Support through Sport UK's Helen Keeling-Marston spoke to Fiona Oakes, the world’s fastest global marathoner …
Hi Fiona. It’s safe to say that you take running to the next level! You currently hold the record for being the fastest woman to run a marathon on each continent and the North Pole in elapsed and aggregate time. Tell us more …
The world records came about quite by accident really. In 2011, I decided to look for new running challenges - so something a bit different to competing in road marathons for fast times and high placings. The first ‘ultra’ challenge that I took on was the Marathon des Sables in 2012 - which turned out to be a real ‘ultra ultra’ event as the week before the race I fractured two toes whilst trying to help an injured horse at my horse sanctuary. Consequently, I really struggled to get round. Thus I wanted to go back and do better - so I entered again in 2013. In the meantime, someone suggested I consider entering the ‘Polar’ marathons - so the North Pole Marathon and the Antarctic Ice Marathon. At first, I couldn’t believe that there was actually a marathon event at the North Pole but, when it became apparent there was, I immediately decided it was for me. I had intended to run the Antarctic race first (as it is held in November and the North Pole race is in April - the same time as Marathon des Sables). However, when the Race Director of the North Pole Marathon offered me a place at the 2013 race, I decided I had to go as it really was a once in a lifetime opportunity. I absolutely loved the experience of running in the Arctic. It is almost impossible for me to put into words what it felt like to stand on that start line - exciting, frightening, awe-inspiring, ethereal, beautiful, monumental and, of course, very, very cold! After I won the race and placed in the top three of the men’s race too, it was some of the other competitors who suggested I have a crack at the world record to become the fastest woman - in time elapsed - to run a marathon on every continent plus the North Pole. It ‘simply’ meant running on the six other continents, plus competing in the Antarctic Marathon in November, which I was already entered in.
Trying for the world record was obviously a very exciting prospect - but on returning to the Sanctuary and working out the logistics and finance, I decided that it was probably something that we simply couldn’t afford to consider. Hence it went on the back burner as my busy life of animal caring returned to normal. However, it was something that was at the back of my mind for the next few months, and it was only at the beginning of August that I finally decided that, if I didn’t decide to attempt it then the opportunity would be lost for ever. My parents agreed to borrow the money for the challenge against their property but, at the last minute, two private sponsors stepped in to stop this from happening. They were keen to promote veganism in a positive light (I am a vegan) and thought that this would be a fantastic way of doing so.
After that, it was all systems go and I quickly worked out a schedule of races, which meant that I could balance my running with caring for the animals at the Sanctuary too. In the end, I only had 14 weeks to run seven Marathons on seven continents. The first five races were held on the road in Europe, Australia, Asia, America and Africa. Despite the tight schedule, I won, or podium placed, at them all and I ran each of them in sub-London Marathon Championship qualifying time. Doing this presented me with the possibility of breaking two more world records. One, for being the fastest woman to run a marathon on every continent and, two, for being the fastest woman to run a marathon on every continent and the North Pole in aggregate time. This opportunity took me by surprise as I honestly didn’t expect to be able to keep running such good times given the short recovery periods. I was only able to make flying visits to each continent as I had to return home straight away to care for the animals and to enable my partner return to work (as he took leave to care for them whilst I was away). For example, I went to Australia and was back in well under five days.
Then it was on to the Atacama Desert to run the Volcano Marathon - the highest average altitude marathon ever held (with the altitude averaging at around 14,400 feet). Unfortunately, during this race I injured my already permanently damaged right knee and was told by the Race Doctor that I wouldn’t be able to run again that year. This was a real blow as I was due to run in Antarctica five days later. I decided to fly with the group to Antarctica anyway and try. Even if I had to walk round, I just wanted to try to finish. This would mean forfeiting the two world records for the fastest running times - but at least I would still break the record that I had set out to break in the first place. Hence I was truly shocked to win the race in Antarctica and, again, place highly amongst the men in a new course record. To this day, I don’t know where it came from - as I really was very badly injured.
