It’s two days before Tom “Black Sheep” McGrath is set to appear on the Drew Barrymore Show, and three days before his next big charity run – four marathons in four days. In his midtown Manhattan bar, The Black Sheep, Tom can’t stop moving and pacing with the landline or his ancient cell phone pressed to his ear. When he hangs up, he’ll be in the back, giving direction to the cooks. In minutes, the phone will ring again and his daughter Kelly will yell out from behind the bar, “Dad, it’s for you.” Nervous, he’ll move to the front and stare out the window as he wonders what life might look like after running.
Now at 71, and with his stifled bar business trying to rebound from COVID, a hamstring injury and the effects of age on his speed and endurance, his plan is ambitious. From November 4–7, he will run three marathons in three days and on the fourth day, do the NYC Marathon. He’s raising money for Tunnels to Towers, a foundation for 9/11 first responders. On top of that, he has two national TV spots in the lead up, all coinciding with Saved by My Feet, a documentary on his life story recently released on iTunes and Google Play. This frenetic schedule is typical Tom McGrath. In New York City, he’s been in and out of the public eye as much as a member of the Gambino family. The question is – how long can he keep doing this?
Tom’s running roots are firmly grounded in ultras – the concrete kind. In 1977, he ran across the U.S. from New York to San Francisco in a record time of 53 days and 7 minutes. In 1984, he got third in his first attempt at 24 hours in Queens, New York, and followed that by running New York Road Runner’s inaugural 6-day race. (Indeed, the organizers of the NYC Marathon once dipped their toe in multi-days.) He ran alongside Kouros in the 1988 IAU 1,000-Mile Championship, finishing a disappointing six days behind the Greek. His highlight? Being a piss shield for Kouros during the run. “He turned to me and said, ‘Shield me.’” Tom’s smile spreads wide like a child. “He went right there on the course. My job was to make sure no one saw.”
The solo charity runs are Tom’s thing. From 1989 to 1992, McGrath did four separate 1,000-milers around the Central Park Reservoir for Sloan-Kettering and Project Children. In his sixties, he lowered his mileage and ran six marathons in six days for Achilles Kids four years in a row, not to mention other various charity runs for the American Wheelchair Foundation and UNICEF. This time, he claims, is his last. “I feel it,” he insists. “The legs just aren’t there.” But he’s said that before.
As he stares out the bar window, there’s another call. This one from his wife, Mena. His brow wrinkles under his thick bob of white hair as he takes the receiver. He hasn’t told her about any of the media stuff – not even the upcoming runs. The last two years, Mena has been in bad health. Time running is time away from taking care of her. Also, staff shortages at the bar means his daughter has to take more shifts, and Tom doing interviews and helping charities doesn’t help keep the business going. It weighs on him, an unsounded voice from his family on repeat in his head. It’s time to stop. His body joins in, too. Stop Tom, stop. But that’s the one thing he isn’t good at – his blind spot. He simply does not understand the concept of quitting… anything.
Tom was, and is, a recovering hardcore alcoholic. Not your jovial barfly that starts midday, or the afterwork buddy that can’t say no once the buzz starts humming. He was a two-beer-in-the-taxi-on-the-way-to-work drunk. Work for Tom was owning a bar in one part of the city or another since 1974. When the door would open for the lunch crowd of busy Manhattanites, Tom was in the back with a bottle of vodka. If he was at the bar, he kept peppermint schnapps in a teacup, a Lipton label hanging over the brim. At night, he could turn on a dime into the knock-your-jaw-if-you-crossed-him drunk. He’s had his nose broken multiple times, his jaw wired shut, and the inglorious honor of having run every single customer out of his own bar. He couldn’t and wouldn’t stop drinking – not till his eyes turned yellow.
It’s 2010 – the bottom. Tom’s driving home from his bar, loaded, when he notices a fancy, rich-boy car crowding the parking space in front of his building. He sees red – weaponizes his Hummer into a tank and starts smashing into it (a BMW) over and over. He’ll still be drunk when they handcuff him in front of his neighbors. Drunk when he goes to jail. Drunk when they take the mugshot. Sober when they take him to the hospital and scared as hell when the doctor tells him he has 10 days to live. That is, if he doesn’t stop. With his liver shot – his eyes jaundiced, he can’t hold back the shame gripping his gut. “If I get out of here,” he tells the doctor, “I want to run. I want to run to help people.”
Raised with seven brothers and three sisters in Fermanagh, Northern Ireland, Tom grew up with no running water or electricity. He dreamed of becoming a holy person and at 11, left home to join “The Brothers of Charity,” a boarding school to develop young men into priests. He found he wasn’t cut out for that life and later bounced from teaching jobs to selling Bibles in San Juan to driving taxis in NYC before landing in the bar business. Through it all he’s kept a strong sense of the devout. He sees himself as a sort of running paladin; he wants to feel like he’s doing some good for people, for a higher power. On his daily run in the city streets, he stops by several churches along his path, dips his hands in Holy Water, says a prayer and heads back out.
