It was supposed to be Tim Don’s year.
The world record holder was one of the big favourites going into the prestigious World Ironman Championship last October but, instead of standing on top of the podium, Don found himself in a hospital bed with a broken neck.
Close to turning 40, the three-time Olympian refused to consider retirement and instead submitted to three months in a ‘medieval torture device’ to allow him to return to the sport that has been his professional life for more than two decades.
Don marked six months since the accident, when he was hit by a car while out training on his bike, by running the Boston marathon, clocking a time well inside his target of three hours.
Now his ordeal has been documented in a short film produced by sportswear company On, for whom he is a brand ambassador, called ‘The Man with the Halo’ – the Halo being the head and neck brace that was attached to him by four holes in his skull. It meant Don was unable to do simple everyday tasks like getting dressed or washing himself and had to sleep upright.
Don knows he is in many ways very fortunate, telling Press Association Sport: “Any C fracture, you’re lucky if you walk away and you’re lucky if you’re alive. Especially how the collision happened, I got T-boned, totally stopped dead. I hit my head so hard I had these indentations on my forehead where my helmet had actually compressed.”
But the other side of the coin is the gruelling recovery, which is still an ongoing process, coupled with the knowledge of what might have been.
One of Britain’s first big triathlon stars and a world champion over the Olympic distance in 2006, Don, the son of former World Cup referee Philip Don, made the transition to long-distance racing and 2017 was when things all came together.
In Brazil last May he covered the Ironman distance of a 2.4 mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and marathon in seven hours, 40 minutes and 23 seconds, a world record by four minutes (since beaten by German Jan Frodeno) and won five of his six races prior to the world championship in Kona, Hawaii.
The film shows the emotional strain on Don and his wife Kelly of what followed.
He said: “There are still times, especially maybe on a Monday or Tuesday when there’s been lots of racing on that weekend and I’m looking at everyone’s results and I’m going, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m so far away from where I need to be, how can this have happened to me’?
“It’s so out of my control. When we prepare for races we think of every scenario – what if I drop all my energy gels, or I puncture, or my goggles leak or it rains. But you really don’t prepare for – what if I get hit by a car three days before.
“For me and Kelly, because we knew I was in good shape, it wasn’t just another race, there was a real chance for me to do well and if you can win Kona – within our sport – it really can change your life. We were so close to that yet evidently so far away. Thinking of that, oh man, but you can’t live your life on what if.”
Adjusting to life in the Halo was tough, and another low came when it was finally taken off and he realised just how long the road to recovery would be, but the lure of competition, and especially Kona, remained.
He said: “I was on medication to try to help me relax but it didn’t agree with me so I was trying to be sick, and obviously when you’re sick you have that gag reflex of your head moving but I couldn’t move. I went into the garage to try and find an Allen key to try and take it (the Halo) off.
“Then definitely once it came off I thought, ‘No way can I swim, bike and run at record pace’. But I didn’t want to end my career on someone else’s terms. I haven’t got long left. Whether I can reach those highs again, I don’t know, but I really want to try. If I didn’t try it would drive me nuts for the rest of my life.”
Don still does not have the full range of movement in his neck and suffers from pain but will not let that stop him trying to qualify for Kona again in October.
Boston was a big success and his next test is a half Ironman in Costa Rica on June 24, with the aim of returning to Ironman probably in Hamburg on July 28.
“Ideally I don’t want to race in three and a half weeks but I need to,” he said. “I think I can be in good condition come October but I might not be on the start-line because I wasn’t good enough in June and July. But you’ve got to believe it. You’ve got to set big goals and chase them, that’s what we do.”