drudged on. He has been working on this project ever since and in February the 777 Quest will hopefully be the fruition of all his hard work. So far, many of the Governments of the countries we will visit have ‘come on board’ to promote the Challenge as part of an awareness campaign for healthy, positive living. I do hope this will give credibility, endorsement and publicity to my participation as a vegan and a woman in such an amazing attempt at an endurance event. We are working with CNN and hope that they will be accompanying me on some, if not all, of the legs of the Challenge not only to highlight what I am doing with regard to the running but also to film at the Sanctuary in order to illustrate how my whole life, and everything I do, is inter-twined in such a positive and proactive way with only one ultimate goal – that of helping animals and raising awareness globally of their plight.
(All images courtesy of Fiona Oakes)