Fiona Oakes is a truly inspirational athlete. In 2013 she broke three world records and is now the fastest woman to run a marathon on each Continent and the North Pole in elapsed and aggregate time. This year she completed the toughest foot race on the planet for the second time – the Marathon des Sables. Fiona has to fit all this in between caring for 400 rescued animals – www.towerhillstables.com.
I was delighted to get the opportunity to talk to Fiona recently about her achievements, her training regime and her advice for more ordinary runners like me.
FT: What is your resting heartbeat?
Fiona: My resting heart beat as recorded by an ECG in March this year was 32 BPM
FT: You must have to carefully control food intake to ensure your body has the strength it needs to get you through. What are your tips on eating for running, and what are your treats?
Fiona: Tips on eating for running are mainly – learn to know your own body and, even more importantly, learn to listen and understand what it is telling you. It is hard to tell another person what they need to consume in order to do well because everyone is different. All I can really say is the obvious thing and make sure you diet is well balanced and contains all the nutrients you need. As for ‘treats’ for me. I do have Pine Nuts when I can afford them but that is quite rare as we have the animals to cater for and this leaves little or nothing for us!
FT: Lots of people do 5k and 10k runs these days and some then move on to half marathons and marathons. Others feel such distances are beyond them. Do you have any words of encouragement for people who feel in awe of the longer distances?
Fiona: One step at a time is my advice. Don’t think about how far it is just take each distance as it comes and be consistent with your training. Steady, consistent training beats sporadic training and it is much better for you as you are far less likely to get injured if you work within your capacity on a daily basis rather than trying to ‘run before you can walk’ or doing too much at once.
I started running 15 years ago and I can very clearly remember thinking it would be impossible to run for 3 days in a row, now I can run 3 times in a day because I have built up gradually. Also, have faith in the fact that the training you do today will benefit you tomorrow. Even if you can only run a few paces to start with, the biggest benefit is to stick with it.
Distances are relative to the individual. I know I used to think that if I ran further than 26.2 miles I would probably drop off the end of the earth! Now I can run 100km and in all sorts of climates, conditions and terrains. I never thought that would be possible a few years ago.
Fiona: I fit my training in, like most people, with great difficulty. I have an arduous life at the best of times but adding to that the kind of mileage I need to do really does complicate things. My main motivation to train is actually lack of time. If I see a window of opportunity in the day I know I have to grab it or it will be gone. Some people say it is hard to motivate themselves to get off the sofa and go out, I guess it is easier for me as I don’t get chance to sit down in the first place!
Another good tip I have found for training, especially since competing in the longer distance stuff, is don’t be afraid to go out at more unconventional times. I did a lot of my training for Marathon des Sables in the middle of the night with a head torch because I needed all the daylight hours for the animals. If you really want it you will find a way to make it work and it is surprising how successful it can be.
FT: How much of your training do you do on a treadmill and how much on roads? I have found that in training for orienteering there’s nothing like running on rough ground.
Fiona: I only do my speed work on the treadmill and this is for many reasons. The first is that I have a very bad knee injury and cannot run on a track as my knee can’t handle the bends. This is the most conventional way of doing speed sessions but another downside to it for me would be the fact I don’t live near a track and, even if I did, access would be limited and I would have to work to set times and hours in order for the track to be available or to meet a group there.
The treadmill has served me well and I am lucky enough to have one of the most heavy duty ones available – a Technogym RunRace – so it easily handles the pace I want to train at. Another thing I do think is good about the treadmill is that it doesn’t lie and there is nowhere to hide on it – no excuses, if you don’t run the speed you come off the back! The rest of my miles are done either on or off road but I still do prefer road running – perhaps because of the vulnerability of my knee.
FT: The Marathon des Sables and Polar marathons are both to an extent about battling with the conditions. Can you highlight similarities and differences between the two extremes?
Fiona: Yes, these two races are at similar ends of the spectrum in terms of conditions and climate but every race has to be prepared for meticulously – even a normal road Marathon has its different, but equally demanding, traits. Obviously, MdS is very hot and can get up to 55 degrees add to this carrying your week’s supplies in a pack over the kind of terrain which is hard to imagine and you really do have a problem. Staying fit, well and injury free is the main difficulty and also knowing that every night you get back to camp you have to get up and face it all again the next day can be a mental challenge.
As for running at the North Pole, the main worry there was frost bite and hypothermia. If you slow down in a conventional Marathon you run a slower time, if you slow down in those conditions you get hypothermia in an instant and this can lead to all sorts of problems over and above just pulling out of the race. You really are running on adrenalin and nerves and you are constantly analysing whether, what might seem to be a small problem at the time, is going to develop into something bigger and what you are going to do about it if it does. Pace judgement is absolutely critical in these races.
FT: Fittechnica focuses on sports fitness technology. What technology items do you find are most useful during training, and when you are competing?
Fiona: Actually, to be completely honest and truthful I don’t use a thing. I have a normal watch which I haven’t yet fathomed out how to use the timer on so I just glance at it when I start running and a couple of times during a race. To be honest, everything I use is in my head. I rely a lot on how I feel and I don’t like to get carried away on how I should feel. At the end of the day you have to judge your running on the circumstances you are running in and I know a pulse monitor can be a great thing but it could be misleading you if you are a bit ‘under the weather’ or for many other reasons. I guess this has come through never having any external input like a coach. Everything is self learned by trial and error! I am not saying these gadgets aren’t useful though, just that I don’t use them personally.
FT: Ultra running is very different from road running – and the two rarely cross over. How have you managed to be successful at both?
Fiona: I guess I have been lucky in crossing over and back and forth between ultra and road running. It all depends for me on whether you can train the miles and keep the quality speed sessions going too. I am lucky to have a body which will accept both sorts of training so, even whilst training for an ultra event I will still do as much speed work as I can.
FT: You’ve had serious knee surgery. I’ve recently had knee surgery and have the beginnings of arthritis in both knees. I want to get back to running regularly. I realise you don’t know my history, but do you have any general advice for me and people like me?
Fiona: My main part of advice is ‘don’t give up’. I was told I would never walk properly after all my surgeries and still have no knee cap on my right side which makes stability a very big issue for me. All I can suggest is strength exercises and go gently to start with. As I said above, I don’t actually have any fancy gear for running but the one thing I never compromise on is my shoes. I am very careful to rotate pairs and have the best I can for the job in hand (off road, speed, short distance and long). Your footwear is the most important item – or this is what I believe – and it is something you can make gains in if you get it right and tremendous losses if you get it wrong.
FT: People always talk about ‘team Paula’. Who are ‘team Fiona?’ and how do they help keep you going?
Fiona: Team Fiona doesn’t really exist. I am Team Fiona in that I don’t have any external help at all with my running, I really am a ‘one woman band’ and this is what I hoped to inspire people by showing them that you can do it alone. Sometimes I listen to what big stars of any sport have at their disposal and I do feel a little inadequate or ‘under tooled’ for the job but, at the end of the day, no matter what external input you have it is you that has to get out there and perform on the day. To me, doing this is normal and I don’t rely on having people around me or get nervous when I am on my own. I don’t know, perhaps it helps me but is certainly proves it is possible if you want it badly enough.
If you want to support Fiona keep an eye out for her upcoming races. You can see her in the Great North Run this September were she will start with the other elite athletes. In November she tackles the Everest stage race and into February 2015 she tackles the 777 – seven marathons on seven Continents in seven days. – This would be a new world record. To like Fiona’s Facebook page click here: https://www.facebook.com/fionaoakes.
Fiona has been Vegan for 40 years and with the current issues facing the UK regarding obesity and poor diet she shows what can be achieved through graft – rather than privilege or celebrity. Her charitable foundation has already had papers published by the UK Government as evidence in their Women in Sport inquiry.