Halo free, but a long way to go

A terrible accident a few days before the 2017 IRONMAN World Championships took Brit Tim Don out of the race. The Halo (seen in the first pic below) finally came off, but he is still a long way from being fully recovered. I chatted with him to see how he is doing and what is next.

Slowtwitch: Tim, how are you my friend?

Tim Don: Very happy and a bit stiff, but mostly happy. Halo free and loving it. Just unbelievable really. It has been a tough 3 months for us all, that’s for sure.

ST: The Halo time must have seemed like an eternity.

Tim: Yep it did seem like an eternity - 12 weeks to the day since the car hit me on the Queen K three days before the race. The nights were the toughest especially early on when I was not really sleeping longer than 60 minutes at a time. But onwards and upwards, it is off and I can move on to the next stage of my rehab and move a bit more as well.

ST: How did you sleep with that contraption?

Tim: Not so good to be honest, the first 3 weeks I slept in a chair, upright. As the brace came half way down my back and front, any pressure from leaning back on it put extra force on my screws, which were rather painful. At about 3 weeks I was off all the strong prescription pain killers and moved back upstairs back into a bed, but again upright with about 4 big pillows. The problem with all of these sleeping positions was my legs, they were just pooling with blood and swelling up big time even with compression socks and tights on, and it was neither good nor comfy. At about five weeks we decided to try a bed that can move up and down both for your head and legs and wow, I could sleep a full night! Still upright but as my legs were elevated they felt so much better. Now the Halo is off and within three days I was flat on my back and so happy. Simple things. [Laughs.]

ST: Is that the first time you’ve laughed since the accident?

Tim: Ah no, we had a wonderful Christmas with the family. There were plenty of tears but we had a few laughs as well. With a 7-year old daughter and 3-year-old son, some of the questions were brilliant. I was also having a laugh with my friends over coffee or wine. But it was a very happy day when the Halo came off. My wife Kelly had done so much for me, simple things like cleaning my screws twice a day or even helping me shower with the whole brace on. She has been my pillar and was certainly happy to see the back of it too.

ST: So what is next on the road to recovery?

Tim: For me now it’s all about rehab moving forward. While I was in the Halo I was doing about 6 hours in the gym and 5 hours on the trainer - very easy. I have lost so much muscle mass in my upper body, both on my back and chest, and also my whole upper body is rather tight, and flexibility is nonexistent. I still have to wear a hard collar 24 hours a day, but I have two of them, one for training and one for just chilling. I can also get in the pool and do some water running once the holes in my head have healed up. My physio John Dennis is flying out from the UK to do some intense work with me for 10 days with Amy Quinn, my S&C coach at Rally Sport. Matt and Julie have also given me sessions on Zwift, which I started 48 hours after the Halo removal. Running and swimming will be the last pieces of the jigsaw as the rotation and vibration are not to good for me right now. On January 30th I have another round of scans and hopefully will get the all-clear from Doctor Villavicencio, or Doctor V as he is known. As he said, the Halo has done it’s job and it is up to me not to mess it up over the next 4 weeks. So as hard as it is, I have to respect the body and time to heal it.

ST: What do you remember from the accident in Kona?

Tim: Not too much - bits and bobs really. I remember I was going easy and coming up to the petrol station about 5km out of town and then a white work truck turned in front of me from the oncoming traffic to get some petrol. I tried to avoid it from the cycle lane and fully locked both breaks. The next thing I remember, I was been lifted from the cycle lane to the flower bed on the side of the road and been asked what my phone code was and who they should call. I said Franko [Vatterot, manager] and not Kelly my wife. The next thing I remember was being in the ambulance and them trying to get an IV line into my arm. Once at the hospital, Franko, Julie and Pat Mckeon turned up and I had a series of CT scans, X-Rays and MRIs. I was shaken up and in pain with my neck and right shoulder. My right quad and left glute were also sore. But I was still thinking early on, ‘No worries, a stiff neck and sore shoulder. I could still race.’

It was when I went in for one of the last MRIs that I realized it was rather serious. Three nurses transferred me from my bed to the MRI table but after the scan about 6-8 nurses came in to move me back, and that’s when it hit me - this was proper. They were being crazy careful moving me around. I think it hit Julie and Franko pretty bad as well as it was a massive team effort for us all. So much was invested into Kona.

ST: After you hit the ground what went through your mind?

Tim: ‘Bugger, this is my new bike and the first time I have ridden my new race wheels. Is this really happening to me?’ Then I just could not get up and the pain seeped in. I was just thinking about all the training that had gone into this race, all the sacrifices by my family and all the support of my sponsors, to end like this, surely not.

ST: Before the accident how did you feel in Kona and how had your prep been going?

