Fighting Adversity: Tom Holden

Even from a few days back in London, I was like “Okay, I can have a dark time: when I go to bed I can be upset and feel sorry for myself. But when I wake up, the next day is a new day. You’ve got to go again.” If you let let those dark times take control of you then it’s a slippery slope.”

Like so many outstanding athletes, Tom Holden wasn’t a winner from the word go. Giving cross country a go at school in a trials race and coming “Maybe in the top 10, I think around sixth - so nowhere near to winning it”, he simply found real enjoyment in running and came away wanting to do better next time. Rather than enjoying the spoils of immediate success, it was the challenge of getting better and better that hooked him on the sport.

A few years later, those incremental improvements resulted in his winning the English Schools Cross Country, and by 2016 he had become one of the premier junior distance runners in the UK.

In May 2017 he was set for an exciting summer on the track when a road accident resulted in severe and widespread brain injuries.

I was unconscious in hospital for about four weeks, during which they wondered why I wasn’t coming round and waking up. They then did brain scans again and they found I had such severe damage to both hemispheres of my brain. It was unlikely I’d ever walk again; not impossible, but very unlikely.

He was in Nottingham’s Queen’s Medical Centre for seven weeks before transferring to St George’s Hospital in London where the arduous process of rehabilitation from his profound injuries began.

When I clocked what had happened, it was an awful day. I’ve come from running 60 miles a week and being a university student to this; at the time I couldn’t even sit up in bed, I couldn’t remember new information. I was completely stripped back, I couldn’t do anything. It was very hard for me to deal with.

I got through that period. I said “Right. It’s an opportunity. It’s a blank page for me to build from. I can just - hopefully - design a better me.”

His determination and progress in the following months was extraordinary. Tom took his first unsupported steps towards the end of August, a little under three months after the collision that left his life in the balance. In November he ran outdoors for the first time and a month later was able to cover the same 200m loop in around in around half the time.

Tom in action before his injury

Tom in action before his injury

Every single step in this recovery has required truly painstaking work.

The part of the brain I damaged the most was the cerebellum, which is responsible for balance and movement. I remember what it felt like to run before the accident, the effortless feeling, but my body can’t do it because of muscle wastage and balance issues.

He’s subsequently made further huge progress, and has been able to run 800m reps on the track at a pace unimaginable a year ago. Having overcome such odds up to this point and inspired so many with his determination, Tom is keen to emphasise his gratitude for those who have helped him in his recovery rather than proclaim grand individual targets:

I had physios, speech and language therapists, the whole therapy team… The work they did was incredible. To get me walking again. I had people coming in to visit every now and again - well, not “every now and then”, every day! - so that kept my spirits up, kept me going. With my spirits up, the therapy team could then [work]; with their knowledge and my desire, it was the perfect formula to get me walking again.

It’s really helpful to have all the people at Tonbridge, all the running community, all friends, family, they’re all so supportive.

To anyone out there facing seemingly insurmountable odds, Tom has these words:

Just take the first step. And then fully commit to overcome the obstacle, whatever it may be. If you approach it methodically and give 110% of your effort, do everything you can, then your friends and your family will be there to pick you back up when you need it. If you approach it like that there are very very few obstacles that can’t emphasise beaten.

You can do a lot more than you can think.