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.
Tim Don on coming back from a broken neck
Tim Don back racing after breaking his neck
“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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Has your running gait changed since your injury?
We haven’t done video analysis on a treadmill, but Julie videos me a lot in Boulder and my lower half is very similar, but I’m still very stiff through my thoracic spine, my shoulders, my upper traps and going into my neck, I’m more rigid. This is the most comfortable position for my neck [Tim demonstates, with his head just tilted a tiny fraction off-centre] and it’s not straight – but if I put it straight I get a massive pain all down the side, so we’ve definitely got a lot of work to do. Especially if I want to come off the bike and do a 02:44 again!
Tim in Brazil, on his way to breaking the Ironman World Record by more than 4 minutes with a time of 7:40:23.
How about your swimming and your cycling now? Are you still swimming with a snorkel until you get that mobility back?
I’m swimming without the snorkel as well, I just can’t do the whole session without it. I’m up to 3,000m which you might think is great, but it’s not great when you consider that right now Jan [Frodeno] and Sebi [Kienle] are doing 6,000m sets no problem.
That was the other thing about Boston – 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 etc etc.’
I think swimming is going to be the toughest though. Matt Bottrill, my coach, is loving the biking though as it’s quite hard to lift my neck up, so I’m actually keeping myself more aerodynamic!
For the run, it’s about getting everything firing again as it’s not used to moving. The run’s especially important too, as that’s my weapon. So yeah, lots of work to do, but it’s different work to normal, so I’m quite excited in a perverse sort of way!
Has your attitude to cycling changed at all since the accident?
I was worried initially that I was going to ride 100m on the road and go ‘oh my god I can’t do this, the cars are too close, the noise…’, but I’m actually a very practical person and so no, I didn’t feel emotional. Also remember I’ve been a pro for a long time and it’s the first time I’ve been hit by a vehicle. I’ve fallen off, I’ve had pins, stitches, but it’s always been because of mechanicals – a blowout, failed equipment – but this was just a freak accident.
I do all my riding now with a rear light on, even in the day, just to say ‘I’m here!’, but apart from that no changes… Also I’m lucky as I train in Boulder and the hard shoulders are like 2 metres wide and cars are on the whole amazing at giving us a wide berth.
What advice would you give to any 220 readers who are injured or facing time out?
First up, don’t break your neck! But if you do, then don’t have a halo fitted!
D’you know what though? You need to remember there’s always something you can do. Maybe you can still move your legs, train differently in some way – unless it’s a terminal state you will come back from your injury and you will do a triathlon again, so what can you do in the meantime to help?
If need be take a physical or a mental break, take some time out, spend time with the family and don’t dwell on it. Don’t get me wrong though, it wasn’t all bells and whistles for me – there were dark times! I’m a real believer in being positive though, as who knows what’s just around the corner?
So what’s the goal for you, now you’re back training as a pro?
Well, the goal is to go to Kona! I’m going to hopefully do a 70.3 at the end of June, then in July do either Zurich or Hamburg Ironman – they’re on the same day – and then that should hopefully give me enough points to do to Kona. If I finish say 5th at Hamburg but I’m 22 minutes after the winner, then I don’t think I’ll go to Kona. If I go, I want to be where I believe I can be.
There are goals – so we know that by a certain date I need to be able to swim 3.8km without a snorkel, hold X power on a bike – so there will be training milestones. The first was to finish the marathon and the second was to do it under 3 hours, so we’re looking good, so far! It’s a long road.
You’ve had a lot of support from On – and now they’re producing a film about you?
A film, ha! No it’s a documentary! I haven’t seen the ending yet because they haven’t edited the parts from Boston yet, but I’ve seen the rest and it’s a bit peculiar as it’s not me playing a character, it’s just me… So it was a bit uncomfortable for me to watch! I hope people will watch it and think ‘he doesn’t give up’ and see that there’s always light at the end of the tunnel. I hope people take something positive from it.
The documentary ‘The Man With The Halo’ will be available to watch through www.on-running.com on 28th May. See the trailer here now.
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