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Inspirational minister's daughter Jill Hamill from Ards takes on epic Cambodian challenge

Jill Hamill: 'I know what it's like to wake up with little purpose in life...  I've suffered pain many times but now I'm determined to be a role model for others

Two devastating road accidents left Newtownards woman Jill Hamill fighting for her life. But the teacher (35), who now lives in Cambodia with husband Jonny (38), tells Claire McNeilly about the steely determination which is seeing her undertake a gruelling 24-hour run for charity tomorrow ... and why she wants to become an example of perseverance and resilience.

Running 100 miles is nothing compared to the journey Jill Hamill has already been on.

The former religious education teacher from Co Down almost died from a broken neck sustained in a car crash 14 years ago yet, despite being told she may never walk again, recovered to complete the Belfast Marathon seven years later.

She subsequently emigrated to Cambodia - where she was left for dead by a hit-and-run driver in Phnom Penh, once again sustaining life-threatening injuries.

Yet, somehow, the Newtownards native managed to fight her way back once more - and she's now planning to run 100 miles from the capital to Kampot town in 24 hours for charity tomorrow.

Meanwhile, as solo runner Jill pounds the Cambodian streets, back home, at First Ards Presbyterian Church, members of the congregation will be running on treadmills in the church hall to show their support for her.

Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph from Asia, where she works for Care for Cambodia, the inspirational 35-year-old told of her trepidation about what lies ahead, as well as her deep-rooted determination to succeed.

"I know what it's like to be at the bottom, the real depths of where life can take you," Jill said.

"This run is phenomenally significant; I don't actually know if I can do this or not in this particular environment as regards to the heat and safety... but I need to try for the sake of my husband's organisation, and for the sake of me just doing the best I can with what I have left."

Jill only began running after the devastating car crash near her Co Down home in 2003 robbed her of her mobility and left her thinking she would never walk again.

She first completed the 26.2 miles of the Belfast Marathon in 2010, before defying all the odds the following May when she repeated the epic run and came in seventh in the women's race.

Weeks afterwards Jill emigrated with husband Jonny (38), who heads up the educational organisation that employs her; five months later a hit-and-run driver left her with a broken pelvis, skull fractures and brain injuries.

"I was crossing the road when I was hit by a car coming very fast from behind. I sustained multiple injuries including a fractured pelvis, two brain haemorrhages and two skull fractures," she said.

"They took me to several hospitals in Cambodia because I was severely ill; then they airlifted me to Bangkok, where I spent the next two months.

"Initially, doctors were extremely concerned about my problems of function. It also took about a year-and-a-half for me to be able to communicate in terms of regular, normal conversation.

"But, even today, my husband says there are cognitive or brain functional differences between who I am now and the person I was in 2011."

Despite it having taken an enormous toll on her personally, Jill, a university student mentor, has refused to let her battle for full health define her or become a weakness.

"I don't honestly know if you could say I've recovered," she said.

"I function and sometimes I believe I am back to normal because I've done a degree here and I work... but it is strange that, certainly, on account of that accident, I feel in some ways a different person than I was before." Yet Jill, who has two younger sisters - primary school teacher Jenny (33) and Katie (28), a youth councillor, who both live in Northern Ireland - forces herself to focus on the positives.

"A motorbike driver somehow brought me 5km back to my Cambodian home with a broken pelvis after that accident," she recalled.

"Jonny saw me and took me straight to ER. It was quite a significant thing that I managed to get home after that happened and I was left for dead."

But the couple, who share a house with two Cambodian university students - Keziya (20) and her brother Yulan (21) - following the closure of the orphanage in which the two siblings previously lived, had been there before.

Seven years earlier Jill sustained a fractured skull and severe spinal injuries that meant she "was in a body cast from the top of my head to halfway down my body."

She spent six painstaking months learning how to use her legs again and "took a full year to be back just living normally". Then, because she was forced to learn to walk again, running became a personal challenge.

"I believe in life that there is a purpose; that pain, trauma and difficulty actually grow and change us and develop us and can make us people who are more sensitive to others," she said.

"I know what it is like to wake up in the morning, day after day, with really very little purpose in my life; and now I am able to talk with people in Cambodia who live in poverty or extreme difficulty ... to say I know what it's like to be at the bottom, the real depths of where life can take you."

She added: "I wonder if running is maybe a means for me to redeem myself and in some way become the person I was before; I honestly don't know."

Jill, who has the unflinching support of her mother Adrianne (59) and father Jim (62) Campbell, a minister at Newtownards First Presbyterian Church, confided that she is worried about the forthcoming race in the hot weather.

"This is our winter season and I am still in trepidation about this run," she said.

So why set a strenuous route stretching 100 miles?

"I've already done 100km before in Bangkok and I won that race," she replied.

"But that was a completely different environment.

"It was 2km of track which I went round 50 times; there was cold water to run through and food stations along the way whereas this is just one long road from one city to another town.

"I'll also be running 80% of it in the dark and I'm just running straight."

Jill knows what's ahead of her and she has a team of seven, including a nurse and two cyclists lighting the road ahead, supporting her throughout.

"If I don't think too much about the numbers I believe I can do this," she said.

She admits she's "humbled" that the church congregation in her home town will be mirroring her efforts by walking or running on treadmills in the church hall from 9am until 9pm tomorrow.

Around 70 people, aged between four and 70, have already signed up to take part, and a cafe will also run throughout the day for those who wish to go along and give their support.

"Those are the people who will be beside me in my mind when I'm doing this," she said.

"I'm inspired, thankful and really overwhelmed by their generosity of spirit and time.

"At the end of last year, when I was injured, I said that in 2017 I'd like to try to run 100 miles; now it's the last month of the year and it's all set up and I'm definitely going to try it."

Jill said she wants to do this to see how much her body can achieve but that she also wants to be a role model of perseverance, determination and resilience.

She referred to a quote from Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami, who wrote the book What I Talk About When I Talk About Running.

"'Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional'. That's my mantra," she said.

"Of course, this is going to be really difficult, and of course this is going to be painful.

"But I have done pain in life many, many times and for the sake of the students I mentor, who really struggle, I want to be some kind of example.

"I want to say that, of course, pain is part of life for all of us but we can choose to conquer it.

"That means we don't accept suffering as our barrier; but rather we push through it and achieve more for ourselves and the people around us."

All the money raised will go to rural educational projects for Care for Cambodia. Donations can be made at: https://mydonate.bt.com/fundraisers/jillhamill1

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