It’s 6am, the sun glints on the snow-capped mountains that surround the town of Boulder, Colorado and Tim Don enjoys his first coffee of the day before his early morning training run.
His route, at an altitude of over 5,000ft, would have lesser mortals gasping for breath in minutes, but for Don it’s just part of a relentless routine designed to make him a world champion second time around.
For decades one of the world’s top triathletes, Don made a dramatic decision two years ago to look for a different challenge and exchange Olympic-style triathlons for what is regarded as probably the world’s most gruelling one-day sporting event.
Ironman, or long-course triathlons – more than double the distance of the short-course events – were created in the 1970s by a US Navy commander who remarked: “Whoever wins will be an ironman.” The first, held in Kona, Hawaii, is still regarded as the Ironman World Championship. This year’s is in October and Tim Don, still fighting fit at 37, would dearly like to win it.
“The holy grail of long-course triathlon has always been Hawaii,” Don says, who’s an ambassador for the On ranges of sports and running shoes. “Time isn’t on my side, but many professionals aged around 40 still do well there.
“I felt it was time to begin my apprenticeship for Hawaii. I know I have a lot to learn. In the short-course triathlons, there are a lot of team tactics, but in long-course you are running for yourself.”
To give himself the best possible chance in his new sport, Don has moved his wife Kelly, a former middle distance runner, and their two small children from the UK to Boulder, now the home of some of the best triathletes and coaches.
“I moved to Boulder to focus on Hawaii as my main goal,” he explains. “It was hard moving my family to a new country, but we have settled here well and have made some great friends. The training is amazing and the altitude agrees with me.
“It’s all about pushing yourself and the standard is fast and getting faster. I love it. And the fact my family is happy here is a big part of it for me.”
Son of a former Premier League football referee, Don was picked out by school coaches as not just a promising athlete, but one whose swift and easy running style made him ideal to join the new wave of triathletes who were using their pace in the third discipline to literally run away from their cycling and swimming rivals.
He fulfilled everyone’s dreams – three Olympics, a world champion in 2006, seven World Cup wins and a five-time British champion – except perhaps his own and two years ago, at 35, decided he was ready for a different challenge.
“I had been doing short-course triathletics for donkey’s years.” Don says. “I still love the sport, so for me a change was better than a rest.” As a result, he made the leap to long-course triathletics – and especially the Ironman 70.3 category, which involves a gruelling 70.3-mile ordeal of a 1.2-mile swim, 56-mile bike ride and 13.1-mile run.
“For sure, I miss the short-course racing,” Don says. “Ironman is so different and there are totally different stresses on the body. There are less races – previously I was on the road eight months of the year and missed my family. I would race maybe 20 times a year, with sprint and Olympic races all over the world. Now there are only 10 races and five of them are in North America.
“I definitely made the right move in my career to step up to Ironman. I’m happy with my performances and can hold my head high when I look back at what I achieved.”
Don did his first 70.3 “for fun” in 2009, where he came fourth in South Africa and decided that was where the rest of his career lay: “With my coach Julie Dibens, also a top triathlete, I had to make some big changes to my training after many years of doing the same thing. The biggest change was learning to slow it down. I have to tell myself to wait. It takes discipline.”
Maybe, but it’s paid off. Three weeks after finishing third at the Ironman 70.3 World Championship in Mont-Tremblant last autumn, Don took his first Ironman gold in Mallorca, beating favourite Manuel Kueng by four minutes after Kueng had led the race for the first six hours. “What an experience,” Don remembers. “I loved it – and hated it.”
You have to be tough, both mentally and physically, to be a triathlete and bad luck was never far from the heels of the young Don, with stolen bikes and crashes looming large in his early career.
Wintering in South Africa to prepare for the 2000 Sydney Olympics, a bike crash broke his wrist and nearly wrecked his plans, but he made it to Sydney. The hoodoo struck again in 2002 when a pulled back muscle kept Don out of the Commonwealth Games in Manchester. Later he would call that disastrous year: “The best thing that ever happened to me. I had to reconsider everything I had been doing up to that point.”
His biggest gamble was to part company with his coaches and go it alone, refocusing his training priorities and cycling thousands of miles to improve his bike performance. It paid off – after good results in Japan and Korea, he beat world number one Greg Bennett to win the World Duathlon Championship.
Don says the peak of his short-course career was, not surprisingly, winning the 2006 World Championship in Lausanne, finishing 17 seconds in front of arch-rival Hamish Carter. He rounded off a glittering season by winning a hotly fought London triathlon.
During this season on the international Ironman circuit, Don will again be competing in On shoes: “I’m excited to be on the team that continues to push the technology envelope with shoes. Not only do On provide the best training and racing shoes, but they’re a supportive company and are seriously involved in the sport.”
Not a surprising reaction really when you learn that On shoes were originally the brainchild of three times world duathlon champion and multiple Ironman winner Olivier Bernhard, who dreamed of a shoe with a cushioned landing and firm take-off that gave the feeling of “running on clouds”.
The idea finally came to earth in Switzerland in 2010 with the development of a revolutionary prototype. Five months later the first On shoes were in the shops. “They’re a good brand to be an ambassador for,” Don says. “I can’t speak too highly of them.”
He hopes to be wearing On shoes for a good while yet: “While I can still make a living through racing, I’ll carry on – it’s been my life almost as long as I can remember. I’m already doing some coaching, working with people of all ages and helping them pursue their triathlon goals, and I’ll probably do more of that when I eventually retire.
“Triathlon is still my passion. Okay, there are days when I find it hard to train and then I think: ‘Hey, this isn’t so bad, is it?’. I love the pursuit of excellence and pushing my body and mind to the best performance I can achieve. I’m a very lucky man.”
Don finishes his coffee and walks out into the sun. The mountains of Colorado may be all around him, but it’s Hawaii in October that’s always on his mind.