“We don’t fight demons, we only fight our choices” Jay Riley's Rokman

“We don’t fight demons, we only fight our choices” Jay Riley's Rokman Story

In many ways, Jay Riley is like any other member of Team Rokman. He loves pushing his limits and the sense of accomplishment that comes with it. But Jay's story is far from typical. Over the years, Jay has faced several traumatic life experiences. Most recently, in 2021, he was diagnosed with eye cancer. But instead of giving up, Jay viewed his road to recovery as a challenge, taking one step at a time, one hurdle at a time, one battle at a time. His story is one of strength and resilience, and offers hope to anyone facing difficult challenges.

Could you give a bit of background about yourself and what has led you down the path of taking on fitness challenges?

I’ve been interested in physical challenges for a long time. After suffering a massively traumatic experience in 2008, my brain and body went into meltdown and it took a lot of effort to get myself back on track. I’ve used exercise to strengthen myself physically and mentally and having challenges has been a tactic of mine for many years.

In 2010 I competed the Snowdonia Marathon in 6hrs 15 mins. Not a great time for a marathon but for my first one it was a good benchmark and not bad considering there were one or two slight hills! I also completed Ten y Fan with my wife in 2018 and the Worcestershire 24hr Joust in Sept 2017. 

One of the joys of reaching adulthood, albeit physically and not necessarily mentally, is that you can do whatever you want and no one really cares. I enjoy the freedom of this and I always take on challenges for myself rather than to impress other people (besides, who actually likes that guy who is constantly flexing about how many miles he’s run this week?). I know that when I run or lift or take on a challenge I will beat some people and be beaten by others and I tend to sit in that area of “slightly above average”. I have no World-beating sporting talents but I know that I can pretty much take on anything and I WILL reach the end. I’ve done several marathons now, also 24hr runs, 48 hr runs, ice baths and plenty of other crazy challenges (although I’m sure they’re a lot more to come) and my brain has switched from “what the f**k are you doing?!” to “okay, let’s just get on with it!

In Oct 2021, I was diagnosed with eye cancer. From going to a regular eye test to driving up to a specialist in Liverpool, my world was turned upside down. It’s at these times everything goes out of the window and you start to freak out. I wasn’t sure what was going on, and, although the prognosis seemed optimistic, I couldn’t help but feel I was well and truly screwed. BUT… it all felt like the mother of all Rokman challenges and I could split it into smaller achievable goals, focusing my mind on one thing at a time. Rather than the first week challenge of running 1.5 miles for time, I had my first operation. Instead of the second week challenge of 100 burpees, I was having radiotherapy. It all felt like things I needed to tick off and just get through. 

My mental resilience was struggling but it was just about getting me through it all. I even chose to have my second operation under local anaesthesia rather than being put to sleep so I could go home sooner to see my kids. I liken this to ticking the advanced category when signing up to Rokman challenges! It’s not like I’m stronger than anyone else it’s just a have this stupid attitude of “bring it on” and “how hard can it be?!” 

I’m incredibly grateful to the NHS for looking after me and apart from a check up in March I’m pretty much back to normal. I need to regain some strength and fitness but I’m good to go. Thanks to Team Rokman for being an inspiration to me and I hope that this helps other people that have hit bumps in the road.

Why do you do it, why do you push your limits?

I love the expression “fighting demons” but although it makes you sound tough and brave, it also externalises the threat. I heard a better expression a while ago which I’ll attempt to paraphrase: “We don’t fight demons, we only fight our choices”. I like that this as it takes ownership of the issue, which for me has been a life-changer. Once I stopped being a victim and took ownership of my difficulties, as harsh as it was, I started to move forward. Being a victim is sadly a reality for a lot of people but choosing to stay a victim is a personal choice.  

What impact does taking part in challenges have on your life?

I am so much stronger. That sounds pretty obvious but it’s nice to know and it gives me confidence. I am also in control of my feelings now. I can laugh, I can get angry and I can bawl my eyes out (usually watching something like Toy Story 3 with my kids). I choose to let the feelings out - even the bad ones and I don’t suppress them anymore. That led me to a very dark place. 

I also had a back injury a few years ago which after several MRI’s and a lot of scratching of medical chins, left me with the choice of spinal surgery or hanging in there and strengthening it up. I chose the latter and it seems to be paying off. Last year I wasn’t able to perform a single sit-up, but the next Rokman challenge to contain them I managed to grind some out. Progress! Luckily the running doesn’t seem to aggravate it too much and apart from occasionally going a bit heavy on the pain meds (which is partly to drown out the din of my crazy family), it’s been an upward curve and it’s improving.   

What were your expectations when you first joined the Team Rokman Facebook group?

I liked that it started as a handful of people just like me. All with their own quirks, strengths, weaknesses and talents. I love that it’s grown so much over the year and I can see it growing even more. Terry [founder] is the perfect mix of down to earth bloke with a can do attitude and gentle and kind encouragement. He’s modest but he’s a fantastic role model for a young Dad wanting to improve themselves. He seems to know exactly what will entice us into the challenges and he’s managed to take a lot of my money over the last year and a half! Tbh, I’m happy for him to take more! 

How much value do you put on the Team Rokman group and how has it helped in terms of your challenges and goals?

I use Facebook for work and I hate it. It gets me gigs and put’s out some rose tinted illusion that I am a successful musician living a wonderful life. The main reason I’ve kept the Facebook app on my phone is for Team Rokman. I love seeing people achieve and post their results. Sometimes I’m genuinely in awe of the people, sometimes I’m pissed off because someone has beaten my time by the slightest of margin and sometimes I am welling up with pride and emotion on seeing people take stuff on and beasting it. There’s so much fun to be had posting your times. You can post early to set a time to beat or tactically wait until the end of the week to attempt to beat the best time. Or just post when you can and have the joy of reading a handful of positive comments and loads of ‘likes’.  

What’s been your favourite Rokman challenge and why?

I liked the 24hr running challenge. That was a beast. And when I say I liked it, I’m happy for it to be a memory and I don’t want to ever do it again. I tend to like the challenges that mix up the running in terms of speed and distance and throw in some circuit training. I also love running up steep hills and scaring passes by with my face that looks like I’m having an aneurysm. 

What’s been your most challenging Rokman challenge and how did you push through it?

The ones that have included marathons! I can’t remember which one it was but one included an end challenge which was so close to a marathon that most people just did a marathon anyway. That meant that I too had to take on a marathon because i’m a sheep and I have no ability to settle for just the brief. 

I also found the boxing challenge last summer hard. It included the above-mentioned sit-ups that I just couldn’t do and I hated that. It also asked you to complete early morning runs. I’d rather stay up all night than wake up at 5am! I didn’t do very well. 

What’s your advice to someone who is thinking of taking on a Rokman challenge?

You can accomplish so much more than you realise and whilst you might not reach the top of the leaderboard, you will be respected by all of us for just being on there. We all know how the challenges feel so you will join a party of people who will shower you with kudos for just stepping up. It really does feel like a team sometimes and the positivity, camaraderie and healthy competition is infectious.

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