By Jonathan Gault
February 4, 2020
Stroll into Coogan’s bar/restaurant on the night of the Fifth Avenue Mile, and you’re sure to see a few things. There will be a replay of the race, with the biggest cheers reserved not for the winner, but the athlete who earns the $1,000 bonus for leading at halfway — and frequently dies a horrible death shortly thereafter. The champion, sometimes reluctantly, will give a speech. Someone will order “the Alan Webb,” or perhaps, if they’re not a fan of nuts, “the Drew Hunter.”
Finally, the karaoke machine will come out. Coogan’s owner Peter Walsh will lead off with “Lean On Me.” White-bearded journalist Walt Murphy will usually follow with “Great Balls of Fire.” Then the athletes take over, and by that point so many pints of Coogan’s Ale have been downed that no one quite remembers what they sang.
“The season is over, everyone is letting loose,” says Kyle Merber, a Coogan’s veteran. “In terms of it being a memorable, fun night, that’s really kind of circled on the calendar.”
The dark green banner outside Coogan’s dubs it “America’s #1 Runners Restaurant,” and it’s hard to argue with that claim. The location helps: at 169th and Broadway in Manhattan’s Washington Heights neighborhood, it’s right around the corner from the Armory, the hub of indoor track & field on the East Coast. The walls are packed with memorabilia, from photos of the track & field legends that have visited, such as Michael Johnson and Carl Lewis, framed singlets from Jenny Simpson, Leo Manzano, and Bernard Lagat, batons, and even a Penn Relays wheel. A side room contains a framed copy of every Sports Illustrated cover featuring a track & field athlete. Hundreds of singlets once hung from the rafters, until a few years ago, when someone from the fire department stopped by and forced the owners to take them down.
“Going to the Armory and Coogan’s are to me, inseparable,” says Alan Webb, the American record holder in the mile. “You go to New York, and you go to the Armory, you always try to make your way there to Coogan’s.”
Peter Walsh was born to own a bar. Even at 72, the garrulous NYC native remains a round ball of energy, a story perpetually threatening to spill out of his lips. Spend any amount of time in Coogan’s and you can’t help but get sucked into his orbit. A man of the world, Walsh holds degrees in American History (Marist College) and Anglo-Irish Literature (Trinity College Dublin), and also studied at Queen Mary and the School of Oriental and African Studies, both constituent colleges of the University of London. During the Vietnam War, he was deployed to Okinawa as part of the Army’s 7th PSYOP Group. He has sung in a blues band and remains a member of the Screen Actors Guild.
What he was not, for the first four decades of his life, was a track fan. Walsh had invested in Coogan’s when it opened in 1985 and took control of the bar in the early 1990s, along with business partners David Hunt and Tess O’Connor McDade. Coogan’s mission had always been to serve as common ground for a multicultural neighborhood, from the doctors at nearby NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital to the Dominican-Americans, Irish-Americans, and African-Americans who populated it. Everyone was welcome, except for the drug dealers who made Washington Heights one of the most dangerous areas in New York during the crack epidemic. So, as Dr. Norb Sander transformed the Fort Washington Armory from dilapidated homeless shelter to one of the world’s premier indoor track facilities in the 1990s, Walsh knew he had to become a track fan.
“I’ve been smothered by running as much as loving running,” Walsh says, whose twin daughters developed into talented runners and eventually ran for the College of Charleston. “I didn’t have a choice.”
But what began as a prudent business decision has blossomed into genuine passion for the sport. Walsh, who stopped drinking himself five years ago, says he’s lost track of the number of free drinks he’s handed out to runners over the years, but it’s well into the thousands.
“My partners would say, ‘Hey listen, last night, do you realize how many drinks you bought?'” Walsh says. “I said, ‘But these are Olympians!’ He goes, ‘Well aren’t they the ones that make money?'”
Walsh has a particular fondness for high school runners, and takes pride in athletes like Ajee’ Wilson and Phyllis Francis, who went on to become world-beaters after growing up racing at the Armory.
Alan Webb first visited Coogan’s in January 2001, the same night be became the first high schooler miler to break 4:00 indoors. Webb was there celebrating with a dozen teammates who had driven up to watch him make history, and as a reward, he ordered an ice cream sundae for himself. To commemorate the feat, Walsh named the dish after Webb.
