Jeremy Wells would not be competing in the Baltimore Marathon Saturday had he not broken his back in a motorcyle accident last November.
Now paralyzed below the waist, Wells, of Abingdon, will race in the handcycle event, perched in a three-wheeler and pedaling furiously with his hands.
It's his way of flirting with normalcy, the 27-year-old paraplegic said.
"Running was never my thing. I wouldn't have given this race a thought," Wells said. Then came that day in Essex when he skidded off his motorcycle at 55 miles per hour, got hit by a car and lost the use of his legs.
Physical therapy has brought some improvement, though doctors can't tell if he'll walk again. What they do know is that Wells' attitude has brightened since he entered the marathon.
"The Jeremy that I know today is a different guy from the one I first met here in February," said Erin Michael, a physical therapist at the Kennedy Krieger Institute, which serves patients with brain and spinal cord injuries. It was her off-hand reference to handcycling during a routine treatment session that triggered Wells' interest.
"I'd never heard of handcycles but I thought, 'What the hell, why not?'" he said.
Kennedy Krieger loaned Wells a $6,000 bike, which looks like a hybrid tricycle and soap box derby car. He lay in it and went for a spin around the block outside the East Baltimore facility.
"It's very low and fast and a lot easier to pedal than I thought," he said. "I'd been in a wheelchair and now I was going ZOOM!"
Wells was hooked.
"The light that I saw in his eyes that day has not gone out," said Michael, founder of Team Kennedy Krieger for the Baltimore Running Festival. "The race has given him the chance to think less about what he can't do and more about what he can."
Initially, his injury left Wells in deep despair.
"I thought, 'I would have been better off dead. Maybe I'll do that now,'" he said. "I had uncontrollable suicide thoughts that I couldn't get out of my head. That was scary, but they didn't last long. Kennedy Krieger provided a psychologist, and the fact that I could talk to an outside set of eyes who assured me things would get better was helpful."
Support has also come from Wells' family and his girlfriend, Amy Prosser, whom he met online after the accident.
"My mom and friends see me as less than I was," he said. "It's not their fault; they knew me before. But Amy has never seen me walk, or even stand. She sees me as me."
Even his dog has offered relief. Argus, a four-year-old German Shepherd, has learned to pull Wells in his wheelchair everywhere from shopping to day trips.
"Amy and I went to Washington for the Cherry Blossom Festival, and Argus pulled me 10 miles that day," Wells said.
Come Saturday, Wells will be on his own. His goal is to complete the 26.2-mile marathon in two hours. Last year's winner in the crank (handcycle) division, Rory Cooper of Gibsonia, Pa., finished in 2:10.11. Cooper, 52, was one of six handcycle entrants last year, and that number has swelled to 14 for Saturday's race. Eight racers will represent Team Kennedy Krieger.
"My plan is to win," Wells said. "I see it as a race against myself, to prove I can do this. There may be 30,000 people there, but in my mind I'll be the only one there. It's my race."
He has trained by challenging the BWI Trail, a 12.5 mile recreational loop that encircles Baltimore-Washington International Airport. One time, Wells circled the trail twice in 1 hour, 50 minutes.
"I call the bike my speed sled," he said. "I love going fast. I've taken it out to Loch Raven Reservoir on weekends, when the roads are closed, and gone 43 miles an hour. It's pretty scary."
That euphoria spills over into his grueling therapy sessions.
"Jeremy does anything I ask of him," said Erin Neuland, his personal therapist at Kennedy Krieger. "He talks about the race during our workouts. It's a good motivator."
An avid gym-goer before the accident, Wells has come to terms with his injury.
"To say that it's not necessarily my goal to walk again seems outrageous," he said. "Of course I hope to walk, but the spinal cord is a mysterious part of the body and if I don't have any recovery from now, I'm okay with that. If this is where life has taken me, I'm just glad that I can function independently, have a woman who loves me dearly and a mother and friends who care.
"Paralysis has made me a kinder, gentler, nicer human being."
The marathon notwithstanding.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun