The Heart of a Champion
On a rainy day in Brazil in May 2017, nobody knew that they would witness an Ironman course world record fall, and a triathlon legend emerge. After a lustrous ITU career, three-time Olympian, Tim Don was no doubt a top contender for the Ironman World Championship title last October, but the opportunity was suddenly stolen from him when a near-fatal accident occurred. This original interview was taken months before that tragic day, when a truck struck Don on a training ride just days before the Ironman World Championships. Left with a broken neck and massive injuries, many wondered if Don would ever return to racing. Thanks to an army of support, Don is well on the road to recovery, training with focus, and looking to go faster than ever before. Megan Evoe sits down with the long course champion to talk all things triathlon, that accident, the comeback, Kona and more.
I grew up in a place called Tennington in West London where I started swimming with a squad. There was a group of swimmers that always swam after us and they were older and faster. I would always hear the coach shouting at this guy that would run halfway down the pool deck and dive in. The athlete turned out to be Spencer Smith who in 1992 was the ITU World Champion and won multiple championships. I grew up in his backyard and I remember once he turned up in this gangster Mercedes and had this fluorescent pink Specialized bike, and I thought: “Wow, triathlon! I can ride a bike!” That’s what first sparked my interest in the sport.
As a kid, I went to a good running school and my running club was loaded with talented runners. I was in a group with Mo Farah and I used to train with him twice a week when he was around 13 and I was around 16. There were another two boys that I trained with that medalled at the European Junior Champs and the other went to the Commonwealth Games for distance running. It was a hotbed of track and field. I loved running, but I was only the third-best runner in my school and the fourth best in my region.
The second triathlon I did was a local duathlon and I finished fifth. Stuart Hayes, who’s still a pro today, told me that the top six get selected for the European Championships. I ended up getting sixth and he got seventh and they selected me even though it was only my second ever multi-sport race. I got to go to Finland to the European Championships as a youth competitor. I ended up getting fourth there a month later. I loved the travelling aspect because we didn’t get to travel like that with track and cross-country.
ITU Days: 2011 Dextro Energy Triathlon – ITU World Championship Series London.
Going through the junior circuit, I realised I really enjoyed triathlon and I was very competitive. You have pipedreams that this could be your career. If I had told myself back then, I will be 39 and break the Ironman World Record, I wouldn’t have believed myself. The defining moment for me was in 1998 when I won the World Junior title because I had been second at the European Championships and I really needed to win to get that step up. I had decided if I didn’t win, I was going to go to University and study Marine Biology. I did win and then I got invited to do the St. George Formula One over the winter, which sent me up for a winter out of Europe. I started racing Senior World Cups, got a couple of top 10 finishes, and the rest is history.
When I first started racing, I wanted to win the World Championships and then Kona like Greg Welch. In 1998, they announced they were going to make triathlon an Olympic sport in 2000, which I had dreamed about. But we had Simon Lessing, Spencer Smith, Andrew Johns, Richard Allen, Stuart Hayes – the list goes on, and I was still a junior at the time, so I wasn’t proven yet. In 1999 I had some good races and in 2000 I won the first selection raced called Windsor. That win, along with my sixth at the European Championships, put me at the top of the Brits who hadn’t pre-qualified, so I got the third slot for the Sydney Olympics.
Every Olympic experience was different, but Sydney in 2000 was the most amazing for me. I was one of the youngest guys and got 10th, which outperformed my expectations for my federation. I just had a ball because the Aussies loved the triathlon race. The crowds were three deep and the Sydney Opera House was behind you as you rode through the streets. For me, the Athens Olympics in 2004 was a unique course and countries started to use domestiques, so we planned lots of my training with heavy running and swimming. I set myself up for a good race there with a good swim, but I got blown out the back door by the Kiwis on the bike, ran myself up into fourth and blew up and finished back.
Three days before the Beijing Olympics race, I got food poisoning and was severely compromised. I still raced, but I was three kilograms under-weight. Being in fantastic shape at that time and knowing I had beaten the guys who got medals, it was very hard for me at the time. I suffered for about five or six months afterwards. I had put four years of my life into one race to have something out of my control cost me the best chance I had at my age. Fate played a cruel hand there.
Kona 2016: Tim had great aspirations at the World Championships but the race didn’t go to plan and he had to pull out during the bike leg.
I always wanted to race full-distance triathlons and the 70.3s as they became bigger. After Beijing, our federation decided to take a domestique to the London Olympics. I didn’t want to put four more years of my life into being a domestique. I believe triathlon is an individual sport so that’s when I came to another crossroad in my career and decided, with my wife Kelly, I would need to make some changes to race long course. We had our daughter, Matilda, and I didn’t want to spend a lot of time away from them, training and racing, so I got in touch with my now manager, Franco, and we moved to Boulder, Colorado so I could live and train here year round. We moved over on a wing and a prayer in April of 2013 and have been here ever since.
I decided I needed a coach who knew long distance racing. Over the years, I worked well with coaches I could see versus correspondence. I had gone to the Athens Olympics with Julie Dibens and knew she was a successful athlete at long course. However, she had also made the transition from a world-class ITU athlete to a world-class 70.3 athlete and had podiumed at Kona, so I knew she had the background I needed. I realised the bigger portion of the race was the bike and I knew that was her specialty.
My first half distance triathlon was actually in 2009 in South Africa and it was a hell of a hard experience. I was wintering there during my ITU days and thought I would just give it a-go. I even managed fourth place. My first proper half race was in 2013, and I struggled a lot with my nutrition and proper pacing with my bike speed. It was a steep learning curve, but Julie had told me I would need my first year to learn the ropes and get everything dialled in so that 2014 would be a better year of half racing.
Racing the half distance was a big and frustrating change for me. I was used to flying into ITU races and being treated like the main attraction as the professionals. In ITU, I was used to racing in the middle of the afternoon, having a perfect transition area, the briefing was perfect, and all the roads were closed for the race. With halves, you race at 6:30 in the morning, you’re starting in a muddy field next to a lake, there are 2000 age-groupers and I felt like I was back at the beginning of my junior days, which was great, but I was used to a different scene.
I had to find new sponsors and reinvent myself once I had moved to America and jumped up to long course racing. Looking back, it was fun but stressful. Suddenly I was getting beat by a bunch of athletes I didn’t know. It was a big learning curve. I would have very average races, bonk on the bike, and blow up on the run, which was hard to deal with. Without Julie and Kelly, I definitely wouldn’t have carried on.
I had only seen Kona in 2011 as a spectator, one of the years Crowie (Craig Alexander) won and it was like, “WOW!” I knew I wanted to qualify while putting as little stress on my body as possible. I come from speed background with running, so we decided I would do a series of half races in 2014, as well as the Ironman 70.3 World Championships, and then do my first Ironman in Mallorca. I had never been to Mallorca, but I think the course suited me and I was able to pull away on the run and I was lucky enough to win the race. Looking back it was easy, not the winning, but the process, and that was the most enjoyable full-distance race I had done until Ironman Brazil this year.
Having 11 months to gear up for my first Kona was really good because it allowed me to focus on 70.3 racing for the year. I was still learning in every race as I had only done about 12 half-distance races at that point and only one Ironman. For me, I still wanted to focus on 70.3 racing and we were really focusing on 70.3 Worlds in 2015. Ten days before that race, I had a huge bike crash and had 36 stitches in my face and an open fracture to my thumb. I still raced and ended up missing a lot of my Kona training when I got back.
When I turned up to Kona that year, I didn’t know what to expect. I was in a great position, but got a penalty on the bike and had gut issues on the run. I was in the port-o-johns all the way down Ali’i Drive but still managed to finish 15th overall. It was frustrating, but the performance was still there. There were plenty of times where I wanted to stop because I had come there to fight for a top 10, but for me, it was a win-win. You have no time to think in ITU, but only having done one other Ironman, this was mentally a very hard situation.
