If you’ve followed triathlon at all in the past two decades, it’s a safe bet you’re aware of Tim Don. Now 40 years young, the three-time Olympian and former world champion and British Ironman-brand world record holder, has achieved longevity at the elite level few can match. Even if the sporting achievements have escaped you, the wisdom of the Londoner’s regular 220 Triathlon advice column should be familiar.
Yet while Don has long been known as a world-class triathlete, he’s now also committed to celluloid as The Man with the Halo, the short film that tells of his recovery from a near-paralysing bike crash before last year’s Ironman World Championship, and features a starring role for a carbon ring resembling a medieval torture device that was bolted to his skull. A year on, back on his bike and returning to Hawaii, the physical halo might be long gone, but the halo effect of his resilient comeback shows no sign of dwindling…
The triumph was simply making it to the start-line. Tim Don may have run down Ali’i Drive in 36th place but even to battle the world’s best on Ironman’s big day on the Big Island was a herculean achievement. A year previous, on a training ride the Wednesday before the race, he was hit by a car, fracturing his cervical vertebrae and the long road to recovery began.
“I was the best prepared I’d ever been,” Don says. “I’d no injuries nor niggles, my bike numbers were up, and I was running and swimming well.”
The confidence was well-founded. The Brit had turned to non-drafting competition after rejection for the Olympic team in 2012, relocated to the tri hotbed of Boulder, Colorado, and been steadily building his Ironman palmares, with 2017 the best year to date. He’d broken the Ironman-branded record in Brazil, clocking 7:40:23, and finished third in the Ironman 70.3 World Championship behind Spaniard Javier Gomez. An Ironman world title assault was in the offing. “My goal was to be in the mix at the end of the bike and, if I could execute a run, I could line up a podium for sure,” he adds.
New kit was also in place, including race tyres designed to save a vital few watts, and it was when testing these close to Kona airport that a car pulled across the bike lane in front of him. “I remember thinking ‘there goes my new race tyres’ as I locked my rear wheel,” Don recollects. “The next thing I recall is waking up 20mins later in a lot of pain. I’d indentations on my forehead from my helmet. At least that’d done its job.”
Initial shoulder pain suggested a broken collarbone, but a routine CAT scan on his brain picked up enough to demand an MRI, and from there the seriousness of the crash emerged. Seven nurses were on hand to slide him out of the scanner, each stabilising a different body part.
“That’s when I realised it was serious,” he admits. “Fifteen minutes later the doctor arrived to say I’d fractured my C2 vertebra – and they were worried.”
What’s a halo?
The second cervical spine vertebra sits at the base of the skull and protects blood vessels that flow into the brain. The concern was that the fracture could spark a blood clot and result in brain damage. Don was discharged to fly to Colorado on proviso of an immediate appointment with Dr. Alan Villavicencio, a Kona competitor himself and one of a handful of neurosurgeons in the country qualified to consult on what happened next.
“I’d never heard of a halo before,” Don says. “I didn’t think about how they were going to attach it… before they started screwing it into my head.”
The halo in question is a carbon ring that’s fixed to the forehead by four bolts and stabilised by bars that drop over the torso. It wasn’t the only option. Don could have elected to have the C1 and C2 vertebrae fused, but with joint mobility a priority to continue his career, the halo would be short-term pain for longer-term gain. In theory.
“They numb you but there’s not much flesh in your skull,” recalls Don, “so the local anaesthetic isn’t very effective. Then they tighten the nuts so the pressure is equal. When you fix your bike’s seat post it’s to four newton metres. They tightened the halo to 8nm with a medical torque wrench. I could feel the skin turning. They said the pain would subside after a fortnight. After three days, I thought there was no way it would get any better.”
Don was restricted to sleeping upright in a chair and couldn’t manage to nap for more than 20mins at a time. If the halo’s supporting rods were knocked they swayed like a pendulum to force more pressure through his skull. And it affected the whole family, Kelly, his wife, and children, Matilda, 7, and Hugo, 2. “They were amazing,” Don says. “The severity went over the kids’ heads, but my wife became a single parent, plus she had a third child who was a miserable bugger. It was getting through each day.”
A low point came when doctors tried to give Don a muscle relaxant to ease the suffering. “I started throwing up, but can you imagine trying to use your gag reflex when you can’t move? I told Kelly to get an Allen key and take this thing off my head. Now I know why no-one has the halo and everyone has the fusion. It’s barbaric.”
