Jimmy Mudgett felt a competitive void in his life after a long, successful baseball career came to a close.
The Century High School graduate found it in the Ironman Triathlon, a long-distance race that involves swimming 2.4 miles, biking 112 miles, and running 26.2 miles.
Mudgett's physical limits were pushed to the brink. And he loved the feeling. So he changed his diet and exercise regimen. He trained nearly 20 hours per week. He participated in a half-sized version of the grueling event.
Mudgett made finishing a full race such a priority that he showed up last November as a volunteer for Ironman Florida, in Panama City, because it meant he'd be able to enter this year's event as a competitor.
"I had some missing inside," said Mudgett, 27, who earned Times all-county baseball honors at Century before playing Division I ball at Mount St. Mary's. "I wanted something to do to stay in shape … and triathlons did it."
Mudgett's family and friends supported his cause. They exchanged phone calls and text messages whenever the Sykesville native embarked on one of his long workout routines. They showered him with encouragement.
And they've rallied around Mudgett since late in the afternoon of Aug. 6, when he found himself lying on a Carroll County roadside with a broken back.
'A lot of pain'
Mudgett said he never heard the car coming up behind him while he rode his bike along the shoulder of Md. 31.
The trek began in the driveway of his family's home near Winfield — he got the go-ahead from his father to leave work early that day from the Mudgett's Auto Body location in Silver Spring — and Mudgett set out on a training ride on Md. 26 toward Frederick before taking the turn onto 31 and traveling north. His plan was to ride through New Windsor, into Westminster, and then back home.
"I don't wear headphones, because I like to be alert when I'm on the bike," Mudgett said. "I just got hit. I remember thinking, I just got hit by a car. And that was kind of the last thing I thought."
Mudgett said he came to and noticed the driver approaching him, telling a 911 dispatcher on the other end of his cell phone he had just struck someone on a bicycle while going between 55-60 mph.
"As soon as my head went back, everything blacked out," Mudgett said. "I don't remember going through the air. I just remember waking up in the grass on the side of the road. I was on my back. I remember my back felt like it was broken, which it was. Snapped in half.
"I was in a lot of pain. I could move my fingers and my arms and legs a little bit, so I didn't think I was paralyzed. But right away, when you're laying in the grass, all you can think about is, 'Is there more pain coming? Am I going to stop moving? Am I going to die?' As scary as that sounds and as weird as that sounds, that's what goes through your mind."
Kathy Mudgett recalls answering a phone call from her son, only to hear a stranger's voice on the other end.
A man named Aaron, who had pulled over to assist at the accident scene, assured Mudgett her son would be all right. By the time she arrived on the scene, her son was inside an ambulance driving past her.
"I flew in the car. I was shaking like a leaf on a tree," she said. "Every time he goes out I would say a prayer: 'Just let him be safe.' Every single time. ... It was horrible."
Mudgett was taken to Meritus Health in Hagerstown, where doctors performed emergency surgery to repair a compression fracture near the base of his spine.
'Took my breath away'
Mudgett's girlfriend, Ashley Scarcella, became the communicator between the doctors and her boyfriend, in part because of Scarcella's knowledge and background as a student in the diagnostic sonography program at UMBC. She said seeing Mudgett hooked up to machines and tubes was unbearable, but Scarcella said she wasn't leaving his side. Plus, she had to be the one to hear that Mudgett's spine was a little shorter than most people's, which doctors said was good news.
Other than the fractured back, Mudgett said he came away relatively unscathed. He had a bruised left hip, a cut on his left elbow that required some stitches, and plenty of road rash on his appendages.
Of course, his back needed special attention despite being genetically lucky.
"After the MRI the doctor came in and he said that with this type of injury he almost always expects [people] to be paralyzed," she said. "I didn't leave the hospital until I was pretty much forced to. I stayed, I think, it was almost 10 days. I didn't leave. I couldn't bring myself to leave. I couldn't believe what was happening. I was just so happy to see him. It was almost like I felt that if I left, something bad was going to happen to him. I wasn't going anywhere.
"It's been so surreal to see him every day, getting back from the gym, or seeing him go on his long workouts, and then seeing him the first time he stood up and what it took to stand. It completely took my breath away."
Scarcella said she's awed and inspired by her boyfriend's attitude ever since the accident. She knew what kind of athlete he was growing up, and perhaps Mudgett's strength and conditioning saved him from further harm when he was struck.
Mudgett had another avenue of strength, and it came in waves.
His Facebook page filled with messages of love and support. Texts came pouring in. So did gifts, from cards to hats to "Iron Man" merchandise. Seeing Mudgett pose for pictures wearing an "Iron Man" T-shirt and plastic mask modeled after the hit movie.
"I raided the Dick's in Westminster ... anything 'Iron Man' I could find in there," said Aaron Gabrielian, a fellow Century graduate and one of Mudgett's best friends. "I know he was bummed. He's worked so hard to be able to compete in that. I just tried to keep telling him, in my eyes, he's already an Ironman."
Gabrielian came down from his home in New York as soon as he could to visit Mudgett in the hospital, and said when the two shared some tears during the meeting.
"I've probably cried less than two times in my life, and that was one of them," Gabrielian said. "He is one of the best guys I know."
'My other medicine'
Sentiments like that gives Mudgett an extra boost these days.
He's beginning a slow rehabilitation process, getting used to life with a back brace for the next 3-6 months and weaning himself off of pain-killing medication. The last few weeks have been spent mostly on the couch, watching "SportsCenter" by the hour and trying to stay comfortable. The gifts and well-wishes are in view inside the Mudgetts' living room, with cards and photos adorning the fireplace.
Mudgett said he wants to resume training one day. He mentions than he still hopes to compete in a full Ironman but in the same breath concedes he'll be OK if it never happens. It's followed by his gratitude for being surrounded by so many good people in his life, and for that Mudgett said he'll always be thankful.
"I think I'm so happy to be alive that I'm OK with not being an Ironman," Mudgett said. "Even though they can tell you how bad I wanted to cross that finish line and be an Ironman. That's like a once-in-a-lifetime accomplishment that I can always be proud of. I don't know if I'll do a full Ironman again, but ... I might.
"I would never normally say this, but in this situation, I don't care if it's bragging or not … but I think I might have more friends than anyone that I know. When friends and family would come in, it was my other medicine. You know you have friends and family and people that care about you, but when something like this happens and everyone actually came and showed how much they cared, it was pretty touching. I would tell every person that I loved them. I would cry for every person. I was just thankful to be there."