Ultra-marathoner goes the distance for charity

ATHLETICS: Tom McGrath today will complete his 11-day, 300-mile loop around the six counties in memory of his old school friend…

ATHLETICS:Tom McGrath today will complete his 11-day, 300-mile loop around the six counties in memory of his old school friend Dr Theo Laverty, who died of cancer last April, writes IAN O'RIORDAN

AT THE risk of tempting some delayed muscle failure or indeed complete collapse Tom McGrath should run into Belfast around 2.30pm this afternoon, about 30 friends and supporters in tow, and be greeted by the Lord Mayor, right outside City Hall.

With that he’ll complete his 11-day, 300-mile loop around the six counties, although judging by the welcome he’s got out on the road he could be tempted to run a lap of honour. No bother. He may be just shy of his 60th birthday, but what’s another 300 miles? Nothing for the man who once held the world record for running the 3,046 miles across America, has often run 24 hours non stop, and has completed several 1,000-mile solo runs.

Tom is no stranger to the back roads of Ireland either: born and raised in Fermanagh, in 1983 he ran 630 miles around the country, in a mere seven days, although his home for the last 40 years has been New York City – where’s he often run 1,000 one-mile laps of the reservoir in Central Park.


These days Tom doesn’t count the miles he’s run but the money he’s raised. He’s part of that strange breed known as the ultra-marathoner, where distance is no obstacle, or it seems is insanity, yet Tom has always given his pursuit some purpose beyond ceaseless miles. So his six-counties run is in memory of his old school friend Dr Theo Laverty, who died of cancer last April, and for two cancer charities: the Marie Curie Cancer Care, in Antrim, and Action Cancer, Northern Ireland’s main cancer charity.

These 10 days have also been a sort of homecoming. It was around 4pm on Thursday when his nephew Stephen got me Tom on the phone, during a brief tea stop somewhere on the road between Newry and Mayobridge. By then he’d run through all six counties, yet having met so many old friends and supporters along the way it was as if Tom didn’t want the run to end. “Being away in America for so long, the hospitality of the Irish people has really surprised me,” he said, “and I really mean that. The support I’ve got out on the road has been unbelievable. I’ve stopped at primary schools and the grammar schools and students have run on the road with me, with their little bags of money.

“I’ve met the mayor in every village. They bring me in, give me tea and sandwiches, and show me the chambers, wish me luck, and send me on my way. I’ve had GAA clubs out with me. On Tuesday the Tyrone footballers ran with me into Pomeroy. Mind you I didn’t know that was the second highest town in Ireland. If I did I might have by-passed it.

“And last Sunday I ran into Ederney. That was a beauty, running into my own village. People have been handing me cash, cheques, or just hooting their horns out on the road. All that gives you a great lift. Although I have to say, this is the first day I’ve seen the sun. It’s been rain and wind the first eight days. All day, all night. But it’s nothing compared to what the people with cancer are suffering, in hospital. My pain is cosmetic, simple stuff.”

He describes Dr Laverty as “a great footballer, hurler, soccer player, and man of education,” and his death clearly moved him: “He just got six weeks’ notice and that was it. Over. He’s been in my thoughts this whole run, but so too are all the people with cancer, some of whom can’t run three yards. So for me running 300 miles is nothing, something I really appreciate, and am thankful for that, God keeps me going.”

Like many ultra-marathoners Tom found his calling by chance. Gaelic football was his first love (along with boxing, and basketball), and he played with the Fermanagh senior team at just 16. He then played full forward on the Fermanagh Under-21 team that lost two successive All-Irelands to Cork – in 1970, and 1971. Around the same time he was offered the trip to play Gaelic football in New York, and although just qualified to teach PE, that soon became home.

“When I first came to New York the Gaelic football wasn’t as prominent as it is now. I wasn’t long there, and one day was waiting on some lads to come play football. They didn’t make it, went to a bar instead, so I just decided to go for a run. I went four or five hours without stopping, and that’s how I got into it. I found out by accident, really, that I could run for hours.”

In August 1977 he set himself the challenge to run across America, starting in New York and finishing in San Francisco. Running solo, with no back-up, Tom finished in 53 days and seven minutes – averaging 57.1 miles a day. That got his name into the Guinness Book of Records (although barely acknowledged at home), and stood as the record until in 1980 Frank Giannino ran it in 46 days 62 minutes.

“That American run, and God bless America, there’s nothing wrong with America, but it was nothing compared to this run of the last week or so. The hospitality and support I got running across America was nothing compared to what I’ve got here from the Irish people. The number of people offering me accommodation and food has been amazing. They respect you, and when they shake your hand they mean it, proud of what you’re doing.

“I decided early on if I was going to do this running thing I should help out other people some way, do it for charity. I’ve no idea how many miles I’ve run, when I think about all the training I’ve done too. Some days I’d leave home at six in the morning and come back at six in the evening. So it must be several thousands of miles, maybe even a million.”

It’s not like Tom hasn’t got other interests: he’s the long time owner of the Black Sheep bar on Third Avenue (“The best pint of Guinness in New York,” he tells me, and he’s known to drink a few too), but he goes to great lengths to keep his body in motion. “My biggest fear is injury. I worry every time I put my foot down that it will come back up the same way. But I do have a few tricks. Every morning I spend a full hour getting my legs ready, stretching, on the foam roller, then taking a hot bath, and using a massage machine.

“Even when I’m out on the road I stop periodically and use the foam roller to loosen the legs out. It doesn’t sound logical to stop in the middle of the road and start rolling about but it keeps me going. And all summer I was doing 1,000 sit-ups a day, plus running five or six hours, right up until the week I came home. So I came prepared.”

Tom has got this incredible and inspiring capacity to push himself beyond limitations: he set out to raise £10,000 (€11,500), yet by Thursday had raised £21,500 (€25,000), and that figure could run on for a while yet.

(See details of Tom McGrath's run at www.sixcountiesrun.com)