World record holder Fiona Oakes has completed her third Marathon des Sables, with the ‘World’s Toughest Footrace’ living up to its reputation in providing challenges for the UK-based vegan.
Marathon des Sables is a gruelling 153 mile (254 km) race consisting of 6 stages. Terrain includes sand dunes and rough tracks, and temperatures can be among the hottest on earth. Fiona is a multi-world record winning runner who has been vegan for decades. She runs an animal sanctuary and takes on extreme events to prove how fit and strong you can be on a vegan diet.
Fiona’s preparation was not perfect. She was unwell and could not run for the two weeks before, still taking antibiotics as the race started. Shortly before the event she also lost Brian, a sheep who she had worked hard to pull through an illness.
Fulling the adventure
One of the challenges of the event is that food and equipment has to be carried by the participants. This means includes food.
"The organisers provided one expedition meal a day (there are a couple of excellent vegan options now)" Fiona told us. "I had a Ma Baker flapjack for breakfast,and salted cashews, dates, dried apricots, sugared ginger, walnuts, gathia noodles, boiled sweets for snacks. I tried to avoid the gels as they don't suit me as I don't use them in training."
The tough event
“For the first couple of days I stumbled through as best as I could and managed to run both stages in pretty good times, despite still feeling the back end of the infection. Then came day 3. A nightmare to someone with my knee problems. 3 huge technical ascents which could only mean one thing. 3 huge technical descents! Absolutely off my compass of ability. Adrenaline, fear, desperation got me to the end – again in pretty good time so I survived in one piece for the long stage.”
A violent dust storm visited the camp following day three. It was so extreme that some runners lost vital pieces of equipment and clothing. Fiona had managed to store her things safely and disruption was minimal for her compared to some other runners.
“After the storm a voice in my head kept saying 'check your shoes'. I could see they were there but picked them up and turned them over to the underside. What I saw when I did totally devastated me. The soles were completely torn to pieces at the front and side. No tread on them at all – nothing. I couldn't believe it because I have used this shoe brand in 2 MdS and other stage races really successfully. However, with hindsight this was a really aggressive climbing race as we did the 2 biggest climbs of the 2012 and 2014 race as well as 2 more and much more rocky descending. I simply didn't know what to do.”
Tent-mates helped with plenty of Gaffa tape and even medical and electrical tape to create something which passed for running shoes. It was the best that could be done at short notice. It was a real low for Fiona as she was facing the mammoth 81.5 km day. She couldn’t see how the shoes would stand up to this, then complete two more stages.
“By Check Point 4 I had so much tape on my shoes they were totally entombed in the stuff which meant my feet couldn't breathe at all and were totally sweating, swelling and mashed to a pulp – bearing in my you also have to wear 2 pairs of socks too. I had to cut the whole lot off, take off my shoes, pop my blister, change socks and re-apply my tape. When I did remove the stuff it really hit home the extra weight this was costing me. I reckon about 500 grams per shoe. Given the whole stage was described as 'sandy' this was not making things easy but all the time I had to keep saying 'sand is better than stones, think of the shoes'! On we trudged through the night and eventually hit Check Point 7 – the last one.”
Things got worse when there was confusion over the course and the group Fiona was running on strayed off course, adding more distance.
The next stage was a shorter distance of a standard marathon. There was also good news in that the fear of extreme damage bein revealed when the shoes were cur off were unfounded. Her feet had done fairly well.
“I set off to try and run the parts I could but after a short time my tape plans fell apart, much as the tape did. I tried at the first Check Point to apply more but again, when running, it just came off which completely affirmed what I had done in the Long Stage was the only way to 'nurse' them through. It was a real dilemma as to what to do. If I kept applying tape there was a chance I would rip my sand gaiters hence letting your shoes fill with sand and causing even more of the inevitable blisters. So I decided to just try and get home as quickly as I could plotting as sandy a route as was possible. Sand is really difficult to run through and normally you would always attempt to select more hard ground over it so it must have looked strange applying these tactics. At one point a kind guy did call out to me there was a firmer route than that which I was on but all I could do was shout 'thank you but I have my reasons, too hard to explain out here'!”
“So I ran on, stopping only to check my shoes and for water – and eventually arrived at the Finish Line and my medal was waiting for me. Was I euphoric?”
Fiona was accompanied on the race by a film maker who caught up with her at overnight camps and where possible, check points. Already he has high hopes and says the footage is the best he has ever shot.
Fiona has now returned to her sanctuary and the numerous horses, pigs, sheep, dogs and other animals that she dedicates her life to. Please consider supporting the sanctuary, which you find out more about here.