Fiona Oakes: ‘Queen of the Extreme’ redefines art of running

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Story highlights

British amateur runner competes in marathons and ultramarathons

Oakes underwent reconstructive surgery on knee as a teenager

The 48-year old runs to raise money for her animal sanctuary

Oakes is passionate about veganism and promoting positive image of plant-based diet

CNN  — 

From the sweltering heat of the Sahara Desert to the subzero temperatures at both North and South Poles, Fiona Oakes’ running obsession knows no bounds.

Dubbed the “Queen of the Extreme,” the record-breaking runner has completed more than 50 marathons and ultramarathons, but she remains determinedly modest about her feats.

“I don’t keep my medals, I don’t know where they are. I don’t have trophies – people have cabinets of trophies – the dogs have chewed most of mine,” Oakes told CNN’s Human to Hero series.

“I don’t have cuttings from newspapers … I’m not interested. I would never say to people: ‘I am this’ or ‘I am that’ – it’s not something that I’m predisposed to shout about. I don’t think I’m very special at all, to be honest.”

Perhaps the 48-year-old needs to rethink her definition of special given her punishing schedule is religiously maintained despite her suffering from a potentially crippling knee complaint – a legacy of reconstructive surgery during her teens.

“I had a tumor (in my right knee) when I was 14 years old, it wasn’t discovered until I was 17, by which time I had lost an awful lot of weight – I think I weighed around five stone,” she explains.

“In the end I had radical surgery to remove the kneecap and knee joint. It was in plaster for about three years. I was told that I wouldn’t walk properly again, let alone do anything like running. It’s painful when I run, but I can manage it because I know what to expect.”

Oakes started running properly just over a decade ago and soon found her stride, winning her first half-marathon in a course-record time before stepping up to compete over 26.2 miles and beyond.

Today, she routinely finishes conventional marathons in around two hours, 50 minutes and has a personal best of two hours, 38 minutes – a shade over the A standard required to qualify for the 2012 Olympic Games.

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The queen of extreme marathons
02:48 - Source: CNN

When she’s not pounding the tarmac in city marathons, Oakes competes in some of the world’s toughest endurance races counting the Volcano Marathon in Chile’s Atacama Desert – an 150-mile ultramarathon run at altitudes in excess of 4,400 meters (14,600 feet) – and the similarly challenging Marathon des Sables where competitors run six marathons in six days through the Sahara Desert among her conquests.

She still winces at the memory of competing in that 154-mile Saraha event, dubbed the world’s toughest footrace.

“The Marathon des Sables in 2012 was appallingly tough. The week before I went I broke two toes – a horse stood on my foot.

“Trying to complete the Marathon des Sables is a tough ask, but trying to complete it with broken toes was brutal. For the whole week I lived on painkillers … it was just appalling, but it did toughen me up,” she says.

The following year, Oakes broke three world records becoming the fastest woman to run a marathon on each continent – clocking an aggregate time of 26 hours, 18 minutes and 43 seconds – as well as recording the fastest aggregate and elapsed times for running marathons on all seven continents plus the North Pole – a place she remembers warmly.

“I think my favorite marathon has to be the North Pole, purely because it’s a marathon on the top of the world. It’s such an unrealistic place to be actually running a marathon, and also I caught a glimpse of a polar bear – which has to be one of the highlights of my life.”

There is no let up in her schedule when she’s crosses the finish line – once she’s got her breath back it’s straight back to the day job running an animal sanctuary at her home in Asheldham, Essex.

With 400 animals including horses, pigs, sheep and dogs to care for around the clock as well as keeping up her training routine of 100 miles every week, it’s no surprise that Oakes has little time for anything else.

“My life is very, very regimented, it’s hard to fit in the running around caring for the animals. I have to get up at 3.30 in the morning and I work through till probably nine or 10 o’clock at night,” she says.

“People forget that if you train for something very, very hard it has a detrimental effect on the people around you. I have no personal or family life. Every minute of my time that is not spent caring for my animals is spent dedicated to running.

“It might be that whenever someone else is having a Christmas day lunch, I’m putting my running shoes and going out to run 30 miles.”

Running has helped her raise money for the animal sanctuary and also allowed her to promote a positive image of veganism, though Oakes, who hasn’t eaten animal products since her teenage years, is keen not to sound too preachy.

“I don’t like to dwell on the vegan thing because (you) quickly gets marked as some sort of fruitcake or an animal rights extremist and I don’t want to appear to be telling people what to do – it’s a personal thing,” she says.

But she cannot deny feeling a deep sense of satisfaction about helping change the perception that vegans somehow lack energy because of their diet.

“I became so frustrated by constantly being told you can’t do (running) as a vegan (and that) vegans are weak, vegans will keel over if they try to do something extreme. I wanted to prove my point.

“I just want to be an example to say that if these people are considering this lifestyle, it can be done on a plant-based diet.”

As if to hammer home her point, Oakes recently attempted to run seven marathons in seven days on seven continents – running in a “cow costume” to raise awareness of animal cruelty.

Her hopes of completing the Triple 7 Quest were dashed at the last though when poor weather prevented her flying from Chile to Antarctica to complete the final leg of the race.

“It was really devastating at the finish, but I couldn’t wait, I had to come home for the animals. I’m not at an extendable budget with time so I had to leave,” she said.

Next month, Oakes will be off on her travels again, returning to Morocco to compete in her third Marathon des Sables, before heading back onto the road to compete at the Berlin Marathon later in the year where she aims to better her 17th-place finish achieved in 2006.

“I’m always focusing on what I’m about to do next,” she says, before quietly conceding running isn’t always her favorite activity.

“I don’t particularly enjoy running. The training is extremely difficult and I do push to the absolute limits. I enjoy the results that are achieved from the running … I like to take on challenges that would be almost impossible and prove that I can do it.”