Tim Don talks Kona and his future in tri

Tim Don’s an icon of triathlon, breaking Ironman records, winning world championships and, of course, recovering to race from a broken neck. Last autumn James Witts caught up with the Brit at a cold training day to talk Kona, and his future

Credit: Robert Rathbone

It’s the middle of autumn, a cold wind is sweeping over Leicestershire and I’m freezing, tired and bordering on grumpy. Tim Don isn’t.

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The genial 41-year-old is in his 23rd season as a professional. He’s hardly stopped since his accident of 2017, where a car struck the London-born athlete while riding along the Queen K Highway in Kona, Hawaii, days before his best chance at glory at the 2017 Ironman World Championships. It nearly stopped his career, leaving Don with a broken neck and three months clamped into a Halo Brace that was screwed into his skull. Unbelievably, just six months after the accident, Don was crossing the line at the 2018 Boston Marathon in a time of 2:49:42.

Ironman racing and training advice from Tim Don

  

The secret to Don’s recovery? It’s simple – a child-like enthusiasm for the sport he loves. “I still wake up every day trying to be better than the day before,” Don says at the end of our two-hour bike session. “That keeps me motivated. That keeps me happy.” A zest for multisport and, a key trait of every elite athlete, a willingness to learn has seen him compete three times at the Olympics, win the ITU World Championships in 2006 and set a new Ironman world record of 7:40:23 at Ironman Brazil 11 years later. Don’s enthusiasm is infectious. My cool grimace warms to a smile. As it has done every time I’ve met Don over the last 20 years…

A FOCUS ON IMPROVEMENT

I’ve worked in some capacity or another for 220 Triathlon since 2000. Don, I tell him, was the first elite athlete I profiled. He was 22, I was 23. I recall one answer in particular from that pre-Christmas interview, off the back of Don’s 10th-place finish at triathlon’s debut Olympic Games showing in Sydney, that really stuck with me. 

“Tim, the sporting history books are filled with juniors who fail to make a successful transition to the senior ranks,” I asked of the 1998 European junior silver medallist. “How did you navigate the pub, beer and other temptations?” “Never a problem,” was his immediate response. “I just love what I do.” For someone who’d convinced himself his pro sporting ambitions – and many of my contemporaries – were derailed by Newcastle Brown Ale, that single-minded focus was anathema to me. But inspiring. 

That devotion to his sport, mental resilience and, as Don would readily admit, craziness, saw Don follow up Boston with an 8:45hr finish at the Ironman World Championships in 2018. While the world looked on in awe, Don remained as humble as ever. “There’s no secret formula,” Don said of his swift return. “If this had happened to an age-grouper, they would’ve fought just as hard.” 

Don was back at Kona this October, albeit as a mentor for the Zwift Triathlon Academy. Eight athletes were selected for 2019 including two Brits: Ruth Purbook and Paul Lunn. “They both did brilliantly. Ruth won her age-group and Paul finished 11th in his. Beforehand, we held a camp at Specialized’s home of Morgan Hill [California] and put them through the wind tunnel. We had a lot of WhatsApp group action as well and were in Hawaii two weeks before the race. They could use me as a sounding board as much or little as they wanted.”

What about Don’s own Kona ambitions in 2020? Did watching from the sidelines fuel a desire to race next year? “We’ll see. If they’d offered me a start a week before the 2019 race, do you know what I would have answered? No way. You can’t turn up to Hawaii and just wing it. If I do go back, I’d want do myself and the race justice. But it’s a big commitment. As a pro, you have to make a living. I could have the race of my life in Kona and still finish 10th. If I place 10th I’ll be out of pocket. Or I could go and race three other races, which pays my mortgage and puts food on the table.”

OFF THE KONA RADAR

It’s why Don decided that ambitions to qualify and challenge in Kona would be replaced by a lower-profile but potentially more profitable 2019 race calendar. Misfortune haunted the start of the year with a mechanical leading to a DNF at Ironman South Africa. But second at the middle-distance Cannes Triathlon, sixth at Ironman 70.3 Vietnam, victory at the Infinitri Half Triathlon in Spain and fifth at Ironman Shanghai 70.3 justified Don’s alternative calendar.

Don also finished fourth at Ironman 70.3 Marrakech, just three days before our training day in Loughborough. “It could have been top-three,” he shrugs, “but we ended up riding an extra 3km after being misdirected on the bike. The roads were also gravelly. But more great memories.”

It’s proved another consistent season, despite the upheaval of returning from Colorado to Leicestershire. Two days after our training day, Don, his wife Kelly and two children then upped sticks again, albeit from their “1,300-foot Leicestershire home, which we bought years ago, to a new 3,000-foot Leicestershire home.” The expansion’s to accommodate their expanded family. “We also moved back to the UK for the kids as the schools are better here,” Don says, although he’ll keep the US link alive by retaining Boulder-based coach Julie Dibens, as well as UK coach Matt Bottrill (see p80). 

MIXING IT UP

But Tim, without wishing to labour the point, will this trans-Atlantic link stretch to Hawaii 2020? “We’ll see. But look at Jan Frodeno. I think he raced four or five times this year and that’s over all distances. But that’s what it takes because the preparation is so specific. You have the heat acclimatisation, the course dynamics… and it’s that single-minded preparation that’s leading to faster times. The swim was real fast despite tough conditions. And the bike, well, there aren’t the occasional über-bikers these days – they’re all über-bikers. The difference now to years ago, though, is they’re great runners, too. Guys are running low 2:40s and that’s from the front. You just can’t take your foot off the gas.”

Unless you run out of gas, of course, like Alistair Brownlee, who held third during the early stages of the run before the proverbial wheels rolled off. “Ali said he’d come there to learn but he definitely raced to win. He impacted the race and changed its dynamics, until he blew up. But I was impressed. He’ll learn from it.”

At time of press, Alistair was still to confirm whether Tokyo Olympic ambitions will put his Ironman desires on hold [He has now confirmed he is aiming for Tokyo]. It’s the same for Don. At the end of 2018, Don joined British Triathlon’s World Class Performance squad as a Paralympic race guide. This August, he helped Dave Ellis secure world gold in the PTVI category. 

“There are three guides – myself, Mark Buckingham and Luke Pollard – and we’ll discover soon which one of us will be going to Tokyo,” says Don. “If I’m chosen, that’ll influence my 2020 race calendar as I’ll fully commit to it. The Paralympics are at the end of August. Until then I’d probably do some Ironman 70.3s but probably not an Ironman. Not even an early-season one as I’m racing late this year.”

Up until 1 December, in fact, as Don’s taking part in the second Patagonman in Patagonia. He also raced Challenge Cape Town on Sunday 10 November. Those races, plus top-to-toe dressing in Zone3 neoprene, are why Don was (moderately) happy with the 8°C waters of Six Hills Lake on our training day. “Both have pretty cold swims. But hopefully not quite as cold as today.” And what of Tim’s future career in racing? 

“We’ll see. What I won’t do is become a journeyman, racing until I’m 46. I like to compete and be competitive. I’ve had some bad luck this year but I think, when I get it right, I can challenge for the podium at most races. I’ll race 2020 and take it from there.”

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Tim Don honed his craft at Thames Turbo, training alongside the legend that is Spencer Smith. Smith won two Olympic-distance world titles in the 1990s before moving to Ironman where he peaked with fifth at Kona. Don followed suit, making a name for himself in short-course racing before going long in 2013. It’s a well-trodden path and one that many 220 readers will make in 2020. And successfully if you show the spirit and endeavour of Don.