On 9 April, vegan athlete Fiona Oakes, 43, won the women's race in the North Pole Marathon in -28°C, breaking a course record by 44 minutes despite the worst conditions in the race's history.
Fiona did not only win the marathon on 9 April in 4 hours 53 minutes, but smashed the 2008 course record, which stood at 5 hours 37 minutes. Half of the course could be run, but the other half was covered in deep snow, in which the participants sometimes sunk up to their waste. Fiona was only beaten by 2 male athletes, and the second lady was 55 minutes behind Fiona.
How on earth?
Picture the scene. It's freezing outside. You're sitting on your sofa, snuggled under your favourite blanket, with your fingers wrapped around a mug of hot tea. Would you be keen for a jog in the snow? A few hours of exercise on the ice? How about nipping up to the North Pole to run a marathon?
On her Facebook page Fiona said the day after the race:
"Hi guys, back in Spitsbergen. Job done! It is so cold and brutal in the Arctic I cannot explain. Marathon + Arctic conditions = TOUGH! I knew it was going to be bad but just how bad I couldn't possibly have prepared for. Not just the consequences of running at -30 with a wind chill but for half the course through deep snow.
I haven't got the longest legs in the world and kept falling it was so deep as when you put your foot on it you didn't know if it was frozen enough to take your weight. On one occasion I sank up to my groin, on another I fell on my hand and now have a suspected fractured thumb. [...] Never mind, job done, win in the women's race, new course record and 3rd overall. Can't ask for any more. X"
Everyone has a price. For top athlete Fiona Oakes, it's her unshakable dedication to the vegan diet and lifestyle that gets her off the sofa on those cold, dark, winter nights. She was raising awareness for her own Tower Hill Stables Animal Sanctuary where she cares for 400 animals and The Vegan Society, of which she is an Honorary Patron. But that's just the tip of the iceberg.
Against all odds
Fiona aims to be the first vegan to run a marathon on all seven continents plus the polar ice caps - something only a handful of people have achieved and very few women.
Last April, she became the first vegan woman - and one of only a tiny number of women ever - to complete the gruelling Marathon des Sables, often described as "the toughest race on earth". The race involves competitors running seven marathons in six days - a total of 154 miles - across the Sahara Desert in Morocco, carrying all their own supplies for the week with only temporary shelter and water provided.
Temperatures often reached in excess of 45°C. She did this with two broken toes, a severe allergic reaction to her hi-tech socks affecting her legs, dehydration... and she still managed to look after others who were struggling even more. Read more about the race here. The Daily Mail nominated her for an Inspirational Woman of The Year Award last September for her amazing feat in the desert, but coverage elsewhere was sparse. Might the V-word be too uncomfortable for some?
Inspiring achievements despite a permanent injury
As if facing this extreme Arctic challenge was not enough, Fiona has also been battling through quite a serious injury: when she was a teenager, Fiona lost a kneecap and severely damaged the other. She was told that she may have trouble walking. Carrying on regardless, her track record to date is astonishing.
Fiona has an impressive list of other marathon results in first tier marathons such as making the top 10 overall in Amsterdam, Florence, Nottingham and Moscow. She has victories in five marathons both at home and abroad - all of which were won in course records that still stand.
Fiona has competed in more than 26 marathons. She has gained top 25 places overall in two of the world's major marathon series - Berlin and London - as well as the Great North Run, where she was the first woman to complete the race from the masses in 2010. I was there and witnessed her incredible achievement, but the media ignored it. However, the media freeze has now thawed, and Fiona has appeared on BBC Breakfast TV, and has been featured in numerous papers and online articles.
It's time we recognised the achievements of vegan athletes
Fiona is not alone among inspiring vegan athletes, which include many top competing sports men and women, such as American ultra-marathon runner Scott Jurek, Canadian figure skating Meagan Duhamel, Australian paralympian basketball player Sarah Stewart, Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) competitor Mac Danzig, winner of nine Olympic gold medals Carl Lewis, and the list goes on. UK Men's Health Feature editor, David Morton is currently living on a vegan diet for a month and maintaining his active training routine.
Even those less active among us can still benefit enormously from a healthy vegan lifestyle.
"I don't do it for myself"
Fiona had prepared well for the North Pole Marathon, running over 100 miles a week, despite numerous other commitments. Updating us on her progress through her Facebook page, Fiona expressed some moments of doubt over the last few weeks:
- "Just returned from my 28 miler and I honestly don't have words to describe how awful it was. The only 'ups' were the hills and the 'downs' too numerous to mention."
- "I don't think I am at all special in doing what I do it is just that when there is so little written in the mass media about veganism (and often that which is, is negative) and you are trying to do something so positive - it hurts."
- "I only ever wanted to do the running to encourage others to consider a vegan lifestyle but they have to know what I am doing in order that they might do so. I don't do it for myself, never have done."
Fiona, who is a retained fire fighter, is a true inspiration to anyone, including runners, women, vegans and non-vegans, and above all, humanity. She shows what the values of dedication, commitment, discipline and staying cheerful in the face of hardship really mean.
It's not too late to show your support for Fiona! Post a message on her Facebook wall.