Siberian International Marathon 22/9/13
Stage 4 of the World Record Attempt by Fiona Oakes
(Photos not included due to technical problems here)
What an incredible amount I am learning as I work my way through this World Record Challenge but probably the biggest lesson is just how much you can achieve in a very short space of time if you really put your heart and soul into it. I find it hard to imagine that in less than 100 hours it is possible to travel to Siberia and back, run a Marathon and do so much positive work for the animals. However, I can now say quite honestly that my trip to Omsk was not just a success it was an absolute triumph. Obviously, the main objective of the visit was to complete the Marathon but to achieve so much for the animals on top of this makes me so proud and happy.
We set off on the morning of Thursday 19thSeptember to go to Heathrow – not without some trepidation as we were on a very tight schedule and Russia can be a complicated country to navigate at the best of times but when the prospect of arriving at your destination in time and in form to run a Marathon are added to the equation, things do get a little more stressful – to say the least. That said, the journey to Moscow was extremely smooth and we arrived – courtesy of Aeroflot – absolutely on time.
There followed an ‘intriguing’ exploration of Moscow Sheremtyevo Airport as we navigated our way around the Arrival Hall, Immigration procedures and various Security and baggage checks. Not a problem as we had 3 hours before our next flight – the 11 p.m. to Omsk. I have to confess that after all the checks and the wait I was becoming very tired when we boarded the plane to Omsk for another 3 + hour journey but, once seated, I did begin to feel a little better. It was a small plane and there was no inflight entertainment or other distractions so we just chatted and passed the time as best you can on a night-time flight.
We arrived in Omsk at 6 a.m. where we had a taxi booked to take us to our hotel. Well, …we thought we had a taxi booked but, unfortunately, for some reason or another there was no-one there to meet us. Various people were waiting with flowers and signs to greet other passengers but nothing with my name on it – either in Russian or English. Things did not look good until I saw a young man standing in one corner holding a sign saying Siberian International Marathon. ‘Hooray’, I thought to myself, ‘perhaps he can help’ as I really did not have a clue what to do and did not relish the thought of getting into a ‘local’ taxi with little Russian conversation to my name and no English conversation to the driver’s!
Fortunately, the guy from the Marathon was absolutely fluent and, on hearing of our dilemma, immediately offered his assistance. It turned out he was there to greet the East African contingent – the Ethiopians, the Eritreans and Kenyans – so I did feel (to say the least) a little ‘out of my depth’ but the situation was pretty desperate so I was so grateful of any help on offer.
When all the other runners were gathered we got in the bus and were taken to our hotel – well, hotel of sorts. It is so hard to explain the set up I won’t even bother to try but the entrance of the hotel was 7 floors up in a shopping arcade! It had no restaurant and the bedrooms were elsewhere in the Mall. Need I say more!
However, the prospects of a bed to have a rest in for a few hours were growing ever more enticing so, to be honest, I didn’t really care. We got to our room at around 8.30 a.m. and were asleep by 9 until mid-day when we were being collected by our Interpreter – the lovely Anna – who was going to take us to the Runners’ Monument at the Cathedral to be filmed for a programme the news channel were making about the Marathon.
Anna told me interest was great at my participation in the Marathon, not only from the TV but from all the media and inhabitants of Omsk. The filming went very smoothly and took around 2 hours. They asked all sorts of questions which we duly answered and made a lovely interview, not only about my running but about why I run and the Sanctuary and it’s inhabitants too.
On my arrival in Omsk I had received a facebook message from a girl called Tatiana who volunteered at the local Animal Shelter which was called “Friend”. She had asked if I would be able to meet up with her for a short time to talk about all things animals and vegetarian and I had written back absolutely delighted to be able to do so. I did ask Anna where the shelter was but she said it was some way out of Omsk and possibly too far to go to. When we arrived back at the hotel there was a message from Tatiana saying there was a possibility she could arrange a visit to the Shelter that evening which I was so happy to be able to do.