Wow! Did the Marathon des Sables get any easier the second time round (mentally – as not having broken toes this time must have made things easier physically)?
Yes - physically, it was a lot easier without the broken toes but mentally - at first at least - it was probably harder. For most people, finishing the Marathon des Sables is all they want to do. So to get that medal which says ‘I have completed (what is considered by many to be) the toughest footrace on the planet’ is enough. Standing on the start line of such a brutal challenge for the second time - so knowing what is ahead and the suffering you will endure, makes you question why you are there for a second time! In addition, this year’s race was very hard as the first stage involved 15kms of sand dunes, which you had to negotiate wihen your pack was at its heaviest and in the most monstrous 50+ degree heat. Knowing that you have to complete a marathon a day, and a double one on one day, when there is no proper shelter, food, rest, washing - or any other facilities - can take some time to get your head around! My coping strategy was to focus on enjoying the race this time round - which I honestly did! I got a high placing and finished 7th overall in the final stage, which I was really pleased with given that such an event isn’t my running speciality. The thing I was most proud of from the race was that I was able to put compassion before competition as I helped out a cancer victim who was receiving chemotherapy. They were really struggling and so I focused on helping them to complete the race. That was a very satisfying feeling.
We also hear that you’ve been given an elite start at this year’s Great North Run. It’s rare to be able to compete at such a high level in both ultra and road running events - what’s your secret?!
Yes, I am very proud to have an elite place in the Great North Run. My secret if I have one is being able to keep up with the speed work whilst also putting in the kind of miles that you need to to run in the ultra events. I also have great faith in my diet and nutrition base - not only when running but also when recovering and ensuring that I stay well enough year in year out to keep pushing myself as hard as I need to to get the results I want.
And all this despite a knee replacement?!
Yes, but the knee replacement is the least of my problems. It’s having no knee cap which really causes me difficulties when it comes to stability. I cannot do speed work on a track as my knee won’t allow me to run repetitively around bends. I have to do it all on a treadmill instead. I don’t dwell on it though as I know that when you stand at the start line of a marathon, the last thing you want on your mind is the doubt that injury can bring. Being permanently injured it is not something that I try to put out of my mind.
In 2015, you’ll be undertaking the 777 challenge. Can you tell us more about this challenge?
The 777 Quest is seven marathons in seven days on seven continents. We start in Australia and then fly to Asia, Africa, Europe, North America, South America and Antarctica. The only rest we will get is on the plane, so it’s going to be a really, really big ask. It will, however, be an exciting event and lots of the relevant countries’ governments are getting behind us.
As if all this running wasn’t enough, you also run an animal rescue centre and have a charitable foundation (the Fiona Oakes Foundation). How do you fit it all in?!
I’m a very busy person - but my primary role in life has always been, and always will be, an animal carer. We have around 400 rescued animals at our sanctuary in Essex (www.towerhillstables.com) and the animals always come first. People often ask what motivates me to get off the sofa and go out for a run. To be truthful, the answer is that I don’t get a lot of time to sit there in the first place - so I haven’t got that problem! My motivation probably comes from a lack of opportunity. So if there’s a window of opportunity during the day for me to go for a run - I grab it, as I know that it’s rare. As for my Foundation, this primarily involves working on the computer - but I do also do some public speaking. It is a challenge to fit this in and so I tend to do it during the weekends when Martin, my husband, can take care of the animals.
There must be times during your runs when you just want to stop and give up. What keeps you going?
Yes, there are many times when I‘m out training when I just want to stop - but now, more than ever, I realise that I have to put in the work to achieve the results. I don’t have a prodigious natural talent for running and I’ve always know that I would have to work doubly hard to achieve what I want to achieve as I’m battling a disability too. I think the real edge I have is that I don’t do the running because I love or enjoy it - I’m not so selfish as to dedicate as much time to something just because I like it. I do it for others - for example, the animals that I’m trying to help by promoting veganism. It is because of these beliefs that I’m prepared to go the extra mile … quite literally!