As hundreds of women line up for the Belfast Telegraph Runher race on Sunday one very special little girl will provide added inspiration when she leads the competitors across the starting line.
Livewire Bangor lass Phoebe Lyle couldn’t be more excited about taking part in her first 10k race. The challenge of Runher is typical of the 12-year-old’s determination to lead life to the full despite being left paralysed from the neck down by a horrific accident when she was just three.
“It means an awful lot to me because I hope to raise money to help disabled people like myself to do what everyone else does,” she says.
Doing what everyone else does is something which Phoebe manages magnificently despite her severe physical disability.
The Bangor child sustained devastating injuries when she was hit by a car while on a family holiday in Spain.
The little girl was hurled 40 feet in the air and landed on her head, which was so badly damaged along with her spinal cord that she was not expected to survive.
But after three weeks in a deep coma, Phoebe amazed medical staff at the Royal Victoria Hospital for Sick Children in Belfast by bravely defying the odds and ever since has continued to surprise and delight all who know her with her fortitude.
The fact that she has to have two carers and a life-giving oxygen trolley with her at all times doesn’t impinge in the slightest on Phoebe’s world.
She recently started St Columbanus College in Bangor and wasted no time joining many of the extracurricular clubs, including her favourite, drama.
She dreams of being an actress and starring in panto and is a prolific writer of plays, having penned nine to date.
Last year she even roped her cousins and friends into performing one of them — Go Upside Down, Go Trouble with Joe which was a tribute to her hero, Joe Jonas of the Jonas Brothers.
“He’s gorgeous, hot and kind,” she tells me.
So besotted is she with the American singer that her car proudly carries the bumper sticker ‘Mrs Jonas on Board’ and if she is not listening to him sing on her iPod she is most likely to be tuned into his videos on YouTube.
She even asked her favourite cousin Rachel Farrell — who inspired her to take part in Runher — to ‘Jo-nap’ him while on a recent holiday in the US.
Rachel (35), a barrister who is also a keen marathon runner, shares a very close bond with Phoebe and has been more like a big sister to her since she was born. It was Rachel who helped bring the gravely ill three-year-old out of her coma when she was fighting for her life in hospital.
Rachel recalls: “I was 22 when Phoebe was born and she and her brother Patrick were my first cousins.
“When she was a tot she idolised me. I remember she had to get a leather jacket and knee length boots like mine, which she wore and called her Rachel outfit.
“She was full of life even then. I’ll never forget the last time I saw her before the accident.
“I had bought some things for her and Patrick to keep them amused during the flight as I knew she would have problems sitting still.
“Phoebe knew I was coming to see her with presents and she was really excited. When I called she had been eating Easter eggs and her face was covered in chocolate and she was so excited that she ran over to me and gave me a big hug and plastered me in chocolate.”
So close in fact was Rachel to her adoring young cousin that the moment tragedy struck thousands of miles away, Rachel knew instantly that something terrible had happened.
“I’ll never forget where I was,” she says.
“I was driving with a friend on the carriageway in Bangor and it was 5.15pm, the time Phoebe was hit by the car and I remember this strange feeling came over me and I said to my friend ‘I hope Phoebe and Patrick are okay’.”
Rachel joined Phoebe’s devastated parents Jane and Robert and other family members in maintaining a round-the-clock bedside vigil during the weeks Phoebe lay in a coma fighting for her life.
“She loved Toy Story 2 and we rigged up a projector so that we could play it on the ceiling and I would sit with her and sing some of her favourite songs from it.
“I remember I was sitting with her mum and we had the movie on and Phoebe showed some reaction in her wee eyes and shortly after that she became fully alert and all of a sudden she was smiling and laughing again.
“I never doubted she would pull through, she was a real wee fighter even then.”
Rachel and Phoebe are still as close as ever, and Rachel never ceases to be amazed by her younger cousin’s zest for life.
“She does everything a child of her age does; she lets nothing hold her back,” she says. “She loves fashion, boys, dancing and pyjama parties with her friends.
“She is mad about Joe Jonas and when I was on holidays in the States this year she wanted me to kidnap him and she kept texting me, asking ‘Have you Joe-napped him yet?’ and things like ‘I really need that man’.
“She is crazy, she really makes us all laugh.”
Rachel, who has already completed the Belfast and London marathon this year and plans to do the Amsterdam and Dublin events, is also a Runher veteran having completed every race since its inception in 2007.
Even though nothing Phoebe decides to do surprises her, she did confess to being a little taken aback when she recently announced that she wanted to do a 10k run.
“My problem was finding a 10k she could do as she is under-16 so it had to be off-road, yet also possible for her to complete in a wheelchair,” she says.
“But it is typical of Phoebe to want to do something like this. She does everything she wants, she is very strong-willed and very stubborn and she doesn’t care what people say about her, she just gets on with it.
“Runher have been brilliant. They are allowing her to set off a few minutes before everyone else and they were delighted that she is taking part.
“There will be 19 of us there to push her round and we have got special T-shirts printed and Phoebe is really looking forward to it.
“Her dad will be the only man taking part as he is going to help Phoebe get round the course and my mother-in-law has made him a pink Tutu to wear so that he will blend in with all the girls.”
The team of girls running to support Phoebe will be hoping to raise as much money as possible for her trust fund set up to help children who live with the aid of ventilation machines.
To date, The Phoebe Lyle Trust Fund has raised over £250,000.
Phoebe says: “Doing Runher means a lot to me as I can help people like myself do the things that others can do. I’m very excited about taking part on Sunday.”
Such a caring attitude in the face of so many personal obstacles is also typical of the child, as her cousin Rachel explains: “My mum died last year and Phoebe was very close to her auntie Helen.
“She came to the wake and spent two days constantly singing to cheer everyone up because she knew how distraught we all were.
“Ever since she has taken my dad Davey under her wing and insists on calling round to see him to make sure he is alright. She is a very special wee girl.
“Runher will be a great experience for Phoebe and we are all looking forward to helping her complete her first 10k.”