I realised before I can do well at Kona, I have to nail an Ironman. You can’t go to Kona not nailing an Ironman race. My next full was Ironman Brazil in 2016, where I turned up with a calf injury and hadn’t done a full run training block leading up to the race. I still managed second place. However, I was also 15 minutes behind Brent McMahon, so I didn’t really deserve to go well at Kona that year.
At the end of , I realised I really need to up my biking. I got in contact with Matt Bottrill, a former-British time-trial champion and cycling coach. Together with Julie, we put together a program that made me work harder than I ever had on the bike. We really worked on everything to make me more successful at Ironman racing, from adjusting my position to pacing. Julie sets the week’s energy with the swimming, biking and running, but the two of them Skype and plan my week. I don’t really see the behind the scene planning with my sessions. It’s rare that you get two coaches that are so successful and are willing to work together. If I didn’t think it would work I would have never asked Julie to bring Matt in, but it’s been great and definitely revolutionised how I train and race.
I never race for time. I race for position. I wanted to fight for a podium at Ironman Brazil in 2017, but I knew the field would be tough with McMahon, Andreas Raelert, Igor Amorelli – the list goes on of good athletes, so you never know. We had gone through different race scenarios on how my race would pan out. I knew I wanted to have a fast, aggressive swim and then ride the first 90-minutes very hard on the bike. Once I was able to see people on the turn, I made my decision on how to push on the rest of the bike and still have a fast run. I had really worked on my pacing my bike. My confidence began to grow as my bike lead increased.
I didn’t realise what a big lead I had coming off of the bike. I had timed myself at the first run turnaround from the next competitor and saw I had a 22-minute lead. I started thinking that I can win this and to concentrate, hydrate, focus on nutrition, and don’t run too fast or too slow. I didn’t want to try to be a hero. About four kilometres later, my Team Bravo mates told me that if I ran a 2:48, I could break the record, but I had to ask what record they were talking about. I remember someone shouting: “The World Record,” and I thought: “Oh my gosh, what pace am I running?” It wasn’t until about 13 kilometres that I had any clue I was on track to break the record. I just tried not to think about it that much – I tried to stay within myself and continue to run my
BRAZIL 2017: Tim taking a moment realising what he has just achieved. Looking good: The build to Kona 2017 was going well after a successful race at Chattanooga.
In my mind, breaking the world record wasn’t a done deal until I crossed the finish line. I really had to focus in those last kilometres. You don’t take anything for granted until you cross that finish line. There were guys in that race that could easily have caught me if I didn’t take care of myself with my nutrition and pacing. You can see in photos as I ran to the line, I was still giving it everything. I didn’t high five anyone because the overall time was facing the media, so it wasn’t until I turned around to see the clock that I realised I had broken the record. I couldn’t believe it!
“Oh, my gosh! What have I just done?” This was one of three or four races in my life where the preparation went well and everything worked out. Everyone puts in such hard work and you rarely get what you think you deserve, like winning or getting the top 10. It was just relief that I won a competitive, championship Ironman and a pure bonus that I broke the record. I still haven’t been around Ironman for that long, so it took me a few days to realize what I had done. In that moment, it didn’t dawn on me, the magnitude of the race I had put together. I would have been happy if I had gone 8:03, which would have been a personal best for me.
In my mind, you’re still only as good as your last race. Ironman Brazil has definitely given me confidence in my racing and in the process. Before Brazil,
I would back myself up in a 70.3 and say I could fight for a podium against anyone, like in St. George, when everyone is there. I wouldn’t have been able to say that about myself until this Ironman and now I feel like I am genuinely an Ironman guy and a top 10 contender at Kona. If I can have the same preparation leading up to Kona, I should be fierce there.
