Towards the end of this week, the alleged “toughest footrace on Earth” begins. The Marathon des Sables earned this allegation on the grounds that it is a 6-day ultramarathon, through some of the least hospitable environments on the planet.
The first stage is this coming Sunday. Over the course of 6 days, competitors will run the distance of 156 miles (with the toughest stage being 57 miles long). The competitors, of which there are only a handful of ultra-athletes, will race in the Sahara desert where the temperature is, on average, 30°C (just under 90°F), and daily fluctuations make this uncertain (with temperatures often changing drastically within a few hours).
Competitors will also have to carry the entirety of their required personal possessions in backpacks for the whole six days. This includes the food they will be eating. A number of books have been written solely about the experiences of training for and running the race. It may not surprise you that two people have died whilst competing in the race thus far.
Among the contestants for this year’s Marathon des Sables though is Fiona Oakes. Seeing as you’re on a vegan blog, you can probably see where this is heading… Fiona is the first vegan to ever attempt the Marathon des Sables, and is doing so with an ambition to smash the vegan = skinny weakling myth.
Fiona went vegetarian at the age of 4, and has been vegan for all of her adult life. Despite severe knee difficulties which struck her at the age of 14 (which resulted in the loss of a kneecap), Fiona has gone on to become an incredible athlete. She runs between 80 and 100 miles per week, with a record marathon time of 2 hours 38 minutes. She focuses primarily on speedwork – for some endurance is their aim, as finishing some of the mammoth races Fiona enters is enough; for Fiona, however, it is about winning the race.
During her running career she has made a number of accomplishments. She has reached top 10 positions in a number of international marathons (including Florence, Moscow, and Amsterdam) as well as top 20 positions in the London and Berlin marathons. She has come first in the Great North Run, a 13.1 mile event. She also came first in the Finland marathon, setting a course record by 11 minutes.
Outside of the running world, Fiona and her partner work incessantly to help the lives of over 400 animals at Tower Hill Animal Sanctuary – a completely non-profit animal sanctuary which Fiona set-up. She also has involvement with groups such as Captive Animals’ Protection Society, In Defense of Animals, and VITA (a Russian animal rights organisation).
Fiona will be running the Marathon des Sables to raise money for three different causes. Firstly, there is the Tower Hill Sanctuary which she runs. Secondly, the Vegan Society. Thirdly, Facing Africa – a charity for African victims of Noma, a facial disfigurement disease that affects children.
Currently, Fiona is falling way short of her target of £5000. At the time of writing she has secured just over £2000. She is becoming desperate for further donations, or even just promotion of her efforts and why she is running the race.
If you can spare any money at all towards Fiona’s effort, it will be greatly appreciated. You will be helping a fantastic athlete crush a widespread and negative myth about veganism, as well as helping a number of fantastic charity projects. Another supporter has kindly offered to double any donations made in the run-up (excuse the pun) to the race, so your donation will be doubled.
Her donation page is here.
If you cannot afford to donate yourself, please try and share this information with people who may be able to. Any support we can give Fiona is positive.
I will leave you with some thoughts that Fiona posted on her Facebook page about the difficulty in spreading the vegan message within the running community, and her hopes about competing in the Marathon des Sables:
“With 10 days to go before I leave for Morocco to compete in, what is universally acknowledged as the toughest foot race on the planet, my feelings are that of disappointment, confusion, nervousness and anger.
I am not doing this for me. I am doing this for the animals. I am doing this to promote a healthy and ethical vegan lifestyle. I am doing this to break down the many myths, incorrect information and stereotypes being widely publicised about veganism. I am doing this to get the vegan message into the wider public domain in a positive way which the masses can relate to, and what publicity am I getting or help in doing this? – hardly any.
I run my own animal sanctuary caring for our several hundred rescued animals almost single handedly. I am not a professional runner. I do not have any spare money or time for the luxuries other athletes have such as supplements, high quality diet, rest, recover, rehabilitation when injured or ill etc. I just have myself, forcing myself to train alone day in day out whilst always making sure the welfare of the animals is the primary consideration.
I am not trying to say my achievements are any greater or less than anyone else out there. However, top 20 places in 2 of the 5 World Major Marathon series, top 10 in 2 of the biggest Marathons in the world, 4 Marathons wins – all in course records – and first female home in the main race of the Great North Run (top 20 overall) do warrant some publicity for the animals surely to goodness. It is not FOR ME. I don’t want this FOR ME. I don’t care about ME. If I did I would not have dedicated my life for the past 16 years to my animal sanctuary. A life which necessitates no holidays, no money, no rest, no time for oneself. I just care about animals and giving people a reason to consider a vegan lifestyle or not giving them a reason to dismiss it as unhealthy. At the moment, Marathon running and sport is at the TOP OF THE AGENDA in this country and surely this is a fantastic time and opportunity to get people interested and involved in what I am trying to do. Millions of people worldwide compete in running races and Marathons each year and the Marathon des Sables is broadcast in 200 countries by over 1,000 television channels. I hope to be televised proudly wearing my specially adapted Vegan Runners kit to get the word VEGAN out to these people. I will be the first vegan woman to ever complete Marathon des Sables and one of only a tiny handful of women to ever compete in it. This is the race which made James Cracknell, double Olympic Champion and self confessed macho man, cry. It was worthy of the BBC funding a documentary about his exploits in this race and yet it is not worthy of any of the large organisations who are there to promote interest in vegan/vegetarianism to show any interest at all. Can you imagine the impact when the likes of Gordon Ramsay hits out with another rant about how he hates vegans as they are weak and frail, to be able to retaliate with the fact that a vegan woman has completed the Marathon des Sables (and is well over an hour faster than him in a Marathon too). It needs the larger organisations with media and celebrity contacts to act. It is no good just keeping this within the ‘animal’ movement as we are just, to coin a phrase ‘preaching to the converted’. We need to concentrate our efforts on converting and this means getting it out to those who would not normally see or hear about what any of us are doing. However, to convert others we need to give them a reason and, that reason has to be of benefit to them. If helping innocent animals were enough they would have taken the step already.
I am a woman, an amateur who spends most of her time caring for neglected, abused and vulnerable animals. I am not a great big strapping rower who has the funds to dedicate his time fully to training for this event and who is getting paid to do it. Women are, historically, judged as being weaker than men. Fact, like it or not. What are we saying here if a vegan woman is to complete this toughest foot challenge in the world. We are saying that a vegan diet is not only adequate to sustain an healthy lifestyle it is more than adequate of sustaining any lifestyle – however extreme.
There are large organisations out there whose sole remit is to promote an ethical vegan/vegetarian lifestyle and they won’t lift a finger to help. I am confused as to the reason why? They have media clout, I don’t. I use my running to promote what I believe in by leading by example. If I did not feel that the running were directly benefiting animals and the environment in some way, I would not be able to justify dedicating the time and effort to doing it. Do they think that by publicising what I am doing it might divert funds or attention from their organisation? I doubt this would happen but, even if this were the case, does it matter as these organisations are there to promote precisely the kind of positive thing I am doing so, surely this would mean ‘job done’ in their case. The important thing here is to use every opportunity to get the vegan message out there as so few such opportunities ever present themselves. Who is presenting that message is immaterial, what matters is saving lives and the best way of doing this, as we all know, is to stop the abuse that goes on in the mass production of animals for the food chain. Please can someone tell me what I am doing wrong or am I just being very naive?”