Ashley Cain on grief, and why working out is his ‘counselling’
Tackling an intensive endurance challenge isn’t just about the event itself. It’s the endless training and dedication required to even get to the start line.
“On a daily basis, I wake up at 4am,” says Ashley Cain, 31. “I need the hours. If you’re training for five hours a day, doing five hours of meetings, you’re planning these challenges and initiatives and ways to connect with our community – it takes time.”
A former Coventry City footballer, who later found reality TV fame through MTV’s Ex On The Beach and The Challenge, Cain’s life now revolves around The Azaylia Foundation, helping fight childhood cancer. He co-founded the Foundation in August 2021 with his ex Safiyya Vorajee, following the loss of their eight-month-old daughter Azaylia to acute myeloid leukaemia (although no longer a couple, Cain and Vorajee remain close).
In April, he completed a 100-mile run to mark the first anniversary of Azaylia’s death. Now, as well as marking the Foundation’s first year, this August would have been Azaylia’s second birthday and Cain has a series of fundraising challenges planned.
He’s just completed the latest: running five marathons in five capital cities, across five countries in five days – crossing the finish line in London on Sunday August 7, despite suffering a torn ankle ligament along the way. There are plans to climb Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in the Alps, and cycle 1,700 miles across Europe later in the month.
Big goals. But none as big as the goal at the heart of it all. “Childhood cancer receives under 3% of cancer research funding, and cancer is the biggest killer of children in the UK. Our children are worth more than 3%,” says Cain.
“We’ve partnered with some really amazing institutions. We’re trying to improve the research, treatments, really get to the base of what’s going to make a difference for these children and implement those things. It’s a very big goal, but we’re making very powerful and purposeful steps already, purely because of the sheer passion we’ve got and the community that’s behind us as well.”
This community includes thousands of people who’ve connected with Cain and Vorajee through their story, and they’re working closely with Birmingham Children’s Hospital. The Foundation also funds individual cases, for children needing cancer treatments not available on the NHS.
“We want to try and provide that beacon of hope,” says Cain. “If you have a poorly child, whether you have an extra day, week, year, or you save them, each of those things is equally important. Hope is everything.”
Cain, who has teamed up with Gym King (thegymking.com) as a brand ambassador, is deep in training mode when we speak. As an athlete, he’s no stranger to pushing his body to its limits – but those limits have taken on a whole new meaning now.
“Some people look at it as punishing, the amount of training I do and the challenges. But I made my daughter a promise, when she left me, that I’m going to take her around the world, extend her legacy. I feel it’s my duty now to try and help as much as I can.”
Yes, it’s “hard” and it’s “tough”. But Cain’s focus is steadfast.
“And that’s something I’ve had so much more, in abundance, since I met my daughter,” he reasons. “Having seen what she had to go through and how she woke up every single day with a smile on her face, still trying everything she could, I just thought, ‘I have no excuses anymore’. I need to make my daughter proud.”
He talks movingly about the precious time he had with Azaylia in hospital.
“Every single minute was a blessing. I slept on a stone-cold hospital floor for months, but I couldn’t have wished or hoped to be in a better place. I used to stay most nights in the hospital, because my favourite time was the morning. Hence why I get up at 4am, I love the light. It gives me a magical kind of feeling. Night-time used to scare me so much, because I never knew if I was going to wake up the next morning and my baby was going to be alive,” Cain shares.
“In the hospital, I used to wake up, open the blinds, and I’d turn around and my little girl would be looking at me, smiling. She’d have the biggest smile on her face. I used to say, ‘Morning baby’ and she’d get all excited. And I’d put music on and we’d dance. I think that’s why I get up so early now…” Cain breaks off and begins to cry. “I like to have as many hours of the daylight as I can. Night-time still scares me a little bit.”
He acknowledges his dedication to training has multiple layers.
“People call it training and working out, I call it counselling. A lot of people go and sit with a counsellor – I decided to get outside, running, on my bike, or swimming in fresh water. When I exert myself out there and put my body through a bit of physical work, physical pain, it takes a lot of that pain out of my head, and my heart. It is a great coping mechanism,” says Cain. “And it helps me spiritually, because I believe I’m out there with my daughter. I genuinely believe my daughter is in heaven, and out there, she has the best view of me. So I’ll do anything and everything I can to spend as much time out there with her.”
Knowing this can help other children and families keeps him going. But the pain is still raw.
“Me and Safiyya had a conversation yesterday – we’re working so hard, so tirelessly. And it’s difficult when at the end of the day, you’re doing all this to make your daughter proud, to extend a legacy,” says Cain. “But sometimes you sit there in the middle of the day or night and realise, it’s never going to bring your daughter back.”
The eight months he shared with Azaylia was “the best time” of his life.
“Azaylia taught me so much. My life started again when she was born. I look at her now as my inspiration, my hero. Someone who taught me the most fundamental lessons in my life, having seen the love and power and inspiration she radiated,” Cain says. “I’m more than prepared to live the rest of my life trying to make her proud, and sharing with the world what she shared with me.”