We were picked up by Natalia – who spoke no English – and Tatiana and taken to the Shelter which was a wonderful place. We were greeted by another Tatiana, the lady who runs the place, she also spoke no English but the warmth of her heart and the love in her eyes needed no translation. It was quite emotional meeting her and seeing the work she does and the pride and humble attitude her volunteers displayed. With the help of Tatiana’s translation skills we were told the Shelter offered refuge to over 400 dogs and, although basic, the love and attention the dogs were given and the conditions and atmosphere there were absolutely without question.
There were dogs everywhere, outside in pens, running free, in large enclosures, inside in pens, cages and holding areas. All shapes and sizes, breeds, colours, ages and with many differing medical conditions but the one common denominator is they were all happy and well cared for. No dog was ever turned away, no animal would be turned away – as we found out when we met Bonnie the blind Lemur who was rescued from a rubbish bin by a member of the public. He had been thrown in there in the middle of Winter as he was no longer any use to the Circus he had come from. As I am sure you are probably aware, a Siberian Winter is a very cruel and hostile thing and this is when Bonnie had been thrown out. He had been in the rubbish bin for some time, unable to get out because he was so frail and blind. As a result he had lost his paws and tail to frostbite but he arrived at ‘Friend’ all that was the past and he has now started his new life with many new friends and the security of a loving home for life.
We spent a wonderful 2 hours at the Shelter and then bid an emotional farewell to our new friends, Tatiana, Natalia and Tatiana who returned us to our hotel, not before offering to take us out for a meal but we were just too tired as we had been up all night and the prospect of Sunday’s race was playing on my mind a little. On returning to our hotel room I decided to take a bath and then hit the sheets but there was a slight hitch in this plan as there was no hot water. After being outside in the cold I didn’t really fancy the ‘invigoration’ of a cold bath so Plan B was brought into action. Go straight to bed. Imagine my shock when I turned on the TV and there I was in the Sahara Desert. They were showing the video film they had made earlier and it really was wonderful. Not from a perspective of me wanting to see me on the TV but everything they had included. Pictures of the animals, my Vegan Runner top, the North Pole race. They really had done their research and in such a short space of time and conflicting language I did think that was quite impressive.
Unfortunately, after all this excitement, an unbroken night’s sleep was not on the agenda as there was the now “traditional” wedding reception in one of the restaurants in the shopping arcade below (as I said above, too difficult to explain) and sleep was definitely not the thing on the rather lively wedding contingents’ mind! The noise eventually ceased at around 2 a.m. and we did manage to get a few hours sleep before we left for the Marathon Expo and Press Conference.
What can I say – it was quite daunting for me to be there in my Vegan Runner hoodie sitting up on stage with the President of AIMS Russia, the Race Director and the Elite athlete from Kenya, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Russia. Percy didn’t seem phased at all and got along famously with Taiget Evans Kipkorir – the Kenyan athlete sitting next to him – but, as all Percy fans will know by now, he gets along with everyone – who could resist that big smile? In fact, I think Taiget is probably one of the only people who matches Percy for size of smile as he revealed when he met up with his chum again after the race. As the Conference went on and everyone was introduced and the Officials made their speeches the floor was thrown open to questions and I was so shocked that most of them were directed at me. It was absolutely surreal. People were genuinely interested in EVERYTHING. Why I run, my motives, my motivation, my choice of Omsk, the Sanctuary, the animals, my veganism, my trip to the Friend Shelter. They wanted to know it all and were in no way or shy to reticent to avoid the issue of my veganism which was so wonderfully refreshing from the press and media. After the Press Conference more interviews followed – many more – and lots of photographs and greetings from other runners. Percy was a big hit with Emily Rotich – one of the Kenyan runners – who thought he was ‘really cute and pretty’ (she can say that, she doesn’t have to live with him!). Then off to collect my race number and ‘sign on’ – I was a little surprised to see I had been honoured with such a low race number – No.7 – but thought it was probably a good sign so didn’t argue!
