Belfast Telegraph

Ultra-runner Tom McGrath shares booze battle as he completes final adventure

The amazing story of ultra-runner Tom McGrath, currently completing his final adventure, aged 69 - 'I have the discipline not to drink, because if I do there is a strong chance that in a short space of time I'd die'

Final curtain: Tom McGrath, who is running 100 miles from Belfast to Dublin in aid of mental health and wellbeing charity Jigsaw
Final curtain: Tom McGrath, who is running 100 miles from Belfast to Dublin in aid of mental health and wellbeing charity Jigsaw
Flying the flags: Tom in his adopted home of New York
Tom McGrath

On Wednesday morning, a 69-year-old man took off from Belfast on foot, heading south.

At some point today, Tom McGrath of Ederney, Co Fermanagh but most certainly a son of New York having moved there four decades ago, will bound into Croke Park and take the microphone for two minutes during the half-time break between Mayo and Dublin to tell of his work and charity run for Jigsaw, who work with young people suffering from mental health issues and addictions of all types.

He's been running all his life.

He ran from the Brothers of Charity when he was asked to make his vocation after four years training in Cork, having left home at 11.

He's been on the run from jails with several spells in the drunk tank; a cult he joined in Puerto Rico (a Bible-selling wheeze he and a friend were offered after a chance encounter while lying on South Beach in Miami), and the grip of alcohol. He ran from his death bed when he was given 10 days to live with his wife Mena and daughter Kelli pleading with him to stop loading himself up with vodka.

On August 28, 1977, he ran across America. The day before, he married Mena Monaghan, his next door neighbour from back home with his brother Fr Sean McGrath conducting the ceremony. Their honeymoon took off from City Hall. City Council president Paul O'Dwyer made him an honorary mailman and said the words, "off you go me lad and deliver this letter to City Hall, San Francisco. We're on a budget and we'll save the cost of a stamp".

Up over The Rockies with signs warning him 'Beware of Bears'. Skirting the cliffs of steep ravines, on to the flatlands of the Midwest with thousands of grasshoppers attracted to his sweat like nectar and wild dogs that he had to spray with mace.

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Fifty-three days later, he cried as he crossed the Golden Gate Bridge and set the world record. A city that a judge told him never to return to after a previous misadventure in drink. Did he ever feel like quitting? "Every five minutes," he answers with deadly seriousness.

He ran holding the Olympic Flame for the Atlanta Games in 1996. He ran around the field in two All-Ireland under-21 finals for Fermanagh against Cork. He runs through Times Square every morning.

He's not a man you meet every day.

The New York Times think so too. Last Friday, their city correspondent Alex Vadukul sat down with him in McGrath's bar; 'The Black Sheep' in midtown Manhattan for three hours to capture the essence of this force of nature.

The very first line of his autobiography - 'The Black Sheep: the Fittest/Unfittest Bar Owner in New York' begins with a great line - "All I want is for somebody to tell me who I am, to put the parts together and make sense of it all".

We'll give it a go.

Tom was one of 11 children born to Hughie and Eleanor in Fermanagh, in 1950. No running water, no electricity, an outside privy. Not much food either. He would hide a spoonful in his hand at the start of mealtimes to ensure a final morsel at the end. On the way to and from school he would pull turnips and carrots out of the ground and chomp them raw.

The McGrath genes are impressive. His nephew Marty was an All-Star Gaelic footballer for Fermanagh in 2004.

They said an hour and a half of the Rosary every night. His brother Sean became a priest and sister Bernadette became a nun.

During the day, they would work and play football. When his mother would turn in for the night the boys would push back the few bits of furniture and make a ball out of newspaper and meal bags and play football in the living room. Bangs and belts everywhere. If Eleanor came back down the stairs, a creaking step would alert them and a scene of serenity was soon assumed. 'You must have been dreaming, mammy'.

Aged 11, he was sent off to train as a Brother. He was brought to Omagh train station with a jam sandwich rolled up in newspaper and told to eat it when he got to Dublin.

It broke his mother's heart but the religious life wasn't for him. Instead, she got him into St Michael's College in Enniskillen.

Once the jocks at school heard there was another of 'the Mighty McGraths' among them, he was accepted.

He went to St Mary's teacher training college and formed their first boxing club. When food was scarce, they would slip into the wake houses of strangers to lend a sympathetic ear to the bereaved and work their way through the egg and onion sandwiches.

Being offered an apartment, a plane ticket and a job in New York was too much to resist and at 19 he got his first taste of America, playing football for Monaghan. He didn't drink and would sit outside in parks, waiting for his friends to leave a bar. One day, he started running. Three hours later his friends came out. He was still going.

Eventually, he started drinking. A Cavan man by the name of Paddy Reilly once asked him if he would buy a bar, 'Reilly and Tully.' He went out to Queen's to look at it.

Regulars called it 'The Bucket of Blood.' There were holes in the floor. A woman was at the end of the bar feeding a cat raw ground beef.

"And then she would have a handful herself!" he roars.

He cleaned it up. Set a sheet of plywood on six cases of beer and made a stage for music. Attracted Irish girls into it, and soon the Irishmen followed. And that's what he did - 10 bars bought, revived, and sold on, with 'The Black Sheep' his current bar.

All those years standing behind the counter in New York have shaped him. He has a joke for every occasion, polished like a Fabergé egg.

On taking over his first bar?

"The owner wanted out. So he found the donkey. He found the donkey, and he gave me the cart."

His emigration?

"My sister was a nun, she left early and went to Africa on the missionaries. Fr Sean, he went to Brazil as a Missionary. And I went to New York to pray for them all!"

The abuse of alcohol that went on for decades?

"Now I am rolling with the foam roller. There was a time I was rolling with a bottle of Bud."

The bipolar relationship between mammoth ultra-running sessions and the carnage that would follow?

"I did all those runs. And then I would celebrate them, but the celebrations got longer and longer."

He'll admit to the wild man bit. He could stew in the corner of his own bar for days.

"Sir, can I have a drink?'

"Get it yourself!"

He could clear a bar out. Every bone in his own body above the waist was broken at least once. Occasionally, guns made an appearance. A light fitting would be blown off. Holes in the wall.

The very first page of his book is his mugshot from April, 2010. He drove home in his truck and cleaned out a BMW and a Mercedes. Nobody was hurt beyond his pocket with $80,000 damage and his pride.

In the resultant case, the judge ordered him to attend AA. He went for a time and believes they do good work, but his AA?

"My AA was American AA; American Asphalt!

"All the time the judge was speaking, I was thinking I could have had four or five miles done on the road. I was thinking about the road and the gym. I could have had a couple hundred sit-ups done."

He went looking for danger too. His curiosity led him to double-job as a blackjack dealer. Escape routes were always planned in case of a bust. Ropes were strung from tall building to tall building. He always got away.

Alcohol-free for several years now, he is running for people with addictions. He trains twice a day, three or four hours in total.

He knows the contradiction in running a bar and choosing the sober life.

"I am surrounded by whiskey and beer, I can drink if I want. I come in each morning and say hello to the bottles, I wink at them, and that's that," he explains.

"I have the willpower, the determination and discipline not to touch drink. Because if I do, there is a very strong possibility that within a short space of time, I would die. I have powerful strong legs, but alcohol turns them to jelly. Down I would go.

"No man knows more about addiction than Tom McGrath at this stage," he says.

"It's difficult for me to say that. It breaks my heart to say that. But it is my last big run and I want to get as much out as possible that there is help, you can stop and life is beautiful - if you make it beautiful."

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