My family puts in as much into my triathlon career as I do. When I first spoke to Kelly, it wasn’t the fact that I broke the world record, but the fact that I won that was exciting. I don’t think she realised the magnitude of breaking the world record when we first talked after the race. My family was proud and relieved because you can have great preparation and things can still go wrong. Kelly had seen how hard I was training and how much I sacrificed so she was so happy. I like to think of myself as a triathlete that is very involved with his children. I don’t not see them for months at a time so I can prepare. I still take my daughter to school a few times a week and swim training, and watch my son Hugo, so Kelly can get a break. The fact that Kelly is an ex-international runner she totally gets it. Matilda and Hugo don’t know any different. They just know daddy swims, rides a bike, and goes for lots of runs. I think they were very proud and happy, but now it’s onto the next one.
Everyone in our sport knows there is no other beast-like Kona. There’s the wind, the weather, humidity, and it’s the only field where you have everyone racing. One result during the season doesn’t mean you’re going to get another one, but it puts you in the ballpark. You should be able to do something special at Kona, but there are 10 guys who can do something special. For me, Brazil has given me self-belief that I can be competitive in an Ironman. To race for over seven hours mostly on my own, mentally, that has been a new experience for me. I am still learning how to prepare for Kona properly.
After Brazil, training for Kona stayed similar to my other Ironman training, but we threw in some specific heat work. I couldn’t have gotten better weather at Ironman Brazil, but I knew the Kona conditions would be a lot different. Julie really likes to talk about Kona and the big build, but I like to focus on the process. My coaches look at the big picture and I just look at what I have coming up the next day. If I start focusing on Kona too early, I will just go bananas because so much can happen. I rather just focus on the simple things like taking care of my body, being happy and doing the basics right. Some people like to go all in on Kona months out, but that would drive me, and probably my family, bonkers.
Days before the race: Tim training on the Big Island in preparation for the 2017 Ironman World Championship. Little did we know of the dramatic events that would unfold!
I started off in a better place leading into Kona 2017 because I had all of my Brazil fitness and could keep building from there. Leading up to Brazil, I raced Ironman 70.3 St. George and it went well, so I planned to have a similar build and an extra two weeks from Ironman 70.3 World Championships until Kona. I decided if things went terribly in Chattanooga, I wasn’t going to worry about it or going poorly in Kona. You just have to deal with it and go forward. Julie and Matt have given me confidence in my training. I also get confidence by training with the people in our group, so we don’t need to get greedy with my Kona training for an extra two percent. I just need to get there mentally fresh, ready to race and be ready to suffer.
From my last two Kona experiences, I have learned a lot about having to deal with adversity. I wasn’t upset with my performances. I still finished 15th two years ago, walking on the run, and in 2016 it was just gutting because we weren’t sure what happened, considering training had been going well. I was in a great position but had started cramping in my calf during the swim. On the bike, the cramps went up into my VMO and adductors. I tried getting more electrolytes, but I think I just had too many electrolytes and had to roll home at 20km/hour, still cramping, which was annoying. At the time, I didn’t know what happened. I mean, sugar!
I had a couple of days where I sulked like a bear with a sore head and was annoyed at everyone, like Kelly and the kids. But then you have to get back on the horse and figure out where to go from there. With Matt and Julie, we dialled in my nutrition, tweaked aspects of training, changed my diet leading up to races, and we’re still learning all the time. We wrote down a lot of things from my Brazil training, so we can take those preparation elements to my Kona training and adapt them to be better or more specific due to the weather and competition.
My biggest secret in my whole career is that everyone has underestimated my biking. Even in ITU, when I was the guy getting the quickest runs, I was also drilling the bike, but people don’t see that because it doesn’t equate to a result. They see you finish with the run. We’ve worked hard on my biking and I think I am getting that extra three per cent. Based on the equipment changes I have made, I get more of what I call “free speed”. I am getting free Watts from the changes in my bike position and from the faster equipment I am using. I have really worked on how to pace for 180 kilometres in my training so I can race to specific scenarios. My pace on the bike is now becoming second nature to me.
