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Fiona Oakes

Four-times world record breaking ultramarathon runner

Some people think of veganism as a new trend, but it’s a change I made back in the 1970s when I was growing up. I made the connection with animals and I knew I didn’t want to contribute to their suffering, so I decided to stop consuming all animal products.

At the time there were few pre-prepared products around, so buying plant milk would mean a journey to the nearest major town, and all food would be homemade. There is so much more choice available now, with most shops stocking products designed specifically for vegans, but I choose to keep my diet centred on wholefoods. They are so cheap and simple to prepare, and they give me the energy I need for my busy routine – whether that’s training for another marathon or looking after the 550 rescued animals at Tower Hill Stables.

Although I made the change at the age of six, I firmly believe that it’s never too late to choose veganism. Having consumed animal products for many years, people in their fifties and sixties are now choosing to lead a more ethical life, and by doing so, they are reducing the demand for products which are made from exploited creatures. It’s not just good for animals and the planet, but it’s great for our bodies too, especially as we become older. Fitness is so important to me, and my vegan diet allows me to get the right dietary balance to keep at the top of my game

Running for good

Sports are an amazing arena to show the power of veganism in maintaining a healthy lifestyle. It’s becoming clearer than ever that many top athletes rely on a diet without animal products, just as I’ve demonstrated the power of veganism by winning four Guinness World Records and running marathons on every continent.

That’s also why I co-founded Vegan Runners. When I cross the finish line in my Vegan Runners vest, I feel a sense of pride, not just because I’ve run a good race, but because I know I’m showing that vegans are strong, healthy people who can achieve anything. The producer of Cowspiracy, Keegan Kuhn, made Running for Good to prove exactly that. It tells the story of my 250km run across the Sahara Desert as part of the Marathon Des Sables, which some call the toughest footrace on Earth. It certainly was a challenging experience, particularly as I have only one kneecap after suffering an illness in my teenage years, and was told I wouldn’t be able to walk again. But I believe that putting my mind and body to the test helps show that the ‘weak and weedy’ image of veganism is a thing of the past, and I have overcome many obstacles to prove this.

Smashing stereotypes has always been important to me. Alongside my marathon training and animal activism, I’m also a retained firefighter. Just over 5% of people in this job are women, but I’m proud to be in a minority because I know that I’m creating change – just like being vegan.

The sanctuary

Changing what I eat was one of the first and most important steps on my vegan journey, but I knew I could go further. I had always rescued animals in a small and simple way, and founded Tower Hill Stables in 1993 after one of my horses had a terrible accident due to the negligence of a stable owner, and so I wanted to create a home to protect and care for animals myself. This was the start of a fundraising process that is still ongoing today. My partner Martin and I bought the first plot of land, selling off many of our personal possessions to do so, and have since moved to a larger site. Never would I have imagined that more than 25 years later, I would be looking after more than 100 horses, many of whom have retired from racing.

The horses make up just a small percentage of the 550 creatures at the sanctuary. Animals rescued from agriculture, such as pigs, cows, chickens and sheep are at home here, and we also welcome cats and dogs, the latter of whom sometimes have histories of being used in canine fights. Visitors to the stables are often delighted to discover the individual personalities of our residents, demonstrating they are far more than food products – they are sensitive and intelligent beings.

Running the sanctuary brings its own challenges too. I wake up at 3:30am each morning to start the chores, such as feeding the animals and giving them fresh bedding. By the time these are done, I eat a good meal of whole foods, then start again on the evening tasks or complete my running training for the day. It’s tiring work but seeing the transformation in the often-neglected animals who come here makes it all worthwhile. I know they will lead long, happy lives at our vegan sanctuary, and it’s empowering to know that my diet is doing the same for me too.


David Harriman

112-time blood donor

I became vegetarian after briefly working for a slaughterhouse. When I applied for the job I thought I’d just be driving the van, but they didn't tell me that I would have to help with the slaughter in between deliveries. I left after almost three weeks. The cruelty I saw was so unnecessary, and I just didn’t want anything more to do with it.

I was vegetarian for about ten years before I made the connection between dairy and eggs. I started to realise that I was still contributing to animal cruelty and harming my own health by still consuming them. But I didn’t know how to be vegan – there was no real Internet access back then. The only support available at the time was The Vegan Society, so I wrote a few letters asking about nutrition, and vitamin B12 etc, and received really helpful replies in return. Then I made my New Year Resolution to become vegan, and that was that.

Vegan benefits

I’ve always been a keen cyclist and runner, but on cold or damp days, exercising outside used to set off my asthma. I’d really start wheezing after around half an hour, so I used an inhaler. After a few months of being vegan, I realised that I just didn’t need it anymore. I haven’t used or needed an inhaler since early 1993.

In that time, my stamina has also improved. I have never been a natural runner – more of a plodder really. I used to run a couple of miles and I thought that was my limit. But since becoming vegan I’ve run the London Marathon twice, in 2002 and 2016.

Blood donation

I first donated blood about six months after becoming vegetarian. I was in the St John Ambulance Brigade at the time and used to make the tea at local blood-donor sessions. I lived in New Zealand for a while, but they wouldn’t take my blood there because in England we had the BSE crisis (mad cow disease) – even though I had not eaten any meat since 1981.

I’ve donated blood 112 times so far with no problems. When you donate, your blood is tested and the iron levels checked. So you can definitely meet the requirements on a healthy vegan diet.

