Tom McGrath eases out of his Midtown Manhattan bar, The Black Sheep, just as New York City is waking up. Steam hisses from the manhole covers and the sunlight is so bright it’s blinding. But McGrath is easy to spot. Dressed like an Irish flag—orange shirt, green shorts—he jogs slowly down 3rd avenue, head-on into traffic. The bus drivers wave as they whiz by, inches away; if McGrath sees them, he waves back.
McGrath is a well-known figure at this particular time and on his particular route. He’s run the same six-mile course every day for over a decade: down 3rd to the East Village, over to Immaculate Conception on 1st Avenue, where he splashes holy water on his legs (for divine protection), then a right over to the Hudson River, a turn-around and a quick prayer at St. Anthony of Padua Church, then finally up Broadway through the most packed areas of the city: Madison Square, Herald Square, Times Square. Police in their scooter cars yell out to him, “Hey, Black Sheep!”
At a New York Sports Club a block away from his bar, McGrath slips into slacks and a tight-fitting polo. When the doors of his bar swing open for lunch, he’s in constant motion, greeting regulars and tourists with a smile, a thick Irish accent—and a pitch. “Five thousand pairs of running shoes for Achilles Kids. I’ll be running 100 miles on the streets of New York from school to school—and [I’ve] got to have your help.”
McGrath speaks with the fervor of a preacher and the slick bravado of a car salesman, but the truth is he’s worried. Donations for his regular charity runs have dropped, and at 69, so have his once awe-inspiring mileages. The ultrarunner who once ran 1,000 miles around Central Park Reservoir–four years in a row—now struggles to finish 100 miles in a week.
He’s calling the Achilles Kids event (planned for October 2020) his last run, the end to one of the most unusual running careers you’re likely to come across. But there’s another side to McGrath, one that includes an alcohol addiction that nearly killed him. He’s lucky he can help anyone. And, as for quitting? It’s hell.
In The Black Sheep, McGrath is a superstar. Regulars treat him with the reverence of Mother Teresa. At some point, he’s done something for them, and they’ll never forget it. He’s cashed their checks when no one would, taken them to see doctors when they needed a ride. The bar’s walls document the prolific career of the journey runner who has been called the “Irish Forrest Gump” by the New York Times. One photo captures him crossing the Golden Gate Bridge in 1977, after running 3,000 miles across America in 53 days, the FKT at that time. Another shows him on the podium in front of New York City Marathon founder Fred Lebow at NYRR’s 100-mile championship in Shea Stadium in 1984. Then there is a jubilant McGrath with the Olympic Torch raised high over his head. He got to keep it after carrying it through Manhattan for the 1996 Atlanta Games, and likes to bring it out and show it off. “You can never relight it,” McGrath says (he asked). “If you do, they’ll come take it away from you.”
But McGrath is more than a journey runner. He has competed with some of the all-time greats of mega-distance ultrarunning. In 1988, he was at the Sri Chinmoy 1,000-mile World Championships alongside Greek god, Yiannis Kouros. “Well, I was a piss shield for him.” Tom’s eyes water as he laughs. “My tent was next to his. We came out running and he said, ‘shield me.’ And he just went right there on the course, while we were running.” The following year, McGrath stopped mid-run in a 100-miler to watch Al Howie breeze by him. He makes a swishing sound and cuts through the air with his hand. “I just stood there and watched him. I actually forgot I was in the race.” He laughs now, but the reality was crushing. “You realize this runner is better than you and no amount of training is ever gonna change that.”
In the ‘80s, when McGrath was doing multiple ultras a year, his drinking didn’t seem like a problem. “I’d stop one week before [doing a] race,” McGrath remembers. “I truly believed when I got to the starting line, I was gonna win.” But he would often show up out of shape, sometimes 50 pounds overweight, and would quickly find out he wasn’t even in contention. (In fact, McGrath has only ever won one race; Ireland’s first 24-hour event in 1984.)
By the late 90s, it took a liter of vodka a day to satisfy his addiction, and McGrath had given up on catching the elite multi-day runners. McGrath had developed a taste for alcohol and the shadier sides of life after becoming a barman in Queens in the ‘70s. Once on the path to the priesthood at St. Declan’s College in Ireland, McGrath started dealing blackjack in dark, gun-guarded rooms and went from a server of alcohol to a devout consumer: two beers in brown-paper bags in the cab to work and a vodka laced with peppermint schnapps first thing in the door. “The customers thought I was drinking tea,” he says. On Sundays, when you couldn’t buy alcohol till noon, he’d raid delis. “I’d walk to the back and cough as I popped open beers.” He would then pay and apologize to the cashier. “Sorry, here’s the money. But the beer is in my belly.”
Regular drunken brawls earned him two broken jaws, several missing teeth and more than one arrest. “I’m ashamed of it all now,” he says. Recalling one fight, McGrath points toward a table at his bar where two locals chat about Brexit over a plate of wings. “The bar was empty, and I just sat at that table sulking like some kind of intoxicated animal.” He had run all the customers out of his own bar—on St. Patrick’s Day. He was deeply embarrassed.