Kona is a war and these guys are all warriors. When I first watched Kona in 2011, I remember seeing Crowie run on the Queen K with five kilometres to go. It was clear he was going to win. I remember cheering for him as he came by and just looking at his face. He was still in the zone. He wasn’t chillin’ and acting like he had won the race. For me, that’s the allure – it’s the battle. You see the best-of-the-best get broken and smashed to smithereens as well as seeing people be phenomenal. Kona is the Holy Grail of Ironman racing and it really draws the best out of people. You’re not just battling the other guys in the race; you’re battling the elements.
I just try to hang out with my friends the week before Kona and stay away from most of the craziness. I enjoy having my sponsorship commitments and seeing people around the week before. I will probably get my training in with people I normally train with and not change up how I do things. You don’t want to do anything new or special. For me, it’s just another Ironman race and I need to get from point A to point B as quick as possible. For me to do that it’s about treating it as a normal race.
Once I wake up race morning, I follow my usual routine. I pack my bag, put my numbers on, and eat my breakfast of coffee, four slices of rice toast, an energy bar, and an EFS liquid shot. At the start, you’re treading water out there for about five minutes and always looking around for the fast guys, like Jan (Frodeno), (Andy) Potts, and (Dylan) McNeice to keep an eye on them. You want to be on the front line, but not too close. For me, it’s just about a routine. I am not getting some Heavenly inspirations or think I am going to win because I see a dolphin jumping out of the water. It’s business as normal and I just want to stay as relaxed as possible.
I wanted to go to Kona and be competitive for a top 10 finish. I knew I needed to put myself in a good position at 150 kilometres on the bike, where I was going to be fighting for a top 10. Looking at 2016, if you are in that ballpark, you’re going to be looking at a podium spot. I knew I needed to turn up healthy and uninjured. But once the gun goes, I wanted to put myself in a position to go for a top 10, absolutely.
The Comeback Begins
The unthinkable: Tim was hit by a vehicle on a training ride days before the race. Hospital: What does the future hold?
It’s been a tough time for my family and me. Some of the toughest things have been those feelings of “what if.” What if I hadn’t ridden that day, if I hadn’t had the crash, what would my race have looked like [last year]? What could have been the aftermath of having a good race in terms of my career? I felt I was in good shape and that has played on my mind a lot. The day-to-day stress of having a halo on was extremely tough.
I have been amazed by the support of family, friends, and people who are fans of triathlon. There have been many times I put on a brave face – times I slept one hour out of 48 due to the discomfort I had, but I still need to respond to emails and calls. Our life changed dramatically, especially for my wife, Kelly as it was like having a third kid for her. She had to shower me, clean all of my screws twice a day, and help me put my clothes on. I couldn’t help with the kids much either. We’ve come through it and hopefully, we are stronger for it. I guess we’ll see when I do my first race.
I think questioning myself is what keeps me going. Can I be as good, quick and confident? And wanting to know the answers drives me. They say, “winners never quit and quitters never win”, so I have to try and give racing a go and then the questions will be answered. I will never forgive myself if I don’t try. I am lucky that I have amazing support from my sponsors and I believe I feel like I have done everything possible to get myself in the best mental and physical position. I can train properly, my body is ready, and I can hold 280 Watts for 20-minutes, which isn’t fantastic, but it’s better than 279. There have been times that I would have 100 per cent quit, but for me, the big thing now is to leave it all out there and have no regrets.
Treatment: Tim was fitted with a Halo as the best means in which to recover from his serious injury.
I can see myself getting to that 100 per cent recovery. The halo came off in early January, so, physically, I am in a good place. I had a hard collar on for three weeks, which was restrictive, but it was a relief having the halo off. Swimming is the most difficult due to the rotation of my neck and the up and down motion. My neck is quite weak so we’re working on building up the muscles since they haven’t moved in about four months. I think the halo was the right move because I feel like my range of motion has really approved. I can see myself getting to that 100 per cent recovery.
