A three-time Olympian. World Champion in triathlon and duathlon. Countless ITU World Cup and Ironman podium appearances. Great Britain's Tim Don was a legend even before the 2017 Ironman South American Championship in Florianopolis, Brazil. That race cemented Tim's place as a true triathlon great. But his greatest challenges were still to come. This is the story of The Man with the Halo.
Watch the new extended ending to the story of Tim Don's comeback from a broken neck:
On May 28, 2017, Tim Don became the fastest Ironman triathlete of all time. The following October, he headed to the Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii, as a favorite to top the podium. But he never started the race.
Just days before the event, Tim was hit by a truck while cycling. Scans revealed that he had broken his neck.
Almost immediately, Tim’s resolve to bounce back was clear. Whatever the final outcome, the story of Tim’s recovery was going to be one of bravery and determination in the face of adversity. To document Tim’s journey, On teamed up with Emmy-award-winning director Andrew Hinton. The result is the inspirational short documentary, The Man with the Halo.
When Tim crossed the finish line in Florianopolis that day, his overall time of 7:40:23 didn’t just seal victory against his race opponents. It set a new world record for the fastest time ever in an Ironman triathlon. Before Tim, the record for Ironman distance (2.4 mile (3.8 km) swim, 112 mile (180 km) bike, 26.2 mile (42.2 km) run) stood at 7:44:29, set by Lionel Sanders with a 53:45 swim, 4:04:38 bike and a 2:42:21 marathon.
Broken down across disciplines, Tim’s stellar performance set the new record split at 44:16 for the swim, a 4:06:56 on the bike and a marathon run of 2:44:46 to total the new record of 7:40:23.
After leaving Brazil as the world record holder, Tim’s sights turned to the 2017 Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii, in October. Clearly in top form with plenty of training time still to go, Tim was talked up by many as a favorite to win the most iconic race in Ironman and write himself even further into the sport’s history books.
Six months on, Tim arrived in Hawaii in the shape of his life and ready to race. But he never made it to the start line.
While cycling in Kona as part of his final preparations, Tim was hit by a truck. The collision was serious. Scans revealed Tim had broken his neck. It was the end of Tim’s hopes of competing at the World Championships, but thankfully not the end of Tim.
The epitome of a fighter, Tim’s thoughts quickly turned to recovery. Among several options for treating his injury, only one would offer Tim even a chance at competing with the best again: a halo.
Despite its angelic name, the halo resembles something from a torture chamber. A circular metal framework, the halo was fixed directly into Tim’s skull and supported on his shoulders. Two days after the crash, Tim was back home in Boulder, Colorado, with the halo holding his head in place for healing and a long and painful road ahead.
The following four months tested even an Ironman like Tim to his very limits, mentally and physically. When the halo was removed in at the start of 2018, it marked the end of the first chapter of Tim’s recovery and the start of his rehabilitation.
The steely determination that Tim showed since returning to consciousness after the crash now shifted to rebuilding himself as an Ironman. Less than half a year after he broke his neck, Tim was already in the gym with his sights on big goals. Remarkably, on April 16, almost exactly six months after the accident, Tim took on the 2018 Boston Marathon. Despite driving rain and temperatures close to freezing, Tim finished in 2 hours, 49 minutes and 42 seconds, just five minutes more than the marathon leg of his world-record-setting Ironman race in Florianopolis, Brazil in May 2017.
On July 29, 2018, Tim was back on an elite Ironman start line in Hamburg, Germany. A ninth-place finish marked an incredible achievement but was not enough to secure a return to Kona. Undeterred, Tim made another bid for qualification just three weeks later at Ironman Denmark in Copenhagen. Unfortunately, the race didn’t go to plan. After a strong start, Tim was forced to retire. Just as he was accepting that a return to the World Championships would have to wait, news came that one of the qualifiers had dropped out. Ranked just outside the qualification places, Tim would take his spot. The Man with the Halo was heading back to Kona.
On October 13, 2018, Tim stood on the start line in Kona ready to take on the Ironman World Championships. The journey for the Man with the Halo had come full circle, thanks only to Tim’s unstoppable determination in the face of unthinkable adversity. With the lava fields as hot and unforgiving as ever, Tim crushed the Kona course in 8:45, finishing in 53rd in a field of over 2000. For Tim, it was the closure that mattered more than the result. The Kona finish line had become a start line for his next chapter. The triathlon world better watch out. The Don is back.
After previewing The Man with the Halo for the first time, and just two days after his remarkable return to racing at the Boston Marathon, Tim spoke with On founders David Allemann and Caspar Coppetti. See the full Q&A here:
How did you start running? When I was about 6 or 7 at school we had a run club I joined and straight away, loved it.
What is your pre-race ritual? Stay relaxed and calm and plan the last 24 hours before a race. I have this same routine for a small race or very big race regardless.
What do you think about while running?
Many things! My family. My HR. The session I had prior. My last race. My next race. My mind can wander all over the place.
What is your go to training meal? For me, some oats with almond milk about 90min before a big run session.
What song is your go to for the run? I don’t listen to music while I run outside but on the treadmill, it’s Oasis.
Who is your “team”? My team is my family and coaches Matt and Julie, as well as all of my training partners.
What is your passion next to endurance sports? My family and most sports: rugby, athletics (and the odd glass of wine).
What does no one tell you about being a professional athlete? When it’s hard, it’s very hard. When things get tough people fall away. Then you know who truly believes in you as a person and athlete and no one tells you that.
What was the best piece of running advice you ever received? When you are hurting push some more.
What advice do you have for someone who wants to follow in your footsteps?
Consistency is key. Do the fundamentals right and don’t get caught up in the hype of being a pro. Keep it simple and love and enjoy what you do every day.
Why On? I feel the shoes give me an edge on the competition. As my training is so consistent, I now have a shoe for all sessions – from the track to racing to easy runs to trail runs.