Tim Don doesn’t want dwell on his (frankly quite amazing) recovery from a near-fatal neck injury that ruled him out of Kona 2017. Oh no. He has bigger fish to fry than that. Much bigger. Like, winning-Kona-sized bigger…
It’s during our exclusive interview below that the multiple world champ, Ironman world record holder and 220 columnist reveals the mindset that has seen him go from lying on the roadside after a horrific bike crash, to undergoing a brutal rehab in a halo neck brace (a near-medieval torture style device that was screwed into his skull), to completing the Boston Marathon in 02:49:22 – a time close to his Ironman run time.
“The thing about Boston Marathon was it marked the end of the last 6 months. It’s not that I’m not focusing on recovery, I am, but I don’t want to see myself as a recovering athlete. Now it’s like ‘I’m back, I’m a professional, I need to do my rehab but I also need to compare myself to the guys that are breaking course records…”
Got that? Good. Then here’s the full story, from the man himself…
Was there ever any doubt in your mind that you’d return to triathlon?
Tim Don: You know, initially, it wasn’t on the horizon. The first couple of days you’re more practical, thinking about the pain and how to deal with a broken neck. Once they’d fitted the halo, they said ‘ok this is it – now come back in 3 weeks for scans unless you’ve got issues’… They don’t really give you much advice and it’s quite a peculiar contraption. I had to sleep in a chair bolt upright, it was hard to swallow at first because my neck was in a strange position… so no I definitely wasn’t thinking about training! Three weeks later though, I was itching to do something.
Was having the halo a hard decision to make?
Tim Don: It wasn’t, because when you go to the doctors and you’re sick and they give you antibiotics, do you question them? You just say okay. This was the same thing – you’re seeing these experts and it’s their area of expertise. They gave me three options [a cast, surgery or the halo] but said “to be honest, if you want to get back to what you were doing this is the only option.” I wanted to get back, so there was no real choice.
I’ll be honest, knowing what I know now I’d go for a fusion – I would never have a halo again! The doctor that fitted it looks after loads of hospitals in Denver – so maybe 3-5 million people – and he only fits three halos a year maximum, because everyone goes for the fusion.
It was at one of my later appointments, when he had to tighten the screws, that he told me that most people only last between three days and a week before they have it taken off because as well as the pain, the practicality isn’t so good. They tighten the screws to 8 newton metres (when you tighten your seat post it’s only 4-5 NM), at least a centimetre into the skull and the metal frame goes all the way down to your belly button and if you knock it that vibration goes up to your skull… Plus every time the screws came loose my head would swell up and they’d need tightening again. I was in it for three months exactly. It felt like an eternity.
Tim in the 'halo' neck brace he had to wear for 6 months.
When you starting training again (still in the halo), did you have your doctor’s blessing?
Tim Don: I kind of had his blessing – it was kind of ‘don’t do anything stupid’ though! It wasn’t so much the fracture they were worried about, as bone takes 6-8 weeks to heal, it was more the curvature of my spine and the gaps between my vertebrae which they didn’t want to change. The surgeon who put the halo on is an accomplished surgeon, but he’s also an Ironman triathlete. He’s been to Kona and is doing Alaskaman this year, so he gets it.
I literally started with 5 minutes on a gym exercise bike at 80 watts and then with John Dennis, my physio, we came up with a plan to make the rest of my body (neck aside!) as strong and as injury-proof as possible so when I came back to being able to train, after about four and a half months of no running, I wouldn’t tear a calf, get Plantar Fasciitis, or a stiff lower back from being back on a bike… So we tried to do a lot of S&C around those groups for prevention, so that was my new goal – my new fix!
Have you learnt anything during that period that’s a positive thing?
Tim Don: Never give up! I learnt a lot about the community as well though. I mean I’ve been racing since 1992 and a professional triathlete since 1997, I’ve won medals, I’ve been to the Olympics, but never before have I had so many well-wishers. It meant a lot to me and I’ve been blown away by how people reached out. I’m lucky.
Your race comeback was the Boston Marathon – was there a reason you chose a run first?
Tim Don: I knew the first thing I could come back and do would be a run! It wouldn’t be a 1500m swim race in the pool, that would be horrifically painful – and as for cycling, I still can’t turn my neck enough to see behind me – so of the three disciplines running is what we all do first and so I knew I could do it. Then the opportunity came up to run Boston Marathon with support from On [Tim’s run sponsor] and I said yes!
Originally the goal was just to finish, then as we got closer we were hoping for under 3 hours, then the founder of On said he’s give me $1000 if I could run under 02:56 so it was like ‘yes, game on!’ Then the NY Times ran an article where they suggested 02:44 because that was my time in the Ironman world record run, and I said ‘no way, if I can get near 02:50 I’ll be happy’, so then the goal became 02:50 – and I did it in 02:49!
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