Now, all of the desserts at Coogan’s are named for runners, though the names change every year; Walsh, Murphy, and Armory PA announcer Ian Brooks spend the weeks leading up to Millrose brainstorming who to name dishes after (Walsh: “It helps if you drink at Coogan’s”). This has developed into an unintended problem.
“So many people will call us and say, hey man, you took me off [the menu]!” Walsh says. “Runners are competitive.”
In 2016, Webb’s high school indoor mile record fell to Drew Hunter, who broke it at the Armory. Like Webb, Hunter celebrated at Coogan’s, where he received a congratulatory phone call from Webb. Walsh also renamed Coogan’s sundae for Hunter, but struck a compromise to ensure Webb wouldn’t feel left out: the regular version would be named for Hunter; add nuts for “the Alan Webb.”
The first time Hunter first met legends like Marcus O’Sullivan, Matthew Centrowitz, and Nick Willis at Coogan’s, he was starstruck. Now that Hunter, 22, is a pro himself, he views Coogan’s as a venue to interact with his peers in a more relaxed environment.
“Coogan’s reminds me that this is fun, the whole track and field community is a family,” Hunter says. “We’re all in this together to support each other and get the best out of each other. It’s almost impossible to, even if you had a bad race, go to Coogan’s and not be smiling and be happy.”
But Coogan’s isn’t just limited to pros. Whatever your connection to the sport — athlete, coach, journalist, fan — if you’re passionate about track, you go to Coogan’s.
“I remember Carl Lewis being there,” Walsh says. “And Carl Lewis can drink; we nailed down a bottle of Canadian Club. And Carl Lewis was telling a story and somebody said, ‘Nope, in high school, you didn’t do that time’…He’s telling him his times in high school. Carl Lewis couldn’t believe it!”
For fans, post-meets at Coogan’s offer a rare opportunity to share a beer with their favorite athlete.
“I think everyone loves it,” Merber says. “You wouldn’t go there if you weren’t keen on interacting with the fans and the community. And I think it’s rare that we get to feel like superstars. I think that’s one of the coolest parts of running. For the majority of the year, you’re just a normal citizen and you walk through the streets, and it’s no big deal. And then all of a sudden, you’re at a track meet, and people are asking for an autograph and a picture.”
“It’s awesome, and I think Coogan’s is the perfect venue for that,” says Webb, who crowdsurfed at Coogan’s the night he retired from running in 2014 (he ordered “the Alan Webb” that night too). “And I totally encourage that. It kind of brings you to their level and shows that you’re just a human like everybody else. The professional athlete is just doing the same thing on a shifted scale and it brings you to people that are just as passionate about running but might just be doing it at their own pace.”
Josh Dawson, 34, coaches high school cross country and track in Maryland and for the last seven years has made an annual trip to the Millrose Games with running friends. On one of his first visits in 2014, Dawson won a raffle for the chance to have a meal with Nick Symmonds.
“I initially thought it was just going to be a burger and a single beverage,” Dawson says.
Then Pierre Ambroise-Bosse, the future world champion from France, stopped by to chat. Then Leo Manzano. Then Will Leer.
At first, Dawson was starstruck.
“Then the alcohol kind of took care of that,” Dawson says.
Every year, it’s someone different. Once, Dawson spotted 1996 Olympic decathlon champion Dan O’Brien, who gladly came over to chat with his table for 20 minutes. He spent last year talking with Craig Engels. Dawson recalls one occasion when a friend of his, who ran high school cross country in Maryland, approached Matthew Centrowitz. The friend’s team had once beaten Centrowitz’s team and let the Olympic champ know about it.
“And from what I gathered,” Dawson says, “in typical Matthew Centrowitz fashion, he turned to him and goes, ‘Yeah, how’s that working out for you [now]?'”
Yes, the gap in ability between the fans and the pros is large. But it doesn’t seem quite as large with a beer in your hands.
“I have never found a pro that wasn’t willing to at least willing pretend to be interested in the conversation,” Dawson says. “The atmosphere at Coogan’s is everyone’s going to talk to everyone.”
Coogan’s has seen plenty of wild nights. The night Centrowitz won his first Wanamaker Mile in 2012, his prize, a Waterford Crystal bowl, wound up filled with beer. There was the time three Olympians decided to race around the block at midnight.
