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The Black Sheep's Swan Song

Updated: Aug 16, 2019

At 69 years young, Tom McGrath just ran from Belfast to Dublin to finish off a 40-year ultrarunning career. A marathon a day for Jigsaw, a charity dedicated to helping Ireland's youth with mental health issues, this is Tom's final long trek. Running into Croke Park, where Tom once played in two All-Ireland semi finals (Ireland's Super Bowl) 80,000 stood to honor a man who had battled it all - up close and personal.

A Gaelic Football star turned alcoholic, turned bar owner, turned ultrarunner; ten years ago Tom was on death's door. "The doctors told me I had a week to live," Tom says with a tremble of emotion stuck in his throat. "My eyes had turned yellow." But that wasn't the beginning of a new chapter or the end of a old one; Tom had been fighting the disease for years. "You never knew if you were going to meet the 17 beer-a-day Tom or the 17 mile-a-day Tom," says one of his closest friends. When McGrath wasn't running, he could blow up: weight gain, fights, mayhem, and a car crash that could have ended one of the most bizarre careers in running you'll find. When Tom ran, he had two parameters: it had to be long and it had to be for charity. Six years in a row he ran a marathon a day for six days for Achilles Kids to get underprivileged sneakers to run in. Five years in a row he did 1,000 miles around Central Park for people with heart conditions and cancer. In 2012, he ran 250 miles from New York to Annapolis, Maryland to get a statue for Commodore Barry.

But like many addicts, Tom would rebound - in the wrong direction...

A stint as an illegal blackjack dealer nearly got him thrown in the slammer. A rowdy drink fest at his bar ended in shots being fired, luckily at the offending bottle of booze and not at the young bartender who had just started that day. (She didn't come back) Tom went through a series of ten bars before ending up in midtown Manhattan at the bar that bears his nickname "The Black Sheep."

It's been many years since Tom has had a drink. It's cliche, but he does take it one day at a time. "Today is another day in paradise," he likes to say. His story is not of the fastest runner to hit the track or of a beast-mode barbarian that crushes the World's boldest trails. Tom's running has always been medicine, not only for him, but for those in need. Tom is a profound example that your life can truly be epic - if you have the willpower, the discipline, and the belief to make it so.

It's been 40 years since Tom made headlines in the New York Times. On the heels of Tom's final run, the Times has bookended his career.


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