One Year On From A Broken Neck Triathlete Tim Don Is About To Cap An Extraordinary Comeback

In early October 2017, Tim Don was on a training ride in Hawaii, three days ahead of the biggest race of the year and arguably his career: the Kona Ironman World Championship. Six months previously, the 40-year-old had broken the Ironman world record by four minutes and the three-time Olympian was hotly favoured for victory in Hawaii. A careless driver put paid to that.

After colliding with a car the Brit was left unconscious for 20 minutes and with a broken neck. His World Championship dreams were over and his career could have followed had it not been for the decision to be fitted with a ‘halo’: a medieval-looking contraption that locked Don’s neck and head in place so the fracture could heal. The halo was screwed directly onto his skull.

For the following three months, Don endured excruciating pain, career-threatening doubts and a complete lack of upper body movement. Then he embarked on a comeback befitting of a champion...

RSNG Why did you choose to be fitted with the halo over surgery?
TIM DON, IRON MAN
‘It was an easy decision really, because that was the option the surgeon really recommended for the quickest recovery. If you think about it, if you go to the doctors tomorrow with a sore throat and they say you need antibiotics, you’re not going to question it. It’s their expertise, and I was happy to go along with it. In the moment, you think about the practicality of it, rather than the emotion: I wanted to get it sorted as quickly and as efficiently as I could.’

‘It all happened relatively quickly: from the accident on Wednesday afternoon, to coming out very late that night; Thursday organising the flights; Thursday night flying back to Boulder (Colorado); driving straight from the airport to the surgery; three hours later I had a halo on my head. It was very quick and matter of fact.’

‘There were definitely days when I thought I wouldn’t be able to compete again’

RSNG But quick recovery came at a price – just how painful was it?
TD
‘I was obviously on fairly heavy painkillers at the start, but I remember on the fourth or fifth day, the doctor said that within two weeks I wouldn’t have too much pain from the screws and I’d be able to move around as much as I liked. After a week, though, it was the most painful thing I have ever experienced and I remember thinking, No way – this thing is screwed to my skull, no way is it going to get better in two weeks.’

‘There was one day when they tried to give me some other medication, as well as the painkillers, to relax me, because when you tense everything up it makes the situation a lot worse. But they didn’t agree with my stomach, so I was throwing up with this halo on my head, and the gag reflex was forcing my head forward which was unbearably painful. I said to my wife, “I’m going in the garage to get an Allen key, and I’m going to take this thing off my head.” I had excruciating headaches and couldn’t focus on anything.’

RSNG You had the halo on for three months – did you, at any point in that time, consider drawing your triathlon days to a close?
TD
‘I’ll be honest, early on there were definitely days when I thought I wouldn’t be able to compete again. But there was a thought in the back of my mind that I’m 40 now, I’ve got maybe three years left of my career and I was in such great shape before the accident – I broke the world record at the World Champs; I was one of the favourites for Kona – that I didn’t want to end my career because of someone else’s carelessness. I wanted to end on my own terms, and I think that was my driving force. I’m not saying I’m going to win Kona next year, but I’m going to give it a damn good go.’

RSNG How hard was it during those three months to train at a much lower volume and intensity than you’ve been used to for the past two decades?
TD
‘That wasn’t too bad, because I was definitely doing more than I should have. Whether I’m fit or injured, I’m always going to push the boundaries and work to my maximum capacity – and I was. That’s why my screws were coming loose (literally), because I was training hard, relatively speaking. For me, one of the hardest things was asking for help all the time. If I wanted to wash my hair, I had to ask my wife; if I wanted to go the gym, my friend had to pick me up; if the milk was at the back of the fridge, I physically couldn’t reach it, because the halo was so big; I couldn’t help out with the kids at bath time. I realised during that time just how amazing my friends and family are.’

RSNG Once the halo was off, training began. Eight months after the crash you competed in an Ironman 70.3 in Costa Rica – and won. How did that feel?
TD
‘Relief was the overriding emotion. Relief that all the sacrifices, all the pain was worthwhile and that I had managed to show by my family, my wife, my coaches and my sponsors that after all the support they had given me I was not done yet. Training is one thing – I train with so many people and think, “Why isn’t this guy world champion?!” – but converting that and executing on the big stages is quite another.’

‘When you come through a tough time like that it gives you confidence that you can face anything’

RSNG So, what does it take to execute on those big stages?
TD
‘It’s all about using mental strength to leverage and summon the physical strength that athletes get from training. I train with so many athletes who have the physical part down, but can't convert that into performances when it matters.’

RSNG You wrote on Instagram after that win in Costa Rica: ‘I can handle anything that comes my way’. What didn’t kill you made you stronger?
TD
‘I definitely feel more confident in my ability to push myself, physically and mentally, knowing what I’ve been through and what I’ve overcome. When you come through a tough time like that, it gives you confidence that you can face anything and you can find a way to get through those times. I’m a stronger person and a stronger athlete now, because of my weakness.’

RSNG One year on from the crash that threatened your career, you’ve again qualified for the World Championship in Kona – how are you feeling, having gone full circle?
TD
‘I’m really excited to race, although if I’m honest, I know I’m not going to be in the physical shape I was in last year. This time last year I had just broken the world record – so that’s quite hard for me, because I know I’m going to give 100%, but I still know I need another 10 months training. But I think I’ve come to terms with that now, and now it’s just exciting to kind of close the circle, have the best race I can, have a couple of weeks off then focus on getting back to full fitness next year. I know the support will be fantastic, so I’m excited to get out there. If I can get in top 15 or maybe top 10, that would be brilliant for me. I need a bit of luck, but I’m definitely capable of that. Once the race starts, the longer you get into it, who knows what might happen, but honestly a top 15 would be great.’

RSNG Despite the extraordinary comeback, is it hard, mentally, knowing you’re not quite at full fitness going into the biggest race of the season?
TD
‘Yeah, the main problem I’ve had is that in the last two months I’ve tried to increase the volume, and I’ve started to get a sore hip and my right calf is beginning to hurt. It’s because when we (triathletes) ramp the training up in summer, we rely on the winter base to hold our bodies together, but I obviously don’t have that winter base to fall back on this year. So it’s a bit frustrating, but it’s fun, in a way, to adapt my training to that and find new methods of counteracting those imbalances. I guess that’s how I’ve coped with the situation mentally, as opposed to thinking, oh my god, last year I was so much fitter and so on, I’ve had to have a different mindset.’

WHAT NEXT? Watch this short film that tells more of the story of The Man with the Halo.

Tim Don is an On Running athlete: On-running.com