He went the distance beating alcoholism now Forrest Gump wants to conquer Derry

He wants to be the Forrest Gump of Derry.

Meet Tom ‘Running Man’ McGrath, the man from Fermanagh who the people of New York have named Lazarus - the man who rose from the dead after beating alcoholism.

Tom McGrath - the man who loves to run. Pictures by Larry Sillen.

Tom McGrath - the man who loves to run. Pictures by Larry Sillen.

Now Tom’s planning a special event in Derry, a 12-hour continuous run around the city to raise money for the Foyle Hospice.

And he wants local runners to get behind him in an event he describes as “the best run of his life”.

But behind Tom’s story of triumph is a darker side, a story that has been immortalised in an emotional documentary ‘Running Man McGrath’ made by Sound and Vision, which will be shown at the Foyle Film Festival next month.

A recovering alcoholic, Tom’s life changed forever five years ago when he drank himself into a New York hospital.

‘I finally know now that if I drink I will die. That’s a heavy duty statement’

“I got into my car and I was intoxicated,” said Tom, who still owns his own bar in Manhattan.

He ended up seriously injured after crashing his car.

“When you wake up in a hospital and you don’t remember going there, that is really, really sad,” he said.

“The doctor told me - if you keep on going the way you are going, you will be dead within a week.”

It was a major turning point in his life.

But Tom’s life hadn’t always been about drinking.

“I was born and bred in the small village of Ederney, Fermanagh,” he said.

He trained as a P.E. teacher and went to the USA to play gaelic football in the summer of 1969.

Tom and his wife Mena, who is also from Ederney, settled in the USA where their daughter Kelly was born.

“I played soccer and I boxed,” he said. “I played lots of sports.

“But when competitive sport had to die down because of age I took up the solitary sport of running, just to stay in shape.

“In 1977 I ran across America. I was way ahead of Forrest Gump. I always say he copied me.”

But Tom’s running got put on the back burner because of his drinking.

“I moved from the fast lane into the slow lane,” he said.

“I would sometimes continuously drink, I didn’t know the difference between morning and night.

“When you’re drinking time doesn’t matter, who you are with doesn’t matter. It’s just drinking. You want to get into that high and it takes over.

“I drank myself into a New York hospital. The doctor told me, ‘I hope we got you here in time, if you keep going you’re going to be dead within a week.’

“My daughter said - ‘Dad, you’ve got to stop.’ My wife said - ‘Tom your eyes are yellow, you’re going to die.’

“So I promised God, the doctors and my family that if I got out of there I would run.”

But Tom admits it took time to fight his alcohol addiction.

“It takes times for the brain and mind to develop and realise that alcohol abuse can be fatal,” he said.

“There are a lot of mental battles going on when you are in that state of mind.

“To get off the alcohol took me quite a long time. I finally know now that if I drink I will die. That’s a heavy duty statement.”

‘Running Man McGrath’ e tells the story of Tom’s life, of triumph and tragedy, redemption and salvation.

“Like some of the patients in the hospice I was near the end of my life,” he said.

“But I was there because of alcohol abuse.

“I was lying in a hospital bed surrounded by medical equipment. They didn’t know if was going to make it or not.

“There may be people I’m running for in Derry who are in the same situation.

“If I could turn the clock back, if I could live my life again, I would never let alcohol control me, never let it be my boss. I would never let it bring me down the way it did.

“Towards the end of my drinking spree it was more or less a suicide mission. I would never let that happen again.

“When alcohol takes over, it controls the body, no rational decisions are made, you may think they are rational but they are not, you are not thinking right.

“When your brain is swimming in alcohol there is no way you can make proper decisions or look at life the proper way. Alcohol trains the brain to think it’s right no matter what. You become a burden to everyone, especially your immediate family.

“This part of my life is a major part of the film. My life, my family structure and the damage that can be done because of alcohol abuse. I would never like anybody to have to go through that.

“I have no one else to blame but myself. There is no excuse in the entire world for any pain, suffering or damage cause by alcohol.

“My family stuck with me right up to this minute.”

Tom has now fought his alcoholism - and he still runs a successful Manhattan bar without succumbing to the temptation of alcohol.

“Thank God alcohol doesn’t bother me at all now,” he said.

“I come into the bar, say hello to the bottles and walk on. I won’t let it become my friend, it was my enemy for so long.

“I know I have a problem with alcohol, but you don’t solve the problem by running away from it, I run with it, not away from it, selling alcohol is my livelihood I am 
not going to give up my livelihood

“When I was drinking I didn’t believe in the word moderation. Now it’s a major word.

“When I see people in the bar who don’t believe in moderation I will instruct my staff to watch them and tell them when they have had enough.

“I will not serve people to the point of intoxication.”

There is already talk of ‘Running Man McGrath’ being shown on ESPN and HBO, but it will have its world public premiere at a special event in Derry’s Guildhall on November 21.

The showing will follow a mammoth 12-hour running spree in which Tom will continuously run around the Peace Bridge and Foyle Bridge. During the 12 hours Tom will be joined by representatives from the many running clubs around Derry.

“It’s important to me to get this film shown in Ireland,” said Tom. “And being born and raised in the North I couldn’t pick a better spot than Derry to have the premiere.

“We’ve had a private screening of the film in New York, afterwards a person who saw that the film walked over to me and said that somewhere along the line he saw every family in the film. He was talking about 
alcohol abuse.”

Tom now regularly runs across America - most recently he completed a 100 mile run across the five boroughs of New York -raising $100,000 for children with disabilities.

“When I run for the kids, it’s for those who are just running into life,” he said, “Some of the patients in the Foyle Hospice are running out of life.

“It’s important for me to run for the Foyle Hospice. If we can supply a little comfort, joy or happiness, that is a beautiful feeling.

“If we can help patients in the Hospice to smile rather than feel pain or agony that will be beautiful. That’s why I want to do this run.”

Tom says he loves to run, he loves to run hundreds and hundreds of miles.

He’s run from the east to the west of America and done six marathons in six days. He’s taken part in two-hour races, 24-hour races, five-day races, six-day races and 1,000-mile races.

“I love to run,” he said. “I love to be alone. I love just listening to my body hum along the road.

“Running saved my life. I worry periodically that every time I put my foot down that it will come back the same way. I ask God for the strength to carry on my journey. I ask God for everything to go well in Derry.

“The whole idea is to complete the journey, then you are a winner. It’s not about belting out the miles.

“What we want is to make the day successful for the Foyle Hospice. It will be lovely to see the people going round Derry.

“And every hour we will have new runners coming in so there will be new blood.

“The more people with me running will keep me disciplined and make me want to complete this journey.

“My father used to say - ‘Time and patience brought the snail and his house to Jerusalem.’ In other words - take your time. That’s what I am going to do, take the 12 hours nice and slow and hopefully complete the journey with a smile.”

Tom McGrath will spend 12 hours running around Derry on November 21.

He will run continuously around the Peace Bridge and Foyle Bridge.

Tom will run the first two hours alone but for the next ten hours will be accompanied each hour by members of Derry’s running clubs.

There will also be an opportunity for runners who are not members of clubs to run with Tom.

The run will be chance to raise much needed funds for the Foyle Hospice.

The event will finish with the premiere screening of ‘Running Man McGrath’ at the Guildhall as part of the Foyle Film Festival. To take part in Tom’s run or to register an interest in tickets for the screening contact the Foyle Hospice fundraising centre on 02871359888.