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Women of the Year: Fiona ran across the desert to save 400 animals
uplifting story from the Mail's search - launched last week - to find the
most inspiring women in Britain
Last week the Daily Mail launched our sixth annual Inspirational Women of the Year competition, in association with the Sanctuary Spa and the charity Wellbeing of Women.
The finalists will be invited to London this November to attend a glittering ceremony and the winner will receive a 5,000-pound luxury break.
Use the form below to nominate an extraordinary woman you know.
Here, DIANA APPLEYARD talks to one of our nominees...
Every morning, come rain or shine, 42-year-old Fiona Oakes gets out of bed at 3.30am and single-handedly begins to feed and muck out the 400 different animals she cares for at her sanctuary.
After hours making sure the 22 dogs, 53 horses, 82 pigs, 50 cats, 40 sheep, 20 goats, three cows and assorted chickens, geese, ducks and peacocks are happy, she then pulls on her trainers and goes for a run.
Not only is it stress-relieving, it's also one of the ways Fiona manages to pay the massive bills to keep the Tower Hill Stables Animal Sanctuary at Asheldham, Essex, going -- she runs marathons to raise funds.
And not just any old marathons. Fiona won her age category in the Great North Run in 2010 in an impressive time of one hour 20 minutes (the women's world record is one hour five minutes), holds the course record in four other marathons and completed the Marathon Des Sables in April.
Dubbed 'the toughest race on earth', she ran 154 miles across the Sahara Desert in Morocco, in temperatures of up to 130f, with all her supplies on her back.
But what makes her even more inspirational is that she's done all this after having lost her right kneecap to a cancerous tumour as a teenager. She admits it often leaves her in terrible pain.
'People ask what drives me on,' she says. 'And the answer is simple -- the animals. I run to raise awareness of the sanctuary and to raise funds.'
Super fit: Fiona raises funds by competing in marathons including the 'toughest race on Earth', the Marathon Des Sables, right, held in the Sahara desert
The shelter started after Fiona, then a secretary for a London bank, met her partner Martin, 47, and discovered they shared a passion for horses.
They began rescuing the creatures, paying for them to be kept at stables because neither could bear to see them being put down.
Soon it wasn't enough and, 16 years ago, Fiona gave up her job and the couple moved to rural Essex to put 'everything they had' into opening a sanctuary. They were quickly overwhelmed. 'The floodgates opened once I had the space and people began ringing me at all times of the day and night from all over the country.
'Our aim is to provide a safe, loving haven for those that crave security, routine and love. The moment the animals arrive, they seem to know they are safe here -- I can see it in their eyes. I try not to turn an animal in need away.'
Yet, the huge workload comes at a price -- both personal and financial: 'I haven't had a holiday in over 16 years, apart from going abroad for races,' Fiona admits. ''Martin and I can never even have a meal out together, as we don't have time -- and I can't leave the animals alone. I love each and every one. We are like a big family -- they tug at my heart.'
The sanctuary needs at least 10,000-pounds a month to pay for feed, bedding and vet's bills, which she struggles to cover through charitable donations, fund raising and her salary as a retained firefighter (incredibly she finds time for this second job).
'Most of the animals here are old or have been abused -- we take those no-one else wants. Many have medical problems of one kind or another -- a while ago I took in an old Belgian Mastiff, Walter, who turned out to have a severe ear infection. The vet's bill for him alone cost me 1,056-pounds.'
One of her favourite and most memorable rescues was a pig called Bess, who died recently after a long and happy life at the sanctuary.
'She'd been kept in appalling conditions in an end-of-terrace house. The owners had moved out and left the pigs with no food. I couldn't believe my eyes when I first saw her -- she was emaciated. Yet when she looked at me there was such trust. Within months she had grown into a big, fat smiley pig.'
Fiona has no help with running the sanctuary except for Martin when he returns from his banking job in London at 8.30pm.
'My mum Meg, who's 70 and lives nearby, is also brilliant. She
gives me most of her pension for the animals, cooks for Martin and irons his
shirts -- domestic tasks I definitely do not have time for.
'Running gives me the strength to go on. It keeps me sane. Once I know all the animals are fed, I pull on my trainers and go.
'The sanctuary is a huge sacrifice, but when I see an animal that has arrived traumatised, scared and shaking, transformed into the happy, playful, loving creature it has the right to be, everything is worthwhile.'