It is a privilege and an honour to be able to donate blood to help others. If you are able to do something to help someone in their hour of need then why wouldn't you? As a vegan I have compassion for all animals and for people too, and as a nurse I have seen first-hand how vital it is to have a good supply of blood in an emergency, and for treatment in some chronic medical conditions. All blood donors are unsung heroes whether they've donated just once or multiple times.

Healthcare

I am a Registered Nurse and have worked in Cardiology, Urology, Acute-Trauma and some General Medicine. I would like the NHS to do a lot more in terms of promoting a whole food plant-based vegan diet to help reduce some of the most common preventable diseases such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes and some forms of cancer.


Lisa Gawthorne

Team GB athlete

When I was six years old, I saw a leaflet about animal farming techniques. I knew right away that I didn’t want to eat meat anymore.

For as far back as I remember, all my earliest and fondest memories include animals. For me it was very alien to come to that connection and to realise that meat comes from a living creature, not dissimilar from my cat.

My parents were a little worried about my health as I was a very active child. This was 32 years ago – there wasn’t much on the market in terms of meat-free products. It was quite tough, but my parents supported me, and we got to grips with the nutritional side of things pretty quickly.

Then, in 2003 I went vegan. It was so much easier at that point – every supermarket has plant milk and so many other vegan products. There was no excuse anymore!

Vegan athlete

I started running when I was at university. I also got into weights and going to the gym. By the time I graduated in 2003 I’d gone vegan – and that’s when I started to notice a massive difference. I’d previously struggled with acne and my skin cleared up. I was getting much better non-interrupted sleep. I felt stronger, fitter and faster than ever before.

The biggest noticeable change was in my energy levels. I’ve not had caffeine since 2007 and people can’t believe it – I’m a proper live wire!

My running times also started coming down. In 2007 it was taking me 50 minutes to run a 10k. in 2019 I’m down to 38 minutes.

Nutrition

As well as heavy training, I do believe that the fuel I eat really helps to give me an edge. Meat and veg for lunch is asking a lot of the digestive system. It can make you feel lethargic. On a vegan diet you can have a bigger volume of food, and such a variety. You’re getting a mixture of different energy sources which is really great for athletics. It allows you to take in different energy sources of phytonutrients which are bursting with vitamins and minerals. As a vegan, I love seeking out new creative foods. My diet is so varied – it’s not just meat and potatoes.

It also helps in terms of muscle recovery. After a race I used to be knackered, and now I feel fairly fresh. I put that down to a really phytonutrient-rich diet which helps the muscles to recover.

I get my vitamins and minerals tested every year and I’ve never had a deficiency, ever. I eat a rainbow of fruits and veg with every meal so I know I’m eating the right foods to deliver all those vitamins.

What do you consider your greatest athletic achievement?

Probably getting my vest to run for England this year, in my age group. I’m also biking in the world championships for duathlon. I’ve competed from Canada to Spain to Romania – I’ve been lucky enough to go all over the world.

In the last 12 months I’ve got a Personal Best for both 5k and 10k. it really surprised me to beat those times – as you get older you can plateau, but each year that’s gone by I’ve got better and better. It’s indicative of the fact that I’ve got my diet right.

What message would you like to share about vegan nutrition and health?

I want people to realise how good it can make you feel. I’m talking holistically. How you feel getting the right nutrients, but also knowing you haven’t caused animal pain and slaughter. It’s the best thing ever for your mind, body and soul. Do it for a week and you’ll notice a change!

Going vegan is the kindest and most beneficial thing you can do for your health, the animals and the planet. If you could bottle that feeling and sell it – if people could take a taste of that feeling, they’d go vegan overnight.


Paul Youd

Octogenarian vegan athlete

I grew up eating a very typical diet, where a meal generally consisted of meat and veg. Then, in the early 2000s I went vegetarian to avoid mad cow disease. It took me a couple of years to go off and discover what was happening in the dairy and egg industries, and then I went vegan.

Health benefits

I had osteoarthritis in my fingers. If you look at them now I can’t make a proper fist. It was getting more and more painful, and the doctors would only give me ibuprofen. I couldn’t share hands, or pull up the duvet, or change gears, or hold a kettle.

When I went vegan that all disappeared. After several months I noticed the difference with my joints. It just didn’t hurt anymore. I saw one guy in the surgery whose hands were very twisted and he said, ‘This is going to happen to you.’ But it didn’t. The damage has been done, but the pain has gone. I consider myself cured of arthritis. I wish the doctors would encourage other patients to try going vegan.

Now I feel really good. I’m 82 and I feel as if I am 40!

One million press ups

About four years ago, I knew I had to start doing some exercise.  I Googled stuff I could do at home, and started doing press-ups, pull-ups and sit-ups. To start with, I couldn’t do a press-up. I could get an inch or two off the ground but not the full way. But I improved and then it became part of my routine.

Someone suggested that I try and raise some money by doing 1000 press-ups in an hour – so I did! I raised £800 for the YMCA and a local homeless charity.

I thought – what if I aim to do one million press-ups between the ages of 80 and 90? That would keep me on task and make sure I don’t slip back. Plus, I can show people that vegans can be fit, healthy and strong.

And it’s going well! I do about 10,000 press-ups a month – around 3 sets of 1000 a week. It takes me 40 minutes to do 1000. I have a 9kg kettle bell I swing around too, and I also do pull-ups. I have a pull-up bar in my shed.

It’s funny to think that I used to hate press-ups. When I was in the forces it would be a punishment. Now it’s a normal part of my everyday life.

My goal is to live healthily until I kick the bucket. I don’t want to end up in a care home. That’s a motivation as well.

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