“Two of them got lost, they kept on running down the block to another street and then I had to get in my car and start finding them,” Walsh says.
The post-Fifth Avenue Mile celebration is typically the rowdiest (the best drinkers, according to Walsh? Canadian women). For most athletes, Fifth Avenue represents the final race of their season, and the post-race party at Coogan’s — the New York Road Runners bus everyone up — is a chance to let loose after a long summer of racing.
It’s tradition, after everyone re-watches the race, for the winners to give a speech. Often humorous, they can be emotional as well. In 2017, Nick Willis won the race just two weeks after the tragic death of David Torrence. Willis recalled meeting Torrence, decked out in an orange headband and plain white singlet with the words “YOUR AD HERE” inscribed in Sharpie, for the first time at Fifth Avenue in 2008, and how he would sing and dance his heart out at the post-race celebrations.
“The memory was hard, but it was also, I felt, important,” Willis says. “And that was a great opportunity to honor David in that moment, especially for some of the younger kids who didn’t know him as much.”
Every Fifth Avenue celebration ends with karaoke, which tends to reveal a different side of runners than what you see on TV.
“I remember one night with Bernie Lagat,” Walsh says. “And Bernie doesn’t drink. And I brought a bottle of red wine out, and I said Bernie, this is one of the best red wines. And he loved it. So by the time he finished the bottle, we got Bernie up singing — and Bernie cannot sing. And he had so much fun, but his coach looked at me with these eyes, I felt like a Hershey bar in the sun. He just melted me down with his eyes, like how dare I do this to his pupil. But look up on stage and you saw another kind of Bernie. He was riding high, man.”
Indeed, Lagat was part of one of the most memorable performances in the history of Coogan’s karaoke, singing Michael Jackon‘s “Man in the Mirror” alongside Shannon Rowbury and Alysia Montaño in 2015, forever memorialized on YouTube:
Alan Webb and his brother karaoke the night of his retirement
Walsh is gearing up for another big night as Saturday’s Millrose Games approach, but it hasn’t all been smooth sailing the last two years. In 2018, Coogan’s landlord, NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital, tried to raise rent by $40,000 per month. Walsh thought it was the end; he sold his apartment and began looking for new jobs for his employees. But a petition to save the restaurant was signed by over 15,000 people, including Hamilton star Lin-Manuel Miranda, a Washington Heights native who grew up celebrating birthdays at Coogan’s. Coogan’s owners worked out an agreement with the hospital, and the bar was saved.
“We were gone,” Walsh says. “This was one of the most humbling things that ever happened in my life…People [were] coming in from everywhere. It was like a movie. People crying. I was hugging more people than I had ever met — I found out all the ones who had guns on them…People don’t get saved anymore. The middle class, small business, it’s being strangled. We didn’t even consider that anybody would care about us.”
The following year, the New York Daily News reported that several Coogan’s employees were suing the owners in a lawsuit alleging the owners had stiffed them on wages and benefits. Ultimately, the two parties reached a settlement.
“Our lawyers looked at it and said, we know you’re innocent, but you’re gonna have to pay a lot of legal bills [if you fight it],” Walsh says. “This is going on in many, many restaurants and small businesses throughout America right now, these lawsuits, and probably some of them are righteous. Ours wasn’t.”
Owning Coogan’s has been a thrill for Walsh, but he spoke candidly when asked about the bar’s long-term future.
“When you own a place like our business, we become the house neurotics. Our job is to be neurotic and crazy because we have to prepare for emergencies all the time. So it’s never far away from our thoughts. But that’s part of the job of being an executive or an administrator in our business…You just don’t know. You just don’t know what’s gonna go on.”
For now, however, the good times will continue to roll. And Merber, for one, hopes it will stay that way.
“There’s always the people from out of town who really want to go to other places,” Merber says. “Let’s go downtown, let’s go to this bar, let’s go to this club. But on a Sunday night [after Fifth Avenue], it’s still, even in New York City, Sunday night. And we have everyone that you could possibly want to be spending time with in one place. The move is always to stay at Coogan’s; the second location is never necessary.
“You’ve got everything you need. You’ve got the music, which is not always good, because we’re singing it. And you’ve got track fans there who are excited to buy their favorite athletes a round. And a short cab ride back to downtown. I would urge all future generations of professional runners reading this to stay at Coogan’s. Don’t break up the party.”