October 2017: Tim Don was going for one last bike ride in Kona, Hawaii, before taking his place on the start line of the Ironman World Championships. At 39, he'd had arguably the best year of his career: six months earlier, he'd won the Ironman South American Championships in Brazil, taking four minutes off the Ironman world record. But Tim, who trained with Mo Farah as a youth, did not get the chance to compete in Kona. A van knocked him off his bike, leaving him with a broken neck. However, six months later, Tim completed the Boston Marathon in 2:49:42 and has his sights set on this year's Ironman World Championships.
We caught up with him to find out what it takes to recover from such a serious injury.
So what happened?
I was in the cycle lane. An oncoming vehicle thought it could cross in front of me but it wiped me out. The next thing I remember, a guy was standing over me, asking me if I was OK. An MRI revealed I'd broken my neck. I was told if I wore a 'halo' I had a 90% chance of making a 100% recovery. So I said, 'Sounds good - what's a halo?' The doctor said it's kind of like a plaster cast for your neck. I wore it for three months.
What were the early days like after the operation?
The screws in my head were very sore. I wasn't sleeping much, as the brace went right down to my belly button and I had to sleep upright in a chair. I couldn't shower, I couldn't think straight because the pain was coming and going. I thought 'Is this it? Will I ever race again?'
When were you able to begin your training again?
After about three weeks, I managed to get on the exercise bike while wearing the halo. I did five minutes at 100 watts, which is like running three minutes at 12-minute-mile pace. But it was a breakthrough for me. It was all about believing in the process rather than the goal. Because I was training, the screws on my halo were beginning to come loose, so I had to get them retightened. If you have a mountain bike and you tighten up the seat post so that it doesn't slip, it is recommended you do that to five Newton metres [units of torque]. In my skull, they had to tighten them to eight Newton metres!
Why did you want to run the Boston Marathon?
I wanted to do something where I could pin on a number. In April, if I'd wanted to do a triathlon, I'd have had to travel to Asia - and I could not justify flying to Asia just to get my ass whopped. An opportunity to run Boston came up and I just had to do it. The ultimate goal this year is the Ironman World Championships in Kona, in October. But I'm not going to do it just to make up the numbers. I'm 40 now; I've only got so many Ironman races left in my body.
What have you learnt through the process?
That the body is an amazing thing. I've also been reminded of how fortunate I am to have my wife, Kelly, and everyone who supports me. A lot of people have said, 'you are an inspiration'. But I say, 'what would you do?' I'm not going to drink a bottle of scotch every night. I want to carry on doing what I love.
Tim Don is an ambassador for On Running.