When Jim Campbell is out in public and sees someone rehabbing from a serious injury–a man confined to a wheelchair or a woman restrained by a neck halo–he doesn’t stare. Instead, the Pueblo West, Colorado native asks these strangers to share their story of recovery–all in exchange for his own.
In September of 2009
Jim, then 45, a former top-ranked American Motorcycle Association racer, participated in the 30K for MDA, a 30,000+ mile, cross-country (three times) motorcycle ride to raise awareness and funds for muscular dystrophy. (The feat would classify as a Guinness record, but Guinness has stopped recording such records for safety reasons.) After completing the grueling 31-day ride in Colorado, Jim, on a mission to pick up one last donor’s check, headed to Dallas, enjoying the leisurely pace that covering 1,000 miles per day the previous four weeks deprived him of.
The peaceful, laid-back pace of Weatherford, Texas’s Highway 20, however, turned out to be the calm before his life’s most treacherous storm. At around 1pm on October 25, Jim was struck by two semi trucks and thrown over a highway embankment and into a ravine. His 800-pound Harley Screamin’ Eagle Ultra-Classic landed on him, breaking his neck and driving his femur through his hip. “When people rushed out of their cars, I overheard them saying that I was dead,” Jim recalls. “I gained enough strength to move my hand, and someone screamed that I was alive.”
Someday someone will tell you you can’t do something. Later you will thank them.
Shocked at any sign of life from the wreckage, the good Samaritans on the scene ran toward Jim and lifted the bike off his body. The bystanding civilians were far from the only ones who initially counted Jim out, however. “When they were putting me in the ambulance, a policeman tried to get a statement from me,” says Jim. “The paramedic shut the door on his face adding, ‘He won’t even make it to the hospital.’”
After a month attached to his beloved bike revving up RPMs, Jim would spend the next six confined to a cerebral halo in and out of ICUs. “My neurosurgeon said that I should be paralyzed,” Jim says. “My orthopedic surgeon said I’d be lucky to walk again.” Living with four stainless steel pins screwed into his head, Jim was warned that even a slight fall could leave him dead. For an ever-active competitor, top ranked AMA racer and a 1984 USA Olympic windsurfing team qualifier, a life of stagnancy was unthinkable.
Over the next year, Jim had one mission: to get his life back on track. Setbacks came and went, but he vowed to not become his injury. “If it wasn’t for those two doctors saying I’d never return to my former self, I could have given up,” Jim says. “My motto became: Someday someone will tell you you can’t do something. Later you will thank them.”
In the months of recovery that followed, physical baby steps became metaphorical leaps and bounds. “The miracles just don’t stop with you,” Jim remembers one doctor telling him.
Then one day in February 2011, a post in Jim’s Facebook feed caught his eye. “I saw a photo of a guy jumping through fire,” Jim recalls. “One of my Facebook friends shared a post looking for teammates to join The Toughest Event On the Planet.” Almost instinctively, Jim opened a private message. “As long as you don’t mind an old cripple on your team, I’m in,” he wrote.
Having received no other serious inquiries, cripple or no cripple, Jim’s friend was relieved to have a teammate. “This was the challenge I needed to shoot for,” says Jim, who started training at Colorado Springs’s storied Manitou Incline, a steep-grade hiking trail that rises over 2,000 feet in just under a mile, in preparation for his first mud run.
Throughout training, the on-course obstacles in his future symbolized the real life obstacles of his present. “Sometimes people who want to fight stuff in life have no avenue,” says Jim. For him, training for Tough Mudder became this avenue. And as the positivity in Jim’s attitude increased, so did the outcomes of his doctors’ visits. “One day, I went to the doctor’s and he was absolutely shocked at the improvement of my cardiovascular system,” says Jim. “My Incline training was obviously paying off.”
While Jim, nicknamed “Da Goat” for his aggressive Incline running style, was clearly getting back into shape, any hiking trail is a far cry from a full military obstacle course. And as event day grew closer, Jim accepted that he was as ready as he’d ever be.
“At the start line, I thought, ‘What the hell am I doing?’” Jim admits. “I was so nervous and filled with doubt.” As the sound of the start gun faded into the thin Colorado air, however, so did some nerves. “At the beginning I thought, ‘This isn’t so bad,’” says Jim. “Then out of nowhere I had my ‘shit just got real’ moment.”
Scaling hay bails on a snow-covered half pipe, Jim and his fellow Mudders faced blasts from firehoses during their ascent. “It was enough to piss you off,” Jim says. “Soon I was begging for the finish line.” And the finish line he found. After hours of overcoming obstacles, both internal and external, Jim finished his first Tough Mudder. “I was limping, covered in mud,” Jim recalls. “I just needed to stop. [The course] had won.”
For Jim, however, the finish line was only the beginning.
“Tough Mudder quickly went from a challenge to a lifestyle for me,” says Jim, who finished his 100th event at Tough Mudder Colorado making him Mudder Legion’s most decoraded Mudder.
While Jim is quick to acknowledge the physical improvements mud running has had on his body, it’s obvious the greatest change has come from within. “Tough Mudder has made me fearless,” he says.
Coming from the man who isn’t shy to share his scars-into-stars story with complete strangers in the supermarket, we can’t help but agree.