In 2017, Tim Don was in the best shape of his life. After setting an Ironman world record of 7:40:23 in May, the three-time Olympian turned his laser focus on his next big goal: winning the Ironman World Championships in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii.
“After a few years of learning the ropes of Ironman racing, I finally felt like I cracked the code in 2017.” says Don. “I was really confident that I had put myself in a great position to succeed in Kona.”
Mere days before the race, everything changed. What was supposed to be a short training ride turned into a season-ending nightmare when Don was hit by a car. He woke up 30 minutes later in the emergency room, where the doctors told him he was lucky to be alive.
“They told me I had a C2 fracture, which is very high up. It’s the second vertebra down, in line with your teeth,” says Don. To reduce the risk of spinal cord injury and blood clots, Don was fitted with a Halo, a metal brace that immobilizes head and neck using screws in the skull. Three months in the cumbersome device was a demoralizing experience.
“As you can probably imagine, there were quite a lot of emotions after the initial pain from the Halo install became tolerable – sadness, anger, depression in many ways. It was always my goal to get back to racing, but it was so hard to see that path clearly when starting from such a low point.”
But Don was determined. With the help of his doctors, coach, and the most advanced technology, Don formulated a plan to get back to the top of his game. A few weeks after his crash, Don and his halo were on a spin bike. Six months after the crash, he ran a 2:49 at the Boston Marathon. At the eight-month mark, he took the win at Ironman 70.3 Costa Rica. And this October, just one year after the crash that almost ended his life, Don will toe the line at the Ironman World Championships in Kona.
So how did he do it? Tim Don shares the secrets behind his inspiring comeback year:
“Unless there was some sort of divine intervention, I knew there was no picking up where I left off,” says Don. “I had fallen from the best shape of my life, the strongest and most confident I had ever felt, to ground zero. I wasn’t just backing off training due to an isolated injury.”
Instead of letting pride dictate his training, which would have led Don to push harder than his body could handle, Don relied on data from his power meter and Polar heart rate monitor to get an honest, accurate baseline. Though it was difficult (“I was riding the upright exercise bike for 5 minutes at 80 watts, which was all I could muster at the time,” he says) Don admits the objective data was necessary to keep him in check.
Focus on the Smaller Goals
“This year was so different, that I decided to focus on smaller segments, starting with the Boston marathon,” says Don. “I knew where I was when the halo came off in January, and I took it slow. My perspective zeroed in on taking it one step at a time and getting my run back in order was one of the first things I focused on.”
Check All the Boxes
As a professional athlete, Don knows that attention to the details is important, from the post-workout meal he chooses to the strict bedtime he enforces each night. This was particularly true in recovery, as nutrition, sleep, and self-care became more important than ever for his healing body. To make sure he was hitting the right balance between training and recovery, Don wore his Polar heart rate monitor 24/7: “I track my resting heart rate, and see how it varies throughout the week. Big changes are a sign that I’m doing too much. I don’t like backing off, so watching the heart rate is important and provides insight as to how my body is reacting to the training load.”
“When you break your neck, your life is f***ed for a while. And when I say life, I don’t mean my training life – I mean my every day, every movement, every hour of life was affected,” says Don. “It was overwhelming at times. But even at my lowest point, I was able to find perspective and motivation with the help of family, friends, sponsors and the global triathlon community.”
That support, he says, is what kept him going on the toughest days. It’s also what is at the forefront of his mind as he heads to the Big Island once more:
“The love, support, sportsmanship, and respect we have for each other is what makes our sport the greatest,” says Don. “To everyone who willed me on to get to Kona 2018: We did it.”