A RECORD-BREAKING marathon runner dubbed 'superwoman' by her peers is facing a new type of fight – to keep her beloved animal farm afloat.
Fiona Oakes, 43, is the owner of Tower Hill Stables Animal Sanctuary, which has stables in both Tillingham and Asheldham and takes in unwanted animals from all over Essex.
But with rising bills of up to £10,000 a month to pay for feed, bedding and vet's bills, Fiona's salary as a retained firelighter, her husband Martin's wages and charitable donations, are not enough to look after the 400 animals in her care.
So Fiona, a vegan who has taken on some of the world's most extreme marathons, despite only having one kneecap, plans to run another six gruelling challenges by the end of the year to boost the charity's coffers, and is appealing to the public for help.
"I try and take in the animals that have nowhere else to go – the unloved ones that can't be rehomed for whatever reason, the ones that no one else wants," said Fiona, who smashed the record for the North Pole marathon in April.
Every morning Fiona wakes up at 3.30am to tend to the animals before putting on her running shoes and starting training – running up to 20 miles a day.
"My drive all comes from the animals; it's what keeps me going. As long as the sanctuary exists, I will fight on," she said.
"We aim to provide a safe, loving home that the older animals need. A lot of the animals here are really old or maybe they have been abused. If I can help, I will.
"The moment the animals arrive, they can relax – I know it sounds funny but I can see it in their eyes. I try not to turn an animal in need away, although we are full now and 400 animals is a lot to take care of," said Fiona.
The animal sanctuary currently has 22 dogs, 53 horses, 82 pigs, 50 cats, 40 sheep, 20 goats, three cows and assorted chickens, geese, ducks and peacocks.
"Although it is hard work mucking out the animals and feeding them every morning I do love spending my time with them and I get a lot out of it," said Fiona, who only gets help from her husband Martin, who works for the Bank of New York, and mother Meg.
The sanctuary began life in 1993 and when the animals started arriving Fiona had to quit her full-time job working as a PA for a multi-national bank in London to follow her lifetime ambition.
This year she hopes to raise enough money to repair a new barn in Tillingham to house horses for the long, cold winter.
"I don't holiday at all – if I'm abroad I'm running and that's business – and I can't remember the last time that Martin and I ate together — but he knew what I was like when we first got together.
"We both love animals and we know this is a project that we can both be proud of – we met through a shared passion.
"My mum lives nearby, she's 70, and is involved as much as she can be and is fantastic. She gives me most of her pension for the animals, cooks for us and irons his shirts and some things around the house I don't have time for.
"The sanctuary has been a sacrifice for me and the family but if I know I can turn an unhappy, abused scared animal into a happy loving creature it does make it worthwhile – I know I'm in the right place," said Fiona.
Fiona is an inspiration for many reasons, but also as a cancer survivor after she lost her kneecap to a cancerous tumour as a teenager and continues to run marathons with no right kneecap.
"I had a horse here that lived for 46 years and I'm not sure that everyone who buys a horse understands that animals can live for a very long time," said Fiona.
Incredibly, Fiona also runs a similar project in Russia where she has over 100 animals in her care. "The project in Russia started when I went over there some years back to run the Moscow marathon and when I saw some of the stray dogs and cats I just thought that I need to do something about this, so I teamed up with my partner and we started a home just outside Moscow," she said.
This year she hopes to compete at the 24-hour race in Oxford on September 13, then the Sydney marathon in the same month, with the Casablanca marathon in October.
She then flies to the US for the New York marathon in November, then will run the seven-day Atacama Desert Crossing, the Antarctica Ice marathon in November and the Dubai marathon in January.
"This would give me the world record for running a marathon on every continent in 285 days – breaking the current quickest record by 39 days. However, if someone were to give me the money to do it quicker than this I would."
She has already run the North Pole marathon in April, and holds the course record in four marathons around the world.
"It is a matter of spacing the races out with the funding and time available. The only criteria are that there must be a marathon on each continent and the polar ice cap. The two really problematical ones are Antarctica and the Pole, which obviously are very specific and specialised," she says.
"I just try to be the best me that I can be and I sometimes I don't see why other people don't try as hard as me to achieve the things they want to," said Fiona.
She was always into fitness at school and at the tender age of three she realised that she wanted to be a vegan. Since then Fiona's formidable reputation has earned her the position of poster girl for the vegan community.
"I am a committed vegan and that will definitely not be changing anytime soon but I'm not in your face with it – I have a fierce reputation but that's only in sport – I don't want to change your lifestyle, this is one that suits me," said Fiona.
Her marathon running has taken her all over the world and she is even a personal friend of the legendary marathon runner and two-time gold medallist Haile Gebrselassie.
"We met at the start of the Berlin Marathon when I muscled my way to the front of the race in the rain and everyone was wondering where the hell I came from – while we waited Haile offered me a space in his car to wait until the race started and since then we have remained friends," she said.