'I'm an endurance runner with one kneecap – don't tell me vegans are weak'

Fiona Oakes is an extreme endurance runner. She has broken four Guinness World Records and runs in some of the world’s most inhospitable climates, including the polar ice caps and volcanic rings.

Fiona has achieved all of this with a disability. She lost a kneecap in an injury when she was 17 and doctors told her she would never walk again, let alone run. Despite this – it’s her vegan diet that causes people to question her ability.

‘I have been vegan far longer than I have been a runner,’ Fiona tells Metro.co.uk. ‘I actually became vegan when I was six years old, and I have honestly never found my veganism too difficult or compromising to any aspect of my life.

‘I think the biggest misconception people have about veganism is that it isn’t healthy – but I’m testament to the fact it is.

‘I’ve broken four Guinness World Records for running, having been vegan for 47 years now, and I’m very healthy.

‘I built my athletic strength on a plant-based diet, and all this despite my permanent disability.’

Fiona has faced skepticism and disbelief throughout her running career when it comes to her dietary choices. She thinks it’s vital to change perceptions about what people can achieve on a vegan diet.

‘When I ran the Marathon des Sables in 2017, I took a film crew with me who were making a documentary about my life – Running for Good.

‘The director asked the guys I was sharing my tent with; “what do you think about Fiona?” And one answer was; “she’s not what I expected a vegan to be like.”

‘Remember, this is almost three years ago, before the meteoric rise of vegan and plant-based living, but I can only assume he didn’t expect a vegan woman to be out in the Sahara Desert, running the toughest footrace on the planet for the third time.

‘After decades of veganism, my goal when I started running was to break down the myths and stereotypes attached to it at that time, in that it was some way deficient, hardly adequate and prohibitive to doing anything more than sedentary activity.’

Fiona says that one of the toughest moments of her career was the first time she competed in Marathon des Sables in 2012.

Having decided to move up in distance from road running, Fiona was going to be the first vegan woman to tackle the race – and there was quite a buzz about it online.

The event itself is unbelievably gruelling. It’s a week-long, self-sufficiency, multi-stage race across the Sahara Desert, where temperatures can exceed 50 degrees and the terrain is extremely hostile.

If any sand gets into your shoes it can cause ferocious blistering.

‘I have actually known of people’s feet becoming so blistered that they needed skin grafts,’ says Fiona.

What made this first epic race so incredibly difficult, was that one week before the starting gun, one of the elderly horses – from the animal sanctuary Fiona started in the 90s – had stood on her foot, fractures two toes and caused horrendous swelling.

‘I won’t go into detail but by 82km, I could actually see the bone sticking out of my little toe,’ Fiona remembers.

‘My foot was absolutely smashed to a pulp but I managed to keep going and keep strong enough to complete the race. I proves that anything is possible if you want it badly enough.’

Running non-stop, for hours at a time – through punishing conditions – seems unimaginable for most of us. Fiona says the real struggle is often mental rather than physical.

‘Ultramarathons are a state of mind rather than body for me,’ she explains. ‘Because I come from an elite road running background I am used to running quite high weekly mileage – around 160km – so I have the physical base fitness to carry me through, but the mental side of things in ultras is what is different.

‘You have to manage your body and your mind carefully and always try to look for the positives rather than focussing on the negatives – which can quickly seem overwhelming if you dwell on them.’

She says the intense, multi-stage races take her to some ‘pretty dark places’, and often she has to really battle to keep her demons in check.

‘You are out there, day-in day-out, on your feet for hours, really pushing through the pain. However, the long-term benefits far outweigh the short-term inconveniences, pain and struggles.

‘They teach you so much about yourself and, strangely enough, even though you literally have nothing apart from what you carry on your back, you have everything because you have the freedom and the ability to be there.

‘When you return to your day-to-day life, even the most seemingly trivial events – like turning on a tap and fresh, drinkable water miraculously appearing – is something to behold and cherish.’

Fiona says running enriches every element of her life, and she is deeply grateful for everything it brings her.

‘I love the freedom of being out in the wilderness and the new and exciting experiences and adventures running always uncovers,’ she explains.

She adds that it isn’t difficult adapting a vegan diet to enable her to achieve such physical extremes – it’s just about working out exactly what your body needs.

‘Like any other diet, the main thing is that you find the correct nutritional balance for your particular lifestyle,’ says Fiona.

‘Mine has always been very active. I used to cycle 30 miles each way in to London to work, and now spend any time I’m not running caring for our 550 rescued animals at the animal sanctuary I founded 25 years ago.

‘I don’t fixate over my diet, but I have learned over the years to listen to what my body is telling me and act accordingly.

‘I don’t think there is one set eating plan which suits all as everyone’s needs are different – but basically I adhere to a whole grain diet including plenty of fresh, seasonal, locally sourced vegetables and fruits.’

Fiona says that her convinction in her beliefs is what makes her a strong woman.

‘For the animals, the planet, other human beings, personal health and the future, my veganism is at the core of all I do.

‘It encapsulates justice and compassion for all – something I have always been passionate about.’

Strong Women

Strong Women is a weekly series that champions diversity in the world of sport and fitness.

A Sport England study found that 40% of women were avoiding physical activity due to a fear of judgement.

But, contrary to the limited images we so often see, women of any age, size, race or ability can be active and enjoy sport and fitness.

We hope that by normalising diverse depictions of women who are fit, strong and love their bodies, we will empower all women to shed their self-consciousness when it comes to getting active.

Each week we talk to women who are redefining what it means to be strong and achieving incredible things.

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