Jimmy Mudgett's racing shirt bears an eerie image: a skeletal X-ray of the bones in his back. It looks more like a Halloween costume than what one would wear for Ironman Maryland, a grueling triathlon set for Saturday in Cambridge.
Look closely at that X-ray and you'll see the hardware surrounding Mudgett's spine, a metal cage held in place by rods, pins and screws. There's a titanium brace inside him, along with a steely persistence to complete this race.
In 2014, while riding his bicycle on a training run in Frederick County, Mudgett was struck by a car, slamming him to the ground and breaking his back. Three years and many rehabilitation sessions later, he is set to tackle the Ironman, an onerous challenge composed of swimming (2.4 miles), cycling (112 miles) and running (26.2 miles).
That Mudgett can walk at all is a miracle, doctors said. That the 30-year-old Woodbine resident would compete in a triathlon is, well …
"He's not nuts," said Codey Sellers, a longtime friend and training partner. "Jimmy was preparing for the Ironman when the accident happened. He felt like something was taken from him. There's a whole lot of redemption riding on this race, that's where his head is at. He has worked his butt off for the past eight months, and I'm proud of him."
His regimen is an arduous one. On a recent Saturday, Mudgett left home at dawn and drove to a local gym where he swam 2½ miles, biked for 4½ hours and then ran 14 miles.
"It's kind of crazy and a huge commitment," Mudgett said. "But I want to prove that I can do an Ironman. Not everyone can say that, and people quietly respect you for it."
That was his goal on Aug. 6, 2014, when on a late afternoon ride on Route 31 near New Windsor, Mudgett was hit from behind by a car on the shoulder of the two-lane road. The impact sent him flying backward, shattering the windshield, denting the roof and fracturing his back at the base of his spine.
"When I woke up, I felt this real tight pressure and I knew my back was broken," Mudgett said. "I remember looking up at the sky and the beautiful white clouds and thinking, 'Am I going to die?'"
An ambulance rushed him to Meritus Medical Center in Hagerstown — "I screamed when they moved me; the pain was that bad," he said — where he underwent emergency surgery to repair his vertebrae and insert the shiny lightweight truss. The next day, fitted with a tortoise-shell body brace and flanked by nurses, Mudgett managed to stand by his bed.
"The amount of struggle to do that was incredible," he said. "In a way, I think I'll relate [that effort] to the struggle of crossing the finish line Saturday."
Hospitalized 10 days, he then spent a week at University of Maryland Rehabilitation & Orthopaedic Institute (formerly Kernan Hospital), where two weeks after the accident Mudgett took his first steps without support.
He felt like a toddler, he said: "Even walking on grass, I was scared to hit a bump."
Gradually, albeit painfully, with help of family and friends, Mudgett battled back.
"Each day he pushed himself a little more," said his wife, Ashley Mudgett. "We call him 'Ironman Mudgett.' I wish I had one-fourth of the discipline Jimmy has."
All that time, the triathlon was on his mind.
"Maybe it was the drugs they gave me, but the day after the accident, I thought I might still do the Ironman I'd been training for [three months hence]," he said.
In the hospital, Sellers, a Marine who has a Purple Heart, helped keep Mudgett's dream alive.
"I told him that in 2010, in Afghanistan, I'd taken shrapnel in my knee and been told that I'd walk with a cane for the rest of my life," said Sellers, who'll also compete in this Ironman. "I told Jimmy that, if he wanted it bad enough, he'd get there — and me with him."
The race has consumed him for years, Ashley Mudgett said.
"When we met [in 2013], Jimmy told me, 'I can't date you because I want to do an Ironman and it's a huge commitment and I can't give you the time that you want,'" she said. "I told him I understood, but I knew I'd marry him one day."
In the hospital, she never left his side, helping him bathe and brush his teeth. They were married 13 months later and now have two children. Daughter Cella, 2, calls Mudgett "Ironman Daddy."
Both Mudgett and his wife grew up in Eldersburg. She attended Liberty; he went to Century, starred in baseball and later pitched for Mount St. Mary's. In college, he hurt his arm and began running to stay fit.
In February, he began prepping in earnest for the Ironman. Ashley Mudgett designed his racing shirt; on the back, above the X-ray, are the date of the accident and the words, "Repaired With Love."
"I still don't understand the mentality of people doing a 140-mile race," she said. "But when he crosses the finish line, I'll be bawling my eyes out."
Mudgett has not since ridden his bike past the site of the crash. In fact, he's no longer keen on wheeling down any road.
"I'm always looking over my shoulder," he said.
Not that he'll ever forget. Each year, on Aug. 6, he hoists a beer and goes for a jog. His daughter was born 364 days after the accident, so Mudgett downed a Blue Moon, which someone snuck into the hospital, and then ran a few laps around Howard County General.
Another reminder: the gnarled Cervélo bike that sits in his unfinished basement with its shattered rear wheel and buckled aluminum frame.
"It shows me how fortunate I am," he said. "Maybe one day I'll build a bar down there and hang the bike above it.
"I'm lucky to be alive, and that's what I'll think about during the race. It's all about positive thoughts."