2020: An unforgettable year as a runner…and ICU dietitian (part 1/2)

Perhaps a little self-indulgent, but this year has been unforgettable for all the right and mostly wrong reasons, so here’s my month-by-month recap. I’m lucky that running is a constant in my life, and something I can turn to on even the hardest of days, so I’ve based this blog around that.


Starting the year buzzing with optimism but still burdened by my terrible sense of direction, I got lost and missed the start of Whitstable parkrun, but caught up from the back and swore this year was definitely going to be the year I got to my first milestone of 50 parkruns. Nothing was going to get in the way of that…

As part of that burst of parkrun positivity, I finally volunteered at one too (the 500th at Finsbury Park), and then sneaked a new PB by one second at Burgess Park (17.55).

And this was also the year that I was going to become a better and stronger all-round runner. I showed up for my first proper XC race at Ally Pally in ludicrously muddy conditions. It quickly became apparent that I was the only runner not wearing XC spikes, and I basically slid my way round the hilly course, but I loved it (and promptly purchased some second hand spikes).

Finally, knowing that this is where the PBs are built, I headed back to track Tuesdays with London Heathside and vowed not to miss a single session without good reason this year. Again, surely nothing would stop that…


Some mad storms (Ciara and Dennis, respectively) blew in, so I took to the gym and the treadmill to keep up the workout intensity prior to race season.

I was also doing hill reps at least once per week, did my favourite ‘1 hour gas test’ run to gauge where I am with training (15.78km), and got somewhat obsessed with dietary nitrates, as I went all-in on a literature review as part of my Sports Nutrition Postgrad.


A month of utter madness couldn’t have started better. On the 1st of March, I took on the Big Half in London and I think it was probably the best racing performance of my life to date. I smashed my PB by well over 2 minutes (1:17:15), and it’s the first time I’ve finished a race with a time I didn’t know I was capable of (and I wasn’t even wearing carbon plated shoes!)

A week after that I took 20 seconds off my parkrun PB (17:35) at the hilly course at Finsbury, then the following Saturday I took a further 6 seconds off that (17:29) and notched up my first ever 1st place finish at my home town course in Frome. Little did I know then that that would be the last parkrun of the year, and that nearly 10 months later I’ve still been unable to defend my ‘title’.

Meanwhile of course, things were getting really scary in the news, and at work on the ICU. Our unit was starting to fill up with COVID positive patients, and it became apparent that this was the start of a serious pandemic. Nonetheless, Bath Half Marathon refused to cancel on the 15th or even offer me a refund if I didn’t turn up, despite me explaining why I couldn’t possibly do so given my work. I’d run this race 7 or 8 times previously, but won’t be signing up again.

A week later, the country was in full lockdown. Work got crazier and crazier and life became restricted in so many ways, but one tiny silver lining was my daily run commute home. Over the next few weeks, I felt like I had the wide streets and landmarks of central London to myself, and the sun shone every single day. Truly unforgettable, surreal scenes.


I grew an FFP3-ready moustache (i.e. medical grade face mask), initially as a bit of a joke, but 8 months later it’s just become my permanent 2020 look (albeit accompanied by a temporary Christmas beard as I write this). It was either that or full on clean shaven…no thanks.

Early in the month, I attempted but couldn’t sustain a decent pace for what would end up being my longest run of the year (28km). I started to realise that the stress and emotion of work was taking its toll and that I shouldn’t take it or my physical or mental health for granted. It became impossible to switch off from the news, especially as it made its way closer and closer to home. It’s no secret that the Prime Minister himself was on our ICU, and the hospital site was awash with media and security. It was intense.

So, I slowed 90% of my runs right down and switched others out for glorious walks through beautiful North London residential streets with Holly, and just used it as my time to try to switch off and zone out. It helped, to an extent, and I then allowed myself to really let loose once per week for a 5km time trial at the weekend. I definitely don’t regard these as official PBs, but took great satisfaction in building up to them as if they were races, and managed 17:15, 16:54 and 17:07 in consecutive weeks.


I managed to get my 6th and final piece of sports nutrition coursework in on time, just. This was a mammoth ‘Sportfolio’ case study with an athlete that had proved to be a useful distraction from the day job, but I could not have been happier when I pressed ‘submit’. The feedback a week or two later was the best I’ve ever received across my whole academic life, and it just confirmed how much I love working in sports nutrition. Since then I’ve officially launched Tom Hollis Performance Nutrition, and have enjoyed every second helping like-minded endurance athletes and plant-based clients reach their potential.

Other than that, May was really just a month to keep things ticking over. The ICU was still unrecognisable in size and appearance as we tried to treat the huge number of COVID patients (many of them long-stayers at this stage), and at least a dozen redeployed dietitians were still part of our now sizeable ICU dietetic team. We kept up team morale with daily 5 minute exercises (obviously I loved this) and weekly international shared lunches on Fridays (a rare chance for people to use their creativity in an otherwise boring year), and I used those Friday mornings to blitz a tempo run to work to make the most of the ensuing onslaught of global carbs.

The weather remained beautiful throughout May, and I kept the pace low but the mileage up. I passed 1000km for 2020 early in the month, and pretty much every evening I ran (slowly) to the park to hang out with Holly and Harvey (our part-time dog). It wasn’t all bad.


The Black Lives Matter movement was in full swing, and at least twice I got caught up in BLM protests as I stupidly planned to jog home through Whitehall. Things finally started to calm down on ICU though, at least in terms of COVID. The temperature also started to drop, so I decided to use this as my opportunity to ramp things up again with my running; I got back to regular tempo runs, some rare double run commutes, solo interval sessions on the track, and hill reps at least once a week.

With the Sports Nutrition Postgrad successfully completed, I now had some free time at the weekends, and needed a new routine. I started doing much-missed Sunday long(ish) runs again, finishing up at Starbucks for my free NHS coffee and Aldi in time for the NHS only opening hours. For once in our careers, my colleagues and I were made to feel pretty special and appreciated in those weeks, and the cherry on top for me was a free pair of Brooks Glycerin 17s that arrived through my door. They’ve been my comfy run commute go-to shoe ever since.

As for those long runs, I found myself in surprisingly good shape, and despite keeping things controlled and steady, notched up the following:

7th: 21.1km at 3:53/km pace

14th: 22.1km at 3:56

21st: 18.5km at 3:56

27th: 21.1km at 3:55

It was around this time that Tuesday club sessions restarted on the track, but due to distancing and time restrictions, I joined a little group of Heathsiders in doing our own replica sessions instead. It felt great running with others of the same level for the first time in months, and also made me realise that all that consistent run commuting (slow or otherwise) had added up to leave me fitter than I’d ever been.

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