Tom’s also thoroughly business minded. When he wasn’t managing a pub, he worked in the tunnels under New York City, did construction and even dealt cards in a mafia-run den of ill-repute. When he greets you with his downhome charm and a firm handshake, you can’t help but notice the gold bands on his wrists. You feel the pride in his eyes that he’s made something of himself – built a life from the ground up.
He never set out to be a runner; he was a Gaelic footballer. More akin to rugby, Tom twice made it to the Under-21 All-Ireland Finals, the Super Bowl of the sport. Then, he was a collegiate boxer, sparring with British soldiers in locally hyped betting fests. Running was a fluke. He was in a park in Queens, waiting on his buddies to come back from a bar. (He didn’t drink then.) Bored, he started running. They showed up three hours later to find Tom runner-stoned: high from running the whole time and loving it. From then on, he never wanted to stop.
When he did take breaks from running, he ballooned with booze and fast food. His waist would stretch from a 31 to a 38 and his suit size from 38 to 44. “When I was running, I wasn’t drinking. And when I was drinking, I wasn’t running.” One colleague recalled you never knew who you were going to get, “15-mile-a-day Tom or 15-pint-a-day Tom.”
He’d inevitably show up to races overweight and out of shape. He’d struggle and would never become “a name” in ultrarunning. In fact, he’s only stood atop the podium once in his life: Ireland’s first 24-hour race. He won with 126 miles. He doesn’t brag about it. You have to tickle these facts out of him over years of conversation. What you get up front and what never seems to change, is the impression that this man has the energy of an 18-year-old. And the only thing that can slow him down is himself.
Those that know Tom best wonder if the charities need him, or if he needs the charities. These events, though frenzied and stressful for Tom and his family, buttress his sense of purpose in the world. He has a chance to make a difference – be more than just another Irish barman; he has the chance to be a hero. Hopes are always high in the beginning stages. More often than not, the results are deflating. In 2017, Tom did another charity run called “Miles for Miracles.” Set up to help the American Wheelchair Foundation, Tom ran from Boston to New York in a Santa suit. When the fundraising goals came up well short and many of the meet and greets were either pathetically attended or empty, Tom decided he was finally hanging up his shoes.
When 2019 came around, however, Tom was back at it again. It was Ole Ireland calling this time. He figured he knew how to stop: go back to the homeland and do a big run there. His story made the The New York Times and the headline read, “One Last Run for the ‘Irish Forest Gump.’” Being in print and circulated around the globe, finality and closure seemed to be at hand. It took him five days to do the 100 miles from Belfast to Dublin for Jigsaw, an Irish charity focused on mental health. One leg would flare up, then cool, then the other would chime in. He arrived in Croke Park at halftime of the All-Ireland Final to great applause. With a microphone in his face and a massive crowd of his people around him, he declared, “My journey is over.”
Over the winter, Tom seemed finally at peace, satiated. Then, the pandemic came. After his bar closed and life slowed down, Tom was faced with his greatest fear: time.
The fall chill sweeps over the Hudson Valley and down into the hollows between the skyscrapers. The first few days always feel colder than they are – a warning shot from Old Man Winter. Far beneath the buzzing helicopters and overgrown buildings, Tom’s a speck on 3rd Avenue at 14-minutes-a-mile. He moves on the city streets with the horns and the taxis and the buses as if he belongs.
Tom’s brain is, and he’ll admit this, wired like a light switch. For most of his adult life, he’s known two modes: drinking and running. The nightmare that keeps him up at night is that the Tom McGrath he’s worked so hard to create and curate will vanish. Reborn will be the black sheep, his alter ego and the name of his midtown pub. The dark side is waiting for him… wanting revenge for his sobriety and the good he’s done.
“I never thought I would get old,” Tom says, still looking spry in a tight-fitting short sleeve. “But I realize that I can’t do what I used to.” He fears if he stops his epic runs, he’ll grow old like Dorian Gray – shrivel up in seconds like a mummy exposed to the air. So, he trudges on. These days it’s hard for the Irishman to run a mile without having to walk a bit. Now, staring down four marathons in four days, he knows what he’s in for. “It’s going to be walk-run-walk-run.”
The wind blows chilly and colored leaves pile up in the gutters. He shuffles through them, his pace slow, dogged – his last run before showtime. His head is down, pointed like a trail runner at the three-foot space ahead of him. The city roars by, oblivious. Then a common occurrence: a New York voice booms from a cop car, “Hey, Black Sheep!” Enthusiasm and adoration permeate Tom’s grimaced concentration. He smiles and waves.
It’s been a year since he first conceived the idea of this endurance event, a day since he gave his wife the heads-up and less than 24 hours till his next, last run.