With the racing world on pause as the planet continues to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic, Triathlete will dip back into the archives and revisit some of the biggest, most inspiring, and somewhat under-the-radar moments in triathlon. Today, we’re rewinding back to 2017, when British pro Tim Don completed the fastest Ironman-branded race to date, setting the world record in 7:40:23. Some would argue Don still holds the record as the current mark recognized by Ironman came on a short course—but that’s a debate for another time.
Tim Don came to Florianópolis, Brazil for the 2017 Ironman South American Championship primed to do some damage. After spending two decades on the ITU circuit–winning four world championships and racing for Great Britain in the three Olympic games–Don, a recent transplant to Boulder, Colo., was itching to make a name for himself in long-distance racing.
But even Don, then 39 and a father of two small children, had no way of knowing what was about to unfold before him on that overcast day in late May. Sure, he was ready to win. But setting the Ironman world record in just his fourth attempt at the distance was not on his radar screen. So it came as just as much of a shock to Don as it did the rest of the triathlon world when he crossed the finish line in 7:40:23, smashing the former mark, set in 2016 by Canadian Lionel Sanders by over four minutes. Even more impressive? He did it in what basically amounted to a time trial, crossing the line a whopping 25 minutes ahead of the runner-up.
So what was the key to Don’s magical day? A super-strong bike, for starters. After the race, Don revealed that he’d tweaked his training to keep up with the “uber bikers” of the sport like Sebastian Kienle and Jan Frodeno. He’d hired coaches Matt Bottrill and Julie Dibens and spent the previous winter working on increasing his strength and power. This would prove instrumental in Brazil, as Don went from an aggressive swim (clocking 44:16) to an even more aggressive bike. For the first 90 minutes on the bike, Don held watts he’d normally see on a 70.3 course. At that point, he’d “see who was with [him] and make a decision to keep pushing,” Don later said of his race plan.
No one was even close.
Don pressed on, and his race became just as mentally strenuous as it was physical. Completely solo, he was locked in his own head for the next several hours. “There was no one to swap turns with or talk to,” Don recalled. “I really had to dig deep mentally to keep my pace and legs going.”
Upon completing the bike in a stunning 4:06:56, Don descended upon the pancake-flat run course. As he traversed the streets of Florianópolis, spectators began to shout about a record. “I had no idea what record they were talking about,” said Don after the race. It was, in fact, the world mark he was on target to eclipse–and Don had to complete the marathon in under 2 hours and 48 minutes, or 6:25-per-mile pace, to break it.
In the final strides Don–not sure if he was still under record pace–sprinted to the finish, registering a 2:44:46 run split. Relishing in his victory, he threw up his hands, unaware that he had, indeed, set the record. “The clock was facing away from me, so when I turned around and saw the time, I was blown away, I couldn’t believe it,” said Don. He dropped to his knees, as though in prayer, scooping a clenched fist in the air to punctuate his historic moment.
“I’ve been a professional for 25 years and I can literally count on one hand when everything has gone right,” Don later said of his epic day. “When you say ‘7:40,’ I wouldn’t think of myself. But I guess I am, I have, and I did.”
Don left Brazil brimming with confidence for the remainder of the 2017 season, eyeing a podium spot at the Ironman World Championship in the months to come. That dream was dashed, however, when Don was hit by a truck while training on the Queen K in Kona just two days before the race. Suffering a Hangman’s fracture to his neck, Don spent the next three months in a Halo Brace screwed into his skull before pulling off an “unfathomable comeback” which was documented in the 2018 documentary The Man With the Halo. Six months after the accident, he ran the Boston Marathon in 2:49:42 on a day marred by torrential rain and fierce winds. Just two months after that, Don won Ironman 70.3 Costa Rica in 3:49:59, a moment, he said, that proved to himself that he was “capable of anything.”
Don, now 42, continues to race, most recently winning the rugged Patagonman race in Chile this past December. While his world record race in Brazil will certainly stand out as a career highlight for years to come, it is his entire body of work and impressive determination that’s made Don one of the most admired–and accomplished–triathletes to ever race in the sport.