WORDS BY LIKE THE WIND – PHOTOGRAPHY BY JAKE BAGGALEY
In ancient cultures around the world, the idea of a magical bird is repeated over and over again. There are the Hindu Garuda and Bherunda, the Slavic Firebird, the Persian Simurgh, the Georgian Paskunji, the Arabian Anqa, the Turkish Konrul, the Tibetan Me byi karmo, the Chinese Fenghuang and the Japanese Hō-ō. But perhaps the most famous of all is the Phoenix, the mythical creature from ancient Greece and Egypt that is reborn in a fire and emerges from the ashes.
You’d hardly expect to discover a mythical creature in Portsmouth, southern England, on a cold December morning in 2015. But if you’d been at the start of The Harbour 50km race, you would have found one: Jay Medway, who was running her first ultra marathon. The story of how Jay arrived at the start line of this race and how she has used her experiences to enhance other people’s lives is truly the stuff of legend.
“I used to play football,” Jay explains. “I loved football. I lived and breathed football and when I was at school, I wanted to play for England women. I was never quite good enough. But that is what I wanted to do. I didn’t want to be at school – I wanted to run around and chase after a ball.”
Tragically, Jay’s football ambitions came to an abrupt end after a bad tackle resulted in a torn anterior cruciate ligament. Despite enduring eight operations and trying (not always successfully) to complete the necessary rehabilitation exercises during her first year of university, Jay’s footballing career was over. “I kind of just gave up on everything,” says Jay. “I didn’t do anything sporty – I went from being really, really active to just being an art student. And you can imagine how that played out.” While Jay drowned her sorrows in the student bars, she could not have imagined that her troubles were really only just beginning.
During Jay’s time at university, her mother was diagnosed with cancer. Fortunately, her mum has managed to recover, but at the time the news came as a huge blow for Jay. Then, just as Jay’s mother was able to return home from hospital, her father was taken ill with complications caused by his diabetes.
Jay’s dad, still only in his mid-fifties, suffered from one health issue after another – including Parkinson’s – until eventually he had to be moved into a care home. While Jay was still studying for her degree, her dad passed away.
Jay’s initial reaction to losing her dad was “absolutely letting rip and not dealing with life”. Jay was smoking, drinking and partying hard. She graduated from university and moved to Bristol, but continued to “live my best student life”.
But something was shifting. After all the challenges, the phoenix was stirring.
Jay was struck by the idea that she could raise money for a charity researching Parkinson’s disease. In addition, several organisations had helped her and her mother through the difficult times with her dad. What better way to raise money and awareness, Jay thought, than via a sponsored 5km run?
“I think it was around the time of Sport Relief [a charity fundraising organisation in the UK],” explains Jay. “I was still having really bad troubles with my knee – I was in quite a lot of pain. But I decided: ‘I’m gonna do this.’”
Jay’s training was simple: around two-and-a-half kilometres from where she was living, there was a retail park. She followed a route there and back, running as far as she could without stopping.
“I decided that I would run at 10 o’clock at night, so no one could see me,” Jay remembers, “and I would wear headphones and listen to music to regulate my breathing.” Jay stuck to this routine for three months and by the end was running the whole 5km out and back to the retail park. She successfully completed her 5km for Sport Relief, raising money for her chosen charities and celebrating afterwards with a beer and a cigarette that she’d instructed friends to bring to the finish line.
But this celebration didn’t mean she was going straight back to her old habits.
“There was something tingling in the back of my mind,” says Jay. “I’d really enjoyed the 5km. So I thought: ‘I’m going to keep doing it.’”
The phoenix was rising. And once it had started, there was no stopping it from flying.
Jay was introduced to a group of women who were training for the Bristol half-marathon. They encouraged Jay to join them both during their training and for the race. Jay completed the half-marathon and almost immediately set her sights on a marathon. Within a year of that first 5km, Jay found herself on the starting line of the Brighton Marathon.
Some of the ancient stories of mythical birds have at their heart the idea of generosity and abundance. The Greek version of the story came from the Egyptian god Bennu, who symbolised the flooding of the Nile and represented wealth, good health and fertility. The Japanese Hō-ō is believed to appear in places that are blessed with peace, prosperity and happiness.
Having risen from her own struggles, Jay decided she wanted to share her new-found love of running with as many people as possible. That is how the Left Handed Giant Run Club came into being.
Left Handed Giant is a Bristol brewpub that started crafting beers in 2017. Jay worked at the pub for a while and it was also a place she would go to socialise with friends.
“Like all the best things, the idea for the run club started in the pub with a friend, over a couple of beers,” explains Jay. “I had had a couple of weird experiences with run clubs. And so had my friend. I’ve always liked the idea of community. And I wanted that. I was feeling there was something missing from my life. I wanted to have a group of people – a community or a friendship group. Because, as an adult, meeting people is really hard.”
Jay decided to create her ideal club. The owner of Left Handed Giant is an ultra runner himself and so was only too happy for the brewpub to be the venue for a weekly run. And so the club was born – as Jay describes it: a youth club for adults where there happens to be a run and where everyone enjoys having a beer at the end of the exercise.
The Left Handed Giant Run Club is not a “traditional” running club. Its ethos is rooted in equality between members – it is a place for runners of every level, irrespective of the distances they run and their goals. The atmosphere fosters mutual respect: for example, when the runners return to the pub, they wait for everyone to come back before they go in. There are no splinter groups.
Perhaps most importantly, the people who come together to run form a supportive network that extends way beyond the weekly sessions. As Jay asserts in the club’s manifesto: “We support each other, whether the running shoes are on or off. Left Handed Giant Run Club is a group of like-minded people who run. No one is left behind. Everyone is welcome.”
So what does the future hold? For Jay and Left Handed Giant Run Club, the answer sounds deceptively simple: “I want to inspire people to run. Because I’ve managed to do everything I have with a completely fucked knee. Running took me out of really dark place. I never thought I would get into sports again and it’s helped me so much.” Jay wants to keep growing the run club, race more herself and inspire more people to run.
Jay is undoubtedly a phoenix that rose from the ashes. And now she is on a mission to help others do the same.
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