We were then taken round the Marathon Expo where Percy and I were bestowed the honour of having our photograph taken with the Olympic Torch for Sochi Games. One really lovely moment for me at the Expo was when I heard a little voice say ‘Fiona’. A total stranger who came over to introduce herself. She had waited to see if she might be able to meet me, she was from Omsk and a vegetarian (quite a rarity in Russia) and was running the Marathon. She had read about me coming and said was so excited and proud to show her friends that a vegan was going to do the race, not only a vegan but one who cares for and rescued animals. She was in tears which, in turn, brought me to tears as she said it meant so much to her. Funnily enough, Tatiana – the interpreter from Friend – had said the same thing. She had turned vegetarian (bearing in mind this is a very unusual and radical move in Siberia) a year ago and had received much hostility from her family and friends for doing so. She had been told it would make her ill and even kill her and she reiterated how much it meant to have such a strong, lifelong vegan athlete participating in this most gruelling of events for all Siberia to see. No pressure here then to complete the race I thought!!!
After the Expo it was on to lunch with some of the other non-local participants. Amongst them, 4 lovely Japanese guys who were totally obsessed – yet again – with Percy Bear. It turned out that one of their friends had run the North Pole Marathon this year and, although I had not had chance to formally meet him, they were so keen to let him know Percy and I were ‘in the house’ the cameras and e-mails were flowing back and forth between Japan and Siberia immediately. If Percy’s head wasn’t big enough before we left it certainly was growing by the minute now!
After the lunch it was back to the hotel for a few more interviews and photographs then a quick stretch of the legs and back to the room for, hopefully, a good night of sleep – if there ever is such a thing the night before a Marathon! I have to say I was tired as the traveling, talking, rushing around and photo sessions really do drain you and it was quite fortunate the race didn’t start until 12 noon.We were picked up from the hotel at 10.30 a.m. and driven to the Start where we were given changing facilities which were excellent in the Olympic Boxing hall. Then, all the Elite runners were rounded up for photographs and off to the Start surrounded by Police and Security. I have to say I always feel very strange being put into such Elite athletic company but it does make you feel rather good – if not a little challenged in the speed department – being around these guys!
I cannot stress enough the esteem this race is held in. The National Anthem is played before the Start, the flag of Russia is raised and each elite runner is announced to the crowd. It was really moving to get such a big cheer and I am so proud I was able to wear my Vegan Runner vest on the front of the Start Line in such a big and prestigious race – this is the biggest race in Russia by the way! The one problem I have been having and really did have in this race was ‘checking back’ from the start. It would be so easy to get excited and go off too quickly but I know that would be total disaster. Possibly not for this race but definitely for those to follow. I was trying to describe to someone the difference between ‘racing’ a Marathon and ‘running’ one and, for me, I came up with this description:
I think that for every ONE minute you are out there and pushing hard it takes the same out of you as being out there and cruising for FIVE minutes. In other words, you need to finish feeling, more or less, the same as when you started with more in the tank and at the same pace.
That is a good result when you are attempting something like this. Pace judgement is all, it is everything, get it wrong and you are going to suffer, not just here but in future races.I am now a pretty experienced runner and I had decided to run my own race from the start. Yes, it would have been easy to run along with the others but not possible for me doing this Challenge. The course was very good in that it did not repeat itself in loops and many runners were very keen to introduce themselves to me and I held lots of short conversations in broken Russian which really helped pass the time in the initial kilometres. One guy proudly announced ‘I am Russian and I am vegetarian’. I had been told before the start there might be a surprise waiting for me at mile 5 – 6 (at the time I thought ‘I hope it has two wheels and an engine!) and I was so touched and moved to approached the 5 mile point to see a group of people with 2 small children (those of Inna one of the Race Directors) holding large banners they had made supporting Percy and me on our run and our Challenge. For anyone who has run – and suffered – in a Marathon they will know how very much gestures like this mean when you are out there alone and this really was quite moving to see friendly faces of support in a place so far from home. It really lifted me and I continued on with smile on my face and a spring (well, almost) in my step.
The support in the race was sparse but very well meaning and enthusiastic. I was told after the race an awful lot of people had turned out to see the “Vegan English Woman” and I was aware a lot of people had read about me coming to Omsk so I was really keen to smile and join in the crowd’s enthusiasm wherever I could. It really did pass the time and I don’t think I really wiped the smile off my face all through the race.