It would be three months in total, with regular trips to hospital for CAT scans and to tighten screws that worked loose. A nadir was reached at Christmas, where one screw was so threaded into his skull, another turn would have punctured into the brain. A fifth screw was drilled instead.
Known for his effervescent manner, did Don ever fear his career was over? “Every day. At times I’d think: ‘After 20 years of being a pro, is this how it’s going to end?’ But I always went to bed believing I could be a triathlete again. I didn’t want to end on someone else’s terms. I didn’t want to be the guy who broke his neck and couldn’t race again.”
There were also the finances to consider. “We’re not like a guy who works in the City with an assured income come rain or shine, we’re 100% performance paid. I’m lucky my sponsors have stuck by me and signed me for next year and the year after, showing faith I’d come back. Whether that was blind faith I’m not sure, but it’s testament to the tri community.”
Don’s career is one of the longest tri has seen. By the time he turned pro in 1997, he’d already been racing for Britain in the junior ranks for four years. It meant when rehab started a month after the crash, there was a huge foundation to work from. By November he’d built up to 5mins on an exercise bike. It progressed by a minute a day for three days, and then a rest day. Light lower body exercises were added, but with the halo weighing 8lb, balancing proved difficult. As for swimming, when the device was removed, all muscle in his shoulders, chest and back had atrophied, and the fascia was so tight he struggled to lift his arms above his head.
By spring, Don was itching for an event to take part in, and with news of his ordeal spreading received an invite to the Boston Marathon. “I’d only been running outside for about three weeks,” he says. “Being goal-oriented, I jumped at the opportunity – and it was the coldest, wettest race I’d ever done.”
Don would finish in 2:49:42 and the comeback was on. His first 70.3 was a morale-boosting victory in Costa Rica in June, and momentum was gathering as he headed to Ironman Hamburg the following month intending to seal enough points for a return to Hawaii. The injury, though, had taken its toll.
“I still have pain every day in my neck and can only breathe to my left on the swim now,” he says, while praising the dedication of physiotherapist John Dennis, who has treated him for a decade and would fly from the UK to provide regular treatment.
“Leading up to Hamburg, my left hip was sore. My head doesn’t sit straight and it’s exaggerated when I run hard. It meant more pressure on my right leg and the left leg wasn’t switching on.”
With the swim cancelled because of blue-green algae, a 6km run became the first discipline and after 180km on the bike, Don was placed high enough for qualification. Then his hip flexor locked up and a walk-run finish to ninth left him short of the points required.
Not to be cowed, there was one last chance in Copenhagen on the final weekend before the cut-off. An osteopath freed up Don’s hip, and having ridden off the front, he was again well placed to clinch automatic qualification. This time stomach troubles were his undoing and he quit on the run.
Don went to bed ready to hatch a plan with coaches Julie Dibens and Matt Bottrill to race 70.3s and make some money. He woke the next morning to find the USA’s Jonathan Shearon had declined his Kona spot and Don was the next on the roll-down.
“It was easy to accept, but took a few days to sink in,” he says, “I went from being ready to enjoy some different races, to having to train for racing the best in the world on the most brutal stage.” Don had already been offered a wildcard spot from Ironman, but turned it down. “If they’d offered me a spot the week the crash had happened, I’d have taken it,” he says. “But I wanted to earn my start.”
Thankfully, this time race-week passed without incident, and once the cannon fired on the Big Island, Don was back into race mode, swimming 50:34 to enter T1 with the main pack, then biking 4:19:11 to stay in contention. The exertions of the past 12 months and the punishing humidity meant there would be no fairy-tale on the marathon, but having run 3:29:55 for a 8:45:17 total, there was still a beaming smile at the finish.
Above: The smile that says everything. Tim Don completes Kona 2018. Getty Images for Ironman
Don might be pushing into his fifth decade, but when compared to New Zealand’s Cameron Brown, who also raced Kona this year at the age of 46, he’s a mere whippersnapper. And this was no last hurrah.
“Being so close to a life-changing result plays on my mind, but I know that just getting there this year was hard enough,” he says. “I have to believe I can come back in 2019 and be fighting again.”
In the meantime, he’s relocating to Loughborough and plans to spend time in the Canary Islands over the winter with an eye towards IM South Africa or Texas next year. “I’ve unfinished business. I know I’m 40, but I’ve looked after my body, and the mind is there, and I’ve got amazing support from my family and sponsors. It’s also been my only job since I had a paper-round and was a lifeguard at 16. I don’t want to be known as Tim Don, the man with the halo any more. I want to be Tim Don, one of the most feared triathletes in the world.”