Ultimately, my plan for 2018 is to race Kona and go for a podium. Obviously, that’s a long way off in October and my physical shape compared to a lot of my competitors is way off. It’s got to be a fluid thing. It’s such a unique injury and the treatment is so unusual that we don’t know how things will heal. You need your movement for all sorts of things and breaking my C2 in my neck hasn’t allowed for much of that. At the moment, since competing in the Boston Marathon in April, I would like to do a 70.3 in June and an Ironman in July.
I have always wanted to race Ironman Frankfurt, but it might be too close, so there is Ironman Hamburg, which is at the end of July. I really fancy Hamburg because I have raced so many times for WTS and I know the area and the city has a good vibe during races. If I am doing ok, I would like to race a 70.3 in August and then race the Ironman 70.3 World Championships and get on the podium there. I usually like to race early, and I like to race a lot, but since I can’t this year, I will probably add some races through December right after Kona, if I make it.
I just felt like I needed to put a race number on and hear that starting gun. I was excited and nervous to run the Boston Marathon this past April, but there was no real pressure on me. My only real goals were to finish the race without getting injured and avoid totally smashing up my body. Not only was this my first “stand-alone” marathon, but I was also going into the unknown as I had only done two long runs of 28 kilometres up on Magnolia Road.
I should have worn my wetsuit when I raced the Boston Marathon this year! It was a tough, slow day with the driving rain, a headwind, and temperatures of -2 degrees Celsius. It was pure survival at times! Having so many people running around me was great fun and the crowds, even in that crazy weather, were amazing and definitely helped us all get around out there. I was over the moon to run 2:49:42 and not have trashed legs as I begin the next phase of my rehabilitation for Kona!
Road to recovery: Rehabilitation for Kona 2018.
I am lucky to actually be able to walk and be alive and I appreciate the moment and future much more. The sense of community has really shocked me, and Kelly, through this process. I continue to get support from random people and I think that’s a great reflection of our sport. The entity of pros does mean something to the age-groupers and I think it shows there is always a place for the professional triathletes. I think featuring the pros stories can help age-groupers, and anyone interested in triathlon, relate as we all go through hardships like raising kids, juggling a job, and trying to race. Even though they may see the glamour when we cross the finish lines, kissing our guns, it’s still just as hard for us.
To be honest, I did watch Kona on and off, but I cannot remember it because I was under very heavy medication and was in a lot of pain. I watched it, but with no emotion because I was in another world. Afterwards, you can live your life regretting and thinking “what if”, but who knows how I would have raced. It was great to see my friend David McNamee get on the podium. It is fantastic for British triathlon too. We trained on and off over the years during ITU, which was awesome, so I was very proud. Seeing Lucy Charles going from an amateur to pro and getting second in the toughest race, in that field, is just stellar. It’s great to see consistent athletes and new athletes do well. We saw in the men’s race, you have to break records to win. It’s getting tougher at the top and that excites me. I hope I can be in the thick of it in 2018.
I need to be quicker than I was in Brazil and I think I can go quicker. I think in terms of pure speed, looking at the time of 7:40, there are so many factors, like wind, rain, temperature, having the right course, and making sure your training is peaking. You need a lot of things to line up to go that quick. I definitely think people will be going close to 7:30 in the next five or six years. Race directors see that and they are designing faster courses, but ultimately, I wouldn’t be doing what I am doing if I did not believe that I can be back fighting for a podium spot in Kona. To do that, you need to go fast!
5 facts with Tim Don
A bucket list race of mine is… Escape from Alcatraz.
My favourite city I have raced in is… Sydney, when I raced the Olympics in 2000.
My favourite post-race treat is… a nice bottle of red wine!
If I wasn’t a triathlete, I would be a… a Marine biologist.
Most people don’t know that I… have a pet bunny rabbit named Percy, who has ears that are 18cm long.
Words: Megan Evo
Images: Fernanda Paradizo/Shutterstock.com / ITU Media / Korupt Vision and Tim Don.