Six months after pins were screwed into the skull of the world-record holder in the Ironman triathlon, he will compete on Monday in the Boston Marathon.
After suffering from what is known as a hangman’s fracture, a broken C2 vertebra, like that found in someone who has died by hanging, Tim Don’s doctor laid out his options: A hard collar would let the bones mend on their own, but was inadvisable because of the fracture’s severity. Surgery would fuse the vertebrae, promising a quick fix and a comfortable recovery, but it would limit his neck’s range of motion, ending his athletic career. Or he could have a halo.
“The halo is like a medieval torture device,” the doctor said. “It’s a miserable experience, but it’s the best option for a complete recovery with no limitations in the long run. You take titanium pins and screw them into your skull, two in front and two in back, and attach them to metal bars, which attach to a bust that you wear for three months and that you can’t take off. It’s pure torture. But it works.”
The Ironman athlete opted for the halo, and it was, indeed, pure torture. And it worked. Six months after the pins were screwed into his skull, he will now compete on Monday in the Boston Marathon. He expects to finish in about 2 hours 50 minutes — about the same time he ran last May when he set the Ironman world record, 7:40:23, which included five hours of swimming and biking beforehand.
The story of Tim Don, the Ironman king and Boston Marathon runner, is in many ways the embodiment of elite endurance athletes. At age 40, Don has a finite window for his body to withstand peak performance. There is the looming need to support himself through sponsors, who tend to compensate wins, not effort. And aside from childhood jobs as a paperboy and a lifeguard, he has single-mindedly devoted his life to reaching the pinnacle of his sport.
“If you’re a surgeon and someone runs over your hand, you’re still going to try to get back,” he said. “I’ve never had another job, and this sport is my way of life. I don’t know any other way.”
In October, Don was preparing for the Ironman world championship in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii, and went out for his final prerace bike ride. He was warming up when a car smashed into him on the highway.
Instead of the career-defining medal he had sought, Don wound up with the halo. For three months, he passed much of his time motionless in an armchair as his vertebra healed at his home here. He could not dress, shave or shower. His forehead swelled, and the holes where the pins were screwed in began to ooze. When his wife tried to clean around the metal with a sponge, Don nearly passed out from the pain.
He recently said that a return to competition was his only option.
“If I’m going to recover, I’m going to bloody recover,” he said. “I’m going to push the boundaries and come back as soon as I can, as best I can, and try to be even better than before. Why not?”