Tim: My lead up to Kona had gone pretty well. Getting 3rd at the 70.3 World Championships in Chattanooga showed I had good form 5 weeks out. I had a few key sessions that went well, not like killer well, but well enough. Back in Boulder I did a high altitude camp as well. That was fun with Julie, EK and Pat, and my family came up high too. We had a blast and got some lovely miles in as well. Once in Kona 2 weeks out, I was relaxed and happy and it was nice to hang out with my friends Sam, Shawn and Laurie. Training was going well and these were the final touches, so to speak. I was in a good place, that was for sure.

ST: What target or goal had you set for race day?

Tim: For me on race day it was to be competitive at the front and be in the fight shooting for a top 5 come the second half of the marathon. Stick to our plan with regards to nutrition, pacing and strategy, and hope for a little bit of luck come race day. But alas it was not meant to be for me to toe the line.

ST: Is it fair to say that your season had been going well up to that accident?

Tim: I can’t complain about my season. We hit all our goals and the 07:40:23 time was a pure bonus. I just really wanted to win a Championship Ironman and put together a good swim, bike and run. It was no secret I have been working on my biking as a whole for the last 12 months with Matt and from all my races you could see that. I was slowly starting to be able to run solidly off a hard, fast and smart bike.

ST: And then that rapid change from a high to a low.

Tim: It’s mad looking back on the few weeks around Kona and being hit by a car. At the time it all happened so fast and the physical pain and wanting to get the best treatment along with the practicality of getting from Kona to Boulder took over for me. Pat Mckeon was a super star after finishing of his season with a stellar Ironman at Wisconsin. He came out to Kona to watch and support all of Julie’s athletes in our squad. Well he flew back to Boulder with me and missed watching the race and left his fiancé in Kona as she was working there. I guess he saw the immediate swing in emotions and body language, but yeah, it was brutal. I mean all those hours training and preparing and I could not even have a crack at the race. I guess it is like studying for your final exams and you can’t even sit in them through no fault of your own. I was fully broken in those few days.

ST: Did you watch the race?

Tim: I kind of watched the race on and off, but to be honest I was in so much pain from my neck, shoulder, and legs. Even with the medication I was all over the place and could not focus 100% on anything. I guess I was still in shock. I mean, I have been a pro since 1997 and it’s the first time I have ever been hit by a car. Sure, I have fallen off and crashed but never in a vehicle/bike collision. I was truly gutted and heart broken.

ST: Any surprises in your view?

Tim: The big surprises for me were Jan in the men’s race and Lucy in the women’s race. I guess Ironman, especially Kona, can be a cruel beast and take the race away from you in many ways. I think Jan showed his true class as a person by finishing what must have been tough for him. Fair play! Wow, and Lucy. What a gutsy race - no fear, racing full confidence and full gas. I think it won’t be long until we see her back on a podium somewhere soon, a bright future in our sport for sure.

ST: What predictions did the docs give you back then?

Tim: Leaving the hospital in Kona I was told 5 weeks in a hard collar and I would be good to go, I was thinking, ‘Well, Island House is out but maybe Pucon. I have always wanted to go to Chile.’ But as soon as we landed in Denver we went straight to Boulder Neurosurgical & Spine Associates to see Doctor V, who is also a triathlete. After looking at all of my scans he said, “Look, you have two choices. A C1 C2 fusion or a Halo. In fact, you have one choice, a Halo. It’s the most aggressive treatment but you will have a 90% chance of getting 100% of full neck mobility back.” So the Halo is what I went for, not knowing what it was to be honest. He said 3 months in it and then a soft collar, and I had it on for 12 weeks exactly. He was right, it is very aggressive and not nice, especially when your screws keep coming loose and you have to have them screwed back in. I even had to have an extra 5th screw put in as the hole had become to loose to tighten it up for the 3rd time and they were worried it would go right through. To give you an idea, you tighten your seat post clamp to 4-5Nm and the 5 screws in my head were torqued to 8Nm!

ST: Do you consider yourself a patient man?

Tim: Good question! Kelly (my wife) and coaches would say that I am not - I am sure. But I do respect the process of training, getting fit, race craft etc., and I will do the same with all my rehab. Push the limits and boundaries, hell yes, but knowing where they are and for me more importantly knowing the consequences of going beyond them (fusion of C1 and C2). I will be patient.

ST: Have the sponsors been patient?

Tim: My sponsors have been nothing short of amazing. The support from them all has just blown us away. Literally their continued support into 2018 and beyond and their belief in me to get back to the top and race in Kona in 2018 has brought me to tears more than once.

ST: Is there anything else we should know?

Tim: Global Community. My family has been blown away by how the triathlon community has supported us. The emails, letters, social media posts, everyone who has reached out to us, even the food hampers and the meal train that some good friends set up to help us out have meant so much and given us so much positive energy. It’s everyone out there that is an inspiration to me and helps me get up each day to fight another day and do what I love so bloody much, go race triathlon. So thank you all. Seriously, it means the world to my family. See you at the races and come say hello and not Halo!

You can follow Tim Don on Instagram via @tri_thedon