Each year, International Women’s Day invokes many emotions. Through the notion of inspiration, it’s probably quite easy for most of us to think of a handful of women who have influenced us personally in life. Perhaps historical women who initiated a change in policy, fought for what they believed in or just generally didn’t conform to expectations in their plight for recognition.
This year’s International Women’s Day sees a focus on #BreaktheBias. It asks us to imagine a world that is free from gender bias, assumptions and stereotypes and instead carves a path towards the embrace of diversity, equity and inclusion. A world that encourages us to build workplaces where women thrive, empower women’s choice in health as well as celebrate the women forging change.
That’s what we are doing today. We initially thought about highlighting all the vegan women who have acted as an inspiration to many. The vegan women succeeding in business, creating diverse paths and encouraging an alternative point of view. But then we realised that actually, all of this can be encompassed in just ONE vegan woman.
International VEGAN Women’s Day inspiration
This year for International Women’s Day, we want to highlight the story of Fiona Oakes. Someone you may not have heard of but who does it her way and makes a difference with every deciding moment she encounters.
I was lucky enough to meet Fiona many years ago and have since followed the development of her work, her athletic success and the sheer determination she exudes in showing just what a vegan woman can achieve.
Today we look at the woman behind the World Records, as well as the incredible animal sanctuary she started alongside her partner, Martin.
How it began
Based in a village in Essex, Tower Hill Stables Animal Sanctuary was set up in 1993 to provide forever homes and much needed care to abandoned or at-risk animals in need. Following the sanctuary’s Facebook page, you soon realise just how many requests it receives and today they look after over 600 animals, spanning from horses, to ex-fighting dogs to neglected or abused farm animals.
But is Fiona daunted by the work?
Of course not, it merely inspires her to work and train harder. And when we say train, we mean at the level of an elite athlete who competes in marathons across the globe.
Training around 20 miles a day with additional focused speed sessions on a treadmill before the bulk of her sanctuary work kicks in, she never misses the opportunity to get a few extra miles on.
Marathons and world records
We could talk for a long time about all the records Fiona has achieved. But to highlight, she currently holds the World Record as the fastest female to run a marathon in each continent with an aggregate time of 23 hours 27 minutes and 40 seconds. She is also the fastest female to run a marathon on each continent PLUS the North Pole with an aggregate time of 28 hours, 20 minutes and 50 seconds.
Having competed in over 50 marathons, Fiona holds the course records for the Halstead Marathon at 2:50:22, the Ruska Marathon at 2:58, The Antarctic Ice Marathon at 4:20:02 and the Dartmoor Vale Marathon at 3:01:44
If this isn’t impressive enough, back in 2012 Fiona was the first “lifelong” vegan woman to complete the Marathon des Sables, competing over six days in what is often considered the toughest footrace on Earth. And because it was obviously a lot of fun…she repeated the challenge again in 2014.
Why did we choose Fiona?
Probably quite a self-explanatory situation but we felt we wanted to highlight Fiona on International Women’s Day as she exudes all the strength and focus needed to cover all of the IWD mantras.
Through the status of #BreaktheBias, she has experienced (and overcome) many barriers to her success, tackling stereotypical assumptions of both being female and, of course, vegan.
Imagine a gender-equal world.
A world free of bias, stereotypes, and discrimination.
A world that is diverse, equitable, and inclusive.
A world where difference is valued and celebrated.
Together we can forge women’s equality.
Collectively we can all #BreakTheBias.
Recently, I was lucky enough to get a few minutes of Fiona’s time.
I asked her what challenges she’s had to overcome as a female vegan.
Fiona replied: “Sometimes I think that life is the biggest challenge – but having said that, along life’s rocky road I certainly have encountered my own share of ‘boulders’ in the way and proverbial mountains to climb – one which springs to mind is the first year I did the notorious Marathon des Sables in 2012. I had already managed to compile a decent ‘CV’ of road running successes from top 20 places in some of the World’s Major Marathon series to multiple wins and course records in Marathon events around the globe. However, I just didn’t seem to be fulfilling my ultimate goal which was to promote veganism.
“For sure, I was engendering a modicum of interest in the Sanctuary, my Fire Fighting and even my notorious knee problems but that is where any interest basically ended – mainstream media and press outlets just didn’t seem to want to focus on the actual real reason I was out there in the first place – promoting veganism and its benefits to the animals, the environment, individual as well as global health and sustainability.”
“Now I faced the brutal conditions of the Desert with the added incumbrancer – not to mention excruciating pain – of a near incapacitating foot injury. With terribly swollen feet – from both the heat and the fractures – I battled on for the week to the point where by the longest stage of the event, which is well over 80km, I could see the bone sticking out from one of my injured toes. It was a real challenge to keep going both mentally and physically but spiritually it was less arduous as I knew I was doing it for what I truly believe in – the promotion of veganism.
It certainly was probably the most challenging week of my life so far, but who knows what the future holds!”
Alice: As such an inspirational vegan woman, what are you most proud of?
“Pride is something I don’t particularly consider very often as my whole world and life is centered around raising awareness of, and fighting for an end to, something so abhorrent, cruel, damaging and exploitative on so many levels.
I think the co-founding of Vegan Runners back in 2004 has to be one of those things which I have to say gives me great satisfaction and pride as it has brought so much to so many. The idea came about because I was qualifying to run on the Elite Start Lines of the biggest marathons in the world and, in turn, it was a great opportunity to advertise the fact that I was a vegan athlete. The problem was, how to let the wider audience know this, I certainly couldn’t go round and tell everyone and the wearing of anything but UKA Affiliated Club clothing is absolutely prohibited on such Starts as they are fiercely protective of their Advertisers and Sponsors.
Hence, the only way to get the word Vegan out there to a captive audience who would automatically be able to connect being plant-based with elite sport was to Affiliate a running club called Vegan Runners. I can hardly believe it was nearly 2 decades ago and I have proudly worn my VR vest in many races as do an ever-growing number of people around the globe moving forward. The best thing about the Club though is that it is literally a massive global family of like-minded people who wish to showcase the same ethics and agenda through the peaceful, proactive and positive platform of the universal language of sport. On a more personal level, one member of the Club told me a couple of years ago that she had lost both her parents quite suddenly and in close succession. She explained how other members of the Club had become her surrogate family and supported her through the trauma. I just remember thinking that all those years ago when it was formed, I had no idea of the many positive impacts and far-reaching effects it could have helping human and non-human animals alike.”