The Black Sheep pub in New York City was crowded as usual on a recent Friday night, but there was a sense of urgency in the air. Regulars periodically put down their beers to go and wish good luck to the bar’s owner, Tom McGrath, 69, who sat wearing a tracksuit and drinking coffee from a mug.
He was flying to Ireland the next day to participate in a marathon, but it wasn’t going to be any ordinary run.
McGrath has been a publican in New York for 50 years. He has also been a star of the extreme long distance marathon sport known as ultrarunning, jogging alone for days over hundreds of miles, testing the very limits of human endurance.
In 1977, as a 27-year-old bartender, he broke a world record when he ran across America in 53 days, and he was a torch bearer for the 1996 Summer Olympics. He has been called the “Irish Forrest Gump.”
His four-day solo run through Ireland and Northern Ireland would last 100 miles, starting in Belfast and continuing through the countryside before ending at a football stadium in Dublin where crowds would cheer him during a halftime show.
But the spectacle would commemorate something else: For McGrath, this would be the final long-distance run.
“I’m running against age,” he said. “My body has changed. I never thought it would happen, but it did, and I want to stop while I’m still ahead.”
It has taken McGrath a long time to reach this finish line. He grew up on a barren farm in Northern Ireland, he has owned 10 pubs in New York, and he has run more than 200,000 miles.
McGrath swerved between periods of athletic discipline and spiraling episodes of alcohol abuse for years. In 2010 doctors told him he was at imminent risk of liver failure.
The diagnosis rattled McGrath, and he embraced sobriety, immersing himself into long-distance marathon running with ardor. He said he has been sober for nearly a decade now, and his recovery has become central to his identity as an athlete.
On his run in Ireland, McGrath reported over a phone call that God was looking out for his right leg, which is prone to injury, and that cars were honking encouragement to him as he jogged along country roads. The next day, he would successfully reach the football stadium, and the crowd would roar as he ran onto the pitch.
But at the moment, the station wagon trailing behind him with food and water had unexpectedly faltered.
“The car broke down before me,” he said. “It broke down. I didn’t.”
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