Tim Don had set his heart on an Ironman word champion’s triathlon medal but instead he wound up with a halo. That’s the name medics give to a fiendish-looking metal contraption screwed into the head of someone with a potentially-fatal broken neck.
A three-time Olympian and Ironman triathlon world record holder with an iconic career that spanned two decades, 40-year-old Don’s horrendous accident in October last year would probably have put paid to the career – or perhaps even the life - of any ordinary mortal.
Tim Don is no ordinary mortal. Three months of constant pain while wearing a steel frame screwed to his skull only strengthened his resolve to get back into world elite athletics and now, after less than a year, he has. Recently he won the Ironman 70.3 Costa Rica triathlon and ran this year’s Boston Marathon in his target time of two hours 49 minutes as part of his plan to qualify for October’s Ironman world championships. If he does, he will achieve what will be generally regarded as a something of a medical miracle.
Everyone’s rooting for Don. “We are delighted to be working with one of the biggest names in triathlon and will help and support him any way we can to aid his recovery and assist him in getting back to his very best,” said Sam Begg, sponsorship and partnership manager of leading triathlon swimwear brand Zone3, with whom Don has signed a longterm contract.
“Not only is Tim a tremendous athlete but his positivity, resilience and determination are something to be admired.”
Everything was going so well. Two days before the Ironman world championships were due to be held in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii, last October, Don was in top form ahead of what he believed would be the biggest race of his career
This was the one he wanted. Then in a split-second came disaster. He was completing his final cycling training session when he was in a collision with a truck and woke up in hospital with a broken neck and the news that his racing days were probably over.
He remembers: “I was unconscious for about 30 minutes then I remember being taken for scans.” He was found to have what is ghoulishly called a “hangman’s fracture” – damage to a vertebra in line with his teeth which could affect the blood supply to the brain.
“I had gone from being in the best shape of my life, the current world record holder and a favourite for the race, to being on painkillers and not able to move.” So was there anything to be done for the man desperate to resume his career as a world class athlete?
His doctor laid out the options. A hard collar would let the bones mend on their own, surgery would fuse the vertebrae, but would limit movement and call an end to his first class running career. Or he could have a halo.
This was a metal stabilising frame screwed to the skull with titanium pins and wearing it for at least three months would be what the specialist described as “pure torture.” But it was the best option for a complete recovery with no limitations in the long run.
Anyone less determined than Don might have had second thoughts, but hearing there was a 90 per cent chance of a 100 per cent recovery, Don promptly gave the go-ahead, and a brace resembling a medieval torture device was fitted two days after the crash.
It was so painful that Don snatched cat-naps of no more than 90 minutes sitting in a chair, and described the continual adjustments as “like tightening a seat-post on a bike.” He couldn’t dress, shave or shower and his forehead swelled where the pins were screwed in.
His right side was black from bruising and swelling and painkillers had disastrous side-effects But Don never wavered in his determination to return to top-flight running. “I’m going to recover,” he said. “I’m going to push the boundaries and come back as soon as I can, as best I can and try to be even better than before. Why not?”
Which was why, despite the pain and medical advice, he was on his exercise bike only weeks after the crash. Soon he was in the gym every day doing core conditioning work. At one point he fainted when the screws put too much pressure on his skull.
Pins came loose and needed screwing back into his skull, but nothing could dampen his determination to return to competitive running and four months later he was back in training for the Boston marathon, the halo replaced by a soft neck collar.
The road which he hopes will lead back to Kona has been tough. “Every day I have to look after my neck and upper body. I have tried to be consistent in all three disciplines and listen to my coaches and my body.”
Don told us: “There have been massive changes in my training regime. To train for a race that lasts one hour 40 minutes to a race that last eight hours you have to have more volume and specific tri work in training, as the two are so different.
“Training is going well and I am working hard to get back to being at my best. I’m doing lots of strength and conditioning because I lost a lot of muscle mass in my neck, shoulders and chest. It’s an arduous process.”
Was he pleased with his performances in Boston and Costa Rica? “I was very happy. They were good indications of my fitness levels and moving forward I can hopefully go even faster. I am racing in the Hamburg Ironman to try to qualify for Kona and then another 70.3, but we haven’t decided which one.”
It seemed inevitable that Don would become a triathlete. He grew up in a sporting home – his father, former Premier League referee Philip Don, officiated at the 1994 World Cup.
Growing up in Hampton, southwest London, Don swam before and after school and later joined Hounslow Athletic Club where he trained for five years with a young athlete from Somalia who couldn’t speak much English. Whatever happened to Mo Farah?
Don could run, he could swim and he had a mountain bike. By 1993 he was in the UK junior triathlon team and won the world junior championships in 1998 before turning professional and competing in three Olympics, finishing tenth in Sydney in 2000.
Despite winning both the London triathlon and the world triathlon championship in 2007, Don had become convinced that he was more suited to endurance than speed and switched to elite Ironman triathlons, reckoned some of the toughest ordeals in sport.
It’s not hard to see why. In Olympic triathlons, athletes swim 1.5km, cycle 40km and and run 10 km, while a full Ironman involves a swim of 3.8km, a 180km cycle ride and a full-length marathon.
Why did he choose an event which seems to have all the ingredients of unadulterated torture? “It was a natural progression” is how Don puts it. “I had raced International Triathlon Union for many years and I still wanted to have a crack at Kona.
“Age was catching up so I made the decision to move up to 70.3 and Ironman. You need to train hard, and coming from ITU you need to train smart and respect the distance. You need to have the right kit and I have loved using Zone3 products. Just knowing the quality and development behind each product gives me confidence.”
As this year’s Kona triathlon approaches, Don has every intention of being there if it’s humanly possible. “I don’t want to be second in the world. I want to be the best no matter what, and I’ll do whatever it takes.”