My pace was comfortable and, apart from a couple of times when things got a bit ‘dodgy’, I never really felt bad or worried. The race seemed to pass really quickly in fact and, before I knew it, the end was in sight. I ran down to the Finish really strongly and was quite satisfied to see the time of 3.11 but was amazed at my reception when I arrived. The Press and Photographers were upon me immediately. There couldn’t have been any more if I had broken a World Record. My Mum explained she had been giving interviews the whole time the race was on and everyone was so keen to know all about the reasons I was in Omsk in the first place. I have to say though, the most wonderful thing was seeing all my new friends from ‘Friend’ shelter. They had all come to see me finish and to thank me for what I had done in speaking out in the Press for them. Such as small thing for me to do but such a big thing for them. There were flowers and a special certificate they had made for me in recognition of my visiting them. I was overcome and this is for all to see in the photographs.
I collected my medal and spoke to many of the crowd and other runners which was fantastic. Then I was informed that I was to be presented with a special Medal of Honour on the main stage in front of all the crowds in honour of my visit. This was a great honour. AIMS representative Inna was to present the medal and it was full honours too with the flower girls and bouquets. When I realised how special a moment this was to be I quickly changed into my 269 top as I am so keen to make this Challenge productive for the animals by getting positive publicity in a proactive way. The presenter came on stage and spent around 2 minutes introducing me whilst they played footage of me and my achievements on the big screen. I did begin to wonder who they were introducing – me or Wonder Woman!
After the event and back at the hotel room I did reflect and think to myself ‘ you know you are doing something right when they describe you as strong, tough and brave …in Siberia’! It was a great moment to be invited on stage in front of the crowds – yes, it was exciting for me but for the animals and for veganism. All I could think about was the outreach possibilities and positivity. I was truly moved.
Then it was back to the hotel to get changed for a farewell dinner with some of the other runners, Officials, and Interpreters. This is when Percy met his ‘new best friend’ – Siberian Marathon Bear. He was presented to me by Inna Chernoblavskaya, SIM International Programs and AIMS Ambassador in Russia and had been made especially for me to honour my visit to Siberia. Totally amazing and kind – I was humbled by the thought, care and consideration which my visit and participation in this race has been held in. So very refreshing after there has been so limited interest in what I am trying to do in my own country.
We had an early start and flight the next morning so we left around 10 p.m. as the others drank copious quantities of Vodka (Percy and Siberian Marathon Bear included) well into the early hours. We didn’t sleep much that night, it was so exciting. Such a whirlwind visit but so positive in so many ways, in fact, in all ways. Yes, I had to finish the race and I have to say that I was pleased to find I had come 15th overall in such a large and high profile race when I couldn’t even ‘race’ the distance, but more than that it was the interest, excitement, respect and enthusiasm my participation – and more so, my veganism – had been greeted with. I was just so honoured and moved by it all.
After a fairly smooth (some very short connections, hairy experiences at Immigration and wrong turns included), well, as smooth as you can possible have with Percy and new friend with hangovers, we arrived home. Because of the time differences involved we left Siberia at 9 a.m. and were home here at 1 p.m. 10 or 11 hours of traveling but home in plenty of time to do the afternoon jobs with the animals and collect hay too.
My lasting thoughts of this race and my experiences are all so positive it really has lifted me. Yes, for sure I am tired. This is not like just going out for a run on a Sunday afternoon. The organisation, preparing everything to leave the Sanctuary, traveling and preparations really do take their toll on you. I have to be so careful not to overstep the mark in these races. My life is not just about running. It is about being able to be fit and recovered enough not only for the next race – in less than 3 weeks – but to be able to step off the plane and ready to look after 400 animals. This is a big ask – a very big ask – but to do it this many times is a massive ask. Believe me, I know what hard work is and this is HARD. It is frustrating for me to not be able to race these events and I honestly don’t like recording slow times but it has to be done as I know how much extra it takes out of you and the toll on your body to run a quicker pace. It is the difference between training pace and Marathon pace and, as anyone out there who knows these things will tell you, a hard Marathon takes 3 months – not 3 weeks, and in some cases 2 weeks – to recover from.
Half way there though and I am actually very proud of this one. Not for the running – but I am pleased to have judged the pace 100% spot on again – but for the Outreach. Believe me, I really did reach out to Siberia and Russia and, for once, they were keen to reach back with equal enthusiasm and interest. What a wonderful place, race and people.