But quitting is not McGrath’s thing and thus began a 15-year back and forth between drinking and racing. His weight fluctuated between 145 and 250 pounds. “I had two sets of clothes,” he says. He got so disgusted with himself that he would cross the street when he passed his gym. “I was literally living a double life. It was psychologically devastating.”
One fateful night in 2010, McGrath was driving home, weaponized with drink. “The parking spot [in front of my home] wasn’t big enough, so I made room.” He grins, attempting to turn the story into a joke. Then he glances over at his daughter Kelli working behind the bar and quietly admits, “that was a bad night.” McGrath smashed up the BMW in the next spot next to where he was trying to park, and did $3,000 worth of damage to his own vehicle—a Hummer—right in front of his apartment building. “The doorman saw everything, saw them cuff me.” His eyes water as he rubs at his face. “It was embarrassing, deeply. It should have stopped there.”
That same year, McGrath ended up in a hospital bed at NYU. By this point he couldn’t walk without falling. The doctor gave him just ten days to live. His wife Mena was at his bedside, holding his hand, terrified. “Tom, you’re going to die on me. Your eyes are yellow.”
McGrath was denied a liver transplant; alcoholics don’t make the list. Yet, miraculously, he pulled through. To McGrath, it was a sign. “If I get out of this,” he vowed. “I’m going to run as far as my legs will carry me. I’m gonna run to help people.”
He’d done charity runs in the past. Now, he redoubled his efforts. Over the next ten years McGrath did a 12-hour run for Foyle Hospice, a 24-hour run for the Irish Heart Foundation, a 300-mile run for the Marie Curie Cancer Care, and hundreds of miles for Achilles Kids, to name a few. The crusades turned the black sheep into a saint back in Ireland, earning him two appearances at halftime of the All-Ireland Football Championship semi-finals.
Tom credits his sobriety to maturity and the power of distraction. “You replace five Heineken in the morning with five miles in the morning.” He also keeps every waking hour occupied. He never stops moving, talking. Quitting booze surrounded by bottles every day was hell, but McGrath’s doctor’s warning is on constant repeat in his head: “Your next fall could be your last.”
On the cusp of 70, McGrath still starts his day with 300 sit ups and 300 leg presses for breakfast, followed by butterflies, push-ups, and rope work at the gym. He does two runs a day, each an hour and a half, and when it snows, he runs steps in Grand Central down to the 7 train.
McGrath seems unstoppable, like he could keep running forever. But during an ambitious 240-mile run from Boston to New York for the American Wheelchair Mission in 2018, his knee flared-up, turning the event into a death march. “It was run—walk—run—walk.” Same deal in the summer of 2019, when McGrath ran and walked 100 miles from Belfast to Dublin to raise money for Jigsaw, an organization focused on the mental health of Ireland’s youth. It took him five days.
“Time is catching up with both of us,” he says, pointing to the pictures on the bar wall. “Look close—she’s there at every single finish line.” McGrath’s wife’s arthritis has been progressing faster than expected, and the doctors have no answers. Tom wrestles with the time he spends away from her, worries it makes her more aware of her lack of mobility, and she wants him to stop. At home, he sneaks in extra sets in his bathtub. “I grab the faucet with my feet and do 100 sit ups right out of the water and 50 to 60 dips on to that.” Why the bathtub? So his wife can’t hear. “The truth is I’ve gotta stay fit. I’ve gotta keep going, keep us going.” He takes a big swig of coffee with a mischievous grin like an altar boy skipping mass. “No, I can’t stop.”
The sun slips behind the midtown skyscrapers and 3rd avenue begins to glow a dull orange. Standing just inside the door of The Black Sheep, McGrath is back in his running clothes, talking on his cellphone. His daughter Kelli holds up the landline from behind the bar, indicating he’s got another call, but McGrath waves her off—he’s got the New York Mets on the line. He threw out the opening ball at a recent game and they donated $5,000 to help get “the shoes.” Now McGrath is on them for more. When that call wraps he talks to a potential corporate backer, giving them the same pitch he gives his customers. “Five thousand pairs. That’s five thousand kids who’ve got enough to deal with without having to worry about shoes.” McGrath was recently featured in the Sunday Times. He knows the iron is hot.
The bar is now quiet. The post-work rush will soon come. For one second, Tom stops moving. He looks lost as he stands by the door. His eyes glaze over as if he’s forgotten something. One tourist from Ohio stares at him, then looks back at a framed picture on the wall. “Wow,” he says. “That’s you?”
McGrath comes back to life and smiles. “That one was 3,000 miles.”
The man looks confused. “Have you ever run a marathon?”
Tom pats him on the back, chuckles, and ambles away, out the door and into the streets for another run.