A top-flight triathlete who breaks his damn neck at 39 and insists he can reign again has gotta have a screw loose, right? Hold that thought, because this comeback chronicle is one of a kind.

Last October, Ironman star Tim Don was en fuego. Fresh off a world-record-setting South American Championship performance in Brazil—where he completed the 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike, and 26.22-mile run in 7:40:23—the London-born, Colorado-residing three-time Olympian hit Kona, HI, with eyes on “the holy grail,” the World Championship.

Then, on a training ride two days before the race, Don got T-boned by a car and suffered a hangman’s fracture. In one heart/neck-breaking moment, all seemed lost.

“A week or so later, when I was in excruciating pain with screws in my skull,” Don recalls, “I couldn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel.” See, without hesitation, he’d chosen the most grueling recovery route, which also offered the best chance to compete again: three months with his neck immobilized in a halo brace, secured by, yes, skull screws.

“I had to sleep bolt upright, I couldn’t put my socks on, I couldn’t even get the milk at the back of the fridge,” Don half-jokes now. Still, he resolved to run the Boston Marathon in six months—a journey followed in shoe sponsor On’s goosebump-raising YouTube documentary, The Man With the Halo—and return to Kona in a year. Thanks to a few major factors, this now 40-year-old warrior did both.